How Fasting Forms the People of God
In much of Evangelical Christianity, fasting is an uncommon practice. Yet, not only does Jesus practice fasting, he seems to expect we will too. About a year ago, a mentor challenged me to spend a day a week fasting from food. I quickly rejected his proposition. I was furious! I thought he was absolutely crazy. I enjoy eating food and I couldn’t fathom intentionally not eating for an entire day.
As I processed this, I was frustrated at my strong reaction. I came to the realization that, while I was willing to fast from my phone or social media or time with friends, the comfort that came from eating three meals a day had become an idol. So about a week later, I humbly came back to him and told him that I would like to try fasting, but wasn’t sure where to start. Before I started fasting, he had me come up with a purpose and vision for the practice so that I would understand what I was doing, why I was doing it, and how it was going to transform me.
What is Fasting?
Before spending too much time considering how fasting forms us, it is important to stop and make sure we have a correct definition of fasting. Donald Whitney, the author of Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, defines fasting as “a believer’s voluntary abstinence from food for spiritual purposes.”
While Whitney defines fasting specifically in terms of abstinence from food, Martyn Lloyd Jones does not. Lloyd Jones argues, in Studies on the Sermon on the Mount, that “fasting should really be made to include the abstinence from anything which is legitimate in and of itself for the sake of some special spiritual purpose.”
In simple terms, fasting can be anything from voluntarily skipping meals, putting away your phone, or deleting social media in order to accomplish a spiritual purpose. There are a few key aspects of those definitions.
First, fasting is voluntary. Fasting should not be something that is forced, but rather should be an act committed humbly and voluntarily in service to God.
Second, fasting is done in order to accomplish a spiritual purpose. This is so important. Christian fasting is not neglecting the needs of the body flippantly or even for health reasons. Rather, it is all about accomplishing a spiritual purpose.
When I fast, I typically pick a certain request or goal whether that be salvation for non-believing family members, freedom from habitual sin, or justice in the city that I live in. Inevitably, I get hungry during the day or feel the urge to pick up my phone, but rather than feeling bad for myself, I pray for that request.
How to Fast
At this point, we have clearly outlined that fasting is both voluntary and done for a specific spiritual purpose, but how do we fast? In the most famous passage on fasting, Jesus says,
And when you 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.
Jesus makes it evident in these verses that fasting is not an act of self-exaltation. Throughout His ministry, He clashed with the Pharisees and exposed them for their extravagant efforts to be seen by others.
So, while the Pharisees wanted everyone to know that they were fasting, we should make an effort to keep it hidden from others. Now, to be clear, there are times for corporate fasting, but in general, fasting is a hidden act. An act that leads us to greater dependence, humility, and joy.
Fasting Leads to Dependence
Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.
When we fast, we become more aware of our own desires. We realize how we are controlled by the cravings of our eyes and of our stomachs. Whether we are fasting from food or technology, we see just how highly we regard these good gifts of God’s grace.
Let’s be clear: Both food and technology are good gifts of God’s grace. Yet, our dependence and our allegiance belong not to the gifts, but to the Giver.
Fasting Leads to Humility
Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods.
When we fast, we realize our own weakness. Fasting helps us to slow down and spend time considering what God called us to do. When we fast, we do not do so in order to maximize productivity or take pride in ourselves. Instead, we fast in order to learn how to grow in humility. Fasting shows us that, far too often, the food on our plates and the phone in our pocket make us think that the answer lies within us.
Fasting Leads to Joy
“Thus says the Lord of hosts: The fast of the fourth month and the fast of the fifth and the fast of the seventh and the fast of the tenth shall be to the house of Judah seasons of joy and gladness and cheerful feasts. Therefore love truth and peace.”
Dependence and humility are obvious results of fasting, but the most important effect is joy. When we fast, we experience a glimpse of glorification and enjoyment in the presence of God. Remember, fasting is not some sort of self-inflicted punishment, but an act committed in humility in order to accomplish a spiritual purpose.
Implementing Fasting in Your Life
If you’re considering fasting for the first time, consider giving up your phone for a day. When you feel an urge to pick up your phone and fill yourself with the instant gratification of the little blue screen in front of you, choose to pray instead. Find joy in the Giver.
If you’ve fasted before but failed, be encouraged: fasting is not a performance. We are broken people and God is looking for dependence, not perfection. The entire motivation behind fasting is that we do not have the answers and we need to depend on God.
As you fast, I pray and hope that it leads you not to self-reliance, pride, and bitterness, but to dependence, humility, and joy.