In highschool, my friend, Billy, smoked like a chimney. His girlfriend, Jennifer, hated it. There was no small amount of tension in their relationship because of his chain-smoking ways. The problem wasn’t that Billy didn’t care about what Jennifer thought, he just liked smoking more than he cared about what she thought. On several occasions Billy would muster the resolve to quit smoking, only to return to it within a few days. Those few days when Billy was “fasting” to please Jennifer were pure magic to their relationship! Jennifer felt heard. Billy had this air about him, as if he were making the whole world right by abstaining from something that was literally killing him. Sensing his self-righteousness, I laid low until the tobacco fast was over and, soon thereafter, their relationship.
As Ash Wednesday kicks off Lent season (the 40 days preceding Holy Week), we will enter a wonderful season of fasting and prayer. Rather than automatically parting from chocolate or some bad habit, I wonder if we might take this opportunity to take a fresh look at the purpose and benefits of fasting. Too many Christians treat fasting the way Billy approached his girlfriend-driven tobacco fast. One part guilt trip, one part wanting to make the relationship work, one part knowing smoking is terrible for you. Is this the way we should pick a fast - driven by guilt and fear, or by faith? Our purpose cannot be to impress God and it cannot be to part with the most convenient thing we can think of and expect something good to come from it. Fasting is a fantastic gift from God! I pray that you would believe that, too.
Don’t be a fasting pharisee.
In the Old Testament, Jews began fasting during the Day of Atonement as a way of showing how contrite they were about their sin. The phrase they used was “afflicting your soul” (2 Samuel 12:21-23). They would also offer a sacrifice for sin to take away the guilt of an entire years’ worth of failing to live by God’s law. While sacrifices eventually stopped, the fast became an important part of the Jewish faith and still is today.
In the New Testament, Jesus opens his ministry with a fast as He is tested in the desert. Paul fasted after his conversion (Acts 9:9), and church leaders fasted to make wise decisions (Acts 13:3, 14:23). These descriptions are not necessarily to be taken as a prescription on which to build our doctrines of fasting. In fact, the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles seem to almost de-emphasize fasting at first take. In Matthew 5-6 at the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was very concerned about the practice of pharisaical fasting (bragging about fasting in word or action), the apostle Paul warned the church in Corinth, “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do,” (1 Cor. 8:8). In fact, in the New Testament when fasting is talked about, there is a concern that we will misuse it to be self-righteous, which is antithetical to the gospel - that we are made righteous by the person and work of Christ (not our own works) who lived the perfect life we could not, died a rebel’s death that we deserve, and was raised to give us new life in Him. So then, what is the purpose of fasting then?
The purpose of fasting.
Despite how the warnings about fasting stack up in scripture, we can see that it was indeed a practiced rhythm of our Lord, His disciples, their disciples, and so so on throughout church history. So PLEASE do not dismiss this important rhythm from your life unless you want to dismiss the benefits.
Biblical benefits/purpose of fasting:
Strengthening Prayer (Ezra 8:23, Joel 12:12, Acts 18:3)
Seeking Guidance (Judges 20:26, Acts 14:23)
Humbling Ourselves (1 Kings 21:27-29, Psalm 35:13)
Overcoming Temptation (Matthew 4:1-11)
Protection (2 Chronicles 20:3-4, Ezra 8:21-23)
Repentance (1 Samuel 7:6, Jonah 3:5-8)
Worship & Devotion (Luke 2:37)
How to fast?
Because of these benefits, fasting is powerful, purposeful, and necessary. Jesus said in Matthew 6:17, “But when you fast…” meaning He expects that His followers will fast. And how does Jesus expect us to 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.” – Matthew 6:16-18
This passage teaches us that fasting is not for others’ benefit. It is not about your credibility as a person of faith. It is a physical expression of a spiritual reality. It is between you and God. Make your choices (decide what you will fast), your plan (make a plan to fast), and your purposes (why are you fasting) by earnestly seeking God in prayer and in the Word. Our hope is not to impress God, but to reinvest time and energy that went into eating, watching TV, playing video games, etc... into prayer and seeking God. We can expect that God will answer our prayers, and that we will get more of God, himself! We are never alone in this pursuit; the Spirit is always there to help us.
Spirit-empowered fasting is not a declaration of our strength and will, it is a declaration of our emptiness. Christian fasting is when the physical hunger of our bodies resembles the spiritual emptiness of our souls without God. As we fast, we recognize that without God filling us, we cannot truly live! So, fasting is not as much about what we fast, but about who we get.