Most Christians rarely or never fast. It is simply not a part of our cultural milieu. The reasons are obvious. Fasting is hard. It’s unpleasant and inconvenient. It shakes us out of our normal routine. Plus, many of us haven’t been taught why we should fast or when.
I learned just how uncomfortable fasting can be a couple of years ago when I tried fasting for the first time. I was reading Donald Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life and decided I should try fasting for myself. I took the author’s advice and chose to do a “fast of dedication” for twenty-four hours. The idea behind it was to use this fast to commune with the Lord and re-commit myself to Him.
To be honest, I don’t remember much about a special experience with the Lord. What I do recall is how unwell it made me. Breaking the fast and finally eating again didn’t even help. In fact, I felt sicker than ever!
Now, I tell this story not to say that I regret the fast or that I did something wrong. I do believe I was being obedient to the Lord, and He was under no obligation to give me a special revelation or experience. Still, I was left wondering…is this all fasting is? Starving yourself for little to no reward?
Suffice it to say the answer is no! If a practice is presented positively in God’s Word, it can be trusted. And, indeed, instances of fasting are scattered throughout the Word, in the Old and New Testaments. While fasting is never explicitly commanded, Jesus indicated that it is expected of us by saying, “When you fast…” (Matt. 6:16)
Examining the occurrences of fasting found in the Word reveals when one should consider fasting. In the Old Testament, Queen Esther called a communal fast when the Jews were facing extermination. (Est. 4:16) Here, we learn two things about fasting. First, it can be done as a group; and second, it is appropriate in a time of great danger or need.
In Joel, after a terrifying prophecy of judgment, the Lord commands the Israelites to “return…with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” (Joel 2:12) Indeed, fasting is often linked with repentance, mourning, and deep sorrow. Nehemiah mourned and fasted when he learned of the destruction of Jerusalem (Neh. 1:4).
On a more positive note, in Acts, the early church was worshipping and fasting when they received special instruction from the Lord to set apart Barnabas and Saul for a special missionary assignment. Before they left, the saints fasted and prayed for them (Acts 13:2-3). This indicates that fasting can be a part of worship as well as a part of commissioning others for the Lord’s service. Most notably, Jesus fasted for forty days and nights in the wilderness before beginning His ministry (Matt. 4:1-2).
To recap, fasting can be done solo or as a group. The circumstances surrounding a fast vary greatly, but common instances seen in the Word are times of great need, repentance, sorrow, and worship.
Now, what are some of the obstacles to fasting? First, it can be unpleasant and difficult. Most of us are not the least bit accustomed to being hungry. Experiencing hunger can be an impediment to our day, whether at work, school, or caring for little ones at home. It may leave us feeling distracted, weak, or even “hangry,” resulting in unkind words toward others. On top of that, much of our culture revolves around food. This is not always a bad thing, but it does make food hard to escape. Lastly, fasting is not a common practice in the modern evangelical church. Since fasting is not a part of the broader culture, one can start to wonder why he is doing something so difficult in the first place.
Despite these barriers, fasting is more than worth the reward—God Himself! Fasting forces us to recognize how dependent we are on Him. It is a physical representation of an invisible reality–our utter longing for and dependence upon the Lord. When a person fasts, he says “Lord, I am utterly dependent on You. I long for Your presence in this broken and sinful world. My desire for You is greater than my desire for food. My need for You is greater than this physical, temporal hunger. Come and fill me.” So, where to start?
As a beginner, try fasting from a single meal. Use the time that you would be eating to pray and/or read the Word. As you grow more comfortable, attempt a day-long fast. Eventually, you may feel led to do a multiday fast. (Be advised that it is not wise to fast from both food and water—drinking water during a fast is perfectly fine.) Just remember your why when fasting. If your why is to check a box, you are already doomed to fail. Rather, place your focus solely on Christ; and your fast will surely be fruitful.
Now, fasting is not always appropriate for everyone. At the time of the writing of this article, I am in the third trimester of pregnancy and will be nursing after my baby arrives. I will not be fasting for quite some time! Perhaps you have a chronic health condition that precludes fasting. Use common sense to determine if fasting is a wise choice given the circumstances of your life.
Fasting is challenging, countercultural, and not particularly popular. But doesn’t that sum up the Christian walk? Believers make sacrifices such as fasting because they seek a higher joy that comes from the Father. He is worth so much more than the temporal pleasures here on Earth. When you fast, may you be refreshed by His presence and fed by His Spirit.