Americans love to eat. No really, we love food and all of its variety and flavor. A study published by Johns Hopkins concluded that if current eating trends continue, 86% of Americans could be obese by 2030. I know what you’re thinking, the faulty BMI charts used to calculate health and weight can’t be trusted. There may be some truth to that but we have to admit, a majority of Americans aren’t missing any meals. There is nothing wrong with eating. God made food for our enjoyment (1 Tim. 4:4-5). However, there is a time to step away from the table in order to fast and reflect on more spiritual things. The people of God should fast, but many times this is a neglected discipline in the life of the Christian. We all would do well to study this subject and apply what we learn. So while the Bible does mention fasting, why is it that we are not fans of this subject? Let me offer a few reasons.
We think It’s only for the spiritually elite
We read in the Bible of great men and women fasting. Moses fasted for forty days and forty nights as he received the Law from God (Ex. 34:28). Elijah went on the strength of one meal for forty days as he fled from the wrath of Queen Jezebel (1 Kgs. 19:8). Esther went without food as she prepared to enter the king’s presence on behalf of the nation of Israel (Est. 4:16). Jesus—the perfect example—fasted forty days and forty nights in preparation for his temptation by Satan and the beginning of his ministry. These examples of fasting are not meant to discourage us from fasting. However, I am afraid that many times we read these accounts and believe that fasting is for the spiritual elite. We may conclude, “I’m no king, law giver, or Messiah. So I don’t need to fast.” To believe that fasting should be left for those in high spiritual positions is a mistake. The entire nation of Israel was to fast every year on the day of atonement regardless of position or prestige (Lev. 16:29, 31). Jesus expected that his disciples would fast, he didn’t limit this to the apostles or elders but his followers in general (Mt. 9:15). Fasting is not for spiritual giants, but for those who realize they need to unplug from the cares and worries of this present world and tap into more spiritual thoughts and concerns.
We don’t have a specific time to do it
There are many arguments to diminish the importance of fasting. Some say that while Jesus expected we would fast, he did not tell us exactly when to do it. Some say that Jesus told us how to fast if we choose to, but he never commanded it. Thinking of fasting in these terms is a dangerous way to view scripture. We are told there are benefits to studying the Bible and have good examples of people doing so, but we are never told how often we should study. Yet, I have heard many sermons and read many articles on why we should study daily. Jesus never said to read the New Testament on a specific day at a specific time, but we realize that we don’t need an explicit command to engage in spiritual things.
Jesus does not ever say if you fast, he says when you fast (Mt. 6:16). Jesus gives the criteria for acceptable fasting and he leaves the time and length up to us. Many times we want to be led by the hand, but fasting requires some maturity and discipline to do. I can’t go to a passage and say this is when you should do it and for how long. But, let us not get the idea that there are no examples of when people fasted in the New Testament. The early church fasted when leaders were appointed (Acts 14:23), before mission trips, and during worship (Acts 13:2-3). There are times in our life when we have tough decisions to make, the church is preparing to select new leaders, or a mission trip is on the horizon. That might be a good time to fast, pray, and focus on God.
We think Jesus said not to
We have a problem with fasting because of the regulations that Jesus put on it. In our social media frenzy where we post everything we eat, wear, and every place we go, it’s hard to engage in something that we can’t share to the world. Jesus says when you fast do not disfigure your face or make it known to everyone that you are fasting (Mt. 6:16-18). That means I don’t need to post about it or show everyone how spiritual I am (so maybe folks are fasting and we just don’t know it). We like to be acknowledged, but Jesus says don’t fast if you have the wrong intentions. Jesus never said not to fast, but he did tell us how to fast correctly. Jesus wants us to realize that fasting is between us and God. We don’t fast because we are better than others or because it will make God do something for us. We fast because we are rejecting the physical for a time so that we can give total devotion to the spiritual. Nonetheless, Jesus says if you can’t fast with the right motive, then don’t.
When you fast you go without food for a period of time, so it should save money. Yet, fasting is uncomfortable because it is expensive. Fasting means I have to deny myself for a time and that’s not easy to do. Fasting means saying “no” to the food a co-worker just brought in, or maybe even to the potluck meal prepared at church. Fasting means I can’t have everything I want at the moment, and that’s a problem. Self-denial has always been a problem for mankind. That is why Jesus said that if you are not willing to leave everything, then you can’t be his disciple (Lk. 14:33). Forsaking all for Jesus means abandoning comfort and ease as well as worldliness and sin. I must surrender my appetite and desires to the Lord along with my attitude. Paul realized how expensive discipleship was and he counted all things lost for Christ (Phil. 3:8-10). Fasting can scare us because we have to give up control and rely on God.
Some things to consider
This post is not designed to guilt Christians into fasting. The fact that Jesus and his disciples fasted, and that Jesus expected we would should cause us to want to do it. Maybe you do fast privately, and no one knows. Keep it up and encourage others to do so. Maybe you have never fasted. Why not? It can’t be because you never needed to focus more on God, had a tough decision to make, or wanted to unplug from the world. Give fasting a try. Start out small: go half a day and see how you do. Remember, fasting is not about the mere abstaining from food but about engaging with God. Pray more, read and meditate on scripture, and prove that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt. 4:4).