FASTING: A Forgotten Christian Discipline
When was the last time you fasted? I don’t mean for a surgery, or for dietary cleansing purposes, but as a means of pursuing God? The honest answer for many Christians in first-world countries like ours is… never. Yet fasting is a God-given means of pursuing him intensely and fervently through prayer. It’s also a way for us to train our flesh to know its place. Let me explain.
Throughout Scripture we find the people of God fasting as a way of pursuing him and his will. In Acts 13, the church at Antioch was “worshipping the Lord and fasting” when the Holy Spirit told them to set apart Barnabas and Saul for missionary work (Acts 13:2). In Acts 14, they appointed elders in every church and committed them to the Lord “with prayer and fasting” (Acts 14:23).
As our Lord Jesus began his ministry, he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, and he fasted for 40 days. In Mark 2:20, he teaches that it is appropriate for his followers to fast in this age when we are awaiting his return. Finally, in his sermon in Matthew chapters 5-7, Jesus teaches us how we are to fast and begins by saying, “When you fast…” Notice he does not say “If you fast,” but when. In other words, it is assumed that we will practice the spiritual discipline of fasting.
So, we know we should be fasting, but why and how? First, the why.
Seeking the Lord with Intensity
Here are two biblical purposes for fasting. First, it is a means of intensely seeking the Lord. In Scripture, we find people fasting when they want to discern God’s will on an important matter, when they want to seek his answer to a prayer request that is weighing heavily on their heart, or simply when they want to draw closer to God himself. All three are valid reasons to fast.
Fasting, however, is not a way to force God’s hand on a matter. God can never be coerced or dictated to. We are at the mercy of his will, not the other way around. Yet, he has given us fasting as a means of pursuing him fervently and intensely in prayer. Fasting is a God-ordained practice, and so it is honoring to God when we come to him not only with prayer, but also with fasting.
Fasting always goes hand-in-hand with prayer. The two are linked over and over again in Scripture. One practice that I was taught has been immensely helpful when fasting: every time I experience hunger, I pray. I pray for God to take away the hunger, and then I also pray for the purpose of my fast. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself praying a lot during a fast. But also, you will often find that your connection with God in prayer is more alive, more intense than normal.
Know Your Place, Flesh!
The second biblical purpose for fasting is to train our flesh to know its place. Paul writes, “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Cor. 9:27) Regular fasting can help us grow in self-control, which is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit Paul lists in Galatians 5. Through fasting, we are growing in control over our bodies, as Paul says in the verse above.
As Christians, we are to be people who have control over our bodies, not people whose bodily urges control us. Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Thess 4:3-5). Godless people let their bodies control them. Christians control their bodies. Regular fasting is a way to discipline your mind and your body and grow in this practice of keeping your flesh in its place. It’s like training a dog to sit, or to stay within the boundaries you’ve set for it. We’ve got train our flesh in the same way.
Practical Wisdom on How to Fast
So, we have the why. Now on to the how. Fasting is very simple: you go without food for a particular period of time for the purpose of seeking God. Yes, you can fast from other things. The widespread, modern practice of giving up certain pleasures for the season of Lent might come to mind. This can be good and beneficial. However, in the Bible, the only kind of fasting you will find is when people refrain from eating altogether. Here are some practical suggestions for fasting.
First, choose a time period. Are you going to fast for a day, for two days, for longer? For those of us for whom fasting is unfamiliar, this might sound crazy. But it’s not. I’ve known multiple people who have fasted for forty days straight. No food the entire time. In college, I had two friends complete a 21-day fast before we even knew they were fasting. They were keeping it a secret in obedience to Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 6:16-18. You can also fast for shorter periods of time—for example, through breakfast and lunch.
Second, decide how comprehensive your fast will be. Will you fast from food and drink and water? Will you go water only? Drinks only? There is no biblical mandate here. The point is what is going on in your heart. We want it to be a genuine sacrifice that increases our need to depend on the Lord, but the details are really up to each individual.
Third, if you are fasting for a day or longer, I would suggest doing so with at least one other believer. It’s a lot easier to break down and end your fast early if it’s just you. But if you are accountable to someone else for an agreed-upon period of time, you will be much more likely to stay strong until the end.
Finally, one word of caution, and it is Jesus’s word in Matthew 6:16… “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” In other words, don’t make a show of your fast. Don’t go around telling people. Don’t be prideful about it. Don’t be like the Pharisees. Instead, do it in secret, as much as you are able. You may have to let those closest to you know, out of love and consideration for them, but don’t announce it on social media!
Fasting is all about seeking God with a fervency and intensity that is above and beyond our normal state. We are saying that we want God more than we want food. In fact, we need God more than we need food. Jesus said, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). And Job said, “I have cherished the words of his mouth more than my daily bread” (Job 23:12). May that be true of us as well.