Today’s reading: 2 Chronicles 18-20.
The first mention of fasting in the Bible is King David’s refusal of food when his and Bathsheba’s child was near death. It was a time of great sadness and anxiety for David, but he was also abstaining from food as part of an effort to change God’s mind about the child. The child died in spite of his fast.
Fasting isn’t a simple issue. There are many reasons people fast, even in the Bible. And far from being strange or rare, it is an expected activity, for Jesus said, “When you fast…” When King Jehoshaphat faced a crisis of war, one of the first things he did was proclaim a fast:
Some men came and told Jehoshaphat, “A vast army is coming against you from Edom, from the other side of the Sea. It is already in Hazazon Tamar” (that is, En Gedi). Alarmed, Jehoshaphat resolved to inquire of the LORD, and he proclaimed a fast for all Judah. 2 Chronicles 20:2-3
Elmer Towns wrote an insightful book called Fasting for Spiritual Breakthrough that lists a number of reasons that people in the Bible fasted.
- Fasting for revival and for salvation of the lost (1 Samuel 7)
- Fasting in order to have some food to share with others (2 Kings 17)
- Fasting to solve a problem (Ezra 8)
- Fasting for protection from evil (Esther 4)
- Fasting for health and healing (Daniel 1)
- Fasting for an influential testimony (Luke 1, Matthew 3)
- Fasting for freedom from the effects of a demon; Towns relates this to addictions and besetting sins (Matthew 17)
- Fasting for wisdom in decision-making (Acts 9)
I don’t believe these are the only reasons people fast, but it gives you some idea of the wide range of purposes for fasting. Two things that these reasons for fasting share in common: they address a crisis, and they aim to enlist God’s help in solving the problem. Just as there are many reasons for fasting, there are many ways of fasting. Some people fast for short periods and some for longer times. Some people fast from all food; others eat only bread or eliminate specific foods. Most continue drinking fluids. I would recommend those with health problems talk with their doctor before beginning a fast.
My own experience has been limited to fasts of 12 to 24 hours, with the elimination of food but not water. I have not fasted often, perhaps a dozen times. I didn’t feel that I saw any circumstances change in my life directly as a result of fasting (though it’s likely that there were spiritual results I could not see). However, I have always found fasting to be effective in other ways:
- It concentrates my attention on God. As my hunger keeps returning, my thoughts turn to God again and again.
- It reminds me of my dependence on God. Hunger humbles you and teaches you that you must have food to live.
- It helps me pray to God. Each hunger pang is a reminder to pray.
- It teaches me that I should hunger for God more than I hunger for food.
It’s possible to fast for the wrong reason, such as personal recognition. It would be wrong to do it in a legalistic way as though it were necessary for salvation. It’s also wrong to focus on fasting if there are more serious issues of sin or disobedience in your life that you need to address. As God told the people of Isaiah’s day who were good at fasting but bad at living well with others:
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” Isaiah 58:6
On the other hand, Jesus himself spoke of the power of fasting when he proclaimed, in the case of the demon-possessed boy with seizures, that prayer and fasting would overcome the problem when nothing else could. That kind of power, available to believers for kingdom purposes, should prompt us all to spend more time learning how to fast.
Image by Jean Fortunet on Wikimedia Commons, CC by 1.0