How do we emphasize that something is important? When writing a sentence, we may add an exclamation point or bold our text. In speech, we tend to elevate our voice or fluctuate tone as appropriate. In prayer…we…don’t eat food?!
Fasting is a bit of an oddity, isn’t it? Sure it is commanded, expected, and demonstrated in Scripture (Matt 9:15, Joel 2:12, and Acts 13:2-3, among many others), but why exactly are we to engage in this practice? After all, we can’t somehow coerce God by abstaining from food. And we don’t need something additional than praying in Christ and by faith (John 14:14). So what is the point of not eating while seeking the Lord in prayer? And is this a discipline we ought to be cultivating?
To begin to answer some of these crucial questions, we consider the following four points:
- First, we fast because it is commanded. More than the above passages, when Jesus speaks about fasting in the Sermon on the Mount, he indicates that fasting is expected. Jesus’s phrasing is interesting. He says, “When you fast…” (Matt 6:16). This statement is more than simply offering a teaching to those who may find themselves fasting from time to time. Jesus is anticipating his hearers will fast, and when they do, they are to conduct themselves in a particular way—not like the hypocrites who fast to gain attention. In the Matthew 9:15 passage cited above, Jesus once again anticipates fasting to be a normal and expected part of the post-resurrection, post-ascension Church. He states that the Bridegroom will be taken away one day, and “then they will fast.” It certainly seems, then, that if fasting is not an occasional part of our spiritual discipline, our Christian walk would appear to be out of step with Christ’s expectation.
- Second, we fast because it is a means the Lord has appointed for us to earnestly seek Him. In the Joel 2 passage mentioned above, God’s people are encouraged to repent in a particular way: with all their heart. This wholehearted zealous pursuit of the Lord is demonstrated, at least in part, by their willingness to abstain from eating food. In so doing, God’s people show there is something more important than food—the Lord hearing and answering prayer. I don’t know about you, but I need food pretty severely. In fact, I need food so much that if I don’t have it, after a while, I die. The child of God abstaining from food to seek the Lord in prayer is a way to demonstrate just how important it is for the Lord to hear us. Consider it the exclamation point on your prayers! After all, by fasting, you’re saying, “I need you more than bread!”
- Third, the Bible presents fasting, and the concept of fasting, as a way to deny ourselves and our fleshly desires. This self-denial, far from being a mystical manipulation of God, is instead a God-given way he condescends to us, thereby fostering greater fellowship. The Apostle Paul In 1 Corinthians 7:5, while not talking about withholding food in that context, speaks of the category of fasting as a way of denying our flesh, for a limited time, and to pursue our spiritual communion with God. I think it’s safe to assume we could do with a little more denying our common fleshly cravings and longing after heavenly things a bit more often.
- Finally and most importantly (though more could undoubtedly be said about why we fast), fasting is a way we identify with Christ. In his humiliation, Christ fasted on multiple occasions (e.g., Matt 4, Matt 17:21 by implication, and as a faithful Jew, he would have fasted on the Day of Atonement, cf. Leviticus 23:27). He fasted most prominently, though, as he made atonement for our sins. After the Last Supper (and it’s called “last” for a reason), Jesus did not eat food again until his resurrection. He refused even the bitter drink offered to him on the cross as demonstration that he’d keep his word (Matt 27:34). And Psalm 109:24 gives a first-person perspective of Christ’s suffering combined with his fasting. As we fast in sorrow and mourning, crying out to the Lord in our affliction, we express our union with Christ in his time of humiliation on this earth.
But perhaps more incredible still, when we fast, we demonstrate our union with the exalted Christ. Recently my pastor has been preaching through the Gospel of Luke, and he helped us see that the resurrected and reigning Christ fasts, even now, in eager expectation that the Father would answer his prayer. In Luke 22:16, Mark 14:25, and Matt 26:29, Jesus tells his disciples that he will fast from the cup until the wedding feast of the Lamb. Amazingly, our Savior’s prayer that we would be with him where he is and behold his glory (John 17:24) is earnestly being awaited by our victorious and fasting Lord! Isn’t that incredible? That Jesus is fasting for you and me! And when we join with him in our earthly fasting, we express union with him. Fasting holds forth the fact that we are united to Jesus in his humiliation and exaltation, even as we eagerly await the Father’s answer to our prayers. But more importantly, when we fast with Jesus, we are awaiting our fasting Brother’s prayers on our behalf.
So friends, let us fast with our Savior!