“When the British Isles stood on the brink of French invasion in the run-up to the Seven Years War, King George II did something rather remarkable. He proclaimed a solemn day of prayer and fasting in which he called his nation to petition God for deliverance. John Wesley records in his Journal for Friday 6th February 1756 that “The fast day was a glorious day, such as London has scarce seen since the Restoration. Every church in the city was more than full, and a solemn seriousness sat on every face. Surely God heareth prayer, and there will yet be a lengthening of our tranquillity.” John Wesley was right. The French invasion was averted, and Britain would go on to win the war.”
You may be thinking, “why, with all the possible topics to write an article on would you choose to write one about fasting?” … and that is kind of the reason why I am writing this article. I believe that Fasting is a tradition that we, in the charismatic evangelical branch of the church, have fallen out of love with. It is something we read of but do not often practice. Unlike worship and prayer, we do not hurry to fast, we do not have evenings dedicated to fasting; and I think that in this we are missing out of something beautiful that God has given to us.
In its most basic definition, fasting is the abstaining of all or some kinds of food or drink. The abstinence of food and drink can be held for many reasons: we see in the powerful way in which the Suffragettes in British prisons refused to eat, and often to drink, threatening to starve themselves to force a response from the authorities. These days, the word fast is used within the fitness world as people use practices such intermittent fasting encouraging the body to that metabolic state. Within Christian practices, however, fasting comes with a different motivation and a different purpose.
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
In the quoted passage above, Jesus has just introduced his disciples to the Lord’s prayer. He begins this by stating “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites…” [Matthew 6:5]. Jesus assumes that prayer is an essential, normal part of existence of one who walks in step with God; as I am sure you have heard in many sermons Jesus does not say ‘if you pray’ but “and when you pray”. He then instructs his disciples how they should approach the Father in prayer, even giving them a structure. Hopefully, in the last couple of sentences you have noticed the grammatical similarities between how Jesus approaches prayer and fasting – “and when you fast…”. Just as with prayer, there is an untold assumption from Jesus that fasting was a part of the lives of his disciples. Now this was in part due to the taʿanith (fasting) Jewish traditions of the time, full days of fasting would have taken place in certain parts of the calendar, such as the Day of Atonement, and more minor fasts would have been carried out in accordance to the Old Testament traditions. But there is more to Jesus’ words than that; fasting is not simply a tradition for the Jewish believers that was not encouraged to Gentiles such as circumcision, it is an act of submission and trust as I will bring out further in later sections of this article. First however, let’s look at the act of biblical fasting throughout scripture.
Fasting in the Bible
It is very clear throughout scripture that fasting is a spiritual discipline that is given from God to His people. In Joel we see God bring instruction for His people to turn to him and fast themselves. We will be looking at the motivations behind fasting in the next section, but below are some key times that we see God’s people fasting in the Bible:
Moses fasted before he received the Ten Commandments.
“So [Moses] was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.”
The Israelites fasted before a miraculous victory.
“Some men came and told Jehoshaphat, “A great multitude is coming against you from Edom, from beyond the sea; and, behold, they are in Hazazon-tamar” (that is, Engedi). Then Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah.”
2 Chronicles 20:2-3
Daniel fasted in order to receive guidance from God.
“Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.
“While I was speaking in prayer, the man Gabriel, whom I had seen in the vision at the first, came to me in swift flight at the time of the evening sacrifice. He made me understand, speaking with me and saying, “O Daniel, I have now come out to give you insight and understanding.'”
Nehemiah fasted before beginning a major building project.
” As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.” Nehemiah 1:4
Jesus fasted during His victory over temptation.
“…for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry.”
The first Christians fasted during-decision making times.
” While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.”
Motivations for Fasting
There are many motivations for faithful Christian fasting. They all should bring us closer to God through the sacrifice of laying down earthly comfort (food) and using this time to further spiritual goals. I have split these into three different sections (Two in this blog and one in the next).
Humility – Less of Us
In Psalm 69:10, King David states:
“I wept and humbled my soul with fasting”
In an article for the ThinkTheology blog, Phil Moore states “It isn’t hard for Christians in the West to trace their nation’s rejection of God’s Word back to its relative prosperity.” This statement has sat heavily on me as I reflect on the past 2 years and how it has differed to the past half a century of western history. Since the end of the Second World War, we have seen an increasing rise in secular consumerism within the UK and other western nations; with this has come a decrease in the impact that Christianity has had on culture and in the lives of most of the nation. However, when we look at other nations for whom this comfortable situation is not the status quo, this is not the case. The church rapidly grows under persecution, injustice and poverty but seems to lose its potency upon complacency. Over the past 2 years we have seen many studies that show the increased desire of the UK population to look for something beyond themselves. The COVID pandemic removed the comfortable and prosperous veneer for a period, leaving people to question what their lives mean without these niceties. We, as the church, must be attentive to this in both our own lives and the lives of our friends and family. The removal of comfort often leaves a space where God loves to move, and if we want to grow closer to Him, we need to seek for this. One of these ways is fasting.
When we fast, we make an active decision to create discomfort in our lives, emptying our earthly stomachs to increase the hunger that we have for all God is doing. “We voluntarily embrace the path of poverty and lack, in order to feast, instead, on the promise of Jesus”
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” [Matthew5:6]
Fasting should never be in service of ourselves, as Jesus states in the passage in Matthew 6, it should to the detriment of ourselves as we humble our earthly desires and state that God provides all that we need. It reminds us that we never wish to be seen as Israel in Hosea 13:6:
“When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot me”.
It is also worth noting when looking at the topic of fasting as submission, that within the Old Testament, fasting was synonymous with mourning and repentance. In the aforementioned psalm, David weeps because of past transgressions. Commentator’s question whether this is a personal lament, or a lament on behalf of a sinful people being seen as personal due to David’s intercessional role. Either way, the humbling of David to fasting is in repentance and mourning of sin [Psalm 69:11]. One of the motivational reasons behind fasting can be in the revilement of sin in our lives or mourn for the sin of the world. In each of these times we humble ourselves before the holiness of God and seek his Spirit, in intercession or in repentance. The difference between ourselves and David, however, is the role of Christ in our lives. When we fast we come before our Father in heaven, just as Christ did, clean because of the work of the cross.
Worship – More of Him
Something that has struck me whilst looking at this topic of fasting for this article, has been the importance of fasting motivated not by ‘what can I get out of fasting’ but that it is a something that Jesus expects of us. As mentioned earlier, the wording of Matthew 6 is not ‘if you fast’, but ‘when you fast’. Fasting should also be motivated by choosing God’s way; it is an act of worship and ministry to God [Isaiah 58:5-6]. A question posed in Zechariah 7:5 should be fundamental as we look at our motivations:
4 Then the word of the Lord of hosts came to me: 5 “Say to all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted?
The question may too be asked of us ‘was it for me that you fasted?’. When we fast, our primary motivation should be the glorification of God in our lives just as we humble our own desires. Luke 2:37 tells us that Anna “worshipped night and day with fasting and prayer”. As an act of worship, fasting should be a sign of the delight we have in God and also a reflection of the praise He so deserves. When we fast, it is supposed to show that we prize him more than all the earthly comforts that we rely on so much in our lives and reflect both the words of Jesus in the desert during his temptation [John 4:4] and his words to his disciples on the bread that they do not understand [John 4:32]. It is only at this point that we will then ‘benefit’ from the time of fasting, once we have centred our hearts to the one who means more than treats or snacks, alcohol or even the ‘essentials’. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs places ‘Physiological needs’ such as warmth, rest, water and food at the base of the pyramid. It is seen as the basic of all basic rights. When we fast we reflect on the truth that below that level is an even more basic human need – to rely fully on, and reflect, our creator.
To Be Continued