What does it mean to fast?
Today millions of Christians around the world reflect on the time leading up to Easter. Ash Wednesday, if you’ve heard of it before, signals the beginning of a period of time called Lent. These 40 days of Lent are marked by a giving away of something, with the hope that it will symbolize Christ’s sacrifice, drawing you closer to God and strengthening your devotion.
The period of Lent is best known as a time to give up something. Many Christians ask the question ‘what have you given up for Lent?” But in this period there lies a deeper meaning — the symbolism of sacrifice in Lent harkens to the 40 days of prayer and fasting Jesus did when he retreated to the desert.
In Matthew 4: “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted there by the devil. For forty days and forty nights he fasted and became very hungry. During that time the devil came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become loaves of bread.” But Jesus told him, “No! The Scriptures say, ‘People do not live by bread alone,but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
If you haven’t guessed by now, the spiritual discipline I am referring to is the discipline of fasting. So we can see the fasting Jesus did was for him to overcome temptation — particularly, the temptation by Satan.
Similarly, I think it is fitting for us to talk about this spiritual discipline today, since the fast is directly implied in our remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice in these 40 days of Lent.
Fasting, like praying and giving, is a spiritual discipline to be practiced in private between a Christian and God. How often we practice it is not prescribed, because that too is between you and Jesus. When we desire to seek God more than we want dinner, that will be the proper time to fast.
Fasting as a spiritual discipline teaches you TWO important things:
We depend on the water we drink to not become dehydrated. We depend on the nourishment of food to not become weak. None of these things in and of themselves is bad. But when our dependence on these things displaces our dependence on God, we have forgotten the one who has given us life in the first place.
So we must know that fasting is for the purpose of reminding us that we depend on a heavenly father and not just an earthly comfort — food, phone, clothes, possessions.
I am reminded of the example of Daniel in scripture. Daniel was a faithful man who wanted to follow God. There was a king named Nebuchadnezzar who required every person to completely worship him and to not serve God.
Daniel was deeply burdened by this, so upon being offered food from the king he instead turned to fast for 10 days. He knew that if he accepted the food from the king he would be admitting dependence on the king for his nourishment. He believed that God could provide for him, so he turned to fasting.
In Daniel 1 it says “But Daniel was determined not to defile himself by eating the food and wine given to them by the king. He asked the chief of staff for permission not to eat these unacceptable foods. Now God had given the chief of staff both respect and affection for Daniel. But he responded, “I am afraid of my lord the king, who has ordered that you eat this food and wine. If you become pale and thin compared to the other youths your age, I am afraid the king will have me beheaded.”
Daniel spoke with the attendant who had been appointed by the chief of staff to look after Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. “Please test us for ten days on a diet of vegetables and water,” Daniel said. “At the end of the ten days, see how we look compared to the other young men who are eating the king’s food. Then make your decision in light of what you see.” The attendant agreed to Daniel’s suggestion and tested them for ten days.
At the end of the ten days, Daniel and his three friends looked healthier and better nourished than the young men who had been eating the food assigned by the king. So after that, the attendant fed them only vegetables instead of the food and wine provided for the others.
Second, fasting is always for a purpose. When we fast, we do it in connection with a specific purpose and prayer request for God. There must always be a purpose to our fast.
Jesus taught in Matthew 6, “And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.”
So when we fast, we are not doing it like a hypocrite. The hypocrites Jesus was referring to were people who were not fasting for a specific reason. They were fasting because it made them look more “righteous” in front of others. Jesus says we should do the opposite. When we fast for something in prayer, we keep it a secret. We do it not because we care about what others think, but we do it for a specific reason.
There are many examples from the Bible that help us think through some of the purposes for a fast:
To prepare for ministry. Jesus spent 40 days and nights in the wilderness fasting and praying before He began God’s work on this earth. He needed time alone to prepare for what His Father had called Him to do (Matthew 4:1-17; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-14).
To seek God’s wisdom. Paul and Barnabas prayed and fasted for the elders of the churches before committing them to the Lord for His service (Acts 14:23).
To show grief. Nehemiah mourned, fasted, and prayed when he learned Jerusalem’s walls had been broken down, leaving the Israelites vulnerable and disgraced (Nehemiah 1:1-4).
To seek deliverance or protection. Ezra declared a corporate fast and prayed for a safe journey for the Israelites as they made the 900- mile trek to Jerusalem from Babylon (Ezra 8:21-23).
To repent. After Jonah pronounced judgment against the city of Nineveh, the king covered himself with sackcloth and sat in the dust. He then ordered the people to fast and pray. Jonah 3:10 says, “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, He relented and did not bring on them the destruction He had threatened.”
To gain victory. After losing 40,000 men in battle in two days, the Israelites cried out to God for help. Judges 20:26 says all the people went up to Bethel and “sat weeping before the Lord.” They also “fasted that day until evening.” The next day the Lord gave them victory over the Benjamites.
To worship God. Luke 2 tells the story of an 84-year-old prophetess named Anna. Verse 37 says, “She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.” Anna was devoted to God, and fasting was one expression of her love for Him.
How do I fast?
“How do I fast?”, you might be asking. Simply put, a fast is anything that takes your dependence on things, and instead places it on God. When we give these things up, we are saying God, I believe you are more important than all the stuff in the world. I even believe you are more important than food.
Ask yourself, what material or physical possessions do I regularly consume or use that I could instead give up in order to focus more completely on God?
Social media. Food. Television. Shopping. Activities. These are just a few examples of things which could distract us from God.
All these are things you could abstain from. Instead of replacing it with other stuff, why not try turning that time into a time for prayer, a time for remembering all the things God has done for you?
Fasting is one of the few spiritual disciplines which takes something negative in our life and replaces it with something good.
When you fast, you start small. Start by taking one meal out of the day, instead using that time to pray for something specific and purposeful. Or, try removing social media from your life. But remember, for a purpose. When you get rid of it, replace it with a focused time of Bible reading or worship.
We have an epidemic of excess. The world tells us that we have to embrace everything it has to offer, and take an excess of it. There is no such thing as moderation anymore. Moderation would tell us to be sensible, but excess says that we should consume until there is nothing less.
This excess has seeped into everything. Too much social media, too much phone, too much Netflix, too much food, too much everything. The world says have your fill and take more and more.
But fasting teaches us a different dependence. It teaches us all things in moderation. It teaches us that good things come from God, and we should remember the source of our fast.
When you fast, fast with purpose. Fast for something. Fast for that breakthrough miracle, or prayer. Fast in a time of grief. Fast in worship to God. Fast with joy.
Here is what I love the most about fasting. When we break fast, we do it in community with one another. I love that. This symbol of dependence on God and petition for something is broken with a recognition that we do it not alone, but corporately. We do it as the church. We do it in fellowship with one another.
A good question to ask yourself over Lent is, “what am I fasting from?”
But an even better question is, “what am I fasting for?”