I remember the phone call like it was yesterday. I had just finished cleaning up my then three-year-old and eight-month-old after dinner and we were getting ready to go outside. I heard my phone ring and looked down and saw my mom was calling.
“So, Dad had an ultrasound to check his kidneys before brain surgery. We wanted to call to talk to you because while they were checking his kidneys, they found something else. They found a tumor the size of a lemon in his small bowel. We don’t know whether it's benign or cancerous, but he’s getting a biopsy done soon.”
I remember feeling like someone had pulled a chair out from under me. Just weeks prior to this phone call, he was diagnosed with a benign tumor around his pituitary gland and was preparing for surgery, and now all of a sudden, another unexpected turn. A few weeks later, he was diagnosed with cancer.
Maybe you’ve faced a time in life where one trial follows another. Just as you come to the surface for air, another wave crashes over you. Have you or a loved one received a frightening health diagnosis? Are you facing financial uncertainty? Are you struggling with a really difficult decision? Is there a godly, deep desire that you desperately wish God would fulfill? What are Christians to do in the midst of trials, suffering, uncertainty, and unfulfilled hopes? How do we walk by faith in times of desperate need? God’s Word gives us many ways to walk faithfully during these seasons, but perhaps one spiritual practice that is most often forgotten is fasting.
What is Fasting?
Fasting is abstaining from something for a period of time. We see this spiritual practice throughout both the Old and New Testament for a variety of different reasons and in many different situations, but the foundational purpose of fasting is to draw our hearts back to where they belong–to God. So often when we are worried and afraid, our hearts tend to wander, searching for something that will give us comfort and reassurance or satisfy a deeply held desire. Choosing to fast from something important to us is a tangible expression of committing ourselves to the Lord. We cast ourselves at His feet, not grasping onto the things of this world but with open hands and crying out, “You are what I need. Nothing and no one else will satisfy.” Fasting reminds us of where our hope truly resides and gives us the opportunity to dedicate ourselves to constant prayer and meditation on the word of God.
Fasting in the Old Testament
In the Mosaic Law, God set apart special times of remembrance to remind Israel of His goodness and grace in their lives throughout the course of history. In Leviticus 23:27-32, God gave the command that the Day of Atonement, the most holy time of the year, was to be a day that His people were to “deny [themselves]” of food and work so that they could focus on worshiping the Lord through sacrifice to atone for the sins of the people.
The Old Testament also is full of examples of fasting in the face of difficult circumstances and great need. In Exodus 34 while on Mount Sinai receiving the Law, Moses fasted for forty days and nights, supernaturally sustained by the presence of God. Approximately 630 years after the death of Moses, the people of Nineveh heed the words of the reluctant prophet, Jonah. The king calls the people to repent, fasting and praying that God would show them mercy and relent from their promised destruction. God hears the people of Nineveh, and much to Jonah’s chagrin, displays the unending depths of His great mercy.
In the book of Nehemiah, Nehemiah receives the news of the destruction of Jerusalem and in his grief, he fasts and spends days in prayer. Nehemiah’s prayer recorded in Nehemiah 1:4-11 is a wonderful example of humbly casting ourselves at the feet of our sovereign, covenant-keeping God. Ezra, a contemporary of Nehemiah, leads the people of Israel in a corporate fast as they set out on the dangerous journey from Babylon to Jerusalem. They confess their sin and pray for safety on the nine-hundred-mile journey. Through their longing and their pain, God hears the prayers of His people as they travel homeward to rebuild the temple and walls of their city.
Fasting in the New Testament
A wonderful example of fasting as a means of worship and dedicated prayer is seen through the life of a godly woman and prophetess named Anna. In Luke 2, Joseph and Mary bring Jesus to the temple and are met by two elderly people who rejoice at the presence of baby Jesus. One of these people was Anna, an eighty-four-year-old woman who lived at the temple, “worshiping with fasting and prayer day and night” (Lk. 2:37). Luke tells us that after only seven years of marriage, Anna became a widow. Losing a spouse is a deep pain that I can’t even begin to fathom, and yet in the midst of great sorrow, Anna dedicated herself to the constant worship of the Lord through fasting and prayer. She experienced a great hardship through the death of her husband and chose to fast to remind herself of her need the Lord.
We also see this deep dedication through fasting as the early Church begins. As they seek wisdom from the Lord, Paul, Barnabas, and the other apostles fast and dedicate themselves as they prepare to depart on missionary journeys and appoint elders in the church. God grants them guidance as they seek to build His church and make His name known among the nations.
Should I Fast?
Whenever we encounter a spiritual discipline promoted by a teacher or preacher, it’s crucial that we go back to Scripture to learn what God says about this discipline. In the case of fasting, Jesus is, of course, the ultimate example. Shortly after His baptism by John the Baptist in Matthew 3, Jesus retreats into the wilderness and there fasts for forty days and nights. This was an intense time of prayer, preparation, and meditation on the Word of God because right after His fast, He is tempted by Satan. During these series of temptations, Jesus doesn’t waver but instead is able to quote passage after passage in response to Satan’s arguments. This is the example He sets for us. Though fasting is rarely talked about, Jesus displays that it is a crucial part of our Christian walk. We fast to worship and commune with the Father and prepare to do battle with the temptations of our flesh and the devil.
So, how? How do we fast? We are no longer bound to the Old Testament law laid out in Leviticus, but how do we step out in faith and fast under the new covenant of Christ? Along with the perfect example of Christ, we are also given the antithesis of what godly fasting looks like. In Matthew 6, Jesus instructs that if our fasting is truly to be an offering to God and a genuine dedication to prayer and our need for the Lord, then we will not fast as the Pharisees fasted. In order to tout their holiness for all to see, the Pharisees made sure that they looked “gloomy” and “[disfigured] their faces that their fasting may be seen by others” (Matt. 6:16). The attention and admiration that they received for their “greatness” was the temporal earthly reward that they received. There was no eternal or spiritual value to their fasting– instead it led them further down the path to destruction, reassuring themselves that God would save them from His wrath based on the merit of their good works.
When we seek to fast in a way that honors the Lord and points to His greatness, no one should know that we are fasting. The only one who should know is the One who knows the deepest part of our hearts– our good and gracious Father. Not a single iota of self-righteousness should be present in our hearts because fasting is a practice that is rooted in humility. We do not fast to display our great spirituality, but to show that in every second of every day with every breath that we take, we are dependent upon God for all things. When we feel pangs of hunger or longing for the thing we are fasting from, we pray. We pray, committing our lives to Him. We pray in faith, believing that He hears and knows us. We pray, knowing He is not distant, but has drawn us near and can do all things.
We also should not use fasting as a “good luck charm” or as a means to try to sway God into giving us what we want. In 2 Samuel 12, Nathan confronts King David for his sexual sin with Bathsheba and the diabolical murder of her husband Uriah, who was also one of David’s mighty men. Nathan informs David that the child born of this grievous sin will not live. For seven days, David casts himself before the Lord, fasting and praying for the life of his child. But God says no, and David and Bathsheba’s child dies. Though fasting is a godly way to seek out the Lord and petition Him to answer a certain prayer of our hearts, we must remember what He says about Himself: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is. 55:8-9). God knows the desires of our hearts and the pain that we feel. He is compassionate and kind. But we must remember that He is God, and we are not. He knows all things and does what is for our good, and sometimes what is for our good is not what we want. When we fast, we fast with open hands, surrendering the desires of our hearts to Him acknowledging that He is far better than anything we could ever conceive for ourselves.
No matter where you are in life, fasting is a wonderful spiritual discipline that can benefit you. If you are in the midst of a difficult trial, consider fasting to remind yourself that even in the midst of hardship, Jesus is enough for you. If you have a deep longing that has gone unfulfilled, petition the Lord with your request, fasting as a means of worship to dedicate your heart to the one who fulfills. If you’re walking through a spiritually dry time in your life and feel abandoned and alone, choose to fast from something in order to set aside more time to pray and worship to stir up your affections for Christ. For a time, forego the temporal things of this world and cling to what is eternal– cling to Christ.