When Jesus was asked a question on the subject of fasting as recorded in Matthew 9, he answered in a way that God’s people should well understand. He used a wedding metaphor.
Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.'” (Matt. 9:14-15)
The basic lesson of this metaphor is that fasting is like waiting for a wedding. Better yet, fasting is like the bride longing for the wedding and bringing it more quickly by that longing. It is asking the lover of your soul to come and make a holy visitation.
With this metaphor, Jesus explained that his disciples were not fasting at the time because he was with them. But when he would leave to go to heaven where he is now, note what he says will happen. Look at the last three words of verse 15: “they will fast.” Jesus expects Christians to fast.
Our Lord made that clear earlier in the gospel of Matthew. In the Sermon on the Mount, he gave instructions on a number of spiritual disciplines, saying “when you pray” or “when you give” in the assumption Christians will do these things. Then he said in Matthew 6:16-18,
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 his book Spiritual Disciplines, Donald Whitney writes,
Until the ascended Bridegroom returns for His bride, fasting is a spiritual discipline His disciples will occasionally practice. This was the understanding of Christians in the book of Acts…and church history reports that since the days of the New Testament, the followers of Jesus have likewise engaged in fasting.”
The Lord wants you to experience communion with him in a way only prayer and fasting can bring. Fasting is not presented by him as something to bind you up in legalism, like the Pharisees practiced it. Rather, Jesus encouraged what John Piper captures simply with the title of his book on this subject – Hunger for God. In another of his writings, Piper quotes Jonathan Edwards who wrote,
Our hungerings and thirstings after God and Jesus Christ and after holiness can’t be too great for the value of these things, for they are things of infinite value… [Therefore] endeavor to promote spiritual appetites by laying yourself in the way of allurement… There is no such thing as excess in our taking of this spiritual food. There is no such virtue as temperance in spiritual feasting.” (John Piper, What Jesus Demands from the World, p. 90)
Jesus’s teachings on fasting can be summarized this way. Fasting is either a religious rite you feel compelled to do to be seen by men to feed your pride, or a spiritual discipline you desire to do to be seen by God who will feed your soul. The former expression represents salvation by works; the latter salvation by grace. The first is self-centered; the other is Christ-centered.
How would one go about fasting and prayer if it is an unfamiliar practice? Here are five guidelines.
First, get hungry! Though fasting is a Christian discipline that has been practiced throughout the history of the church, and is still prevalent in other parts of God’s kingdom in the world, in the West we are not accustomed to practicing it. Our comforts have lulled us to sleep in our spirituality. We do not hunger for God like we should and seek greater experiences of him. So our heart is not drawn to it.
But, listen to this. If you fast and pray for him, Jesus will come to you. As God has said, “You will seek me and find me when you search for me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13). Jesus told his church, “Behold, I stand and the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come into in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20). That’s a promise! Fasting puts the heart and hunger needed in our praying.
Make a plan! Fasting will not happen without planning. If you are going to meet with someone, you must put it on your calendar. Or, to continue with Jesus’ metaphor, think of all the planning involved in a wedding. So if you want to meet with your bridegroom, set aside a day, the amount of time that day, and the location (make sure it is a quiet place) where you will fast and pray. Be sure not to schedule other activities that will interfere. This time should involve missing at least one meal. As far as possible, do not call attention to your fasting. Fasting in secret requires planning.
Change your diet! A.W. Tozer said that the church “appears to have decided that if she cannot conquer the great god Entertainment — she may as well join forces with him and make what use she can of his powers…Religious entertainment is in many places rapidly crowding out the serious things of God.” Part of the reason we need to fast in our modern age is to remove our hyper-connectivity to technology and the entertainment mindset it encourages. So do not use technical devices while fasting. Decide what you will read during the time – the psalms and devotional literature are good sources. Plan out what will you pray for and seek from God during this time. You are to be hungry for him! Will it be personal growth in an area of sanctification, victory over besetting sin, guidance and strength regarding a difficulty you are facing, wisdom in making a major decision, ministry plans for you or your congregation, or simply yet wonderfully just a deeper experience of God? Know what will be on the menu as you fast.
Build up to it! Because many of us are weak in the discipline of fasting, we need to be built up in this practice. Fasting is not one of those things you can just throw at yourself in one step. If you are wanting to build up a scrawny kid’s muscles, you don’t take him to the gym, put him under a 300-pound barbell, and tell him to start lifting. No, you start small and build up with repetition. In the same way, if you have not fasted before, consider missing at least one meal and set several hours aside for it rather than trying to do a multi-day fast. You cannot run if you cannot even crawl.
Finally, expect God’s visitation! As stated above, if you fast as Jesus instructs, your Father will see and reward you with the great gift of his fuller presence through the Holy Spirit who dwells in you. The experience of others can encourage us in this regard.
David Brainerd was a missionary to the Native Americans in New Jersey during the first half of the eighteenth century. His short life (he lived to be only 29) has inspired many other missionaries, for he persevered despite great illness and discouragement. He was a man who sought after God. He wrote the following in his journal.
Monday, April 19, 1742. I set apart this day for fasting, and prayer to God for his grace… In the forenoon, I felt the power of intercession for precious, immortal souls; for the advancement of the kingdom of my dear Lord and Saviour in the word; and withal, a most sweet resignation, and even consolation and joy in the thoughts of suffering hardships, distresses, and even death itself…I enjoyed great sweetness in communion with my dear Saviour. I think I never in my life felt such an entire weanedness from this world, and so much resigned to God in every thing. O that I may always live to and upon my blessed God! Amen, Amen.
You see, as Brainerd makes clear, the expectation of fasting goes both ways. Jesus expects you to do it. And you can expect him to to visit with you when you do.