When I was young, my family used to fast from soda during Lent. I didn’t really understand why we did it. I didn’t even know what fasting was, but I knew that it was something we did every year. We weren’t even avid soda drinkers, but it was a Lenten fast that was simple enough that the whole family could do it.
“What is this ‘fasting’ you speak of?” some might be wondering.
Simply put, fasting is the voluntary avoidance of something that is good (usually for a short period of time). You can fast from a variety of things, like Netflix, chocolate, snacks, the snooze button… the list goes on.
Fasting is a custom that has been practiced for centuries, but (sadly) fewer and fewer people in modern society see any value in it. With advertisements that constantly bombard us with witty sayings like “Do What Tastes Right” (Wendy’s) and “You Can’t Eat Just One” (Lay’s) it’s easy to see that our culture is losing touch with this practice. To some, fasting even appears as an outdated, superstitious practice.
Have you ever wondered why Christians fast?
“As a matter of fact,” some might be thinking, “I have. Is Jesus concerned with our weight?”
Well, no. Fasting is a practice that is much older than the fear of the bathroom scale. There are many reasons why we should fast, and I certainly won’t be able to cover them all. But I will talk about some of the reasons that I wish I had known about when I was younger.
On a side note: I’m not writing this as an instruction manual for how to fast. Fasting is not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. I’m simply explaining why we should fast.
Straight from the Bible
One can’t read far through the Bible without finding references to fasting. It’s often used as a supplement to prayer and penance. For example, we see fasting used as a form of penance, as Daniel turned his face to the Lord, “seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes” (Dan 9:3). We also read that Moses “neither ate bread nor drank water” for forty days, as God made the stone tablets (Ex 34:28).
“I mean, that’s cool and all,” some might be thinking, “but that’s in the Old Testament. If you haven’t noticed, a lot of things changed when Jesus came along. How do we know he didn’t put an end to fasting?”
That is a stellar question. So let’s see what Jesus says about fasting in the New Testament.
Shortly after the start of his ministry, Jesus himself went out into the desert to fast for forty days and nights, and (putting it mildly) “he was hungry” (Matt 4:2). It was after this when Jesus was tested by the devil. And in Mark’s Gospel, when asked why his disciples don’t fast, Jesus responds by saying: “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 away from them, and then they will fast in that day” (Mark 2:19-20, emphasis added).
We also see fasting in the days of the early church. For instance, the prophets and teachers at Antioch “were worshiping the Lord and fasting” before the Holy Spirit set aside Paul and Barnabas for their ministry (Acts 13:2). One chapter later, we see again Paul and Barnabas are fasting and praying before committing the newly-appointed elders to the Lord (Acts 14:23).
So fasting was not only a thing of the Old Testament, but it’s also something that came into the New Testament. Fasting is all through the Bible!
“Okay, I get your point. The Bible tells us to fast. But why does it really matter? How does me going hungry have anything to do with my holiness?”
Goodbye World, Hello God
As I mentioned above, we fast when we voluntarily avoid something that is good. But why would we bother avoiding something that is “good”? The answer is simple. We avoid what is good so that we are free to receive what is better.
Just imagine a child snacking on cereal while his mother is diligently making dinner. There is nothing wrong with eating cereal, but we would all agree that (as my mother would put it) “spoiling your dinner” is not cool. By waiting for dinner, the boy would be making the better choice.
“Hang on a second. I understand why ruining your dinner is bad, but how does this apply to God?”
Great question. If you noticed in the section above, the Bible shows that fasting is usually coupled with prayer. When we fast, we are making room in ourselves for something even better by detaching ourselves from what is just “good”. And in prayer, we are seeking what is better. We are saying no to the quick snack while we prepare for the feast.
If you think about it, it’s all about our pursuit for happiness. God is the ultimate source for our happiness (that’s why we believe heaven will be so great). We desire God, but we also desire other things, like food, entertainment, and success. There’s nothing wrong with these other things, so long as we don’t forget that God is our greatest source of happiness. But we do forget. Often.
If this doesn’t sound like a big deal, you are in good company. I know a few others who thought the same thing. Their names are Adam and Eve.
In the beginning, the Bible describes the earth as a place of complete peace. But along came Adam and Eve, who chose to eat the forbidden fruit, despite God’s warning (Gen 3). They chose the fruit because they believed it would make them happy. But in doing so, they turned from God and chose the lesser “good” the world had to offer. And from that moment on, mankind was changed. We inherited a nature that predisposes us to forget that God is our greatest desire. It is our daily challenge to undo this sad fact.
So what is the moral of this story? By fasting, we recognize that the world will never completely satisfy our desires. By praying, we remind ourselves of the One who can.
“This sounds all well and good, if you believe in God. But what about those who don’t believe in God? This would sound an awful lot like a pointless, medieval practice.”
And that brings me to my last point.
A Slave to Our Own Desires
Have you ever tried sitting next to a plate of warm, gooey cookies, with the intent of not eating one? I last about five minutes before caving in and devouring one (or ten) of them.
It’s a common experience: we know what we should do, but we are overcome by what we want to do. That is why the very word “diet” is feared by so many. Even when our intentions are good, our wills are weak. Fasting fixes this imbalance.
Any athlete knows that a strong will is necessary to become the best at a sport. Practices often start early and last for hours; the workouts are long and sometimes painful; they must be careful about what and when they eat. To train as an athlete is to make the body a slave to the mind. That is, they train themselves to deny what is good (extra sleep, comfort, food), for what is better, their ultimate goal. It doesn’t take a theist to see the wisdom in this type of discipline.
We fast from what we want so that we are not controlled by it. We test our will to make it stronger. After fasting, people often feel more free to choose what they really want, and not just what they desire (like the warm, gooey cookies).
By voluntarily denying yourself small things (snacks, snooze button, Netflix), it prepares our self-control for the bigger things, like being faithful to your spouse, giving your time to be with your children, and following God faithfully.
To a society bent on material wealth and pleasure, fasting is often misunderstood. To some, it may even appear as a superstitious act of pointless self-denial. And many people go through their entire lives not understanding what it is or why they should do it.
What is fasting? It is the practice of voluntarily abstaining from something that is good.
Why should we fast? It is a power tool that helps us to control our desires, allowing us to be in full command of our lives. Fasting gives us the ability to deny what is good so that we can accept what is best.
There are many more reasons for why we should fast. I covered only three of them, but they are three reasons that helped me to understand why it’s important to fast. And it is my hope that they help you as well.