On the Subject of Why We Fast
A Christian friend once asked me why a Christian should fast. I confess that I didn’t have a great answer. All I know is that the Bible talks about it and my grandmother and most Godly college professors all spoke of how important fasting was to them. For me, that was enough. Years ago when I saw the old James Dobson “Focus on the Family” videos and he encourages parents to fast once a week for the salvation of their children, that resonated with me. But, that still didn’t answer the question of why someone should fast.
This past week, my son and I were talking theology. He said a few things off the cuff that got me to thinking. In the synergy of that discussion, we came up with an answer that comes the closest to anything I’ve thought of before.
Before getting to the topic of why we fast, it is of profound importance that the Bible spends more time discussion why we should not fast, rather than on the topic of why we fast. Jesus makes it clear that public displays and bragging about one’s fasting and superior spirituality will result in negative outcomes:
“Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you (Matthew 6:16-18).
I interpret this passage to mean that there is something in all of us that wants other people to look at us and to find something praiseworthy in us. We like to show off. It’s not just clothing or cars or fancy stuff. We like to show off our spiritual moxy. Jesus says that fasting is something that is to be done privately, or it will become a worthless exercise. So, let’s assume we’re fasting for the right reason.
So, why should we fast? There are a number of scriptures that link literal food and water to something spiritual:
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry. And the tempter came and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:1-4).
“For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? (Matthew 6:25).
And the disciples came to the other side of the sea, but they had forgotten to bring any bread. And Jesus said to them, “Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” They began to discuss this among themselves, saying, “He said that because we did not bring any bread.” But Jesus, aware of this, said, “You men of little faith, why do you discuss among yourselves that you have no bread? Do you not yet understand or remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets full you picked up? Or the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many large baskets full you picked up? How is it that you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread? But beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that He did not say to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 16:5-12).
Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” She said to Him, “Sir, You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep; where then do You get that living water? (John 4:10-11)
Meanwhile the disciples were urging Him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.” But He said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples were saying to one another, “No one brought Him anything to eat, did he?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work. (John 4:31-34)
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst. (John 6:35)
I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.” (John 6:48-51).
So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.” (John 6:53-58)
Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’” But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:37-39).
These passages aren’t really about fasting. For me, these verses show a clear link between refraining from food and the nourishment of our souls. Jesus fasts in the wilderness and when tempted with literal food, he responds that God’s Word is food to Him. Jesus says that His teaching is food to us and the teaching of the Sadducees and Pharisees is poison to our souls. The disciples urged Jesus to eat, but he responds that doing His Father’s work nourishes Him (Have you ever gotten busy in a fulfilling project that you forgot to eat and didn’t even notice you were hungry? Imagine if all Christians were so busy doing God they forgot mealtimes. I know a Christian doctor in a developing world country who regularly misses meals because he is healing others). In the last passage, Jesus links the Holy Spirit Who lives in the Christian as being living water.
For me, these passages teach that when we fast, we are nourished and grow spiritually. A child needs food to grow. If their bodies do not receive nourishment, their bodies will become deformed. That food given to a growing child will cause their bodies to grow, mature, and develop. It’s difficult for us to “see” the usefulness of fasting because there is not a 1-for-1 correspondence like with physical food. With physical food, you are hungry, you eat, and you feel a sense of fullness. With our spiritual selves, we hunger spiritually, we participate in the spiritual nourishment of fasting, and there’s no immediate sense of spiritual fullness. So, when we’ve fasted, we think that nothing has happened. But, if I read these verses aright, as long as we fast with the right motive, something transformational happens to us.
An analogy might help. You haven’t seen your 7-year-old cousin in two years. You see them for the first time in twenty-four months and say, “My how you’ve changed.” The family members who have seen that cousin daily haven’t noticed the subtle yet cumulative changes because they’ve seen that child every day. With fasting, we’re too close to see the weekly or monthly growth that comes from it. But, that doesn’t mean that the growth from fasting hasn’t been evident. Another analogy would be bodily exercise. If you choose as a New Years’ resolution to start jogging, do sit-ups, and lift weights, the changes in your body will be unnoticeable in the first several months. But, if you keep it up for years and years, eventually you will see a transformation of your body. That one push-up today won’t show up at all. But, years of thousands of push-ups will be seen by all. I now see fasting as an opportunity to receive spiritual nourishment. Week-by-week, I can’t see any changes. There is no immediate gratification with fasting like there is with our physical bodies and with chocolate. But, the growth and maturing is cumulative and, given a lifestyle of fasting, the effect is cumulative.
In my own experience, the two most spiritual people I’ve known both fasted regularly. In the past, I’ve been tempted to say that they fasted because they were spiritual. Having read these verses and seeing them in this light, I wonder if those two individuals didn’t get to be so spiritual because they spent a lifetime fasting. Odds are, both scenarios are probably true.
I could talk about Anna and the early disciples and Jesus fasting. I could create a dozen points that are bullet points about fasting. I’ve read stuff by Don DeWelt and Richard Foster and heard both of them preach. Those guys know fasting inside and out. If you really want to know about fasting, skip this essay and study those guys. For me, I just wanted to take a bit of time to answer the “why?” question in a general sort of way.
Frankly, I think what has been studied about fasting could be applied to most spiritual disciplines. Praying two minutes in every three weeks will probably not show up in our spiritual lives as profound growth. Reading the Bible in a scattershot way will not show in our lives. But, disciplined praying and Bible reading (not to show off) will inevitably result in our becoming much more spiritual people. We will be more like God and His Son Jesus. Come to think of it, the two spiritual giants I knew were not only people who fasted regularly, they also read the Bible and prayed regularly.
Come to think of it, most Christians don’t question the importance of daily prayer and Bible reading. Not that everyone does it, but we all just know we should be doing both every day. If we don’t question why we should pray and read the Bible every day, then why do we question what the purpose of fasting is? Hmmm.
Author wishes to remain anonymous