Quick. What do people who fast look like? What kinds of people come to your mind? Do they appear a bit strange? Are they John the Baptist types? Legalists? Health nuts?
Does Jesus come to your mind when you think of fasting and "fasters"? Jesus both practiced and taught fasting, you know. And yet, fasting is the most feared and misunderstood of all the spiritual disciplines.
Many believe fasting turns us into something we don't want to become and causes things to happen that we don't want to happen. We fear that fasting will make us hollow-eyed fanatics or odd for God. We're afraid that it will make us suffer dreadfully and give us a generally negative experience. For some Christians, fasting for spiritual purposes is as unthinkable as shaving their heads or walking barefoot across a fire pit.
Fasting is so misunderstood because of the famine of contemporary awareness of it. Even though there's more interest in fasting today than during the last half of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, how many people do you know who regularly practice fasting? How many sermons have you heard on the subject? In most Christian circles you will rarely hear fasting mentioned, and few will have read anything about it. And yet it's mentioned in Scripture more times than even something as important as baptism (about seventy-seven times for fasting to seventy-five for baptism).
Christians in a gluttonous, self-indulgent society may struggle to accept and to begin the practice of fasting. Few disciplines go so radically against the flesh and the mainstream of culture. Of course, there are some people who, for medical reasons, cannot fast. But most of us dare not overlook fasting's benefits in the disciplined pursuit of a Christlike life.
The Bible defines fasting as a Christian's voluntary abstinence from food for spiritual purposes. It is Christian, for fasting by a nonChristian has no eternal value since the discipline's motives and purposes are to be God-centered. Fasting is voluntary in the sense that it is not to be coerced. Fasting is more than just the ultimate crash diet for the body, it is abstinence from food for spiritual purposes.
Fasting Is Expected
Notice Jesus' words at the beginning of Mt. 6:16-17, "When you fast . . . " By giving us instructions on what to do and what not to do when we fast, Jesus assumes that we will fast.
Compare these words with His statements about giving and praying in the same passage, "So when you give..." (Mt. 6:2-3), "But when you pray..." (Mt. 6:5-7). No one doubts that we are to give and to pray.
Plainer still are Jesus' words in Mt. 9:14-15. The Pharisees asked Him, "‘How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?' Jesus answered, ‘How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while He is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast' " (emphasis mine). That time is now. Until Jesus, the Bridegroom of the Church returns, He expects us to fast.
Purposes for Fasting
Scripture gives many purposes for fasting. I've condensed them into several major categories. Whenever you fast, you should do so for at least one of these purposes. Notice that not one of the purposes is to earn God's favor. We cannot use fasting as a way to impress God and earn His acceptance. We are made acceptable to God through the work of Christ Jesus, not our work. Fasting has no eternal benefit for us until we have come to God through repentance and faith (Eph. 2:1-10, Titus 3:5-7).
1) To Strengthen Prayer
There's something about fasting that sharpens the edge of our intercessions and gives passion to our supplications.