Biblical Prayer and Fasting

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In his book on fasting entitled A Hunger for God, John Piper wrote, “What we hunger for most, we worship.” I put that quote up on Facebook, and some of you wrote that it made you think of food. You hunger most for food. We laugh, but that is too true, isn’t it? “What we hunger for most, we worship.”

Some hunger for sexual desires, like Amnon in 2Sam 13, who longed so much for his beautiful half-sister Tamar that he became physically ill until he fulfilled his lustful desire. Some hunger for possessions, like King Ahab in 1Kings 21, who longed for Naboth’s vineyard, but he wouldn’t sell it to him. So his wicked wife Jezebel had him murdered and Ahab was fulfilled. Some hunger for marriage, like King Solomon, who according to 1Kings 11:3, gathered for himself 700 wives and 300 concubines or secondary wives not caring about the fact that they were pagans who led his heart astray from the Lord.

So Piper is describing what the Bible so clearly describes, “What we hunger for most, we worship.”

But we need to be careful here, don’t we? Paul tells us in 1Corinthians 8:8, “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” So the issue is never what we eat or what we do not eat or whether we fast or whether we do not fast. The issue for Jesus always is our heart, is it not? So then, why should we even entertain fasting? Why have we set aside food to dedicate ourselves to prayer instead of eating? It is because fasting moves our attention off of the gift of food and on to the Giver.

Again, John Piper states for us the danger of forgetting this distinction and the danger for our souls if we do not stop and examine ourselves and our hungers:

The greatest enemy of hunger for God is not poison but apple pie. It is not the banquet of the wicked that dulls our appetite for heaven, but endless nibbling at the table of the world. It is not the X-rated video, but the prime-time dribble of triviality we drink in every night. For all the ill that Satan can do, when God describes what keeps us from the banquet table of his love, it is a piece of land, a yoke of oxen, and a wife (Luke 14:18–20). The greatest adversary of love to God is not his enemies but his gifts. And the most deadly appetites are not for the poison of evil, but for the simple pleasures of earth. For when these replace an appetite for God himself, the idolatry is scarcely recognizable, and almost incurable.

Jesus said some people hear the word of God, and a desire for God is awakened in their hearts. But then, “as they go on their way they are choked with worries and riches and pleasures of this life” (Luke 8:14). In another place he said, “The desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful” (Mark 4:19). “The pleasures of this life” and “the desires for other things”—these are not evil in themselves. These are not vices. These are gifts of God. They are your basic meat and potatoes and coffee and gardening and reading and decorating and traveling and investing and TV-watching and Internet-surfing and shopping and exercising and collecting and talking. And all of them can become deadly substitutes for God.

You see, fasting doesn’t commend us to God. But it is a tool for us to test our heart attitudes about God. It does test our love and our hunger for God to see if we love Him more than these other things. I want us to look at the proper setting and definition of fasting.

Jesus’ general principle 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.”

Previously in his great Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6, Jesus gives us 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

Matt 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, What Is Biblical Fasting?

Simply out, fasting is to refrain for food for a period of time. Biblical fasting is always accompanied with prayer. Now, I mean 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. 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:

  • When Mourning: 2Sam 3:35. David fasted after the death of Abner.
  • When in Grave Danger: Esther 4:16. Esther asked for prayer and fasting before she approached the king.
  • When Repentant: Jon 3:5, 7. The Ninevites repented before God in sackcloth and ashes for their sins, and God forgave them.
  • When Facing Important Decisions: Acts 13:2-3. Before the church at Antioch sent away Paul and Barnabas for their mission trip.
  • When Facing Intense Trials: Matt 4:2. As Jesus prepared to begin preaching, he was led into the wilderness where he fasted, prayed for 40 days and was tempted by Satan.

How Should We Approach Fasting?

First, remember that fasting is no obligatory, but voluntary. We are nowhere commanded to fast, although we may do so when we desire. The Pharisees fasted 2 times a week (Lk 18:12). But this was a tradition of men, not a requirement of God. And remember this important distinction–if you are tempted to become puffed up in your fasting, that of the two men in the Temple that day, one fasted and the other went home justified! Fasting does not justify us!!

Second, we must fast with the right intentions. Matt 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 trying to look normal, or are you letting yourself look 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. This can be the same temptation 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. You see, 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. The same is being done today.

Some 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 are!

But fasting is not only described in terms of food. If you look at 1Cor 7:5, Paul refers to a different kind of fast for married couples, a fasting from marital relations. 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.

Remember Abraham? Look at Genesis 22:1-2. What did Abraham love? What did he hunger for? That promised son Isaac. And God gave him a good gift in Isaac. But now God asked 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, dear reader, what do you hunger for most? Who’s in charge? Is it your hunger or God? Hunger and thirst for Christ above all else.