As a baby Christian I hungered to know what Christianity was all about: the scriptures, the doctrines, the practices – all of it. And though I had a good church and a good youth group, it wasn’t enough. So I read. And read. And read. I read books by anyone I could get my hands on and as I read, I met other authors. Andrew Murray and E.M. Bounds led me to John Wesley. Wesley told me about William Law, Brother Lawrence, and Thomas a Kempis. Richard Foster introduced me to countless others. These men and women became my mentors and friends as I walked the Christian path. But I noticed that many of them spoke about something that I seldom heard about at church or in youth group: Fasting.
It wasn’t just in classic devotional works either. I noticed while reading through the Bible that it too was filled with men and women of God who fasted: Moses, Samuel, Elijah, David, Daniel, Esther, Ezra, Jesus, and Paul. They all fasted. And then there were the passages of scripture which were given as instructions for fasting: Isaiah 58 and Matthew 6:16-18.
The more I learned, the more I realized that I was missing out on a crucial part of the Christian life. Fasting had played a huge role in scripture and Christian history and yet, I couldn’t remember a single sermon or teaching that I had ever heard on the subject at the churches I had grown up in (not to say that it never happened, but it certainly wasn’t stressed. I did spend a lot of sermons practicing my drawing skills on the bulletins).
But apparently, it wasn’t just me. In his book, Fasting for a Miracle, Elmer Towns writes about a meeting with his publisher in 1994. He was asked, “How long has it been since anyone has written a significant book on fasting?” His answer: “Over 100 years.” I believe fasting has been a neglected practice in the contemporary American church.
Now, before you stop reading because “Christians don’t need to fast” or “fasting is only for the super-spiritual: preachers and prophets,” let me remind you that scripture shows people fasting for a huge variety of reasons: during war, as repentance, for protection, for wisdom, during seasons of grief, to promote spiritual growth, etc. Who of us hasn’t needed to repent? Or needed protection? Or wisdom? Who hasn’t gone through spiritually-dry seasons or times of grieving? In summary, who hasn’t needed God to work? None of us.
So I’d like for us to approach fasting similarly to how I tried to get us to approach sabbath – not as a chore or a law but as a gift from God: a means to his grace.
What is Fasting?
Webster defines fasting as, “an abstinence from food, or a limiting of one’s food, especially when voluntary and as a religious observance; fasting.” Honestly, this is a pretty good, Biblical definition for fasting.
In the pages of the Bible, we see a variety of kinds of fasting: fasting from all food and water (see Moses’ fast in Exodus 34), fasting from all food (see Jesus’ fast in Luke 4), and fasting from certain kinds of food (see Daniel’s fast in Daniel 10:2-3). These are all legitimate forms of fasting.
“Well, what if I give up something else, like say television or social media? That’s a kind of fasting isn’t it?” some may ask.
Yes and no.
Technically, this isn’t fasting (I’ll get into why in a moment). However, I do believe it has value and provides many of the same benefits as fasting, though not all. It’s a way of reminding ourselves that we aren’t defined by our hobbies, jobs, or the entertainment we consume. We’re defined by our relationship to Jesus Christ.
So what’s the big deal? Why food?
After Jesus had fasted for forty days, we read in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels that Satan came to Jesus and tempted him to turn stones into bread. Jesus denied him with a quote from Deuteronomy, “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Deuteronomy 8:3). What exactly was Jesus getting at?
People like to throw around the phrase, “I can’t live without that,” a lot but in reality we can live without a lot of things we don’t think we can live without. There are only a handful of things that we must have in order to survive: oxygen, water, food, shelter, and rest. These are the things that we truly cannot live without.
If we’re deprived of oxygen for as few as 5 minutes, we will begin experiencing brain damage and then, we die.
If we’re deprived of water for more than 3 or 4 days, our bodies shut down and again, we die.
If we’re deprived of food for more than 40 or so days, we die.
If we’re deprived of protection from the elements for more than a few months, we die.
If we’re deprived of rest for more than a year and a half or so, we die (Check out this article on what happens when humans go without sleep for long periods of time; very interesting stuff).
These are the things that we truly can’t live without. Physiologically, we can live without indoor plumbing or shopping or Football or Game of Thrones or Johnny Cash’s incredible library of music (as hard as that is for me to say). But oxygen? Water? Food? Shelter? Rest? We can’t live without those things. So, why did Jesus quote Deuteronomy 8:3 to Satan when he came around trying to get Jesus to turn the desert into a Golden Corral?
If you go back to Deuteronomy and read the text that Jesus is referencing, you’ll see that Moses is speaking to the people as they prepare to retake the promised land. The very real temptation to think they’re doing it on their own is there and Moses wants to see God’s people remain reliant on God. So he tells them…
“Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” – Deuteronomy 8:2-3
Notice what Moses says here, “He humbled you by letting you hunger.” God let his people go without one of the things necessary for life so that they would recognize that they are not self-sufficient. Moreover, God himself fed them with a supernatural source of nourishment to further stress the point that God is our true provider. We may plant, water, and fertilize but if God doesn’t give the increase, we will have wasted our time. We tend to think, especially in our technologically-advanced age, that we are the masters of our universe but in reality, we’re just as weak and frail and unable as those Israelites. And one of the best ways to remind ourselves of this is by going without one of the things necessary for life.
In fasting, we are boldly declaring that God is the true source of life and sustenance. We are teaching our bodies that our desires, even necessary desires, are not our master – God alone is our master.
This is why giving up food is fundamentally different from giving up Facebook or the latest season of Empire. We can live without those things. In fact, many people all over the world do live without those things. But food? It’s a necessity of life – we can feel literal pain when we go without it. This is what separates food from the other things that people “fast” from.
But giving up food isn’t enough. Fasting involves learning to crave and hunger for the right things: God and his righteousness. Fasting is the reorientation of our natural desires toward food that is eternal rather than food that only lasts for a moment. This is why prayer is so often connected to fasting both in scripture and in Christian devotional literature. Through prayer, we hunger after God.
But the question remains, is fasting really relevant in 2016? Does it still have a place in the modern, American Christian’s life?
Yes and yes – for a number of reasons (we’ll only review three here but many more could be listed and expanded on).
Fasting is Christian.
Fasting is a biblical, Christian practice that has sustained God’s people for generations, going back thousands of years. It is part of Kingdom culture whether we want to acknowledge it or not.
As we’ve already noted, we see saints in the Old Testament, New Testament, and throughout Church history practicing this important discipline and becoming better disciples as a result. In both testaments, we see God moving, speaking, encouraging, and healing because of the fasts and prayers of his people. And while Jesus’ disciples did not fast when he was ministering, Jesus assured them that they would once he ascended and he even gave them instructions on how to fast rightly (See Mark 2:18-20 and Matthew 6:16-18 respectively).
Unfortunately, some Christians still feel as though fasting is a mere add-on – something for the ultra-spiritual. But throughout history, fasting has been as integral to the Christian’s spiritual life as prayer and Bible reading. Few would argue that our spiritual conditions wouldn’t suffer if we never read the Bible, prayed, or fellowshipped with other believers. And yet fasting is, too often, tossed to the side. This should not be. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave instructions on fasting right after he talked about prayer and giving alms. We should recognize its importance as we recognize the importance of these other vital, spiritual disciplines.
Fasting gives weight to our prayers and worship.
C.H. Spurgeon once wrote, “Our seasons of fasting and prayer at the tabernacle have been high days indeed; never has Heaven’s gate stood wider; never have our hearts been nearer to the central glory.” Fasting is a practice that centers us on God and his priorities. It helps us to recognize the import of worship and drawing near to the heart of God.
As we fast for particular needs, we testify both to God and to ourselves that we’re really serious about our prayers and those needs. It’s easy to say a two-second prayer for a lost friend or a sick family member. But fasting commits us to that need in a more concrete way. Fasting declares to God that we’re serious – so serious that we’re willing to go without having our needs met in order to gain his ear.
Fasting also tells us that we’re serious about this need – and if God requires something of us, it prepares us to take action in a way that we otherwise wouldn’t. Think of it this way:
If I can go without food, which I must have to survive, then do I really have to keep feeding that grudge?
If I can go without food, do I really have to keep feeding that pornography habit?
If I can go without food, do I really have to keep feeding my anger? Or my tendency to gossip? Or the way I misuse my words?
Now, none of this means that prayer only works if coupled with fasting, or God won’t work unless we fast. However, I would argue that fasting prepares us for prayer. It humbles us, it gives us a proper perspective of God and ourselves, it reminds us of our great need for him. Fasting helps us to see things rightly. And each hunger pang is a silent reminder of our need for God, our need for his sustenance, and our need for his power.
Fasting grounds us in God’s power to sustain.
As we’ve already seen, fasting reminds us that man does not live by bread alone but by God’s hand and word. It reminds us that every meal we eat, along with every breath we take, is a precious gift from God that must be stewarded rightly.
Fasting is not about trying to force God’s hand as if we’re on a hunger strike. It isn’t a means of manipulating God into doing what we want. Quite the opposite, actually, fasting is far more about changing us than changing God. It has the ability to make us more pliable, more willing to serve, more humble. It helps to control our flesh – one meal at a time. As Thomas a Kempis’ once advised, “Keep your love for food in check and you will find it easier to control all inclinations of the flesh.”
Grace through Fasting
The act of fasting lays bear the transient nature of this world and in it, we receive grace: the grace of dependence. Below are a few ways that I’ve seen God grant grace in my own life through fasting. Leave a comment and let me know about any ways that you’ve seen God work through this spiritual discipline.
- We receive the grace to overcome temptation
- We receive the grace which transforms us into his likeness
- We receive the grace to get through times of grief
If grace is a gift, fasting is like going into God’s pantry and finding that he has more spiritual nourishment than we could ever consume. But the only reason that we’ll enter and find his storehouse is by learning to hunger for it. Fasting teaches us to hunger for the right things.
Disclaimer: So much more could be said about fasting but this article is already too long so I’ll quickly run through a couple of extra ideas: Some people cannot, for medical reasons, fast. That’s okay and is an issue that needs to be addressed on an individual basis. Fasting does not automatically make a person spiritual; like all things, fasting can be misused. I’m also an advocate for planning our fasts. If you’d like more info on the practicalities of fasting, I would recommend Fasting for a Miracle by Elmer Towns or The Power of Prayer and Fasting by Marilyn Hickey.