Why Fast? – A Biblical Perspective on the Discipline of Fasting
Many Christians are puzzled by the concept of fasting. Sometimes the confusion comes from the fact that they’ve never been exposed to what the Bible actually has to say about this practice…and sometimes the confusion is due to false teaching. So, what does the Bible have to say about fasting?
You might be surprised to find that there is actually very little biblical instruction on this spiritual discipline. Fasting is mentioned many times in the Bible, but in the vast majority of cases these are simply descriptions of something that happened, not prescriptions about when or how to do it:
They gathered to Mizpah, and drew water and poured it out before the LORD, and fasted on that day (1Sa 7:6)
Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away. (Acts 13:3)
She was advanced in years and had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers. (Luke 2:36-37)
From this we can infer that fasting has long been a common practice among God’s people and that it is often associated with prayer. In fact, after surveying all the biblical texts which mention fasting, it seems fairly clear to me that, while prayer does not always need to be accompanied by fasting, fasting should always be accompanied by prayer.
While the practice of fasting appears to have been fairly widespread among God’s people, God Himself only commanded the Israelites to fast at one time of each year: on the Day of Atonement, a yearly festival in which the Hebrews offered sacrifices for sin, anticipating the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus:
The LORD said to Moses, "The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. Hold a sacred assembly and deny yourselves [i.e. fast], and present an offering made to the LORD by fire. Do no work on that day, because it is the Day of Atonement, when atonement is made for you before the LORD your God. Anyone who does not deny himself [i.e. fast] on that day must be cut off from his people. (Lev 23:26-28)
The fact that God commanded His people to fast by the use of a phrase which, literally translated means “deny yourself”, gives us some insight into the purpose of fasting: it is a means of demonstrating that we are dependent on God rather than on ourselves, a way of turning from self and to the Lord in whom we trust. Fasting is, first and foremost, a way of holistically expressing our absolute dependence on God. Fasting is not sacramental (it does not convey a spiritual blessing in and of itself), but it is symbolic: by not eating food, we are acting out, in the physical world, our spiritual conviction that everything we need comes from God and that it is in Him alone that our trust should be placed. And while there is no direct spiritual benefit attached to fasting (that is, fasting does not automatically result in spiritual power, insight or blessing), our genuine recognition and expression of absolute dependence on God does put us in the right position to receive such blessing.
It is probably for this reason (that fasting expresses our submission to God) that so many instances of fasting in the Bible are closely related to repentance and/or mourning:
When I heard these words, I sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven (Nehemiah 1:4)
"Yet even now," declares the LORD, "Return to Me with all your heart, And with fasting, weeping and mourning; (Joel 2:12)
Let’s be clear:
- Fasting does not force God to bless us. He will not – indeed cannot – be forced into anything by His creations. It is sometimes, unfortunately, the case that Christians treat fasting almost as though it were a hunger strike designed to force God into acting as we desire. But fasting does force us to remember that it is God alone on whom we depend for blessing.
- Fasting does not prove to God that we are serious. God knows if we are serious about our prayers whether we fast or not. But fasting does force us to get serious about our trust and dependence on God. By bringing our physical bodies into the spiritual exercise of prayer, we are expressing a holistic dependence on God and in this way we are getting serious.
- Fasting, in and of itself, does not open us up to heightened spiritual experiences. There is no biblical grounds for the idea that unplugging from the physical world makes us more receptive to the spiritual realm. But fasting does make us more sensitive to God’s leading, because while fasting we are constantly reminded to look to God for leading and listen for His voice. We may often miss God’s leading simply because we aren’t looking for it, but while fasting we are constantly reminded to pay attention, making us less likely to miss what we might have otherwise overlooked.
So how do we go about fasting? Well, first, we choose a period of time during which we don’t eat. It is good to have a starting and an ending time and it is important to make the fast long enough that it involves sacrifice. Second, while fasting we pray as continuously as possible. Many people find that hunger sensations become useful reminders to pray; that is, instead of eating when we feel the need for food, we pray instead, expressing our dependence on God to provide what we need even more than the food our bodies are craving.
Please keep in mind that you should drink plenty of water while fasting and some people drink fruit juice as well.
Can we fast from other things besides food? Short answer: sure. Abstaining from anything that involves a sacrifice (media, video games, smart phones, etc.) can accomplish many of the same purposes as fasting from food. Long answer: the biblical terms for fasting only refer to abstaining from food, so the idea of a “smart phone fast” isn’t really covered by the biblical words. This doesn’t mean that fasting or abstaining from anything besides food is wrong or useless, it just means that the farther we get from the direct biblical instruction the more cautious we need to be when asserting that a variation we’ve come up with is really equivalent to the thing the Bible directly describes.
Bottom line? While fasting isn’t the key to opening up the floodgates of blessing or insight, the mere fact that you’re considering fasting (assuming it’s for the right reasons) may mean that you’re positioning yourself in the right place to experience more of what God has for you!