Why would anyone ever fast? What is to be gained from giving things up? What is the purpose of not eating for a period? Why withhold from yourself what you know you’re going to return to in a matter of time? Is fasting an essential spiritual discipline? Does fasting bring you closer to God? Is fasting a way to defeat sin? How do I know when to fast and what to fast from? Is there a biblical theology of fasting? How do you fast in a way that is more than a temporary denial of physical desire, but is also spiritually helpful? Does God require us to fast?
Fasting is a topic that motivates and encourages a few, but confuses many. Since Lent is a season of fasting, it is worth giving it a practical, biblical examination. My first encounter with regular and intense fasting had nothing to do with spirituality. One of my closest friends in high school was a wrestler.Because Sam was winning like crazy, there was a bit of a small town media buzz around him. He was a little guy, but he had become big man on campus, and he loved it. The problem was that he was growing fast, and his growth spurts made it hard for him to stay within the boundaries of his weight class. So Sam was always fasting. His big, luxurious meal would be Jell-O.
Although there was nothing spiritual about Sam’s fast, it did have “spiritual” benefits. Because he fasted, he was more focused. Because he fasted, he became more and more committed. Because he got used to this sacrifice, other sacrifices didn’t seem so hard. The pain of sacrifice brought a whole catalog of benefits to Sam and his wrestling career. I knew there was a theme of fasting in the Bible, but hanging around Sam got me thinking about the benefits of fasting as a teenager.
Fasting Creates Focus
So why would anyone ever fast? Primarily, fasting is about focus. We all live busy lives, with so many plans and so much on our schedule. We live with constant distractions all around, and now with cell phones in our hands, there is a huge temptation to fill even the smallest quiet moment with anything. We feel compelled to keep checking Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We feel the need to make sure we are in moment-by-moment contact with the news. And we want to make sure the weather hasn’t changed in the last five minutes. Along with this, we are all still in possession of wandering hearts. Things in our lives rise to levels of importance way beyond their true importance. Temptations seduce and seize us. Our desires wander off God’s pathway. Envy sows seeds of doubt and bitterness in our hearts. Spiritual amnesia grips us; in the busyness of life we forget who we are and what we have been given. Our devotional lives are kidnapped by the tyranny of the urgent. What we want collides with what God wants for us. And the gap enlarges between what we say we believe and how we actually live.
Fasting can be spiritually arresting, a divine interruption that is one of God’s tools to call us back to remember, to confess, to rest, to commit, and to celebrate. Fasting is one of the ways God reaches down into our frenetic lives and pulls us out to be closer to him. Fasting is much more of a welcome than it is a regulation. It is a gift from a God who knows us; he knows how we operate, what we face, and what we need. Fasting is God’s invitation to all of his children to refocus, recharge, reengage, and repent.
So what is fasting? Fasting is giving up food (or something else) in order to focus on God and your walk with him (see Ps. 35:13; Ezra 8:23; Neh. 1:3–4; Matt. 4:1–11; Luke 2:37). We need to remember two important points. First, there is no magic in fasting. Giving up food won’t instantly make you more godly. Fasting allows you to give yourself to other spiritual disciplines that will bear a harvest of good fruit in your life. Second, you don’t fast in order to gain God’s favor, but to help bring your life into even greater surrender to him and a greater appreciation of his favor. Fasting is spiritual warfare. It is one way that God has provided for you to fight for your own heart. So how do you fast?
8 Tips for Fasting
Give yourself to prayer. One of the primary purposes of fasting is to be able to give yourself more fully to prayer. The normal routines of food selection, preparation, and eating are replaced by new routines of prayer. It is this more focused communion with God that produces some of fasting’s best fruit.
Don’t make a show of it. Fast in private. Don’t announce it. Don’t broadcast it after. Pride in fasting robs fasting of its spiritual benefit. Seek God; don’t seek the approval of others for seeking God in this way.
Receive God’s welcome to fight for your heart and to learn to rest in the grace of your Savior more fully and more deeply.
Bathe yourself in God’s word. Fasting can give you time to meditate on God’s word. In our busy lives, most of us spend very little time in actual Scriptural meditation. Biblical meditation is not like Eastern meditation. In Eastern meditation you empty your mind. In Christian meditation you fill your mind with God’s word, chewing it over and over again until you are digesting spiritual morsels you have never digested before.
Make sure you’re ready. There are no spiritual benefits to damaging your body or putting your health at risk. Make sure you are physically, financially, and situationally prepared for whatever fast, for whatever period, you are about to undertake.
Be quiet before the Lord. Since fasting is about ceasing participation in a particular thing, your fast shouldn’t be filled with activity. Fasting is a time to wait on the Lord. And as you wait, remember that for the Christian, waiting is not about what you get at the end of the wait, but more importantly about what you become as you wait.
Confess what has been revealed. As you seek God in prayer, as you meditate on his word, and as you are quiet before him, the Lord will reveal your heart. Fasting is a way to fight the spiritual blindness that affects us all. So be ready to confess new areas of sin, weakness, and failure that God has revealed as you have fasted.
Make new commitments. If confession is turning from the old way, then commitment is turning your heart and life to God’s new and better way. At the end of your fast, think about where God is calling you to new commitments of faith and discipleship where you live and work every day.
Be thankful. Thank God for how fasting is an indication of his welcoming, patient, perseverant love, continually drawing you into even closer, more heart-satisfying communion with him. So, fast this Lenten season. Receive God’s welcome to fight for your heart and to learn to rest in the grace of your Savior more fully and more deeply. You will be glad you did.
Paul David Trip