Fasting is like a spiritual breath of fresh, cold, mountain air. It may sting your throat for a moment, but it widens your eyes, straightens your back, and clears your head. It feels so much better than the humid stuffiness of oppressively hot, dead air.
Fasting is a biblical discipline found in both Testaments. It is an important reminder that the human person is not merely body, not merely soul, but is both intertwined, and each part affects the other. Biblical saints practiced it as a context for prayer (Daniel 9:3, Acts 14:23), repentance (Joel 2:12-13), petition (Ezra 8:23), humbling (Psalm 69:10), and devotion (Luke 2:36-37). This verse from 2 Chronicles 7, when God confirmed to Solomon his acceptance of the temple, succinctly summarizes the layers of meaning in fasting:
…if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. 2 Chronicles 7:14
Fasting is about humility
Humility, next to love, is probably the most fundamental Christian virtue, just as pride is the fundamental sin. There can be no faith without humility, no endurance, no self-sacrifice, no joy, no Christ-likeness. I can hardly think of a more beautiful or inspiring sight in the world than a truly humble man or woman. How much love, peace, and joy those people have!
Fasting is useful, therefore, because it humbles us. Speaking from personal experience, fasting reminds me of how utterly dependent I am on God’s daily provision, both physical and spiritual; it reminds me of how pathetic I am on my own, and how weak my will”power” is; it reminds me of the luxury I live in everyday while so many millions in the world go hungry, prompting me to pray for them; it reminds me that just as I cannot live without food feeding my body, neither can I live in newness of life without the words of God feeding my soul. Fasting reminds me of my neediness, in every aspect, which only God satisfies.
Fasting is an outward expression of an inwardly humble heart; or, more likely, of a mostly proud heart that wishes to be humbled.
Fasting cannot be separated from prayer. More often than not, in the Bible, the two are mentioned together. Along with a decluttered digestive tract comes a decluttered mind. With clarity of thought comes clarity in prayer.
Often in the Bible, fasting was a way to focus on praying for something really specific, such as a pressing need or a certain issue in the world. Fasting, like that breath of cold air, heightens the senses, physical and spiritual. It tunes you in to the world outside yourself; to which, in our self-absorption, we are all too often oblivious. It also tunes you in to the Holy Spirit, who speaks profoundly in scripture, and truly communes with the humbled heart in prayer.
A word of advice: do not bother fasting without setting aside a special time of prayer. In prayer, speak honestly, casting all your cares on God, confessing your sins to him, interceding for others. I often default to the Lord’s prayer or a familiar psalm for words. Remember that it is not about the number or piety of the words in a prayer, it is about the love and the honesty in the words.
and “seeking his face”
“Seeking God’s face” is a biblical expression used throughout scripture, and it means what it sounds like it means: to seek intimacy with God, longing to interact with him “face to face, as a man speaks with his friend” (Exodus 33:11).
As the body cries out for food during fasting, so the mind and spirit cry out for the living Bread, Jesus (John 6:51). Communion/the Lord’s Supper/the Eucharist vividly and regularly reminds us that Jesus himself is what satisfies the hunger in our souls. Fasting does the same thing, using the same metaphor.
Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken from them, and then they will fast in that day. Matthew 9:19-20
Jesus is the bridegroom, we are the ones fasting while we wait for him. One day our fast will end forever, at the “wedding feast of the Lamb.” Meanwhile, we fast, seeing as through a glass darkly, anticipating the day when we will really see face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12).
God’s “face” – his character and personality – is painted for us in scripture. Seeking his face mostly means seeking him in the Bible. Meditation is crucial. If the words of God are food, then meditation is digestion. Christian meditation is not mindless. It means engaging with the text in a personal, slow, thoughtful way, absorbing it into your head and heart. I would recommend meditating on one paragraph over skimming one chapter every time.
Fasting is useful because it eliminates distractions, making the way to God clearer.
and turning from our wicked ways.
I think Joel says it best:
“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. Joel 2:12-13
There is something called “godly sorrow” (2 Corinthians 7:10) which Joel describes here. It means seeing sin for the ugliness it is and mourning for one’s commission of it. It exists under the beautiful truth that God is a God who gives grace, mercy, and unending forgiveness. That is its basis and its hope.
Here in the book of Joel, the prophet was also referring to mourning for the corporate sins of the Israelite nation. That kind of repentance (such as, on behalf of America) is real too. Things in this country would change if every disciple of Jesus living here regularly set aside days and times for fasting, praying, and repenting on behalf of America. Too often we “don’t have enough time” because we are too busy buying into the lies and sins of America along with the rest of America.
“Yet even now” – even though your sin is piled to the sky – “return to me.” To fast is to repent; to turn from the vain things of the world and our petty concerns and turn again to the living God. It is a grace-filled thing.
As always, the motivation is much more important than the method. Look elsewhere on the Internet for suggestions of method; there are plenty of resources. However you choose to do it, do it wholeheartedly and humbly, relying on the power of the Holy Spirit, knowing it is better by far to ignore the rewards of this world and to instead live Corum Deo – “before the face of God.”
And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Matthew 6:18