Fasting is the kale of the spiritual disciplines. We know it’s good for us, but we don’t seek it out on the menu.
A few years ago, I tried the Nike approach to fasting: just do it. I fasted one day a week (nothing but water) for three months. I’m not telling you this to brag; it’s more of a confession. My aim was to focus on God’s character, to draw near to him through prayer in a dedicated time of sacrifice. But after three months, I didn’t feel it’d accomplished anything. I wasn’t glowing like Moses coming down the mountain; I was the worst version of myself, and everyone knew it.
I read one book that said to use hunger pains as a reminder to talk to God. So every time my stomach growled, I prayed that God would make me less miserable. I didn’t receive unique, supernatural clarity on the direction of my life, which numbers to play in the lottery, or anything else. If I kept muscling through and built it into a rhythm of discipline, I figured, then it would take root and bear fruit. It didn’t.
Outside of knowing I should fast, I realized I couldn’t articulate the concept in a tangible way. So, I decided that I needed to start from the drawing board and write a definition. And I determined I first needed to answer when to fast and why to fast.
When to Fast?
As I looked at instances of fasting in the Bible, I saw that Aaron fasts when his son dies. David and his men fast in mourning after hearing of Saul’s death. Daniel refrains from eating meat or drinking wine in his lamentation.
Sometimes an individual or entire community beseeches God, through fasting, for forgiveness, healing, deliverance, or intervention. Israel and Nineveh weep in repentance and fast when God exposes their sin and threatens to judge them. They ask God to have pity, offer guidance, bring comfort, intervene, or even relent from the promised punishment. In fasting, we deny the comfort often legitimately found in the good things God gives us (e.g., food or drink), and run instead to God himself for consolation.
One reason I struggled with fasting was my timing was random, impromptu, and aimless.
In every instance, fasting was a response to an extenuating circumstance. It wasn’t spontaneous. It wasn’t a spiritual discipline in the traditional sense like Bible intake or prayer. You don’t wake up on Friday and think, I should probably fast today. One reason I struggled with fasting was my random, impromptu, and aimless timing.
Biblically, it seems that fasting is situationally birthed. Circumstances prompt it. Fasting mourns the situation our sin (individually or collectively) has created. It seeks to restore intimacy with God through repentance. It is a desperate cry for patience and help, guidance and healing. Fasting intensifies the clarity of your plea. It acknowledges our weakness and reliance on God’s strength as we wait for him to intervene.
Humans are unique in that we are psychosomatic creatures comprising a material component (body) and an immaterial one (soul/spirit). Your body isn’t merely the megaphone or vehicle for your soul. Your soul/mind/spirit and your body are integrally connected: what happens to your soul affects your body, and vice versa.
When we experience profound grief, shame, or encounter something disconcerting, we often say, “I just lost my appetite.” No one pines for braised beef short rib at the funeral of a 5-year-old. Suffering, grief, apprehensiveness, anxiety, depression, desperation, guilt, shame, and tragedy all put us in a place where we’re uniquely sensitive to our need for God. In those moments, we crave his comfort, mercy, presence, and intervention over all else. Our souls communicate this longing to our bodies. This is when we should fast.
Why to Fast?
Fasting is not about creating personal suffering and loss in order to teach ourselves we need God. Fasting is harnessing the pain that’ll inevitably come as we try to obey God in a fallen world, and leveraging the opportunity to hide in Christ, run to him for strength, and throw ourselves at the foot of his throne.
Fasting is not about creating personal suffering and loss in order to teach ourselves we need God.
So we fast because of our sin and the toll it takes on others. We fast because as long as we’re breathing, our sanctification is not yet complete. We fast because natural disasters ravage the world. We fast because people die of starvation and thirst, lacking the necessities of life. We fast when cancer tears through our bodies or those of our loved ones. We fast because the entire cosmos is groaning for redemption. We fast because Christ has not yet completed the work he began in a manger.
So What Is Fasting?
I think we’re ready to compose a definition:
Fasting is a situationally birthed, psychosomatically sensed, prompt from the soul to seek direction, correction, or comfort from God through prayer-soaked abstention, as we await the return of our King.
Fasting is not reserved for the spiritual elite; it’s for you and me. May we practice it and more deeply experience the God who loves us.
Like all of God’s commands, fasting is for our good and our joy.
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