Growing in Grace: Fasting
Welcome back to our series entitled Growing in Grace. We are discussing how to mature in our faith amidst a fallen world. We have already focused on the importance of meditation and prayer, and are now moving onto understand the value of fasting. This is a subject that is often overlooked or rarely talked about, yet Scripture frequently talks about the value of fasting.
Growing in Grace is part of the Theology in Action program at Enlightium Academy, an accredited, online Prek-12 school. This is the third chapter of the Growing in Grace series and is also available in audio and video formats.
Fasting may be best understood in terms of the phrase “addition by subtraction.” We see this play out in sports. An individual or team will cut back on some aspect of training in order to better prepare for an event. By subtracting something, the overall performance increases. With fasting, by letting go of a particular benefit for a time, we gain spiritual enrichment.
As a preface to our discussion, I want to clarify that not all people should fast by abstaining from food. Some have medical conditions or health situations that require food and specific nutrition. There is only one explicit miraculous fast in Scripture - Moses on top of Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:28). This fast is not normative. Fasts are not about testing God’s miraculous power, but drawing near to God for necessary provisions. If someone has a medical or health condition, they may consider other forms of fasting, which we will discuss in a moment.
So what is fasting? Fasting is setting aside a daily benefit for spiritual benefits. Scripture is full of examples of fasting. Moses fasted 40 days and 40 nights as he drew near to God, or the very presence of God (Exodus 34:28). The Israelites fasted for a day in order to seek guidance from the Lord concerning battle (Judges 20:26). In 1 Samuel 7, Israel fasted one day for the purposes of moral and religious purity. The aim of this fast was to cleanse Israel from idolatrous worship (false worship). David fasted in light of the loss of Saul and Jonathan (2 Samuel 1:11-12). Daniel fasted for three weeks as he humbled himself before the Lord, seeking insight and understanding (Daniel 10:2-5). The people of Nineveh fasted for purposes of genuine repentance (Jonah 3:5-8).
These examples reveal a few general principles about fasting:
- The timeframe is indefinite. It can be as short as a day.
- A fast can be individual or corporate (i.e., as a community).
- The one who fasts must have a humble attitude before God.
- Fasts are for believers.
- Fasts are for growing spiritually and receiving spiritual benefits (e.g., wisdom, understanding, provisions, strength, healing, comfort, etc.).
- Fasts are done voluntarily.
- Fasts are done on select occasions (i.e., fasts are not habitual practices).
Isaiah 58 pointedly describes the heart of fasting. Fasts are void of any benefit while living a selfish lifestyle. When someone is not genuinely humbled before God and seeking His will, a fast is of no account. In Isaiah 58, the people of Judah were performing religious tasks (including fasts). Nevertheless, they were living each day contrary to God’s will. Judah was in a condition of spiritual callus (insensitivity), yet the people continued their religious practices. This is what the Bible defines as hypocrisy (i.e., being two-faced; saying or doing one thing, while actually doing the exact opposite in motivation/intention, word, and/or deed). God’s response to Judah comes in Isaiah 58:6-9: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? (7) Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (8) Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard…” Fasts are for hearts serious about growing in their love for God.
Jesus makes this same point in Matthew 6:16-18, “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. (17) But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, (18) that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Jesus’ overarching issue is with hypocritical behavior. While fasts are empty for those seeking the praise of others, fasts are good for those seeking the Father. Fasting for the Lord’s purposes brings about rewards or spiritual results, while fasting for your own purposes merits the fleeting attention of others.
So what are a few practical truths about fasting?
- Fasting is an exercise for believers to genuinely and humbly seek the Lord in times of spiritual need (abstaining from some daily benefit for the Lord’s spiritual benefits).
- Fasting is done for particular and rare occasions (not a lifestyle).
- Fasting is a time of separation from a particular daily enjoyment or benefit (media, music, Facebook, time with friends, all food, or specific foods (cf. Daniel 1:12; 10:1-5), etc.).
The big idea is this: by removing something for a time, our hearts would be reminded to focus on the Lord. Every time our mind wanders toward what we have chosen to remove, this ought to propel us to cling to the Lord for His provisions. This serves as a deep reminder of how utterly dependent we are on the Lord for all good things.