In this week’s blog post, we are considering the habit or discipline of fasting. In past posts, we have considered Bible intake, prayer, worship, evangelism, serving, and stewardship as it relates to both time and finances.
If you have not seen these posts yet, go ahead and click on the links to catch yourself up.
And remember that the primary motivation for these spiritual habits or disciplines is taken from Paul’s instruction to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:7, where he says, exercise or discipline yourself toward godliness. This applies to us just the same today and he makes it clear that, if we wish to be godly, it will take work, discipline, and exercise. Just as an athlete, musician, or artist must exercise disciplined practice to become more proficient at their chosen field, so a disciple must exercise disciplined practice in these activities as means’ of grace to become more proficient at being godly. That is to say, as we become more disciplined in the practice of these habits, more of God’s grace is available to us which will change us.
So what about fasting? Most of us who have some experience in the church know what fasting is, even if we don’t really understand what it is. Is fasting so important that it should be considered a discipline or a habit that leads to godliness? Should I fast? What happens if I do fast? How does fasting accomplish its purpose for me? We will look at these questions in this post.
What is fasting?
Christian fasting is a believer’s voluntary abstinence from food for spiritual purposes. Other types of fasting - despite the benefits they may produce for the mind and body - could not be classified as Christian fasting, and fasting by a non-Christian obtains no eternal value. It is for believers in Christ because the habit or discipline must be rooted in a relationship with Christ and practised with the desire to become more like Christ. Believers should fast according to biblical teaching and according to the biblical teaching and purposes that are God-centred. It is voluntary in that fasting should not be imposed or coerced. And fasting is more than just the ultimate crash diet for the body; it is abstinence from food for spiritual purposes.
Fasting is expected
For those who may be unfamiliar with fasting, the most surprising part of this post may be the discovery that Jesus expected that His followers would fast. Look at Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:16-18:
“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. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
So, by giving us instructions on what to do and what not to do when we fast, Jesus assumes that we will fast.
This expectation is even more obvious when we compare these words with His statements in the same passage about prayer and giving.
Matthew 6:2-3 - “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.
Matthew 6: 5-7 - “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.
Few of us doubt that Christians are to pray and to give. In fact, Christians often use this passage to teach Jesus’ principles and expectations about praying and giving. And since there is nothing here or elsewhere in Scripture to indicate that we no longer need to fast, and since we know that Christians in the Book of Acts fasted (Acts 9:9, 13:2, 14:23), we may conclude that Jesus still expects His followers to fast today.
Fasting is to be done for a purpose
There must be more to a biblical fast than simply abstaining from food. Without a spiritual purpose for your fast, it’s just a weight-loss fast. Without a purpose, fasting can be a miserable, self-centred experience about will power and endurance.
Having a biblical purpose for your fast may be the single most important concept to take from this post. In real life, here’s how it works: As you are fasting and your head aches or your stomach growls and you think, I’m hungry! your next thought is likely to be something like, Oh, right - I’m hungry because I’m fasting today. Then your next thought should be, And I’m fasting for this purpose: (insert biblical purpose here) .
Without a clear biblical purpose, fasting becomes an end in itself. Every hunger pang only makes you figure out the time left before you can eat. This kind of thinking disconnects the experience in your mind and heart from the gospel and descends into the deception that perhaps your suffering will earn God’s favour.
The Bible shows us many purposes for fasting, but they can be pared down to 10 major categories. Notice that none of the purposes is to earn God’s favour. It is a fool’s errand to try to impress God and earn His acceptance. Fasting has no eternal benefit for us until we have come to God through repentance and faith (Ephesians2:1-10, Titus 3:5-7). Then, as a Christian, you should fast for at least one of these biblical purposes.
What has been your past experience with fasting? Why do you think that there is so little said about fasting? What will you do to incorporate fasting into your habits of grace? We would love to talk with you about this.
Reply in the comments section or give us a call at 1-800-784-7077.
Matthew 6:17-18 - “But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”