By Brandon Lemons
Last Sunday in the class I teach, we studied fasting and had vibrant discussion. As you probably know, fasting is voluntarily abstaining from food. Fasting is relatively common in our culture because it is required prior to many surgical procedures and blood draws. It is also part of various diet plans and workout regimens.
But fasting for spiritual purposes, as a “spiritual discipline”? Fasting to help us grow in godliness and enjoy God more? That seems incongruent. Going hungry to grow closer to God seemingly makes as much sense as going fishing to build muscle, or going to a basketball game to improve your math skills. How does one relate to the other? Reading the Bible and praying are spiritual disciplines that easily make sense, but fasting is frequently confusing. So what is fasting all about? Let’s investigate this topic over the next few weeks.
Fasting is assumed by Jesus to be part of our lives.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” In this context, Jesus assumed His followers will fast. He said “When you fast,” not “If you fast.” He was ministering in a Jewish context where people were already in the habit of fasting periodically, so this teaching is more about regulating how people fast than dictating whether they fast. But it still points to fasting as a typical part of the Christian life.
A deeper question that gets to whether Christians should fast is: What is the purpose of fasting? This “So what?” question arises quickly in the minds of Christians when they consider fasting, and it addresses the seeming incongruence between fasting and growing closer to God. So what’s the purpose of fasting? I will share one purpose this week and another next week.
Fasting is a declaration of dependence on God.
It is common to feel self-sufficient, to think that if we work hard enough and are smart enough, we can push through anything and succeed. And even when we feel weak, it is tempting to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” and push forward by our own strength and wisdom. However, this independence and self-sufficiency are not how God designed us to operate.
Like prayer, fasting is a way of acknowledging to ourselves and to God that we can’t do it on our own. We need God. Fasting declares that we need God just as much, if not more, than we need food. Jesus demonstrated this when He was fasting for forty days and Satan tempted Him to turn stones into bread to satisfy His hunger; Jesus replied, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). Another time, when the disciples thought Jesus’ stomach would be growling from a lack of food, Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34). In both instances, Jesus was pointing to a greater source of nourishment that comes from God. We all know we need physical food to survive. Likewise, we need spiritual food from God to survive. Fasting helps us remember the utter need we have for God.
In the Bible and in Christian practice, prayer and fasting often go together. This is appropriate because both are declarations of dependence on God. Fasting, in a sense, humbles us further than prayer and can make our prayers to God, and our dependence on God, more fervent.
I think, for instance, of Ezra 8:21-23. Ezra wrote: “There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions. I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, ‘The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him.’ So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer.” This passage shows an interesting event, which is the coordinated effort of an entire community joining together in fasting and prayer. The reason for both was to humble themselves as they sought God’s protection. They recognized they couldn’t do it on their own; they needed God, and their prayers and fasting expressed their dependence, saying, “God, we can’t do this on our own, but you can.”
How do fasting and prayer influence the plans and work of God? That is a large topic for another day. I will say, though, that we need to be careful not to construe fasting as a bargaining chip with God. We should not think that by fasting, we can pressure God to act according to our wishes. If anything, the humbling and dependent aspects of fasting should open us up more to being surrendered to what God would do, rather than making God more inclined to do what we want.
The bottom line that we have been studying today is that fasting is a means of declaring and even increasing our dependence on God.
Next week, we will look at the fascinating topic of how fasting deepens our hunger for God by loosening the grip that worldly things have on us. The following week, I will highlight some tips for fasting.