Why Do Christians Fast? - Radical

Why Do Christians Fast?

Many people associate fasting only with dire and great troubles, and there are certainly examples of that in the Bible. But the Bible also says that fasting may be an act of sheer devotion to God.

Fasting in the Bible

In Luke 2 there is an unforgettable woman whose entire eighty-four years are flashed before us in just three quick verses. Her name is Anna.

Luke 2:37 shows us the summary of her life: “She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.” Although Anna’s story has its primary significance in the context of Joseph presenting the newborn Jesus at the Temple, how she lived from day to day is what concerns us here.

Anna was married for only seven years before her husband died. Assuming she married as a young lady this Godly woman devoted at least half a century, night and day, to a worship of God characterized by “fasting and praying.”

Fasting to Love God

Fasting can be an expression of finding your greatest pleasure and enjoyment in life from God. That’s the case when disciplining yourself to fast means that you love God more than food, that seeking Him is more important to you than eating.

This honors God and is a means of worshiping Him as God. It means that your stomach isn’t your god as it is with some (see Philippians 3:19). Instead, it is God’s servant. Fasting proves this because you’re willing to sublimate its desires to those of the Spirit.

Christians throughout history have fasted for this purpose in preparation for the Lord’s Supper. There are elements of repentance and humility before God in this kind of fast. Additionally, it’s also intended to help the person focus on adoring the One who the Supper represents. 

Fasting to Praise God

Another way of fasting to express love and worship to God is to spend your mealtime praising God. A variation is to delay eating a particular meal until you have had your daily time of Bible intake and prayer.

Just remember that your fast is a privilege, not an obligation. It is the acceptance of a divine invitation to experience His grace in a special way. If you can’t fast with the faith that you will find more satisfaction and joy at that time than in delaying a meal, then freely eat in faith first (Romans 14:22–23). But may we yearn for days when God will cause us to crave the spiritual banquet of worship more than any smorgasbord.

Fasting must always have a spiritual purpose—a God-centered purpose, not a self-centered one—for the Lord to bless our fast.

Thoughts of food must prompt thoughts for God. They must not distract us, but instead, remind us of our purpose. We should use the desire to eat as a reminder to pray and reconsider our purpose.

There is no doubt that God has often crowned fasting with extraordinary blessings. Biblical, historical, and contemporary testimonies bear witness to God’s delight in providing unusual blessings to those who fast.

But we should be careful not to have what Martyn Lloyd Jones called a mechanical view of fasting. We cannot manipulate God to do our bidding by fasting any more than we can by any other means.

Fasting to Trust God

As with prayer, we fast in hope that by His grace God will bless us as we desire. When our fast is rightly motivated, we know that God will bless us, but perhaps not in the way we wanted.

David Smith has it right.

Any blessing which is bestowed by the Father upon His undeserving children must be considered to be an act of grace. We fail to appreciate the mercy of the Lord if we think that by our doing something we have forced (or even coerced) God to grant that blessing which we have asked for. . . . All of our fasting, therefore, must be on this basis; we should use it as a scriptural means whereby we are melted into a more complete realization of the purposes of the Lord in our life, church, community, and nation.[1]

While fasting recently over concern for the work of God in the church I pastor, I began to pray about several critical matters. Suddenly I realized that while I thought I was praying in God’s will about these things, it was possible that my understanding of things needed readjusting. So I asked the Lord to show me how to pray according to His will on these matters. I asked Him to grant me contentment with His providences.

This, I think, is what Smith meant by fasting being “a scriptural means whereby we are melted into a more complete realization of the purposes of the Lord.”

Fasting should always have a purpose. We must learn to elevate His purposes over ours.

Fasting in the Old Testament

Zechariah 7:5 teaches God-centered fasting. A delegation went from Bethel to Jerusalem to inquire of the Lord. The continuance of two fasts the Jews had held to commemorate the destruction of the Temple was at issue.

For seventy years they had kept these fasts in the fifth and seventh months. Now, though, God restored them to their land and they were building a new temple. They wondered if God wanted them to continue the fasts. The Lord’s response to them was, “Ask all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted?’”

Fast to God

In reality, these fasts had become empty rituals, not God-centered experiences. Matthew Henry’s comments on this passage are useful for our own fasting.

Let them all take notice that, whereas they thought they had made God very much their Debtor by these fasts, they were much mistaken, for they were not acceptable to Him, unless they had been observed in a better manner, and to better purpose . . . . They were not chargeable with omission or neglect of the duty, . . . but they had not managed [it] aright . . . . They had not an eye to God in their fasting. When this was wanting, every fast was but a jest. To fast, and not to fast to God, was to mock Him and provoke Him, and could not be pleasing to Him. If the solemnities of our fasting, though frequent, long, and severe, do not serve to put an edge upon devout affections, to quicken prayer, to increase Godly sorrow, and to alter the temper of our minds, and the course of our lives, for the better, they do not at all answer the intention, and God will not accept them as performed to Him.[2]

Fast to Glorify God

Before we fast we must have a purpose, a God-centered purpose. But even at our best, we do not deserve what we desire, nor can we force God’s hand.

Having said that, however, let’s balance that truth with the incontestable promise of Jesus in Matthew 6:17–18.

“But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

God will bless a biblical fast by any of His children. And whether or not you receive the blessing you hope for, one thing is sure: If you knew what God knew, you would give yourself the identical blessing that He does. And none of His rewards is worthless.

[1]David R. Smith, Fasting: A Neglected Discipline, p. 44.

[2]Matthew Henry, A Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 4, p. 1478.

This excerpt is adapted from Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald S. Whitney. This book is a recommended resource for Secret Church 19, which is titled “Prayer, Fasting, and the Pursuit of God.”

Don Whitney has been Professor of Biblical Spirituality and Associate Dean at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, since 2005. Before that, he held a similar position (the first such position in the six Southern Baptist seminaries) at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO, for 10 years. He is the founder and president of The Center for Biblical Spirituality. Don is a frequent speaker in churches, retreats, and conferences in the U.S. and abroad.


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