The very idea of fasting is foreign to the vast majority of western Christians. And our souls are the weaker for it. Fasting ought not to be viewed as a mystical means to greater piety or a deprecated vestige of medieval traditionalism or asceticism. Fasting is a biblical practice of saints that, for various reasons, voluntarily choose to exercise their humble devotion to God with a particularly elevated purpose in mind.
Fasting is the act of total or partial abstinence from food for a limited period of time in express devotion to God. While the principle is most fundamentally that of self-denial, food is the most precise object of fasting in the Bible. Therefore, while we may choose to “fast” from various other enjoyments in life, food has a particular attachment to the purpose of fasting. The Bible describes fasting only in its primary sense. The Hebrew and Greek words used for fasting specifically speak of abstaining from food.
J. C. Ryle offers great wisdom on this subject:
Fasting, or occasional abstinence from food in order to bring the body into subjection to the spirit, is a practice frequently mentioned in the Bible, generally in connection with prayer. … It is a subject about which we find no direct command in the New Testament. It seems to be left to everyone’s discretion, whether he will fast or not. In this absence of direct command we may see great wisdom. Many a poor man never has enough to eat, and it would be an insult to tell him to fast: many sick people can hardly be kept well with the closest attention to diet, and could not fast without bringing on illness. It is a matter in which each person must be persuaded in their own mind, and not rashly condemn others who do not agree. One thing only must never be forgotten: those who fast should do it quietly, secretly and without ostentation. Let them not “show men they are fasting.” Let them not fast to man, but to God.
– (J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, 1:55-56)
Let us remember that fasting does not manipulate God. The whole endeavor is an exercise of faith intended to arouse our souls. The relentless pulsing pain of bodily hunger should prompt our souls to pray with greater frequency and intensity. The constant nagging sensation of hunger should remind us of our deep dependence on God—as the body depends on food to survive, so we depend on God (Matthew 4:4). As weakness tingles throughout our flesh we should subdue our pride and turn to Christ, seeking His strength within our souls. That uncomfortable lack of bodily contentment should remind us why we are fasting in the first place. The purpose should never escape our thinking. Rightly exercised, fasting is a powerful aid in the discipline of our minds.
Fasting is a privilege, not an obligation. God does not obligate us to fast, nor does our fasting obligate God to give. Donald Whitney cautions us, “Without a purpose, fasting can be a miserable, self-centered experience about willpower and endurance.” Our suffering will never earn God’s favor.
The New Covenant does not stress fasting, nor does it lay down any regulations concerning its observance. However, Jesus clearly expects that His disciples will fast when He says, “And when you fast” (Matthew 6:16). It is interesting that when asked why His disciples did not fast according to the customs of the Pharisees during His ministry, Christ responded, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Matthew 9:15). The time when the disciples of Jesus fasted, was to come with His departure.
This suggests that fasting is not appropriate in the manifest presence of God. Why? Fasting is supremely about seeking God, not seeking other things from God. The point is simple: full stomachs can spoil an appetite for God. This is why the Puritans used to say that the best use of fasting was to fatten the soul. Physical denial can be an intensifier of spiritual desire.
Christians exercised fasting corporately and personally when facing substantial decisions (Acts 13:3; 14:23) and entreating the Lord’s will in general (Acts 9:8-9). History reports to us that from the second century on, the church devoted times of fasting in preparation for Good Friday and Resurrection Day.
Richard Baxter commended the church to fast and pray on special occasions, whether for thanksgiving, or on occasions of great sin, or simply for lack of devotion to God. He wrote:
It is meet that in public, by fasting and prayer, we humble ourselves before the Lord, for the averting of his displeasure; and on such occasions it is the pastor’s duty to confess his own, and the people’s sins, with penitence, and tenderness of heart, and by his doctrine and exhortation, to endeavour effectually to bring the people to the sight and sense of their sin, and the deserts of it, and to a firm resolution of better obedience for the time to come, being importunate with God in prayer for pardon and renewed grace.
– (Richard Baxter, Works, 15:498-99)
Let us entreat the Lord, in unusual manner, to work in us a deeper understanding of our purpose in life to glorify Him. Let us wisely consider how we might fast and pray, especially this Good Friday, for the purpose of confessing our sins and earnestly seeking a renewed sense of grace in Christ. May we earnestly pray and seek the face of God, considering how we might more consciously pursue, see, and appreciate His glory in the circumstances of our lives.