As a teenager, I got curious about fasting and decided to learn what it was all about. I knew that people in the Bible did it, but I didn’t know what it was for… And I knew Jesus did it, so it must be good for something… And I thought, if my goal was to be more like Him, then I should probably be trying to do the kinds of things He did… So, I started reading everything I could in the Bible about fasting, and then talking to a dear mentor of mine about the role of fasting in the life of a Christian. The first question I asked and researched was a simple one:
WHAT IS FASTING?
Fasting is simply choosing something in your daily life to go without doing – or having – for a period of time, in order to make more space in your daily life for connecting your soul with God’s Spirit.
Some choose a meal each day to go without, or a particular food or drink they usually have each day. Some may choose a daily activity to give up for a season of time, like watching TV, or surfing the internet, or listening to secular music. The whole purpose, though, is to open up new space – in your heart, in your mind – and in your calendar – to have a new, focused, daily connection with God.
Listen: if you give up chocolate for Lent, but then you don’t replace it with prayer or reciting a memory verse or something to connect with God – that’s not called fasting – that’s called a diet! Okay, don’t go on a diet and claim that you’re fasting! That’s not cool. That is like the student who was napping in class, and when the teacher woke him up, he claimed he was praying! Don’t do that!
As I began to learn what fasting was by reading about the subject in the Bible, I started to notice that the people in the Bible who fasted usually did so with some spiritual purpose or motivating factor. So, the next question I asked & studied was:
WHY WAS FASTING PRACTICED IN THE BIBLE? And consequently, why should it be practiced today?
(1) Fasting helps us identify with Jesus. Fasting helps Christians understand (even if only very slightly) just a bit of the suffering that Jesus experienced on His way to the cross.
(2) Fasting is a way to imitate Jesus.
Matthew 4:1-2 – Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, He was hungry.
As His followers – who want to become more like Him – we practice the kinds of things He does.
(3) Fasting helps us relate to suffering people. Fasting always makes me think of starving people around the world. In just a very small way, I can relate to them because, for a short moment, I feel a little bit hungry. But I let my hunger pangs remind me to pray for them. Fasting is a way to identify with the sufferings of our fellow man.
Nehemiah 1:3-4 – They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days, I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.
Even if only in a very small way, your suffering through fasting may lead you to pray for persecuted Christians around the world, or to pray for Christians who are suffering through social injustices.
(4) Some fast in preparation for a big decision.
Esther 4:15-16 – Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”
Esther had a ENORMOUS decision to make, and so she asked all of her people to fast and pray for her and her request of the Persian king.
(5) Some fast during times of repentance.
1 Samuel 7:6 – When they had assembled at Mizpah, they drew water and poured it out before the Lord. On that day they fasted and there they confessed, “We have sinned against the Lord.”
(See also: Nehemiah 9:1; Jeremiah 36:9; Joel 2:12-13; Jonah 3:5) Moses, Samuel, Joel, Nehemiah, and many others all fasted when God’s people had turned their backs on Him and sinned against Him.
(6) Some fast when committing something new to God.
Acts 13:2-3 and 14:23 – While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off… Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.
When the Apostles chose leaders for the new churches in Acts, they sought the Lord through fasting and prayer, and then they sealed their new commitments to God with fasting and prayer.
(7) Some fast when they are in mourning.
2 Samuel 1:12 – They mourned and wept and fasted till evening for Saul and his son Jonathan, and for the army of the Lord and for the nation of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword.
(See also: 1 Chronicles 10:12; Esther 4:3; Daniel 6:18)
(8) Some fast when they are crying out to God for miraculous healing.
2 Samuel 12:15-16 – After Nathan had gone home, the Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife had borne to David, and he became ill. David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and spent the nights lying in sackcloth on the ground.
Now that does not mean that God is going to provide the miraculous healing, as you would see if you read the rest of 2 Samuel 12. But fasting is something that can bring focus to your prayers for a loved one whose life you are asking God to touch. This leads to the next one…
(9) Some fast to help focus their hearts around a specific matter for prayer.
2 Chronicles 20:3-4 – Alarmed, Jehoshaphat resolved to inquire of the Lord, and he proclaimed a fast for all Judah. The people of Judah came together to seek help from the Lord; indeed, they came from every town in Judah to seek Him.
(See also: Ezra 8:21-23)
(10) Some fast when they are battling a significant issue of sin, or when they are facing a strong force of spiritual evil or darkness. In Matthew 17, a man brought his son to Jesus’s disciples because he was afflicted by a demon, but the disciples couldn’t deliver the boy from the demon. Jesus had not been there initially, but when He arrived, He cast out the demon. Later, His disciples asked Him, “why couldn’t we heal the boy?”, and Jesus’ reply to them was, “this kind of demon will can only be driven away by prayer with fasting.” (The full story is located in Matthew 17:14-21.) Jesus does not explain to His disciples the connection between prayer-with-fasting and spiritual warfare, but what is clearly demonstrated in this story is that the two are definitely connected! And finally,
(11) Some fast as an expression of their love and faith to God.
Luke 2:36-37 – There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had only lived with her husband for seven years after their marriage (and then he died). She was then a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.
Fasting and prayer can be a way that we demonstrate to God that we love Him,
- that we are devoted to Him,
- that believe in Him,
- that we believe He wants to speak to us,
- and that we are trusting Him to communicate with us.
So, here we have an explanation of what fasting is and why it is was/is practiced. In the next post, we will look at what fasting is NOT.
But first – this is important! – Before you fast, what one important truth do you need to know?
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