Fasting. Undoubtedly my least favorite discipline. Even in January when resolutions remain and rich food isn’t appealing, there is just nothing that draws me to fasting.
Every time I speak to a woman about fasting she seems to confess that numbers dropping on the scale easily becomes the focus of fasting. That focus sounds a lot more like an eating disorder than a discipline.
But there has to be a point to it, right?
I dabbled in fasting a little before moving to New Orleans, but I still didn’t quite understand the point. There seemed to be a lot of unknowns and blurred lines. I didn’t hear anyone teach fasting, only allude to it.
When I moved to New Orleans, I learned that many of the professors are passionate about this topic. Within my first year, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention came to speak about prayer and fasting. He, along with many other SBC leaders, is also passionate about fasting. He addressed aspects of fasting that are often avoided or unspoken. As a result of things he said and conversations that followed, a renewed interest for the topic was sparked in me.
The aspect of fasting that plagues me the most is why we fast.
Jesus fasted while He was in the wilderness (Matthew 4:4), but He didn’t say much about it. The Pharisees even criticized Jesus’ followers for their lack of fasting (Luke 5:33). Since I already don’t enjoy missing a meal, it would be pretty easy for me to use that as an excuse to just avoid this discipline.
But after Jesus’ disciples were criticized, He responded, “You can’t make the wedding guests fast while the groom is with them, can you? But the time will come when the groom will be taken away from them—then they will fast in those days” (Luke 5:34-35 HCSB).
We are still waiting on the groom to return, so the excuse that Jesus’ disciples didn’t fast is out…Jesus clearly still saw a point to fasting, especially until He returns.
The instructions Jesus gave about fasting also show that He valued fasting. Jesus said, “Whenever you fast, don’t be sad-faced like the hypocrites. For they make their faces unattractive so their fasting is obvious to people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! But when you fast, put oil on your head, and wash your face, so that you don’t show your fasting to people but to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18 HCSB).
Jesus didn’t say, “if you fast,” He said, “whenever you fast.” He expected it. So why did He expect it? He gives us a clue here. It was for private worship, not personal glory.
To me, that sounds a lot like humility. Simply put, it seems that this discipline (like so many others) is part of making us humble. Sanctifying us. Making us more like Him. I think Psalm 35:13 (HCSB) gives good insight to this mysterious discipline:
Yet when they were sick,
my clothing was sackcloth;
I humbled myself with fasting,
and my prayer was genuine.
Don’t miss the third line. I humbled myself with fasting…and I love that genuine prayer follows. Of course! Prayer is so much more genuine when said in humility, directed by the Spirit. Not our proud flesh.
So how do we increase our humility through fasting? Practically, what does that look like?
I think true fasting from the Bible requires abstaining from food. Don’t get me wrong, I think there are times where God leads us on other types of “fasts” (i.e., social media, TV, chocolate, etc.). I am just not convinced that’s the type of fasting that really brings biblical humility as mentioned in the Bible. We can live without excess, but we can’t live without food. The discipline itself requires trust, faith, and humility.
Taking that kind of stance on fasting inevitably stirs up all kinds of questions. Who should fast? When should we fast? How often should we fast? How long should we fast?
Like so many things in the Bible, fasting doesn’t seem to be clear cut. We aren’t bound by the Law. We don’t have specific fasting requirements we have to maintain. However, I do think believers should be in the habit of fasting, especially with prayer. James 5 provides wisdom about the timing of certain types of prayer. Like these types of prayer come at different times, so fasting appears to be synonymous with different seasons. It is up to us to be open enough to follow God in this area, desiring His humility to run through us.
Disclaimer: Please seek the Lord’s guidance as you consider fasting. If you do not have a relationship with Him, let that be your first priority. After that, make sure you’re reading the Bible regularly and systematically, accompanied with prayer. Make sure God’s telling you to fast before you do it, and use discernment. He could tell you to fast for an extended period of time, and He can sustain you. However, He could also be making you humble by asking someone else to pray and fast for you (this could be especially true if you’re facing health problems or you struggle with an eating disorder).