In moments of extreme difficulty or longing desperation, people in Scripture often turned to prayer and fasting. Consider David fasting for his sick child (2 Samuel 12:14-16), the people of Nineveh fasting at word of their coming judgment (Jonah 3), Jesus fasting before beginning his earthly ministry (Matt. 4), or one of the many other examples. Scripture is clear that fasting is a spiritual act of worship to God.
We are currently in a series on the Spiritual disciples. Throughout this series, we’ve considered Bible intake through hearing and reading, Bible intake by meditation and memorization, prayer, evangelism, serving, and stewardship. Today, we will finish this series by looking at fasting.
Fasting can be defined as “a Christian’s voluntary abstinence from food for spiritual purposes” (Spiritual Discipline on the Christian Life, 160). While we can fast from anything (TV, sweets, social media, etc.), Scripture primarily refers to fasting from food.
Spiritual fasting seems to be a lost discipline. However, Scripture mentions fasting more than it mentions baptism! Jesus gives us instructions on fasting that assumes that we will do it: “But when you fast… (Matt. 6:16). Also, in Matthew 9, Jesus is asked why his disciples don’t fast. He replies: “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (v. 15).
As we fast, we are denying certain desires for a spiritual purpose. If we fast from food, our body naturally begins to crave food, and our desire for it grows stronger the more we deny ourselves. If you’ve ever fasted, you know how overwhelming the hunger is and how strong the cravings for food can be. Those desires not only remind us to pray but even display an earnestness and desperation in our prayer.
Fasting can also be a great practice in self-control; a voluntary time in which we are saying ‘no’ to certain desires. This can be helpful training for us in our battle against sin in which we also have to say ‘no’ to our fleshy desires. Practice in denying ourselves in little things can strengthen our self-control for larger battles. As John Calvin states, “We use [fasting] either to mortify and subdue the flesh or to prepare for prayer and holy meditation; or to give evidence of humbling ourselves before God, when we would confess our guilt before him” (Institutes, IV, xii,15).
Purpose of Fasting
When we fast, there should be a spiritual purpose behind it. While this list isn’t exhaustive, Dr. Whitney gives ten possible purposes for fasting:
- To strengthen prayer
- To seek God’s guidance
- To express grief
- To seek deliverance or protection
- To express repentance and the return to God
- To humble oneself before God
- To express concern for the work of God
- To minister to the needs of others
- To overcome temptation and dedicate yourself to God
- To express love and worship to God (164-176)
Fasting reminds us of our need. We are utterly dependent on the Lord, and fasting reminds us of that in a unique way. We are showing dependence on God and our need for His grace. Fasting does not make our sovereign God do anything; we should not view fasting as somehow forcing His hand to work. Instead, we are pleading with Him to work according to His will. If our prayers are out of line with His will, perhaps as we fast and pray He will change our desires and our prayer. Our most significant desire is for the Lord himself and His will to be done.
Fasting can seem like a strange discipline in our instantly self-gratifying culture. Some view it as radical, old-fashioned, or simply impractical. However, Scripture shows it has much spiritual value. When done correctly, it is an outward expression of the urgency and desperation in our heart. May we be people who are calling out to God in desperate prayer and fasting!
- As you read through the list of possible purposes for fasting, is there one for which you would like to fast? If so, determine when you will fast and how long you will do it. Ask God to bless that time and draw you closer to Him.
Sources: Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald Whitney.