I don’t remember the first time I was introduced to fasting, but I do remember the context. I was probably in middle school or high school and it had a significant impact. One night, as my family gathered for dinner, my brother and I tucked into the meal before us and noticed that my parents weren’t eating. When we questioned their actions, they explained they were fasting for a couple of days as they asked God some big questions. I remember it seeming really strange to me, but it was clear that it was a serious endeavor for them. Not without joy, but definitely a serious, set-aside time that had to do with their walk with the Lord. (Talk about setting the stage well for your kids, right? My parents really are rockstars.)
Fast forward to my freshman year of college. In a Bible study led by the RA on my floor in the dorm, we learned and talked about fasting and were challenged by our fearless leader to fast for one 24-hour period. We decided to meet for breakfast one morning in the cafeteria & then fast until breakfast the next morning, when we’d again meet together and talk about what we learned, observed, etc. in the preceding 24 hours. It was challenging to say the least (there’s a hilarious story from the group about the temptation to chase down Pop-Tart crumbs that will live in infamy), but it also held tremendous value for me as an introduction to fasting as a spiritual discipline.
The Bible has a lot to say about fasting in both the Old and New Testament.* In a really helpful article, Curtis Mitchell provides an overview of New Testament references to fasting. According to Mitchell, fasting in the Bible falls into two very general categories.
Old Testament fasting is almost always “in response to calamities and were to demonstrate humility and repentance.” Fasting was Israel’s way to “demonstrate a humble heart, a repentant spirit” in the face of calamity or disaster enacted by God to get their attention. He would call them to repentance and they would fast in response on the occasions that they really did “get the message” and respond in repentance.
New Testament responses to fasting show a similar theme. “Fasting then is a legitimate response to dangers, trials, heartaches, or sorrows. That which seems to characterize Christian fasting in the New Testament was abstinence during crisis experiences. In times of physical or spiritual need Christians realize their inadequacy and in humility and repentance look to the Lord.”
Did you catch that? Fasting is a response to the Lord. I think often we are tempted to think about fasting as an obligation, or a prescribed solution to a problem instead of a response the Lord. But when we think about it as a response, our whole posture changes.
Trevin Wax, in an article reviewing Scot McKnight’s book, Fasting, describes McKnight’s helpful framework for thinking about fasting, saying it’s:
“. . . . a response, never an instrumental practice in which we try to receive something. We go without food because of what has taken place in our hearts. [McKnight’s] book lays out the different ways that fasting serves a response. It can be an expression of repentance, a response to a moment in which we feel we must earnestly seek God, a response to grief (Scot sees grief as the thread that connects all the various fasting practices). Fasting can sometimes be a response to our need for spiritual discipline, a response to our corporate life together, even a response to poverty and injustice. Again and again, Scot drives the point home: we do not fast to get something. We fast as a response. And if we receive something after or during the fast, it is because God has used the yearning in our heart (expressed through the fast) in order to grace us with more of his presence.”
So as we think about fasting in relationship to Lent, can I encourage you (and myself) to think about it as a heartfelt response to God in some way? David Mathis describes fasting this way:
“Fasting is often the focus of Lenten practices, but it’s only part of a larger matrix of God’s ongoing grace for the Christian life through his word, prayer, and fellowship. . . . fasting is not only a God-given tool for regularly sharpening our affections, but fasting also partners with prayer to add a dynamic aspect to our relationship with God. Fasting is a way to channel our Godward angst into prayerful petitions. Fasting amplifies our voice toward God by demonstrating earnestness. . . .”
In another article for Desiring God, Mathis cites Don Whitney’s (author of Spiritual Disciplines) list of spiritual purposes for fasting in both the Old and New Testaments:
strengthening prayer (Ezra 8:23; Joel 2:13; Acts 13:3)
seeking God’s guidance (Judges 20:26; Acts 14:23)
expressing grief (1 Samuel 31:13; 2 Samuel 1:11–12)
seeking deliverance or protection (2 Chronicles 20:3–4; Ezra 8:21–23)
expressing repentance and returning to God (1 Samuel 7:6; Jonah 3:5–8)
humbling oneself before God (1 Kings 21:27–29; Psalm 35:13)
expressing concern for the work of God (Nehemiah 1:3–4; Daniel 9:3)
ministering to the needs of others (Isaiah 58:3–7)
overcoming temptation and dedicating yourself to God (Matthew 4:1–11)
expressing love and worship to God (Luke 2:37)
How does this list match up with your Lenten fasting? Are you responding for a spiritual purpose in your fast, or just “giving something up” because that’s what you do during Lent? It’s easy to give up a myriad of things in this season and reap little to no spiritual benefit. Simply “giving something up” wastes the incredible potential that fasting holds for the vitality of our walk with God.
Let’s not miss out on responding to Him because we’re cultivating a relationship with Him. Because we love Him! Friends, fasting doesn’t mean we’re missing out on things! Instead, it allows us to really dial into the most rewarding relationship we will ever have. So let’s fast with joy in response to Jesus!
*Example of fasting in the Bible generally have to do with abstaining from food, but there are really obvious benefits of fasting from a myriad of things or circumstances in life. Food fasts shouldn’t be neglected either, but they’re not the only way to reap spiritual benefit or respond to God.