Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control.
Well the Lenten season has just started, and for a lot of Christians this means they are taking part in an annual fast. I’ve fasted a few times before for Lent, whether it was giving up meat, chocolate or biting my nails! However, last year was the first time I actually thought about what fasting meant and what God wants or intends when you fast.
What is fasting?
According to the CARM Dictionary of Theology, a fast is “the act of depriving oneself of food for a period of time for a specific purpose, often for a spiritual need”. Fasting is also defined in the book of Esther (4:16) in this way. The purpose of fasting in the Biblical sense is to draw closer to God. Isaiah 58 says that when you fast in an acceptable way “you will call and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help and he will say: Here am I” (Isaiah 58:9). By drawing closer to God, we allow him to come near to us (James 4:8).
Fasting is also a part of our faith walk as it helps us to practice self-control:
5 For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6 and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7 and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. 8 For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:5-8)
The point of fasting is not to punish yourself, but to give up some worldly indulgence so you can focus more attention on God and his plans for you.
How do we fast?
Before you fast, it is a good idea to pray to God that you have a successful and effective fast. Dedicate your fast to God and thank Him ahead of time. A simple yet effective prayer you can use is in the words of David when he was in the Desert of Judah (Psalms 63:1):
You, God, are my God,
earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you,
my whole being longs for you,
in a dry and parched land
where there is no water.
Secondly, remember that your fast is a private agreement between you and God. You don’t have to announce it on Facebook or Twitter and you don’t have to go around moping about how hungry you are. In fact, this kind of hypocritical behaviour was admonished by Jesus (Matthew 6:16-18).
Most importantly, while fasting, you should spend some extra time talking to God and studying his Word. There are many examples in the Bible that show fasting should be accompanied by prayer:
Luke 2:37 The prophetess Anna (an 84 year old widow) never left the temple but worshipped night and day “fasting and praying”.
Acts 13:2-3 Barnabas, Simean, Lucius, Manaen were at the Church in Antioch “worshipping the Lord and fasting” and in verse 3 they “fasted and prayed”.
Matthew 17:21 and Mark 9:29 Jesus told his disciples that faith as small as a mustard seed would make nothing impossible and this would not happen except by “prayer and fasting”.
Daniel 9:3 Daniel, while asking God to spare Jerusalem from their ongoing punishment for their unfaithfulness, pleaded with “prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes”.
Why should we fast?
Sometimes a more specific purpose than becoming closer to God may compel us to designate a period of fasting. Perhaps you have been blessed with two job or school offers and need to make a decision on which one to accept. Perhaps you have a huge exam or presentation coming up soon. Perhaps you are trying to decide whether or not to move to a new place to fulfill your dreams. Perhaps you want to quit smoking, break up with your girlfriend or buy a new house. All of these are examples of huge decisions where a fast can be beneficial. Many people in the Bible fasted before making life-changing decisions or undertaking important tasks:
Exodus 34:27-28 Moses fasted for 40 days and nights while talking to God and before delivering the Ten Commandments to the Israelites.
Acts 14:23 Paul and Barnabas fasted before appointing elders to their Church.
2 Chronicles 2o:2-4 King Jehoshaphat proclaimed a fast for Judah while he consulted God on the army that was coming to make war.
Ezra 8:20-22 Ezra proclaimed a fast amongst the Israelite exiles returning to Jerusalem so that they would be “humble before God” and have a safe journey after 70 years of captivity.
I’ve already hinted that unacceptable fasting is the type undertaken to show-off your “righteousness” or when it is done outside of seeking God. A lot of people fast as a way of seeking forgiveness for their sins or punishing themselves. There are examples of fasting for repentance in the Bible:
1 Samuel 7:6 The Israelites sought forgiveness and fasted after they gave up their foreign gods.
Nehemiah 9:1 After returning from exile the Israelites confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors and fasted.
Joel 2:12 The Lord asked the Israelites in Judah to return to him with fasting after a divine judgement (an invasion of locusts) threatened starvation.
What we must realize is that these examples are in the Old Testament, before the coming of Jesus. If you are saved, your sins are already forgiven through Jesus’ death, and no amount of fasting can make them “more forgiven” (Hebrews 7:25). If you feel the need to fast after you have sinned, keep in mind you are already forgiven and your fast should be about coming closer to God so that you can avoid making the mistake again.
Furthermore, obligatory fasting to observe Lent is not true Christian fasting. Every year on Ash Wednesday, many self-proclaimed Christians (I was one!) give up something for Lent because their church/priest dictates it. For many years I followed the tradition mindlessly, not thinking about what the meaning of fasting was, not getting any closer to God, not praying or reading my Bible any more than usual and just going through the motions. It was not fasting, it was just dieting. As a warning against mindless and vain fasting we must remember the apostle Paul’s words to the Colossians:
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. (Colossians 2:8)
Finally, fasting does not only have to be giving up food. For example you and your significant other could fast from each other (1 Corinthians 7:5). In fact, you can fast from anything that you feel is distracting you from God. You could deprive yourself of television or youtube for the week and use the time you would have spent watching to do a Bible study. The point is to spend more time listening and talking to God. Who knows what life-changing aspect of God you could discover in that week!
So if you are fasting for Lent, or on your own, don’t forget the purpose and don’t forget to take the time to pray and meditate on God’s Word.
Have a blessed fast!
Check out a prayer for fasting