The Christian practice of fasting has fallen on hard times.
In my experience, contemporary Christian thought on fasting could be summarised by this comment made by a friend of mine not so long ago. In response to a question on fasting, he said dismissively: “I can’t believe God would have answered my prayer but decided not to because I ate a piece of chicken.” An open shut case it seems. I realised then that it was high time we took a proper look at fasting and why it’s such an important practice.
Let’s emphasise what fasting is for—not what fasting is against.
This article is not about how or when to fast. My aim is to take a step back and explain the why of fasting—its reason or purpose. By doing this I hope to persuade you of the importance of this precious gift from God.
Fasting is defined as the wilful refrainment from eating and or drinking for a specific period of time for a spiritual purpose. Many good things have been written about other types of fasting—especially social media and technology. However, in this article, I am focusing on fasting as traditionally understood.
Biblically understood, fasting partners an intensification of prayer.
Biblically understood, fasting partners an intensification of prayer. It is the decision to set aside a period of time to focus on bringing a particular issue before God in prayer. It is removing every distraction, including the necessary pleasures of eating and drinking, to seek the face of God with a specific petition.
Understood this way, the emphasis is more on what fasting is for—not for what fasting is against. Fasting is for focusing on God. It is a mindset of persistence that Jesus commends (Luke 18:1-8). It is urgent and daring. Fasting coupled with prayer desires to see the purposes of God come to pass.
Developing A Hunger For God
The above emphasis contrasts with my friend’s comment. He focused on what we are deprived of when we fast. His theology excluded the possibility of a greater joy and Christian fruit resulting from giving something up.
Fasting is for focusing on God
As John Piper says: “The greatest enemy of hunger for God is not poison but apple pie. It is not the banquet of the wicked that dulls our appetite for heaven, but endless nibbling at the table of the world. It is not the X-rated video, but the prime-time dribble of triviality we drink in every night… The greatest adversary of love to God is not his enemies but his gifts. And the most deadly appetites are not for the poison of evil, but for the simple pleasures of earth. For when these replace an appetite for God himself, the idolatry is scarcely recognisable, and almost incurable.”
Creation is crammed with delightful, distracting, goodness. This makes fasting all the more necessary
Fasting is commended by the prophets (Isaiah 58). It is assumed by Jesus to be a normal practice for Christians (Matthew 6:16-18). It was also practiced in the early church (Acts 13:1-4; 14:23). Thus fasting has been commended by Christians throughout church history: all these bear witness to our great danger and enemy: “the simple pleasures of earth”. For creation is crammed with delightful, distracting, goodness. This makes fasting all the more necessary – it teaches us to hunger for God.
Worldliness Makes Fasting Look Strange
Why then does fasting seem strange to us? It may be that we are more worldly than we realise. As Kevin DeYoung writes in his book, The Hole in Our Holiness: “The ‘world’ is not another way of saying ‘the people around us’. The world is everything that opposes the will of God. To put it another way, worldliness is whatever makes sin look normal, and righteousness look strange. In every society there is a principle of Babylon that makes war against the children of God.”
Many of us are too comfortable within this fallen world, feeling no strong compulsion to disconnect from it.
The real problem is likely to be the moral distance between us and our spiritual fathers. Added to this, many of us are too comfortable within this fallen world, feeling no strong compulsion to disconnect from it. Thus we struggle with the notion that our own discomfort might bring about the will of God.
As I said before, fasting is a mindset that Jesus commends. Walk through the beatitudes slowly and see who Jesus mentions. It is those who hunger and thirst for righteousness that are blessed (Matthew 5:6), it is those who mourn this present age that God promises to comfort (Matthew 5:4). Fasting trains our desires and longings, shifting them from this world to God.
Why We Should Fast
So why should you fast? It is so that you can focus on God, fixing your eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:2). To many of us, heaven feels unreal. We know we should long for it but we are too busy with our daily tasks to give much thought to heaven, where we will dwell with God.
Those who hunger and thirst after God’s righteousness will be satisfied with the true manna from heaven.
These words from an old hymn are particularly apt for the topic of fasting.
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.
Those who hunger and thirst after God’s righteousness will be satisfied with the true manna from heaven. Only our heavenly Father can give this manna.