I hear a lot of Christians these days talking about how important Bible-based fasting is. Then they go on and on about how long you should go without food or drink or what kind of foods not to eat. Everyone seems to have their own opinion about what a true spiritual fast is.
But what does it really mean to fast? Is it just not eating or drinking? I don’t think so.
Just going without food and drink, in and of itself, will not make you more spiritual or closer to God. It’s what’s going on under your thinking cap and in your heart that counts. Are you taking time to to seek God’s will during your fast? That’s the important part. And you can do that whether or not you’re abstaining from food.
Jesus took a very different approach to fasting than just going without food. In his Sermon on the Mount, he also brought out the importance of fasting privately. Apparently when the Pharisees would fast, they made sure everyone around them knew it. They wanted to show to everyone else how holy they were. Jesus rebuked this self-righteous need for human approval. He said we should fast in a way that no one even knows about it. It should be a secret only God knows.
There are a “few” Christians who should heed Jesus’ advice today. They announce to their friends and followers on Facebook all the details about their fast and how God has blessed them. Jesus has already rebuked this approach.
How to fast like Jesus
Jesus fasted 40 days in the wilderness, but he did not go without sustenance. He was feasting on the Word of God the whole time. He rebuked Satan’s temptation to turn stones into bread with his famous retort, “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4 KJV) Jesus was eating the spiritual bread which comes from God’s mouth.
Jesus didn’t take this approach just during those days in the wilderness, but throughout his entire ministry. Once his disciples came to him urging him to eat. He replied, “I have meat to eat that ye know not of.” They thought someone must have brought him some food, but he explains his real meaning, “My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work.” (John 4:32-34)
The real food we are to eat is to do God’s will. The real fast is to quit eating the bread of pursuing our own will.
Are we supposed to quit eating for 40 days to follow Jesus’ example? The example he set is not so much to go without food for so long a time, but to fast from human will and ambition for power and glory. Try that for 40 days. Actually, to get through one day of this kind of fast is a major accomplishment. Sometimes, even going for five minutes without asserting your own will is a victory.
Prayer and fasting
Once, Jesus was asked to heal an epileptic boy. His disciples had tried to heal him and failed. Jesus rebuked their lack of faith. Not that they didn’t have any faith, but they needed a deeper conviction. When they asked Jesus in private why they hadn’t been able to heal this case, he explained this kind of situation could only be healed “by prayer and fasting,” (Mark 9:29) and not just by prayer alone.
Was Jesus proposing his disciples fast in the common approach, to go without food at certain times? No. He had told the disciples of John and the Pharisees that his disciples would not fast in this traditional way while he was with them. (see Mark 2:18, 19) Jesus had a more spiritual approach to fasting. It wasn’t just about not eating.
Jesus was not unfamiliar with this passage from Isaiah, Chapter 58, verses 1-8, discussing the kind of fast that is satisfactory to God. Read these verses carefully. They are pregnant with spiritual lessons. God commands Isaiah to:
Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins.
“Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God.
‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’ Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers.
“Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high.
“Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the LORD?
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
“Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
“Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.” (Isaiah 58:1-8 ESV)
The real fast means to give up selfish, hateful, fearful thoughts. In verses 3-5 above God makes it clear that going through the outward symbols of fasting with sackcloth and ashes, but still seeking “your own pleasure,” is not acceptable to God.
How many times do we fast and pray for what we want instead of humbly submitting to God’s will? Do we even notice when we do this?
True fasting and prayer
True fasting is not about going without what you need, but giving up what is unnecessary. Jesus did not give up God’s Word in the wilderness. He refused to partake of the bread of selfish ambition, power, and glory. God doesn’t tell Isaiah to counsel the people to quit eating, but to share their bread with others. In other words, true fasting, as defined by God Himself, is to give up the bread of selfishness, the intoxicating drink of indifference to and lack of awareness of others’ needs. This first step of fasting must take place in our hearts before we put our fast into action by actually ministering to those in need.
But just because you’re helping your fellow man does not mean you are actually fasting. There are lots of people who help others with very selfish reasons. Is this the fast God has chosen?
Go back and read those eight verses from Isaiah quoted above. Does it make you think of anything Jesus said? Remember his description of separating the sheep from the goats? (See Matthew 25:31-46) Jesus makes a point that both the sheep and the goats considered Jesus as their Lord. The only difference was how they put their faith in him into practice in their daily lives by ministering to those in need. Those who had fed the poor, visited the sick and people in prison, clothed the naked, and helped those without homes, in other words, had followed Jesus’ example, were considered righteous.
And Jesus makes that famous statement we love to quote but find harder to carry out, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (v. 41) This is the fast that Isaiah is talking about. It’s almost the exact same wording. This is the fast that pleases God. Going without food or drink does not impress Him. He cares how you treat others.
According to this more spiritual definition, Jesus was actually fasting all the time. He put aside all personal ambition. He had no personal agenda. He constantly sought to do God’s will instead of his own – and not just in the Garden of Gethsemane. Throughout his ministry he declares, “I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me.” (John 5:30) And again, “I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me.” (John 6:38) Maybe, just maybe, there’s a point here Jesus wants us to understand. It’s in the Lord’s Prayer too. We must pray for, discern, and obey God’s will, instead of trying to manipulate people, circumstances, or even God to get what we want.
To fast in the true sense is to do the will of God and to care for those in need. When you couple this kind of fast with a like-minded approach to prayer, you are ably equipped to not just meet people’s human needs, but their spiritual needs as well. And don’t be surprised to see God healing the sick and reforming the sinner because of your prayer and fasting.
It’s time to fast. It’s time to quit wallowing in your own will and desires, however good and noble you may feel they are. It’s time to fast from your own will and pray with Jesus, “Not my will but Thine be done.”
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please share in the comment section below.