At the church where I’m a member and where I work, we’re in the midst of a 21-day fast. We’ve done this at the beginning of the year for the last several years. We take part in this fast to seek the Lord’s direction for us in the new year.
Fasting is probably one of the most misunderstood spiritual disciplines, especially in our modern world. But it’s as powerful and viable now as it was in the Bible. There are plenty of ways you can fast. Obviously, there’s a full-blown fast, where a believer consumes nothing but water over a certain period of time. Fasts like the Daniel Fast involve removing certain foods from your diet for a number of days or weeks. Some people just do without meat or caffeine or sugar, while others may fast from television or social media. Your fast is between you and the Lord.
Before we go any further, let me say that if you have health issues, you should consult with your doctor before undertaking any sort of drastic fast. There are plenty of good reasons to fast, just as there are plenty of reasons not to fast. Here are five of each.
1. Fast as an extension of your prayer life.
Fasting is a wonderful way to complement your prayer life and to draw nearer to God as you seek answers from Him. In fact, I’d guess that most people who fast do so as part of a season of fervent prayer.
We see fasting in conjunction with prayer throughout the Bible. Ezra and the Israelites heading back to Judea from exile fasted and prayed for a safe journey (Ezra 8:23). The church at Antioch prayed and fasted for Saul (Paul) and Barnabas’ safety on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:3). Those are just a couple of examples we see in scripture.
Prayer and fasting together don’t serve to bend God’s answers toward your desires; rather, they’re meant to draw you closer to God so that you can understand and accept His will.
2. Fast as a gesture of repentance.
For someone who has wandered away from God and returned, fasting can be an act of obedience signalling a desire to change. The prophet Joel sent a message from the Lord to the people of Israel commanding them to return to Him by fasting (Joel 2:12).
In a way, fasting itself is impossible without an attitude of repentance, because a believer who seeks to grow closer to the Lord by fasting should accompany that discipline with the desire to turn from sin.
3. Fast as an act of worship.
Ok, so it sounds strange to think of fasting as an act of worship, but it makes sense once you think about it. Fasting is a way of telling God that you’re not a slave to whatever it is you’re fasting and that you’re devoted to Him. Also, many believers who fast completely from food spend their mealtimes in prayer and worship.
Churchwide fasts and fasts by other large groups of people are often intended as an act of worship. Fasting can unite groups in their worship of the one true God.
4. Fast as an expression of humility.
If you think about it, fasting takes a certain amount of humility. It’s humbling to declare that you’re going to do without something for God’s purposes. The time spent in prayer and listening to God during a fast requires humility as well.
In 1 Kings 21, wicked King Ahab fasted when he heard a message from the Lord, and God delayed the judgment He pronounced upon Ahab and his family as a result. Humility before God is powerful, and fasting is a good way to demonstrate that humility.
5. Fast to ask for God’s assistance in decision making.
This reason for fasting may sound an awful lot like the first reason, but it’s a little different. We can fast to seek wisdom and guidance from God in making specific decisions. The act of fasting for this reason serves to center us on hearing discernment from God. In Acts, Paul and Barnabas fasted to determine whom God wanted to serve as leaders in certain churches (14:23).
One incident in the book of Judges makes a solid case for fasting as a part of making major decisions. Eleven of the 12 tribes of Israel went up against the other tribe to avenge a grizzly rape and murder. In the ensuing battle, 22,000 men lost their lives, and the 11 tribes did not see success until they fasted and prayed for God’s outcome to the battle (Judges 20:28).
The examples—and many more from the Bible—serve to show us how important fasting can be in decision making.
The reasons not to fast are pretty compelling too, and they’re traps that so many of us have to be careful to avoid.
1. Don’t fast merely to lose weight.
Sorry, but a fast isn’t a diet. Yes, I’m looking forward to the byproduct of dropping a few pounds during these three weeks, but that’s not the point of a fast. The focus of a fast is the spiritual and not the physical.
Fasting isn’t about self-denial but about self-discipline and reliance on God. You can shortchange what God wants to do in your life if you treat a serious spiritual discipline like Weight Watchers.
If you’re jumping into a fasting regimen just looking to shed some weight, you might as well attempt a crash diet. And you certainly won’t grow closer to the Lord.
2. Don’t fast simply because you think you have to.
As crazy as it sounds, some people fast out of obligation. These people see disciplines like fasting as something to do because they have to, not because they love God and desire a deeper relationship with Him. Sometimes we have to “fake it until we make it,” but our spiritual discipline is meant to stem from our sincere devotion to God.
If you fast, you have to do so out of the desire to grow closer to the Lord. Your heart must be in it, or you’re just spinning your wheels. Spiritual discipline is a must when it comes to becoming a disciple, but God never wants us to feel compelled to engage in spiritual discipline. Rather, he wants us to take part in fasts and other disciplines out of the overflow of our love for Him.
3. Don’t fast to bargain with God.
Now, we know that fasting can accompany prayer, especially when you’re looking for a specific outcome. But we have to keep in mind not to use any spiritual discipline, including fasting, as a bargaining chip with God.
To tell God, “I’ll fast if You’ll do this for me” reeks of both immaturity and desperation, and it’s a surefire way to become frustrated and disillusioned with your fast.
4. Don’t fast just because others are doing so.
When it comes to fasting—or any other spiritual discipline for that matter—you’ll do yourself some good to remember your mom’s advice: “Just because someone else is doing it doesn’t mean you have to.”
Undertaking a fast has to come from your heart and your discipleship journey, and others can’t determine your readiness to fast, no matter how mature and/or well meaning they are. If you’re not ready, you’re not ready, and nobody else can make that decision but you and the Holy Spirit living inside you. Be honest about your readiness to fast, and don’t cave in to pressure if you’re not ready.
5. Don’t fast to draw attention to yourself.
From Mahatma Gandhi to today’s college student protesters, generations of activists have used hunger strikes to garner attention for their cause. Let’s face it: fasting for the attention turns a beautiful act of devotion to God into just another hunger strike.
Too many people play the whole game of, “Look at me! I’m miserable, but look how close to God I am because I’m fasting.” And that’s a shame, because Jesus told His followers to approach fasting with the completely opposite attitude:
And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.
Matthew 6:16-18 (NLT)
To put it bluntly: if you fasting merely to make yourself look more spiritual, you’re sinning—and you’re making yourself look ridiculous.
If you’re fasting to kick off your year—for any other reason—I salute you and pray with you.