Yesterday I posted about the source of our deepest hungering and desire. What do we truly desire and what does it say about our heart? You can read about that here: Prayer and Fasting (part 1). Today I want to spend more time explaining the biblical idea of fasting and prayer and then look at some practical consideration for fasting.
Jesus’ general principle regarding how to be blessed or ruined by spiritual disciplines is found in Matthew 6:1, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”
Then Jesus gives three examples of ways that we can be found guilty of practicing our faith for others to see us and admire us:
- Giving (vv. 2-4) or our outward conduct
- Praying (vv. 5-15) or our upward conversations
- Fasting (vv. 16-18) or our inward cravings
Matthew 6:16-18 reads, “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.”
What Is Biblical Fasting?
Simply defined, fasting (for all reasons) is to refrain from food for a period of time. Biblical fasting is always accompanied with prayer. I am speaking of biblical fasting here, because several religions practice fasting, and people fast for medical and other purely non-religious reasons.
Fasting in the Bible is required only in the Old Testament, for the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29-34; 23:26-32). This “self-affliction” was to accompany the offering of sacrifices for the nation of Israel. It was a national day of mourning for their sins. As such, eating was inappropriate.
Since Jesus Christ has become our final sacrifice (Heb 10:12), we do not need a Day of Atonement. Therefore, the only obligatory day of fasting has been removed for Christians. So, fasting is not required by God.
Why did people in Bible fast?
Although there was only one obligatory day to fast, voluntary fasting was(and is) acceptable to God if done with the right heart attitude. Some examples of the reasons people fasted in the Bible were:
- When Mourning: 2 Samuel 3:35 tells us David fasted after the death of Abner.
- When in Grave Danger: Esther 4:16 shows us that Esther asked for prayer and fasting before she approached the king.
- When Repentant: Jonah 3:5, 7 explains how the Ninevites repented before God in sackcloth and ashes for their sins, and God forgave them.
- When Facing Important Decisions: Acts 13:2-3 says that before the church at Antioch sent away Paul and Barnabas for their mission trip they prayed and fasted.
- When Facing Intense Trials: Matthew 4:2 tells us that as Jesus prepared to begin his ministry, he was led into the wilderness where he fasted and prayed for forty days and was tempted by Satan.
How should Christians approach fasting?
First, remember that fasting is not obligatory, but voluntary. We are nowhere commanded to fast, although we may do so when we desire. The Pharisees fasted two times a week (Lk 18:12), but this was a tradition of men, not a requirement of God.
Also, remember this important truth if you become puffed up in your fasting: of the two men in the Temple that day that Jesus spoke of in Luke 18, one fasted, and the other went home justified! Fasting does not justify us!!
Second, we must fast with the right intentions. Matthew 6:16 shows us that there are some who practice religious activities to be seen by others.
- If you fast, ask yourself why you are doing it?
- If you fast, are you letting yourself look tired or haggard so people will ask you about it? The Pharisees loved the attention they received. They even went so far as to rub ash on their faces to look more sullen and sickly. It’s the same with all our spiritual disciplines. Do you do them to be seen by men?
- If you fast, are you trying to earn God’s favor? Fasting is not a bargaining chip for God. It’s not “I skipped food for three days Lord. YOU HAVE TO HEAR ME NOW!” Fasting doesn’t mean that if I give up meat, God will do what I say.
Finally, when we fast, we should see it as an opportunity to put all of our focus upon God, and not as an opportunity to pull attention to ourselves. Jesus pointed out that the Pharisees drew attention to themselves with their sullen look. Instead, fasting ought to be seen as a time to look at the Giver of every good and perfect gift. We can forget about God sometimes, and when we fast, we take our eyes off of the gift of food and cast our eyes toward heaven to find communion with our Lord. This is why the Pharisees were such hypocrites. They took something which should have given God attention and used it for their own attention.
Some final considerations regarding fasting:
Fasting does not need to be a fast from food only. Some of you may not be able to fast from food for medical reasons. Perhaps you are weakened from sickness or you need to take medications or your doctor has said, “No fasting.” That is ok. God knows how weak our frame is!
Fasting, although primarily abstaining from food for a time of dedicated prayer and worship with the Lord, is not only described in terms of food. If you look at 1 Corinthians 7:5 it refers to a different kind of fast for married couples. Notice that this fasting referred to here is for a set time and for the purpose of prayer. It should be short and purposeful by agreement of both so as not to give an opportunity for temptation for either the husband or the wife.
Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, “Fasting if we conceive of it truly, must not … be confined to the question of food and drink; fasting should really be made to include abstinence from anything which is legitimate in and of itself for the sake of some special spiritual purpose. There are many bodily functions which are right and normal and perfectly legitimate, but which for special peculiar reasons in certain circumstances should be controlled. That is fasting.”
This means that food may not be a big deal for you, but perhaps TV or internet distracts you from the Lord and prayer. Maybe its sports or something else.
RememberAbraham? In Genesis 22:1-2 what does it say Abraham loved? What did he hunger for? He longed for the promised son Isaac. And God gave him a good gift in Isaac. But now God asks him to sacrifice what he loved. Did he love God more than Isaac?
Abraham set his eyes to obey the Lord. He took Isaac up the mountain and he bound him and took the knife to slay his beloved boy. But look at vv. 11-12. “now I know that you fear God, seeing that you have not withheld your son…” Abraham’s love for God was greater than his love for Isaac.
Now let me ask you, what do you hunger for most? Who’s in charge? Is it your hunger or God? It is easy to say that it’s not food, like the drunk who says he can give up his liquor anytime he wants, but he just doesn’t want to. What controls you so that you don’t want to give it up?
Dear friend above all else, hunger and thirst for Christ.