In the health-conscious world, fasting is huge. There are books, studies, and TED talks on the advantages of deliberately giving up food for a time. In fact, folks at your gym are probably fasting more often than folks in your congregation. The North American church has largely lost the practice of fasting. And while health gurus advocate fasting for physical benefits, Christians need to recover fasting for spiritual purposes.
Now, fasting is not a pleasant thing. It is a discipline—something that Scripture associates with hardship. Intense prayer, repentance, and grief all accompany fasting (Judges 20:26; 2 Sam. 12:16; 2 Kings 18:6; Esther 4:16; Ezra 8:21; Mark 2:20; Luke 2:37; Acts 13:2). Fasting is hard work. Like physical workouts, it takes effort, perseverance, determination, and often accountability. But just like a physical workout strengthens the body, fasting has enormous benefits for the Christian’s soul. Here are just four of the many spiritual blessings that God has built into fasting.
First, fasting is a stark reminder that we are creatures dependent on something outside of ourselves for life. If we don’t have food, we will die. We are weak. It is easy to forget this. Of course, we know this, we admit this, but in subtle ways we have bought into our culture’s lie that we are in control. Fasting exposes those subtleties for the deceptions they are: we are creatures with a Creator.
A second benefit is self-control. Like a muscle, self-control gets stronger as you use it. Saying no to ice cream when you’ve been fasting for sixteen hours enlarges the fruit of self-control. The self-control that fasting requires also helps in other areas; sanctification in one quarter overflows to others.
Frequent, varied prayer is a third benefit of fasting. Fasting is a physical reminder to pray. A growling stomach is like a timer going off: time to pray again. Praying frequently for a person or situation means that prayers will become deeper. You can’t pray one line over and over again all day; fasting’s frequent prayer opens up different aspects and angles that we might not otherwise see.
Last, fasting creates a spiritual seriousness. Perhaps this is because we do begin to see deeper into things as we pray. But perhaps it is also because fasting is a physical investment in spiritual battles. We can give our money or our time to the local church, and so we ought to. But fasting is giving ourselves in a silent, immeasurable way. No one can see the physical sacrifice or the spiritual results—which we might not even recognize or understand.
Fasting from food for regular, limited amounts of time will bring us far more benefits than just physical ones. It will draw us more often into the throne room of heaven to plead in Jesus’ name. There are times (pregnancy, illness, etc.) when fasting would be unwise. But for most of us, fasting is a gift that is there for the taking. Are we taking it seriously?