Fasting. Really?

I’m in the middle of a two-day event called Prayer & Fasting. We do exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a gathering of Newfrontiers leaders which happens three times a year and it’s often awesome and always hard. Charles Spurgeon wrote of the times of fasting at his church in these glowing terms: “Our seasons of fasting and prayer at the Tabernacle have been high days indeed; never has Heaven's gate stood wider; never have our hearts been nearer the central Glory.” I can't say this has always been my experience but it sounds like something to earnestly desire.

But tonight I thought to myself, ‘Why do we fast?’

Honestly, although this is something I’ve done a number of times, I wasn’t exactly clear on my theology and thus my motivation. This won’t do at all as God is looking for obedience which comes from faith (Romans 1:5) which comes through hearing the word (Romans 10:17). He’s less keen on ignorant, mindless obedience. So this is a quick run-through of what I’ve found tonight as I’ve read and thought about it.

Jesus discusses fasting in Matthew 6 and frames it as an activity of His followers that is to be a part of our lives as much as giving to the needy (verse 2) and praying (verse 7). All three activities are introduced “when you”: He clearly expects us to fast. The are numerous examples of people fasting in the Bible, including Jesus Himself. So why did they do it?

King David wrote that he fasted to humble himself (Psalm 35:13, NASB), and it is the humble who have the precious promise of God’s attention (Isaiah 66:2). And with God's attention comes His action. This is demonstrated in Ezra’s story: “Then I proclaimed a fast… that we might humble ourselves before our God… So we fasted and implored our God for this, and He listened to our entreaty” (Ezra 8:21,23). This takes us back to Jesus’ instructions that we should expect reward when we fast: “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:18).

If you’d like some more evidence of this, check out 2 Chronicles 20 and Esther 4:16-5:3. These two examples show desperate determination. John Piper writes, “if there is anything that signifies seriousness, it is when you want something so badly that you will stop eating in the pursuit of it, or when the absence of something in your life or in the church or in the world grieves you so badly that you give up eating to express your humiliation and your longing to see it come.”

That, for me, is a pretty solid case for going without solids. There are a bunch of practicalities to go with this (how long, what about juice, etc.) that I’m not going to go into now but if you’re thinking you would like to fast for the first time, I’d advise you to chat with a mature Christian who has fasted. I'd also invite you consider non-food fasts: I have gone without 'luxuries' for an extended period of time, and I think fasting from entertainment media for a season would be a humbling challenge for those of us who spend so much of our lives watching TV and browsing the Internet.

To end, a warning. In Isaiah 58 we witness a furious argument between God and His people. They complain that He is not responding to their fasts; He replies that He is not a cash machine who gives out to anyone who knows the right combinations. Their hearts were far from Him, their fasts were a cause of pride, and injustice was rampant throughout the land. He would not allow that to stand. This takes us back to Matthew 6. Jesus said that for some, fasting is a badge of honour to be shown to all rather than a generally private activity. It is done for the sake of pride - 'Look how holy I am' - exactly the opposite of what God gave it to us for. Those who are motivated by pride, Jesus says, get the meagre reward of a shallow crowd’s admiration. True fasting has the far greater rewards. It is my prayer, and that of all the others at Prayer & Fasting this week, that as we humble ourselves God will hear our prayers and heal our land.

If you want to do some further reading and listening there are a bunch of resources at; I would particularly recommend this sermon by John Piper. (And if you now want to know what on earth “monergism” means, go here.)