Of all the different aspects of Christianity, there may well be nothing more unfamiliar to the twenty-first-century church than the practice of fasting. In my experience, such a practice is simply not on the radar screens of most people in the church today. Maybe this is because we are not preaching and teaching about fasting as much as we should be. Maybe it is because we are not modeling it in our congregations. Maybe it is because people are not reading their Bibles as much today as they did in previous generations, so they are not seeing evidence for fasting in the Bible as much as they used to. But there may also be a more fundamental reason why fasting is so unfamiliar today. Fasting is, and has been for some time, countercultural. It goes against the grain of the Western world. It requires self-denial and sacrifice. It is inconvenient and uncomfortable. It is not fun, laid back, or relaxing—qualities that seem to be valued above all others in the West today.
Fasting is completely out of step with the way the West approaches Christianity (and religion as a whole), and, because the world has so penetrated the church, this may well be the primary reason why fasting is so unfamiliar to Western Christians in the twenty-first century. But it has not always been so unfamiliar. We know from Scripture that Jesus Himself fasted (e.g., Matt. 4:1–4) and that He clearly indicated that fasting would be a part of the lives of each of His disciples. In Matthew 9:14–15, for instance, Jesus promised that His disciples would engage in fasting once His earthly ministry came to a close. And in Matthew 6:16, He said to His disciples: “When [or as often as] you fast.” He did not say, “If you fast.” In phrasing His comments this way, Jesus was assuming that His followers would be fasting, just as He previously assumed that they would be giving to the poor (6:2) and praying (6:5–7).
But we need to remember that Jesus is not interested in Christians’ simply going through the motions. He is not looking for mere rote performance of fasting, any more than He would be looking for mere rote performance of giving or praying or anything else. God wants obedience in the Christian life, to be sure. But He wants obedience that comes from a heart that loves Him, that longs to be in communion with Him, and that wants to please Him out of gratitude for what He has already done. That means that when Jesus assumes that His followers will be fasting, He is assuming that their fasting will flow from hearts that love God and long to obey everything He has asked them to do.
As we begin to think through the subject of fasting more deeply, a good place to do so is by considering two questions: What is fasting? and, Why should we be doing it? In answering the first of these questions, we can say that biblical fasting is a sacrificial, voluntary abstaining from food (and sometimes from drink) for a definite period of time for a spiritual purpose. It rarely, if ever, occurs in the Bible as a standalone endeavor. In other words, it is not a practice that God’s people engage in all by itself but something that they do in conjunction with prayer. Some fasts in Scripture are total abstentions, where both food and water are avoided (Est. 4:16). Others are partial abstentions wherein certain aspects of a normal diet are avoided for a period of time (Dan. 1:15; 10:3). Sometimes fasts in the Bible last for many days in a row (Deut. 9:9–29; 10:1–11; Est. 4:16; Matt. 4:2), but sometimes they only last for a portion of a day (Judg. 20:26; Dan. 6:18). The point is not so much about what we abstain from or how long we abstain from it but about denying ourselves in some way and, correspondingly, devoting ourselves to prayer. It is about using the time, energy, and focus that we would have used in eating (and/or drinking) to prayerfully seek the Lord.
In answering the second question, we can say that there is a sense in which Jesus’ own example of fasting and His assumptions about the lives of His followers ought to be reason enough for us to give ourselves to this practice. But God, in His great mercy, has provided many additional reasons in the Bible for us to embrace the practice of fasting as Christians. I will give six of them here:
- To show our earnestness. Fasting helps us express an earnestness in our prayers (Acts 14:23). In denying ourselves food, we are telling the Lord that we mean business, that we are putting our money where our mouth is, so to speak. Andrew Murray put it this way: “Fasting helps us to express, to deepen, and to confirm the resolution that we are ready to sacrifice anything, to sacrifice ourselves, to attain what we seek for the kingdom of God.”
- To express our wholehearted faith in seeking the Lord. Oftentimes in the Bible, fasting is an expression of wholehearted devotion to God. It is a way of showing that we really are repentant and that He really is more important to us than mere physical pleasures (Joel 2:12–13).
- To plead with the Lord. At other times, fasting is an expression of mourning—either over death (2 Sam. 12:16) or over sin (Jonah 3:5)—and of pleading with the Lord to hear our prayers for mercy and for healing. That would seem to be the point of Jonah 3:5; Esther 9:31; and Joel 1:14.
- To seek wisdom and guidance. In 2 Chronicles 20:1–30, Jehoshaphat proclaimed a national fast in order that all the people might seek the Lord’s wisdom and guidance in the midst of an encroaching military horde that was coming on them from Edom. This suggests that fasting and praying in the midst of daunting tasks and overwhelming circumstances are entirely appropriate for us.
- To express humble reliance on the Lord. In Ezra 8:21–23, we have evidence of a fast being proclaimed as an expression of humility and dependence on God for His provision. Here, fasting is not entered into lightly or flippantly but with humble reliance on God that He will hear their prayers and provide what they need when they need it.
- To prepare ourselves against temptation. In Matthew 4:1–3, Jesus fasts so that He might be able to withstand the devil’s temptations, not in order that the devil might have grounds on which to be able to tempt Him, as some may think. (Satan tempts Jesus three ways, not just in His physical appetite.) If Jesus fasted to be better prepared for temptation, how much more should we do likewise?
In all these things, we need to remember that fasting is never a way of manipulating God into answering our prayers or showing us mercy. It is not a hunger strike to ensure that God will meet our list of demands. It is a way of expressing our love for Him and our gratitude for all that He has done for us. It is a way of communing with Him and of keeping our hearts fixed upon Him. The world is continually seeking to pull our desires away from the Lord. It continually beckons us to find our pleasure in food or drink or other worldly delights. Fasting reminds us that the Lord is our chief pleasure, and it trains us to keep it that way. It helps us remember that “fullness of joy” and “pleasures forevermore” can only be found in His presence and at His right hand (Ps. 16:11). For this reason, fasting plays an important role in the battle for our desires, which lies at the heart of what Christianity is all about. We neglect it to our peril.