I think two of the main reasons fasting isn’t as regularly practiced among well-meaning, sincere believers is because we don’t know how to fast and we don’t know why we should fast. In this blog post, I want to offer a primer on the why and how of Christian fasting.
I’d be willing to bet that you’ve probably practiced a form of fasting, whether you realized it or not. Have you ever been so excited about a meal that, in anticipation of that meal, you’ve tried not to eat very much so that you wouldn’t spoil your appetite for that special meal? Or perhaps you’ve avoided eating altogether to intensify your appetite for that special meal? If you’ve done either of these (which I will almost always do on the rare occasion I get to eat Brazilian BBQ), you’ve participated in a form of fasting.
As Jesus begins to describe life in His kingdom, He describes inward characteristics that mark the way of life for citizens of His kingdom. One such characteristic (among several) is that they hunger and thirst for righteousness.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. (Matthew 5:6, ESV, my own emphasis added)
He then goes on in the next chapter to define outward actions that mark citizens of His kingdom. One such action (among several) is that they fast as a way of life (notice twice He says “when” you fast, not “if”).
“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. (Matthew 6:16-18, ESV, my own emphasis added)
Now if you flip back two chapters, we see these same two concepts of hunger (inward characteristic) and fasting (outward action) linked together when Jesus shows us how to fast by example before He instructs us about it in chapter 6.
And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. (Matthew 4:2, ESV, my own emphasis added)
How are fasting and hunger related in the experience of Jesus (who is our pattern/example) described by this verse? The answer seems obvious. Jesus is hungry because He fasted. Fasting creates and intensifies His hunger.
I think we learn from this one function of fasting in the life of kingdom citizens.
Since King Jesus has told us that hunger for righteousness is one inward characteristic that our way of life should be marked by, He has given us the outward action of fasting as a way of life by which we create and intensify this hunger for righteousness.
To hunger for righteousness is to hunger for all that is wrong in the world to be made right. Which is to say, we hunger for the world to be filled with the knowledge of the glory of LORD as the waters cover the sea because God and His glory is the measure of what is right.
- When we find ourselves facing a weighty decision that Scripture might not speak clearly to, fasting is one way we intensify our hunger for God to guide us (Judges 20:26-28, Acts 14:23) in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake (Psalm 23:3).
- When we find ourselves overcome by the weight of personal sin in our lives, fasting is one way we intensify our hunger to return to God (1 Samuel 7:6, Jonah 3:5-8) in the pursuit of righteousness along with those who call upon the Lord from a pure heart (2 Timothy 2:22).
- When we see darkness and its effects all around us, fasting is one way we intensify our hunger for God to advance the work of His kingdom (Nehemiah 1:3-4, Daniel 9:3), for Jesus to build His church until her righteousness goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a burning torch (Isaiah 62:1).
In the physical absence of the Bridegroom, fasting is how the Bride intensifies her hunger for the return of her Bridegroom (Matthew 9:15) so that He might establish a new heaven and earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13).
We don’t fast as something to boast in or as a way to make ourselves righteous (Luke 18:9-14). Christ alone is our righteousness, and so we boast in Him alone (1 Corinthians 1:30-31). We fast because, in God’s infinite wisdom, Jesus has promised that the Father will reward our fasting (Matthew 6:18) when we hunger for righteousness.
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. (Matthew 6:17-18, ESV)
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. (Matthew 5:6, ESV)
God will reward the hunger for righteousness that we cultivate through fasting sometimes by granting the specific request we ask for. But the ultimate reward and satisfaction that we experience in the fulfillment of this promise will be in the age to come. Either way, fasting gives us more of God right now because through it we draw nearer to Him. And that’s the satisfaction we were all made for.
And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. (Hebrews 11:6, ESV)
Let’s answer this question by walking briefly through one concise definition of what fasting is.
Fasting is refraining from a specific thing for a specific time and a specific spiritual reason.
Fasting is refraining from a specific thing. Generally speaking, the biblical concept of fasting is associated with refraining from food. While there are examples in Scripture of fasting from food and drink (Ezra 10:6, Esther 4:16, Acts 9:9), the most common kind of fast is from food only, which appears to be the example of Jesus (Matthew 4:2, Luke 4:2). It’s not uncommon for believers to “fast” from things other than food (for example, one might refrain from watching TV or using social media) and we even read in Scripture of how a husband and wife might refrain from physical intimacy for a limited time to devote themselves to prayer (1 Corinthians 7:5). Though refraining from things other than food can be of great spiritual benefit, it’s not what the Bible typically means when it speaks of fasting. And an important reason for this is that while we may want to watch TV or engage in social media or have physical intimacy with a spouse, we don’t need any of these things in a literal sense to survive. At least not the way we need food to survive. And this unignorable feeling of need is an important part of what makes us feel the effect of fasting as we ought. Of course, certain individuals might for special medical reasons put their physical or mental health at greater risk through skipping even a single meal. In such cases, fasting from something other than food is encouraged.
Fasting is refraining for a specific time. You might choose to skip a single meal. Or perhaps you might choose not to eat for an entire day or even a week. The amount of time that you refrain from food (or whatever you’re refraining from) will differ from situation to situation and from person to person, as you sense the Holy Spirit leading you, which often might be constrained by your circumstances. If you’ve never fasted before or aren’t used to fasting, you should definitely start with just a single meal.
Fasting is refraining for a specific spiritual reason. As many have said or written, if you’re fasting with no specific reason or for physical benefits only, at worst you’re starving yourself and at best it’s not Christian fasting. Christian fasting is for the sake of intensifying our hunger for God’s righteousness. When my daughter is hungry, she turns to me as her father to tell me she’s hungry so that I can provide her with what will satisfy her hunger. Fasting is meant to work this way, except the physical hunger we feel when we fast is meant to turn us Godward to cry out to Him not to give us literal food to eat, but rather to make His righteousness more manifest in the world, whether in our own individual lives or in the world around us. This crying out is what it means to pray. Which is why fasting and prayer are usually connected. Fasting is designed to stir us to prayer at least as often as we eat. But one thing I think we often neglect when it comes to fasting is feasting on the Word of God. When Moses (Deuteronomy 8:3), Jesus (Matthew 4:4) and Job (Job 23:12) speak of the Word of God being more needful and valuable for man than food, then what better way to experience this and demonstrate this in your life than to use your time of fasting for the sake of feasting on God’s Word? Use the time when you would usually eat or whenever you feel hungry during your fast to give yourself to extended reading/meditation on God’s Word and prayer. One really good way to synthesize the two is to read a portion of Scripture related to what you’re specifically fasting for and then let what you read there guide your prayers. In other words, make the most of your fast by praying the Bible.
There is much more that can and should be said about fasting. Below are a few excellent resources (all of which I’ve depended heavily upon for what I’ve written here) you might consider if you want to dig deeper into this discipline of our faith. My prayer is that this blog post might in some small way help you to seek God in this way.
Often when we take the Lord’s Supper each Sunday, pastor Josh will invite us to taste and see that the Lord is good through feasting on the bread and the wine. May we learn to taste and see that the Lord is good not just through the gift of feasting, but also through the gift of fasting.
Resources for further study:
A Hunger for God: Desiring God through Fasting and Prayer by John Piper
Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Don Whitney
Praying the Bible by Don Whitney
Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines by David Mathis
Fast from Food, Not Facebook by Tim Challies