FASTING: A spiritual discipline revealing a heart of dependence and obedience to Jesus
What is fasting?
1The Hebrew word for fasting is tsum, which means to abstain from food, while the Greek word for fasting is nesteuo, which means to abstain from food or drink. In both the Old and New Testaments, fasting was a deliberate, outward act which demonstrated utter dependence on God.
2The circumstances that motivated God’s people to fast varied:
God required his people to fast annually on the ‘Day of Atonement’, when offerings were made by the high priest for the sins that he and the people had committed in ignorance (Leviticus 16 v 29). This was the only time God expected his people to fast. We are no longer bound by the Law, because Christ fulfilled it. But we do see through this requirement, that God valued fasting, and we see later in the New Testament that he still does today.
- When King Saul was killed and buried, his men all fasted for 7 days (1 Samuel 31:13).
- When David and Bathsheba’s first born son was dying, he fasted and pleaded with God for his life (2 Samuel 12:16).
- In the book of Jonah, the King of Nineveh and his people (who were not the people of God) believed and feared God’s promise to bring judgement upon them for their wicked ways. Taking God at his word, they sought his attention by fasting, in the hope that it would evoke his compassion, and it did! ‘When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened’ (Jonah 3:10).
- When repenting from their wicked ways, God’s people would not just weep and mourn over their sin, they would also fast (Joel 2:12). It’s interesting that, ultimately, God relented because the Ninevites repented, not simply because they fasted. Fasting, in and of itself, does not impress God; it must be accompanied by repentance.
4. Seeking the favour, blessing or will of God:
- Moses fasted for forty days in preparation for receiving the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28).
- Daniel fasted before God gave him a vision (Daniel 10:2-6).
- Elijah fasted before he spoke with God (1 Kings 19:8).
- Jesus fasted for forty days before his public ministry began (Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13).
- The Apostles fasted and prayed, and in the middle of this posture of worship the Holy Spirit spoke to them, and gave them direction (Acts 13:2).
Why should we fast today?
Jesus assumed we would fast. When the disciples were with Jesus, they didn’t need to seek him for more of his presence or power, or to discover his will, because they had full access to him. But when he left, he knew that they would return to seeking him in this way and that we would too (Mark 2:19-20).
It’s so easy to get on with life, and forget that we are utterly dependent on God. Acts 17:25 reminds us that God ‘… himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.’
Fasting is a spiritual discipline, which reminds us, that everything we desire or need comes from God alone, and that we cannot even breathe without him willing us to do so. We need to hear his voice. We need his presence. We need his power. We need his favour on us as a church. We need him to bring more people to salvation. We need his help to be faithful stewards of his grace. We need him! And the pangs of hunger remind us of our need.
What does fasting achieve?
Fasting allows us to humble ourselves, and to be in a posture of dependence upon God, ready to hear his voice and to respond in obedience. Throughout Scripture, God responds to people who earnestly seek him through prayer and fasting, when they come to him with humble hearts and sincere motives.
3 In Isaiah’s time, when the Israelites finally came to the Lord with sincere hearts, God promised them his power in some incredible ways; in powerful testimonies, in healing, in his defence and his presence, in answered prayers, in discouragement and depression being turned to courage, faith and joy, and of his guidance and satisfaction, regardless of their circumstances (Isaiah 58: 8-12). We don’t know how God will respond to our prayers, but we wait in eager anticipation.
However, the Bible also makes it clear that we are not to go about fasting hypocritically, trying to appear ‘spiritual’ before other people. Fasting is to be done in secret where only God can see us (Matthew 6:16-18). So we need to examine our hearts, and where appropriate, repent and turn to the Lord, so that we can seek him with pure motives and righteous hearts. He will not hear our cries if we are living in unrepentant sin and yet seeking out his blessing (Isaiah 58:2-4).
1 ARTHUR, K & DE LACY, P. (2008) Key Principles of Biblical Fasting. Colorado, Waterbrook Press.
2 CHRISTIAN BIBLE REFERENCING SITE (n.d.) What does the Bible say about fasting? Available from: http://www.twopaths.com/faq_fasting.htm [Accessed: 3 July 2012].
3 ONE PLACE.COM (n.d.) Unlocking the Power of Fasting. Available from: http://www.oneplace.com/ministries/precept/read/articles/unlocking-the-p… [Accessed: 3 July 2012].
Biblegateway.com (n.d.) Holy Bible, New International Version. 2011. Available from: www.biblegateway.com [Accessed: 3 July 2012].