Fasting is an odd Christian practice–why would someone willingly abstain from eating for a purpose outside of health? This is a practice that many believers participate in and they don’t really know why they do it.
So just what purpose does it serve in the Christian’s life, and where does it even come from for that matter? These are all excellent questions and they have answers.
What is fasting? Though fasting is not expressly a Christian or spiritual act, it is a practice that the Bible records going back to ancient times. For the Hebrews of the Bible and Christians today, fasting is a way of drawing closer to God and expressing a deep desire for Him–one that is greater than anything on earth.
The Facts of Fasting
There are three things to be noted on this topic:
- Fasting is not a practice that God commands us to keep
- Fasting is not a strictly spiritual practice
- Fasting is not a strictly Christian practice
The word ‘fast’ simply means to abstain from food, and the first instance of fasting we see in the Bible is not until after Israel’s exodus from Egypt. This practice is seen when God gave Moses the laws and instructed him and the people to ‘deny themselves (NIV),’ or ‘afflict their souls (NKJV),’ for one day on an annual basis, in recognition of the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:29 & 23:26-32). Other than this occasion, we do not see another example of God commanding His people to fast.
Next, the act of abstaining from food does not always fall under the spiritual category, and many people do it for health purposes that are completely unrelated to God.
Christians are not the only ones who have, and still do, hold to the spiritual discipline. Pagan religions all over the world and throughout history practice fasting.
Historical Examples of Fasting
Fasting is not a new idea or discipline, it is mentioned in the Bible on multiple occasions and is engrafted into pagan religions and cultures all over the world.
Beginning with pagan practices, let’s take a look at examples of fasting throughout history.
These are just a few examples, but the list goes on, and on:
- Hinduism practices fasting as a means of cleansing the body and purifying themselves to acquire acceptance from their gods.
- Native Americans in the past would go to a solitary place and fast before going on a vision quest.
- In Islam, Muslims fast on Ramadan, both abstaining from eating food, and partaking in sexual acts.
In history, pagan fasting is predominantly seen in temple practices carried out by priests who sought to draw closer to the deities they worship. It was done through the belief that if they purified themselves they might gain acceptance and grace from their deity.
Now for the Bible.
Here are just a few scriptures in a vast array of verses on fasting:
- Psalm 35:13 But I, when they were sick— I wore sackcloth; I afflicted myself with fasting; I prayed with head bowed on my chest (ESV).
- Esther 4:16 “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish (ESV).”
- Luke 5:34 Jesus answered, “Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast (NIV).”
Each of these passages gives us a glimpse at the purposes behind fasting, and further along we will discuss just what those are.
There are many different forms of fasting, though abstaining from eating is the most practiced in and outside of the Bible. And even this can take shape in many different ways, for example, in the book of Daniel you can find what we call the Daniel Fast.
In chapter one, daniel tells Nebuchadnezzar’s guards to feed him and his three friends only vegetables and water for ten days. By the end of those ten days, he and his friends looked better and healthier than any of the Babylonian men who ate all the fine food the king gave them.
Today, many Christians do this fast for both spiritual and health purposes.
Modern Examples of Fasting
Today, fasting in the church has somewhat evolved. Fasting is not just confined to food, though it is the main expression of it. Not only do church-wide fasts sometimes invite the congregation to abstain from eating food, but also from watching TV, or from eating sugar, and many youth groups encourage social media fasts as well.
Because fasting is viewed as “denying yourself,” the options are endless, and many Christians target the areas that seem to be a deep struggle for them personally.
There is also no formula or law stating what and for how long you must fast; people sometimes fast through lunch, twenty-four hours, a week, ten days, and in some cases, forty days.
Why Christians Fast
So we’ve seen that in pagan fasting, those who practice it do it as a means of cleansing their mind and spirit so that they can earn acceptance and grace from the divine. For the Christians however, fasting is demonstrated through scripture as a form of mourning and plea for God to intervene and draw near.
And while there are a number of other reasons Christians fast, in Luke 5 Jesus gives us a pretty big clue as to what the main true purpose behind fasting is. In this passage, He is essentially saying, “there is no need to fast when I am right here, but when I am gone, then they will have a reason.”
This indicates that fasting is an expression of a deep longing for the King of Kings and the need for His presence. In short, it’s a cry to the Lord that nothing satisfies apart from Him and it is also described through the Bible as being an act of humility.
Benefits of Fasting
Fasting is ultimately a multifaceted spiritual discipline that benefits Christians greatly in many ways.
- Fasting denies the flesh: it denies the desires of the flesh and pushes us to live by the Spirit
- Fasting disciplines the mind: it teaches us that we can push through difficult circumstances when our minds and bodies scream that we are in desperate need, it teaches us that we can handle more than we thought.
- Fasting draws us closer to God: Fasting fixes our eyes on God and helps to focus on Him and pray every time we have the pain of hunger.
- Fasting teaches us to depend on God: our natural instincts are to satisfy anything uncomfortable in us and remove the discomfort, fasting teaches us to run to God rather than earthly comforts.
All in all, fasting will benefit you spiritually, mentally, and physically and though it is somewhat difficult it is a wonderful time of drawing near to God and it is absolutely worth it.