Why & how do Christians fast?

In anticipation of our all-church prayer meeting (Sunday, January 27, 6pm, ACI synagogue), some of our Fellowship Groups are planning to set aside a time this month to fast. In case you have questions about fasting, here are a few brief thoughts ...

The Bible gives several precautions about fasting. It warns us not to pressure people to fast (1 Tim. 4:1-3, Col. 2:20-21), not to fast to try to earn points with God (Luke 18:12-14), not to fast to show how pious we are (Matt. 6:16-18), and never to view fasting as a substitute for true repentance and obedience before the Lord (Is. 58).

But please don’t let these warnings scare you off. The Bible does not safeguard fasting because it is a bad thing that needs to be shunned, but rather because it is a precious thing that needs to be preserved. We read that Jesus fasted (Matt. 4:2), that the early church fasted (Acts 13:3), and that Christ expects fasting to be regular part of his followers’ lives (Matt. 6:16). One author writes, “You will be poorer spiritually and your prayer life will never be what God wants it to be until you practice the privilege of fasting.” (Wesley Duewel, Touch the World through Prayer)

What is fasting? Fasting is a voluntary choice of temporary self-denial for the purpose of seeking God in prayer. Fasts vary in their length of duration as well as in their form. The most common form of fasting is to abstain from solid food (but usually not liquids). However, a person may fast in other ways. Daniel once fasted from meat, alcohol and fancy cosmetics. Modern Christians sometimes fast from TV, radio or other entertainment. But whatever form our temporary self-denial may take, the purpose of fasting is to focus our hearts more passionately on seeking God.

What does physical hunger have to do with spiritual passion? When I was new to fasting, a friend’s advice helped me to understand this. He said, “When I fast, every time I feel a pang of hunger if reminds me that I actually need God more than I need food. It prompts me to say, ‘Lord, please make me as hungry for you as I am for lunch right now.’” It is advisable to fast when you are able to set aside some time (perhaps an hour) for solitude and prayer. Fasting without prayer is just dieting with a religious name.

I am certainly not the world’s greatest faster. The first time I tried it (in college) I was so weak with hunger by the end of the day that I wolfed down an entire mushroom pizza (with extra cheese) all by myself. I remember sneaking the food into my dorm room and locking the door so that none of my friends could ask for a slice. Pretty spiritual, huh? I started the day a self-denying saint and ended it a self-serving glutton. I doubt that my first fast did much to deepen my relationship with God. But over the years, the Lord has helped me learn to make fasting a more meaningful spiritual discipline.

On occasion I have had times of gloriously deep communion with the Lord while fasting. But those are rare. Sometimes I have been so distracted by hunger that I had trouble focusing on God at all. Sometimes I have sensed spiritual opposition and confusion that I suspect came from the enemy. But I seldom regret fasting after I do it. It usually seems to give me new insight into my situation (from heaven’s point of view), and it often increases my sense of dependence on God.

A great book about fasting is A Hunger for God – Desiring God Through Fasting and Prayer by John Piper. You can download the whole book for free at http://www.desiringgod.org/media/pdf/books_hfg/hfg_all.pdf