Jesus Christ expected that his people would fast (cf. Matthew 6:16-18), but many of us—myself included—find it hard to live up to expectations. One reason for this, I would suspect, is that we are never quite sure what fasting accomplishes. Is it simply to free up time to pray? Well, for those of us who eat quickly, little would seem to be gained then—and I could give up other much more time-consuming pursuits instead.
So what is the reason then? Why fast? This is neither an exhaustive nor a theological list, but here are eight reasons I like to fast (in no particular order). Do with them what you will.
- When I fast, I remember the millions suffering chronic hunger the world over. I can deny it to my heart’s content, but the unstoppable truth is that I live a comfortable life; I have never wondered where my next meal will come from, nor have I ever experienced the crushing grief of wondering where my children’s next meal will come from. When my stomach aches with hunger, I remember what I am all too prone to forget.
- When I fast, I recognize how complacent I have become spiritually. Others may have more impressive stamina, but it takes me about four hours before the hunger gnaws at my gut. At that point, I can become deliriously hungry. I lust after food. And then it hits me like a Mack truck: my body cries out for food after just a few moments, but I can starve my soul for weeks without noticing. What if my spirit cried out for God—to meet him in prayer and in his Word—as quickly as my body cries out for sustenance?
- When I fast, it increases my pleasure eating when I finally break the fast. As the proverb says, “to the hungry even what is bitter tastes sweet” (Proverbs 27:7). During a few extended fasts, I would have a cup of vegetable broth at night to keep me functioning during the days—and I have never tasted food so good. My mouth still salivates at the thought of it. I am never more thankful for the food I consume than after fasting.
- When I fast, I practice denying myself. And let’s face it, we all need a lot more work in this area. More often than not, it seems, I am mastered by my desires, rather than disciplining myself to be self-controlled, obedient, self-sacrificial. To deny myself one of my most basic urges trains me to deny myself in all other areas too.
- When I fast, it reminds me to be in unceasing prayer. I have not learned Brother Lawrence’s lessons in “Practicing the Presence.” I set aside regular time for prayer, but I can tune out the divine conversation with astonishing alacrity. But the gnawing hunger beckons me to renew the intimacy, to listen to and experience his grace. Unsurprisingly, this produces in me a greater urgency in prayer: I no longer simply pray. I plead. With faith and fervency.
- When I fast, I demonstrate to my children that I belong to Jesus. I realize I am supposed to fast in secret (although that’s not quite what Jesus says, but we’ll pass by that for now). Nevertheless, when I sit down to dinner with my family each night, my children are perceptive enough to notice that Daddy isn’t eating anything. Not much I can do about that. But I welcome the opportunity not to puff myself up with the grandeur of my self-denial (read: self-righteousness), but to point them to the God I serve, and for whom I would gladly give up my all.
- When I fast, it humbles me. There is something about being hungry that just makes me feel small. And that’s a good thing. Fasting helps me express my humility before God, to express my grief at my sin and mourning at the brokenness in the world. In the face of great suffering, most people will lose their appetites; fasting reminds me that the suffering is always there, even when I forget to see it.
- When I fast, I become much more sensitive to his voice. It comes as no surprise to me that Scripture records several instances of people fasting to seek God’s will (cf. Judges 20:26-28). Food seems to dull my spiritual senses, whereas hunger produces spiritual acuity. And when I find myself more sensitive to his presence, I inexorably become more sensitive to those around me; I experience grace more fully, so I am able to give grace more freely.
I mention these to encourage others to continue in the good discipline of fasting. May God do with this as he wishes.
“So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer” (Ezra 8:23).