Fasting for a Spiritual Purpose
“Fasting” is: leaving your food alone for a specific purpose. In the Bible it is always a spiritual purpose.
Fasting does not occur frequently in our churches, in my experience. However, there appears to be a change in this: a growing number of church members are considering this. People are at least thinking about this matter; for example, during the forty-day period prior to Good Friday.
We encounter fasting throughout the Bible. Almost always it is in combination with prayer: it is an intensification of the prayer. You take time for it. You set your food aside, because there are more important things. Often it is about confession of guilt, of sorrow over sin, showing that you regard those sins as grievous. It is not: pray for a minute, ask forgiveness, and it’s done. Real repentance means a broken and contrite heart (Ps. 51). You are broken to pieces over it. That is what you want to show by leaving your food untouched.
Fasting is therefore also a sign of humility, showing your insignificance before the Lord, your dependence; you cannot make it without God.
Prophets in the Old Testament often called people to repentance. They called them to pray and fast in order to beseech the Lord to avert the calamity from them, for example, when the Lord threatened to punish the people because of their sins.
We can find a very clear example of this in the heathen city of Nineveh in the time of Jonah. It was a wicked city but when Jonah announced the judgment of God to them, the king of Nineveh called for a fast, an extreme form, not of eating a little less but of not eating at all, not even drinking. This was intended for young and old, even for the animals, for it was a matter of life or death. So they humbled themselves before the Lord; they turned from their sins and begged for grace. And yes, the Lord forgave them and did not bring punishment down on them. For this is who he is, says Jonah, “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2).
Not a Command
Fasting is thus not about trying to earn something from the Lord. Rather, the empty stomach shows clearly that you come to God with empty hands. You come only to beg for grace, because of your sins.
It is noteworthy that fasting is not a command in the Old Testament. There is only one day of fasting instituted by the Lord and that is the Day of Atonement. On that day, every year, offerings of atonement were brought for the reconciliation of the sins of the whole nation. Along with these, the Lord commanded prayer and fasting. Further than this, fasting is actions of people, on the initiative of leaders and prophets in an acute situation. Sometimes the Lord himself connects with this by calling the people to fast (Joel 2:12).
Isaiah 58 shows it to have become an established custom. That in itself brings about a weakness: you do it because that is the way it should be done. But you do not do it from the heart, and your life is in conflict with it.
When you then fast, it has no value for God; the opposite even, like it was in the time of Jesus. Pious Jews fasted every Monday and Thursday. The Pharisees did so, but they did it in a conspicuous manner; everyone had to see how pious they were. This was their purpose: to be honoured by men. Jesus rebukes them sternly: whoever does this should not expect that God will reward his praying and fasting.
Looking Forward to the Messiah
In the Old Testament, the last reason for praying and fasting was that they looked forward to and longed for the coming of the promised Messiah. Think of the prophetess Anna who met the little Jesus in the temple. Her prayers and fasting were heard. The Messiah had come!
That is, at the same time, also the reason Jesus presents for no longer fasting now (Mark 2). God’s kingdom has come near to us. The Messiah is born. Jesus began his work on earth. And his followers are like wedding guests who may rejoice in the presence of the Bridegroom.
In Mark 2 Jesus is not negative about fasting. He only says that this is not the right time (v. 19), with as follow-up: enough appropriate occasions will still come! For in the future the bridegroom will be taken away from you; then it is time to fast.
This is not only about Good Friday: the death of Jesus. It is especially about the time when Jesus is no longer on earth, thus the time after the Ascension. Since that time, he is present with us in the Spirit (Matt. 28:19) but he is no longer physically on earth.
That is a time in which it is appropriate to fast. The fullness of God’s kingdom must still come.
We are on the way. However, on the way all kinds of things can still happen, including difficult and sad things. There is every reason to continue to pray for faith, for strength, for deliverance, for renewal. And for forgiveness of sins. There is regularly also reason to fast, to underline that prayer. Ultimately, fasting is about your relationship with God, and since the New Testament also about your relationship with Christ.
We also see fasting occurring in the New Testament; for example, in the first Christian congregations, at the choosing of office-bearers. Today it is not easy to find brothers who are willing to take upon themselves the office of elder or deacon. The search becomes more and more difficult. This is something to pray about! Perhaps also something to fast for?
And whoever desires to grow in faith must pray for the work of God’s Spirit in his heart. Fasting is also appropriate for this. Not because you must, and never only for the formality of it, and totally not to show people how pious you are. No, it is actually a sign of humility. You do it out of an inner motivation, a fiery longing for forgiveness and renewal; you are to do it from your heart.
Think also of times of making critical decisions or choices: which way is God pointing? Then you may pray and fast for clarity. That counts on a personal as well as a congregational level. In times of difficult situations, you must come with humility and lowliness before God; you must concentrate on him, on his Word. As churches we can declare a day of prayer or announce a day of “humiliation” when something radical or far-reaching has happened in the church or in society or when serious abuses are occurring in order to show that we cannot cope in our own strength. In everything we depend on the Lord. As Jesus says: Without me you can do absolutely nothing!
Looking Forward to the Second Coming
Jesus himself fasted — forty days in the wilderness. And he shows, not only to Satan, but also to us: a man does not live from bread alone, but from all the words spoken by God! At the Last Supper, shortly before his death he said to his disciples, “I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matt. 26:29). For him it is now, in a certain sense, a time of fasting. For he longs for our physical closeness, that where he is, we will also be (John 14).
That is, for us, also a reason to pray for his return. We look forward to it; we long for it. That is also a reason for fasting regularly, because this prayer is so serious to us. For we long for the Bridegroom and for the marriage of the Lamb. Then all brokenness will be past. Then we will no longer be on the journey. Then we will have permanently come home, in the house of our heavenly Father.