Christianity is not a works-based religion. In other words, our salvation does not rest upon the good deeds or spiritual acts we perform. Our salvation is based totally and entirely on faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ, who paid the penalty of our sin at the cross. There are, however, avenues ordained by God through which we grow in our knowledge of God, our experience of him, our desire for him, and our ability to reflect his image. God blesses particular avenues through which he reveals himself more deeply to his people. These practical avenues of growth are what we call the spiritual disciplines. They include worship through song, prayer, scripture reading, community with other Christians, giving, fasting, and others. Out of these listed, the discipline most overlooked and least understood is the discipline of fasting.
What is Fasting?
Fasting is an intentional abstinence from food for a period of time for the sake of concentrated prayer and meditation on God’s Word. The spiritual discipline of fasting is mentioned 77 times in the Scriptures. Jesus both fasted himself and taught on fasting. In Matthew 6:16, Jesus assumes that believers will fast as part of their spiritual life. He gives particular instructions on fasting and warns against fasting for selfish reasons. He emphasizes that the “Father who sees in secret will reward you” in your private fasting. So there is something about this act of fasting that pleases God so much so, that he rewards those who engage in this spiritual discipline.
Fasting seems like a strange concept. Why did God, in his infinite wisdom and sovereignty, command abstaining from food for a period of time to be a spiritual discipline through which he rewards his people in secret? (Matthew 6:18)
- Fasting Makes Time for Prayer
Fasting frees up time for concentrated communion with God in prayer. Prayer and fasting always go together. Think about how much time a day you spend either thinking about what you will eat, preparing what you will eat, and actually eating. What if you replaced all that time with prayer and communion with the Lord over his Word?
Your physical hunger for food will not let you forget your spiritual necessity of hunger for God. We are a forgetful people. We get busy, distracted, and overwhelmed with our perceived needs in this life and we go on forgetting our need to pray. If you plan to pray and fast during your breakfast, lunch, and dinner, your body will not let you forget that it is time to eat and thus your body will not let you forget that it is actually time to pray.
- Fasting Deepens our Hunger for God
Jesus says that he is the bread of life. (John 6:25-35) Fasting is a proclamation to ourselves and to God that we are more hungry for him and his glory then we are for physical food. We long for his presence in our lives like our stomach longs for food. We have hunger pains when we go without him. Fasting is a reminder of the deep desire we should have for God, and as we are reminded of that deep hunger our prayers are strengthened. We pray that God would satisfy us spiritually more than food satisfies us physically.
Fasting deepens more than just our desire for God’s presence in our lives now. It deepens our desire for the return of Jesus. In Matthew 9:14-15, Jesus explains that his disciples do not fast while he is present. When Jesus is present they feast, but when Jesus departs it will be time for his disciples to fast. This connects fasting to the longing we should have for the feast we will have with our Lord and Savior in the last day when he returns in glory. Fasting, therefore, is a means through which we grow in our longing for and looking forward to the return of Christ and the marriage supper of the Lamb. (Revelation 19:6-10)
- Fasting Deepens Our Dependence on God
We by nature need food and water for survival. After only a day without food, our body sends us natural signals that say, “You are in need!”. This is just a reminder of a deeper reality that we are a needy people. Just as we cannot live physically without replenishing our bodies with food, we cannot live spiritually without replenishing ourselves with communion with God. We need him and we cannot complete the mission God has given us without the strength only he supplies.
- Fasting Destroys the Idol of Comfort
As you think about fasting there may be a deep reluctance to this spiritual discipline. We may cringe at the thought of fasting more than any other spiritual discipline because this spiritual discipline is one of the most noticeably uncomfortable spiritual disciplines. During a fast, your preferred lifestyle is changed for a short period of time. It is a reminder that following Jesus involves sacrificing personal preference and comfort. It conditions us to believe that following Jesus is worth even the greatest of sacrifice.
Specific Reasons for Fasting?
On what occasion does one fast? Are there particular reasons for which someone should fast or are there a variety of situations where fasting may be appropriate? The Bible provides a large variety of examples where God’s people feel the need to fast and pray. In 2 Chronicles 20:1-5, Jehoshaphat fasted in order to devote himself more fully to praying for God to rescue from impending danger. In Nehemiah 1:4, Nehemiah fasted and prayed for God to restore the people of Israel. Isaiah proclaimed that fasting is an opportunity to focus on the relief of those in need. (Isaiah 58:6-11) The city of Nineveh fasted as a display of their repentance from sin. (Jonah 3:5-10) Jesus himself fasted to ready himself for the ministry he was about to begin. (Matthew 4:1-4) It was through the church at Antioch’s fasting that God revealed Paul and Barnabas as his ordained missionaries to the Gentiles (Acts 13:1-3) and as Paul and Barnabas went forth to ordain new elders in new churches, they did so only through prayer and fasting. (Acts 14:23) It appears that God’s people have joined together in corporate fasting whenever they sensed a need for a greater and more intentional time of prayer. There are no rules for how long, how often, and for what God’s people should fast. There is just the example in Scripture that God’s people pray and fast.
Tips for Fasting:
- Make a plan. Length, frequency, and particular prayer focuses are up to you and the Lord.
- If you are new to fasting start small. Set an achievable goal. Skip just 2 or 3 meals for the sake of prayer.
- Identify particular needs/sins/decisions or people in need of salvation that you especially want to pray for while you fast.
- While fasting, spend concentrated times in prayer during the times that you would normally be eating meals. If your just skipping meals to be more productive at work or to lose weight, that’s not fasting.
- Drink a lot more water than usual. The body can go an extended time without food, but you need to stay hydrated as much as possible.
- If your health will not allow you to fast from food, identify something else that requires a substantial amount of your attention and time. Replace that something entirely with prayer for a period of time.
At the time of writing this article, we are four days away from Easter Sunday, a day on which masses of people will attend church services who do not have saving faith in Jesus Christ. This is a perfect opportunity to put fasting into practice. Fast and pray that your pastor will preach the word of God with power and clarity. Pray for your worship leader to point people to the glory of Christ through song. Pray for the lost to be saved, for the backslidden to repent, for the church members to be missionally engaged, and for God to start a spiritual awakening in your church and community.
By His Grace & For His Glory,
Pastor Brandon Langley
St. Rose Community Church