By Donal Moroney
What do you do when you’ve exhausted all your options, when you believe God wants to bring breakthrough, but you can’t see how it will come about. We can and will continue to cry out to God in prayer but we can also begin wielding our weapon of fasting. In this instalment I want us to consider why we fast. Why should we fast?
The purpose of (Christian) fasting
Fasting is fashionable in many quarters today — which means Christians need to be all the more careful to take our cues on this from Jesus, and not popular culture. Just a generation ago, numbers were claiming that fasting is bad for your health. Now it’s flipped. Today, more and more dieticians are preaching, “When done correctly, fasting can have beneficial physical effects” (Celebration of Discipline, 48). But what’s the difference between fashionable fasting and Christian fasting?
The key difference is Christian purpose. We could say Spiritual purpose — with a capital S for the Holy Spirit. Not just spiritual as opposed to material, but Spiritual as opposed to natural. For Christians, an essential, irreducible aspect of Christian fasting is a Christian purpose. Whether it’s strengthening earnest prayer (Ezra 8:23, Joel 2:12, Acts 13:3). Or seeking God’s guidance (Judges 20:26, Acts 14:23) or his deliverance or protection (2 Chronicles 20:3-4, Ezra 8:21-23). Or humbling ourselves before him (1 Kings 21:27-29, Psalm 35:13). Or expressing repentance (1 Samuel 7:6, Jonah 3:5-8) or grief (1 Samuel 31:13, 2 Samuel 1:11-12). Or concern for his work (Nehemiah 1:3-4, Daniel 9:3 ). Or overcoming temptation and dedicating ourselves to him (Matthew 4:1-11). Or best of all, expressing love and devotion to him (Luke 2:37), and saying with our fast, “This much, O God, I want more of you.”
Without a Spiritual purpose, it’s not Christian fasting. It’s just going hungry.
The Bible lists a variety of reasons for engaging in a fast:
- To strengthen prayer (seeEzra 8:23)
Numerous incidents in the Old Testament connect fasting to prayer. Fasting does not change whether God hears our prayers, but it can change our praying. As Arthur Wallis says, “Fasting is calculated to bring a note of urgency and importunity into our praying, and to give force to our pleading in the court of heaven.”
- To seek God’s guidance (seeJudges 20:26 )
As with prayer, fasting to seek God’s guidance isn’t done to change God, but to make us more receptive to his guidance.
- To express grief (see 1 Samuel 31:13)
Expressing grief is one of the primary reasons for fasting. Ever notice that when you’re moved to tears by grief you lose the urge to eat? When we grieve, our family/friends often have to plead with us to eat because our body’s response to grief is to fast. An example occurs in 2 Samuel 1:12 where David and his men are described as having “mourned and wept and fasted till evening” for their friends, their enemies and their nation.
- To seek deliverance or protection (see 2 Chronicles 20:3-4)
Another common reason for fasting in the Old Testament was to seek deliverance from enemies or circumstances and is generally carried out with other believers.
- To express repentance and a return to God (see 1 Samuel 7:6)
This type of fasting helps us to express grief over our sins and shows our seriousness about returning to the path of Godly obedience.
- To humble oneself before God (see1 Kings 21:27-29)
“Remember that fasting itself is not humility before God,” reminds Donald Whitney, “but should be an expression of humility”
- To express concern for the work of God (see Nehemiah 1:3-4)
As with Nehemiah, fasting can be a sign of our concern over a work God is doing.
- To minister to the needs of others (see Isaiah 58:3-7)
We can use time we’d normally spend eating to fast and minister to others.
- To overcome temptation and dedicate yourself to God (seeMatthew 4:1-11)
Fasting can help us focus when we are struggling with particular temptations.
- To express love and worship for God (seeLuke 2:37)
Fasting can show, as John Piper says, that “what we hunger for most, we worship.”
Fasting is grace fuelled discipline – not a command. (Matt 6:16)
The purpose isn’t to….. Earn God’s love (futility)
Impress God (legalism)
Impress people (hypocrisy)
Conclusion: Fasting was never intended to be a religious exercise that will somehow enable us to accrue more, “brownie points with God”, nor is it supposed to be an outward show of spiritual piety that lets other people know, “just how spiritual we are”. Rather it’s a voluntary (not commanded) spiritual discipline that God will bless when our motives for doing so are first and foremost to pursue and hunger after God himself.