1. Is Fasting Christian?
The simple answer is yes. The tradition of fasting is taught throughout the Bible: The prophets, Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, the Apostle Paul and Jesus all fasted. Though the Christian scriptures do not command fasting, Jesus assumed his followers would fast. He said “when you fast,” not “if you fast.” The Christian Church for 2000 years has therefore encouraged fasting as a personal spiritual discipline. Collectively, the Lenten fast is a forty-day partial fast prior to Easter to commemorate the fast observed by Jesus during his temptation in the desert
2. Why Christians Fast
2.1 Fasting can increase our hunger for God
John Piper writes in his book, A Hunger for God, asks,
“If you don’t feel strong desires for the manifestation of the glory of God, it is not because you have drunk deeply and are satisfied. It is because you have nibbled so long at the table of the world. Your soul is stuffed with small things, and there is no room for the great. God did not create you for this. There is an appetite for God. And it can be awakened. I invite you to turn from the dulling effects of food and the dangers of idolatry, and to say with some simple fast ‘This much, O God, I want you.’”
Fasting reminds us that we can get by without most things for a time, but we cannot get by without God. The first and main purpose of fasting is to draw close to God.
2.2 Fasting can help discipline our bodies
We are so used to giving ourselves whatever we want, we say “I feel like a donut,” so we go get a donut. Our stomach is like a spoiled child, and spoiled children do not need indulgence, they need discipline. Fasting is therefore spiritual training in self-control. In the same way that gold is refined by heat which removes impurities from the ore, so God can do the same thing through fasting. “More than any other single discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface so that we can confess them and ask for God’s help to remove them. God wants us to be like pure gold.
“Spend your time and energy in training yourself for spiritual fitness. Physical exercise has some value, but spiritual exercise is much more important, for it promises a reward in both this life and the next.” (1 Timothy 4:7-8)
Out of all the spiritual disciplines fasting is most like physical exercise. It is both physical and spiritual and it builds our faith muscles so that we can withstand the bigger contests that come our way.
2.3 Fasting can help purify our goals and priorities
Many people fast when they are desperate for God to answer their prayers. We can fast for rescue from a bad situation, healing of a loved one, direction in life or other requests that are close to our hearts. Fasting can bring a note of urgency to our prayers. We are coming to our Father and telling Him (and ourselves) how important he is to us. The person who prays with fasting is giving heaven notice that they are truly in earnest… Not only so, we are using a means that God has chosen to make his voice to be heard on high.
3. Pitfalls of Fasting
The Pharisees were very self-righteousness. They fasted on Mondays and Thursdays because those were market days and there would be bigger audiences to see how pious they were. Jesus insisted we should fast in secret.
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18)
Fasting is not about twisting God’s arm. Fasting is not some kind of spiritual hunger strike that compels God to do our bidding. God explains this in Isaiah 58,
“’Why have we fasted, and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?” Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.” (Isaiah 58:3-4)
There is a heretical tradition in Christianity of punishing ourselves for sins, by denying ourselves food and water. God’s forgiveness of our sins comes with no requirement except confession and repentance. We shouldn’t deprive ourselves of food to punish ourselves or gain favour with God. We already have God’s favour through Jesus.
4. Conclusion: The Purpose and Benefit of Fasting
“Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.” (Isaiah 58:5-9)
As you fast, you will find yourself being humbled. You will discover more time to pray and seek God’s face. And as He leads you to recognize and repent of unconfessed sin, you will experience special blessings from God.
With grateful thanks to Brian La Croix and Mike Wilkins for their sermons on Matthew 6 and Fasting at www.sermoncentral.com Thanks also to:
John Piper A Hunger for God
Richard Foster The Celebration of Discipline
Bill Bright Your Personal Guide to Fasting and Prayer