Cornelius Plantinga once said, “Self-indulgence is the enemy of gratitude and self-discipline is usually its friend and generator.”1 This is because the more you indulge in something, the more likely you are to take it for granted; but, the more you discipline yourself with something, the more likely you are to appreciate it. This brings us to the topic of fasting. In today’s sermon we will learn what it means to fast, the importance of fasting, and the purpose of fasting.
What is Fasting?
David Mathis provides a good definition of biblical fasting. He wrote, “Fasting is voluntarily going without food—or any other regularly enjoyed, good gift from God—for the sake of some spiritual purpose.”2 Common fasts include eating no food for a day or for a meal (or two). You can also fast from certain types of foods. Another type of fast that is becoming more popular is fasting from social media and/or television and the Internet.
Should we Fast?
Jesus expected His disciples to fast. In Matthew 6:16 and 17, Jesus does not say “if” you fast, but “when you fast.” Fasting is just as expected as giving (Matt 6:2) and prayer (Matt 6:5). Jesus reinforces this expectation in Matthew 9. John the Baptist’s disciples came to Jesus and asked Him why His disciples did not fast. Jesus replied, “Can the wedding guests be sad while the groom is with them? The days will come when the groom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Matt 9:15). Jesus’ disciples did not fast while He was physically with them, but after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven, His disciples fasted. Jesus’ disciples continue to fast as we await the return of our Lord Jesus.
What is the Purpose of Fasting?
As we learned earlier, fasting is voluntarily going without food—or any other regularly enjoyed, good gift from God—for the sake of some spiritual purpose. The key to proper fasting is to have a plan. David Mathis wisely pointed out: “Without a purpose and plan, it’s not Christian fasting; it’s just going hungry.”2 Fasting is not a diet plan and it’s not an attempt to manipulate God or try to earn His favor. Fasting must not be self-focused, but God focused. If the idea of fasting is new or foreign to you, you may wonder why anyone would abstain from something good for a spiritual purpose. This is because fasting is a spiritual discipline used for the pursuit of godliness. It is a means whereby we exercise self-control and demonstrate to God that we love Him supremely, especially more than His blessings. In other words, while we enjoy His blessings, we love Him because of who He is, not just because He gives us good things.
Fasting is a weapon in our war against selfishness and pride. This is especially important in a self-indulgent culture. When you fast from food, for example, you should be doing it for a very important reason. So that, when your stomach yells at you, you can remember why you are fasting and be more intentional in prayer. If you are just fasting without a reason, your hunger will overwhelm you and you will be miserable. Fasting that is not done as an act of worship is doomed for failure. Why would someone fast? Donald Whitney has helpfully summarized the purposes of fasting into ten major categories:3
- To Strengthen Prayer – This can be used to sharpen the edge of our intercessions and give passion to our supplications.
- To Seek God’s Guidance – This helps us be more receptive to the One who guides us.
- To Express Grief – 3 of the first 4 fasts in the Bible are an expression of grief.
- To Seek Deliverance or Protection – Ezra called for a fast “so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask Him for a safe journey” (Ezra 8:21).
- To Express Repentance and the Return to God – Fasting can signal a renewed commitment to obedience and a new direction.
- To Humble Oneself Before God – Fasting is an expression of our humility.
- To Express Concern for the Work of God – Fasting can be an expression that our concern for God’s mission is more important than our own needs.
- To Minister to the Needs of Others – Isaiah 58 speaks of fasting in order to share your bread with others and meet the needs of those without.
- To Overcome Temptation and Dedicate Yourself to God – Fasting is a means to help us fight against the lusts of the flesh and focus on God.
- To Express Love and Worship to God – Fasting is also an act of devotion to God. It is a sign that we take greater delight in God than anything else.
The Focus of Fasting
Fasting that is approved by God is not self-focused, but God focused. The focus of fasting must never be selfish. This is why Jesus’ sole counsel in Matthew 6 regarding fasting is to make sure it is not done for the approval of others. Jesus said that when you fast, don’t advertise that you are fasting because that is what the hypocrites do. This does not mean that you lie about fasting, but that your audience is God and not others.
Fast and Pray
This week, take time to fast and pray. Don’t be afraid to do it. Don’t let your discomfort of missing a meal keep you from demonstrating your love and devotion to God. If you have never fasted before or haven’t in a long time, start small. Fast for one meal or just eat vegetables. If you cannot, for health reasons, fast from food, find some other way to fast. The key is to fast and pray for the glory of God. Humble yourself before God “and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt 6:18).
- quoted in The Reformed Journal (November 1988)
- Donald Whitney. Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life.