What Is Fasting?
Fasting is an exceptional measure, designed to channel and express our desire for God and our holy discontent in a fallen world. It is for those not satisfied with the status quo. For those who want more of God’s grace. For those who feel truly desperate for God.
The Scriptures include many forms of fasting: personal and communal, public and private, congregational and national, regular and occasional, partial and absolute. Typically, we think of fasting as “a Christian’s voluntary abstinence from food for spiritual purposes” (Don Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines, 160).
We can fast from good things other than food and drink as well. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says, “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.” But normal Christian fasting means privately and occasionally choosing to go without food (though not water) for some special period of time (whether a day or three or seven) in view of some specific spiritual purpose.
Fasting’s spiritual purposes include:
▪ ministering to the needs of others (Isaiah 58:3–7)
▪ overcoming temptation and dedicating yourself to God (Matthew 4:1–11)
▪ expressing love and worship to God (Luke 2:37)
While the potential purposes are many, it is that last one which may be most helpful to focus our thoughts about fasting. It encompasses all the others and gets at the essence of what makes fasting such a mighty means of grace.
Whitney captures it like this: “Fasting can be an expression of finding your greatest pleasure and enjoyment in life from God” (176). And he quotes a helpful phrase from Matthew Henry, who says that fasting serves to “put an edge upon devout affections.”
Jesus Assumes We’ll Fast
While the New Testament includes no mandate that Christians fast on certain days or with specific frequency, Jesus clearly assumes we will fast. It’s a tool too powerful to leave endlessly on the shelf collecting dust. While many biblical texts mention fasting, the two most important come just chapters apart in Matthew’s Gospel.
The first is Matthew 6:16–18, which comes in sequence with Jesus’s teachings on generosity and prayer. Fasting is as basic to Christianity as giving to others and asking from God. The key here is that Jesus doesn’t say “if you fast,” but “when you fast.”
Second is Matthew 9:14–15, where the disciples of John came to Jesus, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” (Matthew 9:14–15)
When Jesus, our bridegroom, was here on earth among his disciples, it was a time for the discipline of feasting. But now that he is “taken away” from his disciples, “they will fast.” Not “they might, if they ever get around to it,” but “they will.” Which is confirmed by the pattern of fasting that emerged right away in the early church (Acts 9:9; 13:2; 14:23).
Focus on the Right Thing
If the accent is on abstinence, and fasting is some mere duty to perform, then only the most iron-willed among us will get over the social and self-pampering hurdles to actually put this discipline into practice.
But if we are awakened to see fasting for the joy it can bring, as a means of God’s grace to strengthen and sharpen Godward affections, then we might find ourselves holding a powerful new tool for enriching our enjoyment of Jesus
Much more could be said (like check with your doctor about any health concerns), but this spiritual discipline is simple enough. The question is, Will you avail yourself of this potent means of God’s grace?