Fasting has been a discipline used by God’s people throughout the scriptures in various contexts. In the Old Testament God’s people typically fasted to grieve, seek God’s favour or to express repentance. In the New Testament the big difference is that when we fast, we do so knowing we have already been filled in every way by the promise of the Father through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. God’s plans have been revealed to us more clearly, in the scriptures, fulfilled more completely in history, and we stand with greater assurance that all our needs have been fully met for us in Jesus, who is our life.
Having said that, before we discuss why we might fast, let’s first define fasting. According to the several accounts in the scriptures, fasting is the practice of abstaining from either food in general (or particular kinds of food) and/or drink for an unspecified period of time. This might seem obvious and unnecessary to comment on, but there are some who have tried to redefine fasting or expand the definition to include things other than food and drink. For example, people have suggested that a person can ‘fast’ from being on their phones and watching TV. Whilst this is well-intended, and extremely helpful for having a more focused and devoted mind for Christ, according to the scriptures fasting is always from food and/or drink.
Why should Christians fast?
There are at least three reasons demonstrated for us in the scriptures as to why.
1) Fasting is an assumed practice of worship within the life of God’s people
Two examples here:
In Acts 13:2 we see that ‘While they (the apostles) were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”’ Notice the relationship between worship and fasting. We fast to better understand the will of God by his Spirit as we draw near to him – which is why fasting is a part of our worship. And consider that in this passage, it is during this practice of worship and fasting that the Holy Spirit speaks. Of course, God has clearly and completely spoken through his revealed word in the scriptures, however the principle still stands – fasting promotes and cultivates the need for our spirit to be in step with the Holy Spirit in accordance with the revealed word.
Secondly, in Matthew 6:16, Jesus starts by saying “When you fast”. Notice that he says ‘when’, and not ‘if’. This verse is situated within the context of the Sermon on the Mount. Within this sermon Jesus is teaching about what the character of a citizen of God’s Kingdom looks like and the discussion on fasting in Matthew 6 is brought up immediately after prayer and giving. For Jesus, the life of worship that a Kingdom citizen devotes themselves to involves (but is not limited to) prayer, fasting, and giving; and fasting seems to be somewhat as regular and common a practice as prayer and giving in the life of a believer.
2) Fasting has been used to discern wisdom from God for the building up of his Kingdom
In Acts 14:23 we are told that “Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord…” Notice that through the process of appointing and commissioning these elders, the key practices they engage in are prayer and fasting. The apostles clearly understood that prayer and fasting are necessary ingredients to discern wisdom from God, in light of the ministry of these elders and the building up of the Kingdom through the church.
Whether it’s commissioning elders to lead the church or any other work of service among God’s people, the practice of prayer and fasting proves to bless our desire to build the Kingdom of God through our humble efforts. To neglect prayer and fasting as we make decisions for Jesus’ sake would be like trying to boil a large pot of water with nothing but a box of matchsticks.
3) Fasting helps God’s children humble their ‘flesh’ in an effort to set their minds on God’s Spirit
Within us there is a constant war between our ‘flesh’ and the Spirit. Our ‘flesh’ refers to the worldly desires of our sinful nature, which include those affections, desires, habits, and temptations that are not aligned with the Spirit of God. Therefore, the Apostle Peter encourages Christians ‘…to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.” (1 Peter 2:11). Fasting is a weapon in the Christian’s arsenal used to kill the flesh to keep in step with the Spirit. This is because when you fast, you are temporarily denying your body the physical substances it needs to live, while prioritising the greater need which is to feed our spirit within us by God’s word, prayer and fellowship.
To be empowered in the war against our flesh, we must feed our spirit what it needs while denying the body what it craves to humble it into submission to God. As the 19th century missionary Hudson Taylor once said, “Perhaps the greatest hindrance to our work is our own imagined strength; and in fasting we learn what poor, weak creatures we are – dependent on a meal of meat for the little strength which we are so apt to lean upon.”
Connecting the dots – Discipline, Fasting and Grace
To discipline our flesh is to train it to do what we say, being guided by God’s Spirit. Every Christian has been set free to become more like Jesus through the transformation of our minds and our bodies. In this process, our whole being can be used for the display of his glorious character as Jesus makes himself known through us. Fasting is a key practice of worship used to train ourselves to control our desires so that we can be more responsive to God’s Spirit as we discern what is best through his word. However, as Christians who have been saved by grace alone through faith alone, we don’t fast with the intent of earning his favour; we fast so that we can intentionally draw near to God with a greater degree of focus and devotion through the grace he has displayed to us in his Son.
We fast for our good and his glory.
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