(Here are some thoughts on fasting as a spiritual discipline that brings clarity and discernment.)
In Matthew 6:16-18 Jesus says these words:
"When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 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.
With these words we see that Jesus expects his followers to fast. For Jesus it was a matter of when believers would fast, not if they would do it. He spoke in these terms: "When you give to the needy...when you pray...when you fast." (Matthew 6:2,5,16) These three things should be done, not rarely, but as a lifestyle.
All this will really mess up your personal kingdom-building. This is because the only Kingdom Jesus wants to build is the Kingdom of God.
In Matthew 9:15 Jesus says,
“How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.”
There is no way to escape the force of Jesus’ words here. He makes it clear that he expected his disciples to fast after he was gone. In other words, until the Kingdom comes in its fullness, Jesus’ followers will fast.
Fasting is not a horrible thing to do, something to be dreaded. The Jewish religious leaders put on their sad-masks when they fasted to draw attention to themselves. Thus “fasting” gets a label of “bad experience.” But I think that when fasting is really understood, it becomes a spiritual adventure. When you see what it is for, and why Jesus expects it, you view fasting as a powerful spiritual weapon to advance the Kingdom of God and push back the powers of darkness.
Richard Foster defines “fasting” as the voluntary denial of an otherwise normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity. Fasting is: going without food for spiritual purposes.
- Fasting is…
- going without food…
- for the purpose of seeking God…
- So as to…
- Advance His Kingdom
- Push back the powers of darkness
- Heal the sick
- Deliver the oppressed
- Raise the dead…
- And proclaim the Good News about what God has done in Jesus the Christ.
Did anyone fast in the Bible?
- Moses did, on Mt. Sinai, for forty days and forty night (Ex. 34). In fact, Moses did two 40-day fasts. (Deut. 9:9, 18-19)
- Hannah fasted when she was praying for a child. She was barren and deeply distressed, and God freed her. Then God gave her a baby boy,
- Samuel, who grew into a mighty man of God. (1 Samuel 1:7-8)
- David fasted many times. For example, once David fasted and prayed to God for the life of his child. (2 Samuel 12.)
- Elijah fasted after his victory over Jezebel.
Ezra, in Ezra 8:21, 23, writes:
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… So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer.
Ezra faced a problem. He was leading a large group of defenseless people across the wilderness to return to the Promised Land. The “wilderness” was a “badlands” area inhabited by thieves who attacked caravans of people. The Israelites were not only returning home, they were bringing all their household goods and treasures with them. Faced with this problem, Ezra called a fast.
Nehemiah fasted and prayed when he was preparing for the trip back to Israel. In Neh. 1: 3-4 we read:
“They said to me, "Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire." When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.
Esther fasted when God's people were threatened with extermination. In Esther 4:15-16 we read:
“Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: "Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish."
Daniel fasted many times. In Daniel 1 he fasts from the king’s food and drink. In Daniel 9 he fasts. In Daniel 10, faced with the destruction of Jerusalem, he fasts and has a phenomenal visitation from God.
“ At that time I, Daniel, mourned for three weeks. I ate no choice food; no meat or wine touched my lips; and I used no lotions at all until the three weeks were over. On the twenty-fourth day of the first month, as I was standing on the bank of the great river, the Tigris, I looked up and there before me was a man dressed in linen, with a belt of the finest gold around his waist. His body was like chrysolite, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and his voice like the sound of a multitude. I, Daniel, was the only one who saw the vision; the men with me did not se it, but such terror overwhelmed them that they fled and hid themselves. So I was left alone, gazing at this great vision; I had no strength left, my face turned deathly pale and I was helpless. Then I heard him speaking, and as I listened to him, I fell into a deep sleep, my face to the ground.
In Joel 1 the prophet Joel declares a holy fast for corporate repentance. In Jonah 3:5-9 the people of Nineveh, after hearing what Jonah had to say, “believed God.” Then “They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.”
John the Baptist and his disciples fasted often. (Matthew 9:14-15)
The Christians at Antioch fasted when they sent off Paul and Barnabas on their mission trip.
Paul and others fasted when they appointed all of the elders.
And on and on it goes.
Fasting, accompanying prayer, is a biblical, intense God-seeking.
In history Martin Luther and John Calvin, John Knox and John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney , Billy Graham. and many, many others prayed AND fasted. Wesley himself wrote in his journal,
"Is not the neglect of this plain duty (I mean fasting, ranked by our Lord with almsgiving and prayer) one general occasion of deadness among Christians?"
What does true fasting look like? Isaiah 58:3-12 is an especially relevant text on biblical fasting, since in it God tells us the elements of his “chosen fast.” The context was that the people of Israel had been fasting, but no spiritual transformation (changed lives) was happening.
'Why have we fasted,' they say, 'and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?' "Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one's head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD ? "Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. "If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.
Here God, functioning as Great Physician, PRESCRIBES and DESCRIBES.
- Live to free people, not to burden them.
- Verse 6.
- Feed the hungry.
- House the homeless.
- Clothe the naked.
- Move towards other people (no "cocooning" allowed)
- Get rid of the pointy finger and trash-talk (stop the oppression!)
- Spend yourself on other people
Description (Promised Results)
- If we fast like this the darkness in our life will become light.
- If we follow this fasting there will be physical strengthening.
- Verse 11: "He will strength your frame – lit., your bones. Your skeletal structure.
- Who knows how much weakness is in us because we are not fasting in the way God wants us to?
- If we follow this fasting God will be in front of us and behind us and in the midst of us with righteousness and glory.
- If we follow this fasting, God promises to guide us continually.
- John Piper says, “It seems the Lord gives his most intimate guidance to those whom have a heart for giving themselves to the needs of others—especially the poor.”
- If we follow this fasting, He will satisfy your soul.
- Pouring ourselves out for the poor is the path of deepest satisfaction.
- If we follow this fasting, God will make you a watered garden with springs that do not fail.
- It is a paradoxical spiritual principle in Scripture: as you pour yourself out you become full.
- As you give away you get more.
- When you are watered with God's grace you do not merely become a wet, moist, living garden; you also become a spring.
- Finally, if we follow this fasting, that is, if we give ourselves to the poor, God will restore the ruins of his city—and his people.
- "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor."
- "I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you invited me in; I needed clothes and you clothed me; I was sick and you looked after me; I was in prison and you came to visit me."
In a true fast the Kingdom of Darkness is getting assaulted and losing!
And… Jesus fasted.
When he began his public ministry, After Jesus is baptized he fasts for forty days. Then comes the testing of Satan in the desert. Here “fasting” was God’s chosen spiritual weapon. Fasting clarifies things so we can better see the Kingdom of God squaring off against the Kingdom of Darkness. Fasting can enter us into deep spiritual warfare.
Note that immediately after this time of fasting and temptation, John the Baptist comes and announces to everyone that “the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned."
Then comes Jesus: “From that time on Jesus began to preach, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near."”
For those who truly fast, there’s a reward. For the hypocrites the “reward” is the applause of other people (woo-hoo!). For true followers the reward is nothing less than the approval of God.
Richard Foster writes, in his excellent, revolutionary book A Celebration of Discipline: "Superficiality is the curse of our age…. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people." I agree.
Self-denial is cool; self-indulgence is trite and boring. Spending your life on others is deep; building your own little earthly kingdom is superficial. Advancing God’s Kingdom is as meaningful as this life gets; living out of the kingdom of darkness is absurdity.
Real Followers of Jesus, listen! The upside-down Kingdom is beautiful. It is advanced through giving to the poor and needy, prayer, and fasting, with all three as a way of living.