Fasting is becoming popular. No, it’s not that people are becoming more spiritual; rather, it’s the next phase in our culture’s pursuit to be healthy and thin. And, from what I’ve seen, it works. But what about the fasting that we talk about at Mercy Hill? What is fasting all about as a Christian practice? We wanted to equip you with a fasting guide for those who choose to fast during the 30 Days of Prayer Challenge that is pairing with our In the End sermon series.
What Is Fasting?
I recently read every verse in the Bible that has to do with fasting in order to get a sense of what fasting is. The plain truth is that fasting is abstaining from all food (and sometimes water) for a period of time—a day or longer—for a specific purpose. In the Bible, it is never anything else. It is a sign of humility paired with fervent prayer to God, displaying one’s helplessness in a certain situation and the understanding that God needs to act in order for his will to be done. The weakness and hunger that come from not eating shows that the person understands that their ability to work adds nothing to the outcome of what they desire to accomplish.
Why Should I Fast?
I have broken down the reasons why people fasted in the Bible into three general categories:
Repentance seems to be the main reason in the Old Testament why people fasted. It shows physically both the mourning over sin and the fervent desire for God to forgive them and restore them to the fullness of his presence. One of the clearest pictures of this is the story of King Ahab in 1 Kings 21:17-29. After Elijah told King Ahab what God was going to do to him because of his sin, Ahab humbled himself and fasted, and God relented from sending disaster upon him.
This is a worthy purpose for fasting in our day. If we have a sin that we just can’t seem to get ahold of, turning to God in sorrow, repentance, fasting, and prayer are the biblical steps. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6). Fasting shows God that our hunger and thirst for his empowering Spirit to give us strength to crush sin and pursue obedience is greater than our hunger for food and thirst for drink.
It’s also a worthy goal of the church corporately. I can imagine that after Jesus’ words to the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2, the church paired fasting with their repentance to beg God to pour gasoline on the flame of their hearts so that they would love him and others as they used to.
This can be closely tied to repentance in the mourning over our sin or the sins of the church. But there are also examples of mourning that don’t always have to do with sin. David fasted because of the death of Saul (2 Sam. 1:12). The Israelites in the book of Esther fasted because they were fearful and mourned their fate that the king had decreed the execution of the Israelites (Esther 4:3). This fasting shows a great humbling before the will of God. The person who fasts in mourning realizes that God’s plan is much bigger than they are. We can participate in this by fasting for others who are going through big issues like terminal illness.
Jesus connects fasting with mourning in Matt. 9:14-15. The Bride (the Church) mourns the absence of the Bridegroom (Jesus). Sometimes the wretchedness of the world leads us to fast for the coming of Christ and his kingdom.
- A Holy Task
Many people in Scripture fast because they have a task set before them that they know that God must be involved in; because if he wasn’t, it would surely fail. The Israelites fast for wisdom and success in the battle against their brothers, the Benjamites, in Judges 20:26. Ezra fasts and prays for protection on the journey of the Israelite exiles moving back to Jerusalem (Ezra 8:23). Esther has the Israelites fast for her as she appears before the king to ask that he would reverse his decision to slaughter her people (Esther 4:16).
Of course, most of us know that Jesus fasted forty days and nights in preparation for his ministry (Matt. 4:2). Surprisingly, the only two references to fasting after the gospels are in Acts and record a fasting of the church that corresponds to setting apart people for different ministry roles (Acts 13:2-3; 14:23).
We can take part in this type of fasting when we see seemingly impossible ministry tasks before us (and especially tasks that correspond to the promises and commands of God). There are more than 6,000 unreached people groups in the world. But Jesus says that the laborers are few, so we are to pray earnestly for God to send laborers (Luke 10:2). Earnest prayer assumes fasting.
Tips and Warnings
First of all, there is a dire warning in Isaiah 58 against wrong fasting, and it’s worth reading in full. God says that Israel delighted to worship God and draw near to him. They sought him for wisdom and righteous judgments. And they fasted. But God said that they had misled themselves; they were simply pursuing deep worship for their own pleasure. Their fast was nothing to God because, in their daily lives, they were acting disobediently and oppressing their people. Simply effacing oneself is not fasting. A true fast is a self-humbling that recognizes that God’s will and pleasure are greater than our own, and this recognition leads to practicing obedience in our daily lives.
Secondly, Jesus warned about our hearts in fasting (Matt. 6:1-6). Our fasts should be done in secret, meaning that we are not to fast to be seen by men but by God. This does not exclude corporate fasts with the church; Jesus was concerned with the motive behind fasting. We are to fast for greater fervency in prayer, not for worldly spectacle.
Thirdly, fasting is not an incantation. God doesn’t have to grant what you ask because you are fasting. God sent a sickness upon David and Bathsheba’s son because of David’s sin. David fasted and prayed to God for many days on behalf of his son, but God allowed him to die (2 Sam. 12:15-18). Regardless, we should always fast with the expectation of being heard.
Lastly, fasting doesn’t save you; a saving faith in Jesus does. You can learn fasting slowly and progressively. You can start out by fasting only one meal and devoting that meal time to prayer. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is nothing wrong with scheduling fasting. There is evidence that the early Christians fasted twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays. If you have health issues, you can consult your doctor before fasting. If you have a history with an eating disorder, fasting may not be the best thing for you. But none of us are free from checking the motives of our heart before we fast. We need to make sure that what we find is an understanding that we need God and a desperate desire for him to act.
-Alex Nolette (Equip Coordinator/Community Groups)