The following is an excerpt from our daily devotional series “Back to the Basics,” written by IFA contributing writer Gloria Robles.
Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, 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” (Matt. 9:14–15 NIV).
The disciples knew about fasting. Why they never practiced it until after Christ’s ascension, we do not know. They learned about the power of fasting firsthand, though, when they failed at a deliverance they had attempted: They were unable to cast a demon out of a young boy, so Jesus had to do it Himself. Puzzled, the disciples asked the Lord why they had been unable: So He said to them, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29 NKJV).
Many newer versions of the Bible remove the words and fasting from this verse altogether, leaving only prayer. Why remove the word fasting? To be sure, while prayer on its own is still powerful, though fasting without prayer is but dieting or behavior modification, prayer and fasting done together are all the more dynamic.
So why should we fast? Though there are ways to fast beyond mere abstention from food — temporarily setting aside social media, for example, or cutting back on any number of other things that similarly consume our time and attention — the biblical definition of fasting is to abstain from food. The early Church could not function without fasting, and neither can we.
As with prayer, many of us have made fasting to be about ourselves, thinking that if we do it, then God will give us what we want. Jesus addressed fasting, saying that when we fast, we must never do it to give the mere appearance that we are righteous. Fasting is not about us (see Matt. 6:16 and Isa. 58:3–6). Fasting is about bringing our bodies into subjection to the Lord; it’s about self-denial. We deny ourselves some basic human need for a set time, and with a spiritual purpose. There are other reasons for fasting, but our main purpose is so that we can draw near to God. Fasting exposes our true heart and intention; it brings us to humility and leads us to true repentance and a wholehearted return to God (see Neh. 9:1–2 and Dan. 9:3).
Fasting to Seek God’s Direction
During a time of fasting and worship in the church at Antioch, the disciples heard the Lord direct them to set apart Barnabas and Saul (Paul) for ministry (see Acts 13:1-3).
Fasting to Seek God’s favor
And in every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree reached, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and many of them lay in sackcloth and ashes (Esther 4:3).
We fast when we are need of direction or favor that only God can give us. In His presence, we come to realize how spiritually bankrupt we are. We see that we are to be fully dependent on Him, and our fasting helps draw us nearer to Him. The Lord is our reward and our portion. He is the prize. We might count it hard to skip a meal or two — but oh, what glory awaits if you’ll be faithful! The answered prayers are great, of course, but His presence is greater still! The disciples lived this truth.
Fasting should always be led by the Lord. Don’t do it because it’s “the Christian thing to do.” And don’t do it begrudgingly. Do it because you realize your need for Him. You should have the desire to do it, and it won’t be easy, but if you can discipline yourself in this, you will see Him.
Have you made fasting about yourself, as Isaiah 58 cautions us against? Or maybe you’ve never seen the need for fasting or had the desire to fast. Or perhaps you have felt called to it, but you’ve lacked the discipline. Now is a good time to seek the Lord prayerfully and see if He is leading you. It won’t easy, and it’s definitely not fun, but the spiritual benefits outweigh the inconveniences. Seek the Lord and see where He would have you start. But do use wisdom, especially if you have any medical conditions that could make abstaining from food dangerous.
Father, I know this won’t be easy, but I want to do what Jesus and the disciples did. I pray for a spirit of grace to fast and to resist the temptations that come with it. Give me a holy hunger for Your presence and Your word above all. Teach me to live a fasting lifestyle: a crucified life in which Your presence supersedes my own earthly pleasures. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
“Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity (Joel 2:12–13 NIV).
So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer (Ezra 8:23 NIV).
For zeal for your house has consumed me, and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me. When I wept and humbled my soul with fasting, it became my reproach (Ps. 69:9–10).