Why Should We Fast?

Why Should We Fast?

by Adrian Williams

A few years ago, I had a yearning to learn more about the spiritual discipline of fasting. Although I was familiar with the term and its general meaning, I had a hunger (no pun intended) to learn about it. As I went through the Bible, I counted at least 77 biblical references to fasting. What I found really interesting was that despite so many references, fasting was not a frequent subject in pulpits, Christian literature, or our conversations. Since biblical fasting can be viewed as a personal spiritual discipline, it is possible that Christians around us fast more than we realize. But could the main reason that fasting is seldom taught be that fasting is seldom practiced? It is rather difficult for someone to advocate in a sermon or conversation a practice they don’t observe.

In my quest for more information about fasting, I came across noted theologian, pastor, and author John Piper’s book, A Hunger for God. In that book, Piper writes,

“Christian fasting, at its root, is the hunger of a homesickness for God. Christian fasting is not only the spontaneous effect of superior satisfaction in God, it is also a chosen weapon against every force in the world that would take that satisfaction away.”

So first, let’s define fasting. Among Christians over the centuries, fasting has been defined as the temporary abstaining from or rejection of something that is in itself good, like food, in order to intensify our expression of need for something greater—namely, God and his work in our lives. As Christians we often think of fasting similar to physical exercises. But the Bible really doesn’t make that distinction. Not only do spiritual disciplines bear growth for the entire congregation, many of them are intended to be followed in community by believers acting together. So, fasting can be done individually or corporately as a congregation.

Jesus On Fasting
Even though there is no direct command in the New Testament for believers to fast, there are indications that it was normal and that Jesus expected it would happen among his followers. One of the most telling passages in which fasting is mentioned is Matthew 6, where Jesus is teaching his disciples basic principles of godly living.

“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” (Matthew 6:16, ESV).

Notice Jesus begins with, “When you fast,” not “If you fast.” Jesus’ words imply that fasting would be a regular practice in the lives of those who follow him. And he makes it clear that when we fast we should not boast about it.

Why Fast?
Christians fast in order to seek God through petition, discernment, or lament. Abstaining from food and drink is only half the equation; a spiritual fast is intimately linked to the spiritual disciplines of prayer and Scripture reading. Without combining these spiritual practices, fasting is just a diet.

The examples we see in the Bible show a range of reasons why Christians might give up food and drink. David fasted to beg for his child’s life (2 Samuel 12:16); the prophetic leader Nehemiah fasted in lament (Nehemiah 1:4); Jesus fasted to prepare for his ministry (Matthew 4:2).

Sometimes fasting is appropriate because we enter valleys of grief or periods of waiting. Abstaining from food also serves to drive us to God’s Word for nourishment and helps us concentrate on something beyond physical gratification. It redirects our attention from ourselves to God. It helps us to feed our spirit while denying our flesh. Scripture becomes medicine and sustenance rather than a plate piled high with food.

Biblical Precedents
When we look further in the Bible for examples of fasting, we see a variety of different reasons that people fasted from eating for a period of time.

 To prepare for ministry
Jesus spent forty days and nights in the wilderness fasting and praying before he began God’s work on this earth. He needed time alone to prepare for what his Father had called him to do (See Matthew 4:1-17; Mark 1:12, 13; Luke 4:1-14).

To seek God’s wisdom
Paul and Barnabas prayed and fasted for the elders of the churches before committing them to the Lord for his service (Acts 14:23).

For understanding and revelation
The prophet Daniel fasted and prayed to understand his vision (Daniel 10:3). For Daniel, fasting preceded revelation concerning what would happen to God’s people in the future.

For spiritual strength
The early church was under severe persecution. They had an uphill battle ahead of them, yet they persevered. There was fasting prior to the consecration of those being sent out to share the good news of Jesus (Acts 13:2, 3), and during times of trial (Acts 27:1-38). The strength they gathered in getting as close as they could to God, many times through fasting, gave them the fortitude and supernatural direction they needed to make decisions about leaders and carry the gospel message forward.

Benefits of Fasting
Fasting helps followers of God seek him and discern his will for their lives. When we fast, we are eliminating distractions that often keep us from hearing God’s voice. We have emptied ourselves of our most basic need so we can direct our full attention to God. This is the best time to make those difficult choices in life. When we are at a crossroads and don’t know which way to turn, fasting helps us to hear God’s direction. As we walk in the Spirit, we won’t be hung up by the desires of our flesh trying to hold us down and keep us off course. We will be able to hear more clearly from God when our spirit is stronger than our flesh.

Fasting also heightens our sensitivity to the Holy Spirit. Notice that for the believers in Antioch fasting was connected with worship. The two often go hand in hand. Why? Because when we fast we form a natural sensitivity to the Holy Spirit. In fact, for those believers in Acts they heard from the Holy Spirit while worshiping. The corporate fast led to a corporate sensitivity to and then a response from Holy Spirit. What can a heightened sensitivity to the Spirit do for Christ’s Church?

Our unity will increase exponentially; much like the experience in Acts 2, the Antioch believers were in one accord. They heard from God as a group, not individually. When fasting, we are physically denying our flesh. Our egos and self-centeredness take a backseat. Fasting has the potential of helping a church get on board with a singular vision as selfish ambition is held in check. In other words, fasting is not about us. It is not a point of pride or a reason for spiritual kudos. It is a private act to be undertaken quietly and humbly—one that should ultimately direct our attention beyond ourselves.

Feasting is for celebration; Fasting is for transformation!

I would like to invite you to join our church today at 11:30 am EST and for the next four Mondays at 11:30, as we fast from food during the lunch hour so that we can pray bolder and more dangerous prayers together. I encourage you to join our lead pastor Trevor DeVage as he leads us in powerful prayer during these times on Monday. You can join us here.

Adrian Williams has been a member of Christ’s Church for three years. As a founding member of the John Maxwell Leadership Team, certified executive coach, facilitator, and speaker, discipleship is his passion.

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