Fasting serves three main purposes in scripture: repentence, rememberance, & seeking direction.
The first record of fasting is in Exodus 34:28 when Moses spends 40 days in God's presence, carving out the second set of stone tablets to record the Ten Commandments.
This is after Israel traded in God's favour for a month of orgies and bowing down to golden cows.
God was furious with them and Moses pleads with him not to take his presence away.
Joel 2:12 records God's pursuit of Israel, urging them to repent and return to him with all their heart, "with fasting and weeping and mourning." Fasting was one of the ways Israel responded when they realised their sin and were convicted with the realisation they had grieved God. So fasting has a strong association with repentence...if you fast for a reasonable period you'll notice it has a cleansing effect on your body. It does the same with your spirit.
Ezra 8:21 records fasting as a practice of humbling ourselves to petition God. Jesus and Paul tell us to come boldly before God, but we are also to keep an honest reckoning of ourselves. By denying our desires, fasting has a humbling effect on us. When we fast we are declaring to our body and our spirit that catering to our own wants is not the main driver in our life. That's really important.
You'll find similar passages in Nehemiah 9:1, Daniel 9:3 and Esther 4:3.
The passage in Esther is an interesting one as it's more about mourning than repentence. The Israelites are facing extermination, so they collectively humble themselves and fast in pleading with God to spare them. If you know the rest of the story, you'll recall how God divinely positions Esther (a jew) to find favour with the King and turn the tables on the evil Haman.
At the end of the book, the fast that the Jews undertook to preserve their lives is turned into an ongoing fast - known as the days of Purim - but this time in remembrance of what had happened and how they were saved (Esther 9:31). (Fun trivia fact: Incidentally, Esther is the only book in the Bible that doesn't mention God at all - he is implied, but never mentioned directly).
Inquiring of God's will - seeking direction
The third primary purpose of fasting we see in the Bible is as a way of inquiring God's will and seeking his direction about something. We see this in Acts 13:2, as the disciples were waiting for the fulfilment of Jesus promise that the Holy Spirit would come and again in Acts 14:23 when Paul and Barnabas were appointing elders for each of the churches.
We also see it in a really intense passage in 2 Samuel 12:16-23. David finds himself unable to sleep one evening and, walking around his roof tops, he oversees a gorgeous woman bathing. Men - if this happens to you, the wise thing to do is go straight back to bed! Alas, he finds himself smitten with Bathsheba and then orchestrates to have her husband killed so he can take her as his own wife. He succeeds in this and she becomes pregnant to him. God sends Nathan to confront David in a really clever way (have a read 2 Sam 12:1-10).
Nathan tells David that because of his sin, the child he has conceived with Bathsheba will die. In mourning and repentence, a distraut David goes into a fast, as he petitions God to change his mind.
God does not and the child dies. David mourns with Bathsheba and then rises, dresses and feasts. His servants are completely baffled and ask him to explain himself. He replies:
"While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, 'Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and let the child live.' But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me." David then comforted his wife Bathsheba..." (2 Sam 12:22-24).
We are to use fasting to petition God and to repent and to remember. But once the moment is passed, whether our prayers are answered or not, we are to let it go and avoid bitterness or discouragement by becoming trapped in the past. This is easier said than done. A powerful challenge!
The most common type of fasting is skipping food, but in other parts of scripture God calls people to other fasts: Leviticus 16:29-31, Leviticus 23:28-32 and Numbers 29:7 are all instances where God calls people to fast from their work!
Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are all called to fast from certain types of food (Daniel 1).
Also, although the epic fast of 40 days has become famous (Jesus and Moses both tackled this one), the Bible actually records all sorts of lengths of fasts. Here are the ones we found:
- Part of a day (2 Samuel 1:12)
- 1 day (1 Samuel 7:6)
- 7 days (1 Samuel 31:13)
- Twice a week (Luke 18:12)
Can you find any others? If so add a comment and let us know!
In Mark 9:29, Jesus is confronted by a frustrated man who son has been plagued with a demon for years. The demon inflicts fits on the child and tries to throw him into fire to burn him or water to drown him.
As if that isn't frustration enough, the man brings his son to Jesus disciples and they can't set him free!
He raises his complaint to Jesus and after a short dialogue, the man presents his son to Christ and the demon immediately throws the boy into a fit. But just as the boy's thrashing begins to be noticed by the crowds around them, Jesus shuts the demon up and kicks it out of the child, barring it from ever afflicting him again (Mark 9:25).
His disciples ask what went wrong and Jesus simply replies, "This kind can come out only by prayer and fasting" (Mark 9:29 - note the NIV translation omits 'fasting' except for in a text note).
The key question here is when did Jesus fast? He didn't tell the man to come back in a week's time while he fasted long enough to gain power over the spirit. He already had power over the spirit because he'd built a whole lifestyle of prayer and fasting!
We need to do the same.
I don't ever want to meet anyone who is being afflicted by the kingdom of darkness and not be able to set them free because I haven't built enough character or authority in my spirit! We need to make a lifestyle of cultivating our stature in spirit - like Jesus we can prepare in advance.
You see Jesus doing this very thing after his baptism when the Spirit takes him into the wilderness. Matt 4:2 reads "After fasting for forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him..."
Jesus prepares for his encounter with Satan in the wilderness how? Prayer and fasting.
As he prepares for his coming journey to the cross, Jesus tells his disciples, "...the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold on me, but the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me" (John 14:30).
The Bible is extremely clear that Jesus loved his food and his alcohol. He feasted freely and loved spending time with his friends that way - he participated in life fully and freely. Yet, he also built a regular pattern into his life of prayer and fasting, of denying his own desires and cravings to instead humble himself and seek the Father's will. That build enormous authority in his spirit as it meant he was ruled by nothing - no craving, desire, lust, hunger, or personal ambition had any hold over him. That's why he could say that Satan also has no hold over him.
If we can't say the same yet, then fasting is one of the ways to start this journey.
Remember, the world doesn't need more religious do-gooders.
It needs real men and women of faith, who are filled with the power and presence of God and led by his will, rather than their own desires. These are the people who make history and shake the foundations of the world. These are those who have the power to set others free.
One of the sports I am trying to learn is a Chinese kung-fu style named Wing-Chun. It's famous for it's short, lightning fast hand techniques and there is a famous set of drills you use to build up that skill (they're known as Chi-Sao, or 'sticky-hand' drills). Among those who know this style, if you claim to learn Wing-Chun, then they will ask you how your Chi-Sao is. If you told them you don't practice Chi-Sao, then they would tell you that you don't practice Wing-Chun.
Fasting is one of the core practices of a disciple.
If we don't practice fasting, then the truth is we aren't practicing the way of the disciple.
Jesus never gave us instructions for "if" we fast, he gave us instructions for "when" we fast - Matt 6:16.
How you fast - for how long, and what you fast from - is completely up to you and the Holy Spirit.
There's no rules or formula...but it should be part of our life if we are to become people of real stature in spirit.
Finally (are these blogs getting longer each time? Sorry!!), fasting in the Bible is something the community of disciples did together - in common. For the most part, we've lost that today and if we practice fasting at all, it's become another individualised religious practice.
For the Israelites it was part of their collective faith as a community.
We're trying to pick that up a little as The Local too and are encouraging those who want to journey with us to fast each Monday (again how much and what you fast is up to you). But let's be in prayer together for the community around us and seek God to pour his power and presence through us into those he'd had us bring love and light to - begining with the Building Awesome Whanau course that kicks off this week.
Up for the challenge? Bless you heaps team!