Last week’s article on fasting seems to have resonated with many of you (this article is also sent out on an email list, from which I received many responses). Evidently I am not alone in my experience (or rather, lack of) with fasting. Many of those who responded suggested that they do not fast and have seldom or never heard any teaching on fasting. There were some notable exceptions, however. Nonetheless, it does seem that fasting is rare among Christians today (I can't say that my "sample size" is anywhere close to representative of course).
Before coming back to my personal experience and thoughts about fasting, however, let me briefly consider a few examples from the Bible. The first Biblical mention of fasting might be Gen 24.33, where Abraham’s servant, who was sent by Abraham to find a wife for Isaac, refused to eat food that was set before him until he told his business. Even if it was just one meal, this would qualify as a fast, which simply means to “abstain from food.” Later, fasting began to be commonly practiced among the Israelites. The Law of Moses evidently required only one fast, which was on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16.29-31 – “humble your souls” has traditionally been interpreted as fasting). Yet we see many references to fasting among the Israelites. Moses twice fasted for 40 days while receiving the Law (Ex 34.28; Dt 9.18). Throughout the Old and New Testaments fasting was done to seek God’s guidance and gain understanding and wisdom (Jud 20.26; Dan 9.3; 10.3 Acts 13.1-3), to beg God’s forgiveness (1 Sam 7.6), to mourn the loss of leaders (1 Sam 31.13), to entreat God’s healing (2 Sam 12.22), to express national or personal repentance (Jonah 3.5 – these were not even Israelites), to call on God for protection (2 Chro 20.3; Ezra 8.21) , to call upon God’s power (Mt 17.21), and for many other reasons. There are just too many instances to list here.
Fasting not only has many purposes, but many benefits as well. In her book, The Roots and Fruits of Fasting, Mary Ruth Swope lists such “fruits” as drawing closer to God, bringing about spiritual brokenness, building self-control, concentration on prayer, greater sensitivity to God’s will, fortification against Satan, greater focus on Jesus, and many others, including benefits to physical health. Other good books include Richard Foster’s classic Celebration of Discipline, and Marjorie Thompson’s Soul Feast.
Fasting, like the other spiritual disciplines, is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. The intention is to draw closer to God by making us more dependent on him. Fasting puts us in a place of weakness, where true strength lies (cf. 2 Cor 12.9). Not only are we physically weakened, but we are weak against the desires of the flesh. In fasting we come to battle against the flesh at one of our most basic levels: hunger and the desire and need for food (though fasting can include abstaining from sex or other desires as well -– 1 Cor 7.5). Here is where we truly learn that “man does not live on bread alone….” I cannot say that I’ve fully experienced this, as I haven’t fasted beyond 24 hours. I cannot fathom what it must be like to fast for seven or ten days as some of you have done, let alone 40! I have a long way to go, but perhaps I’ve begun the journey. Next week I want to share some personal challenges to fasting.