When You Fast
In the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives a string of three practices that, based on the use of the word “when” as opposed to “if,” it seems he expected to be a common practice of his followers: “When you give” (Matthew 6:2), “when you pray” (Matthew 6:5), and “when you fast” (Matthew 6:16). We tend to do the first two more consistently than we do the third, but the third is given the same treatment here in the Sermon on the Mount as the other two. While I do not believe that we can put fasting on the level of a command for the Christian, we can say that, at the very least, it seems to be a common religious exercise for which Jesus is giving instruction, helping us to practice it in the right manner (see also Matthew 9:14–15). In that way, fasting is cast in a positive light by Christ, as a helpful act of devotion to God for our spiritual good. So, what is fasting, and how should it be practiced?
WHAT IS FASTING?
Fasting, as Donald Whitney defines it in Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, “is a Christian’s voluntary abstinence from food for spiritual purposes. It is Christian, for fasting by a nonChristian obtains no eternal value because the Discipline’s motives and purposes are to be God-centered. It is voluntary in that fasting is not to be coerced. Fasting is more than just the ultimate crash diet for the body; it is abstinence from food for spiritual purposes.”
While it is typically an abstinence from food, and it seems that a fast from food is almost exclusively what Scripture has in mind with the practice, it is not outside the purpose of fasting to abstain from other things as well. Fasting can be an abstaining from any normal activity for the purpose of seeking God, and it’s that purpose of seeking the Lord that really is the heart behind any fasting.
Richard Foster writes that “fasting must forever center on God.” In the chapter on fasting in his book A Celebration of Discipline, Foster warns us against using “good things to our own ends,” noting that doing so is “always the sign of false religion.” If we’re fasting for the purpose of showing our godliness before others, or to try to earn something from God on our merit, or for the purpose of proving to ourselves our own spiritual grit and determination, it is not a God-honoring fast and is of no spiritual purpose. It should be done, as John Wesley said, “unto the Lord with our eye singly fixed on Him. Let our intention herein be this, and this alone, to glorify our Father which is in heaven.”
While centered on God, in His kindness God does use fasting as a tool to reveal to us those things that control us. It is eye-opening the things that we may quickly turn to for comfort or just to pass the time when we are abstaining from food for a day. The Lord may reveal to you that you are prone to turn to your phone more quickly than you are to turn to Him. He may show you other works of the flesh that are simmering just below the surface in your life, brought out by hunger. And that’s important to note: anger, irritation, frustration, and bitterness may be experienced more when we’re fasting, but that’s not simply because of abstaining from food; the abstention from food is just revealing what’s below the surface. Fasting can be used by God to reveal areas in our lives that need attention.
But in a positive light, fasting is meant to show us our need for God. To rely on Him throughout the fast, to seek Him in His Word and prayer instead of eating, these are the activities of a day of fasting that carry over into our regular daily lives. Fasting strengthens our prayer lives like nothing else. It helps us focus on God, to seek Him and His wisdom for our lives, and to reveal to us our need for Him in all things.
HOW TO BEGIN THE DISCIPLINE OF FASTING
“As with all the Disciplines,” Foster writes, “a progression should be observed; it is wise to learn to walk well before we try to run.” That is, you may have heard of people doing a three-day fast (or longer), and we know in Scripture of examples of men doing 40-day fasts, but it’s best by far to begin with a 24-hour fast, from dinner to dinner. This would mean that you would skip two meals: breakfast and lunch. Some people choose to drink only water in this time; others drink juice during the fast; you are free to do whichever best suits your needs for the day.
During the fast you would be doing your regular activities: work, school, taking your kids to ball practice, and all the rest. But inwardly, you’re seeking the Lord more consciously throughout the day. As you sense hunger, pray. Ask God to help you hunger for Him more than you hunger for food. Ask Him to help you rely on Him more than you rely on a meal. Pray about whatever thing it is that you are specifically seeking Him for during that day. Additionally, consider taking the time when you would be eating and spend it instead reading Scripture and praying or serving others in the community around you. It is usually good to plan this day in advance so that you are prepared to seek the Lord during the day.
SHOULD CHURCHES FAST TOGETHER?
Since I mentioned publicly a call to fast on Thursdays during our 40 Days of Prayer, let me answer one more important question: If Jesus said in Matthew 6 to fast in such a way that it is “not seen by others,” is this unbiblical for me to encourage church members to fast together? Here’s how I would respond to that:
We should, without question, fast in such a way that is not for show, not for attention, not for highlighting to others our own spirituality. If you are fasting to be seen by others, you are doing it for the wrong reason according to Jesus and you should not participate in this fast.
However, that does not mean that churches should not fast together. Scripture records for us what are known as congregational fasts in both the Old and New Testaments. In the New Testament, the church at Antioch was fasting together when the Holy Spirit directed them to set apart Barnabas and Saul (Paul) for the work of missions (Acts 13:1–3). Therefore, it is not unbiblical to have a congregational fast; what is unbiblical is fasting in such a way that our aim is to win the approval of man or to earn standing in God’s eyes.
Fasting can be an incredibly helpful discipline in your spiritual life. It is a gift of God’s grace to us, showing us our need for him and calling us to greater devotion to him. It reveals to us that life is found in Him and that we don’t live by bread alone but by every word that comes from His mouth. Fasting helps us seek God, and fasting strengthens us in prayer. Therefore, consider joining us in fasting on Thursdays during our 40 Days of Prayer. If Thursdays don’t work for your schedule, pick another day. If weekly is too often, pick out two or three or four other days during these 40 Days. Consider adding fasting to your life this year, and let’s seek God in this way together.
Bert Watts has served since December 2016 as the Senior Pastor at Mountain Creek Baptist Church, where he has been on staff since 2012.