I have a confession to make: I love to eat! Because of that, fasting, the voluntary abstinence from food, is a discipline I used to avoid. Iíve found Iím not alone in my aversion to fasting. In fact, it is perhaps the most neglected of all the disciplines.
Some believers neglect fasting because they consider it to be optional. I know Iíve been guilty of this. Iíve often gone for months without giving any thought to fasting. But when we read the words of Jesus in Matt. 6:16, itís obvious He expects fasting to be a normal part of our lives. He says, when, not if you fast. Other believers avoid fasting because they donít understand its purpose. Most of us neglect fasting because it is just plain hard.
Fasting is nothing new. In fact, it was practiced in both the Old and New Testaments. Even Jesus spent extended time in fasting and prayer.
Some people fear that fasting will make them ďodd for God.Ē Personally I donít mind being odd for God, but thatís not the purpose of fasting! Although there are many reasons to fast, Iím going to look at only four: humility, repentance, guidance, and strength.
Throughout the scriptures, God requires His people to humble themselves (Mt. 18:4, Mt. 23:12, James 4:10, and 1 Peter 5:6). Fasting is one way to do so (Ps. 35:13). Fasting demonstrates humility in the same way that kneeling or being ďon our faceĒ before God does.
When we fast, we surrender one of our most basic needs: food. We make a conscious decision to yield to God and His desires rather than to our own needs and desires. Yielding to anyone, including God, requires humility.
Humility is also necessary to recognize and admit that we canít make it on our own. Facing a seemingly impossible situation, Jehoshaphat recognized his lack of power and wisdom and in humility fasted and prayed. God honored his humility and caused him to be victorious (2 Chron. 20).
Fasting can be in response to our grief over sin and can demonstrate a desire to repent and make things right with God. In 1 Samuel 7:6, the Israelites confessed their sins, then showed their repentance through fasting. Fasting goes hand in hand with weeping, mourning and repentance, and was given as a command to Godís people in Joel 2:12.
We all have times when we simply donít know what to do. In the most serious of those times, Iíve found fasting to be a great help to me. In Judges 20, eleven of the tribes of Israel readied themselves for a battle against the tribe of Benjamin. They sought the Lord before going into battle, and should have had no problem defeating themóthey outnumbered the Benjamites fifteen to one. Nevertheless, they failed. The next day they prepared for battle not only with prayer, but also with weeping before the Lord. In spite of that, they once again lost the battle. Finally, they decided to seek Godís guidance not only through prayer and tears, but through fasting as well. God then spoke to them clearly, showed them His will and consequently gave them victory.
Only through the power of the Holy Spirit can we live the life God calls us to. And in order for His power to be working through us, our carnal nature, which is dominated by our thoughts, feelings and desires, must be subjected to Him. In 1 Cor. 9:27, Paul talks about beating his body and making it his slave. He realized that if he was going to finish the race set before him, his flesh had to be in subjection. As long as we are ruled by our desires and appetites, we will be hindered as we run the race. Regular fasting is perhaps on of the best ways to bring our flesh under subjection because when we fast, we make a conscious decision to deny our flesh. Becoming more disciplined in this area can overflow to other areas of our lives, leading to greater victory over sin.
As you begin to incorporate the discipline of fasting into your life, keep the following thoughts in mind.
1. Start Slow. If fasting is something new to you, try a partial fast (consisting of fruit, vegetables and water). Or start off by skipping only one meal. As is true with all disciplines, you can gradually increase the frequency and length of your fasts.
2. Do it your way. There is no one right way to fast. Just because you pastor or best friend fasts every Monday doesnít mean you have to. God may call you to fast more or less often. Most people consume only water when they fast, but I end up with terrible migraine headaches unless I drink juice while fasting. Iíve learned not to feel guilty about that. Although we can learn from the example of others, we donít need to be a slave to them.
3. Donít attempt to manipulate God. Fasting is not a way to twist Godís arm to make Him do what we want Him to. When we fast, God doesnít change, but we do. As our hearts begin to change, He is able to move and accomplish what He wants to in our lives.
4. Incorporate prayer. Fasting and prayer go hand in hand. Many people find it helpful to devote the time they normally spend eating to praying during their fast.
5. Guard against pride. Fasting is not a way to impress others with our spirituality. Mt. 6:16 says, ďWhen you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.Ē What a lousy reward! In most cases, only the members of your immediate family need to know you are fasting.
Fasting may not be popular, but it is effective. My prayer is that you will experience greater victory as you begin to incorporate the discipline of fasting into your life.