What is the purpose of fasting?
The most important thing about fasting is to realize that fasting is to be done for a purpose—a God-centered, biblical purpose.
I think most of the people watching this video would be familiar that fasting is in the Bible. For example in Matthew 4 and Luke 4, it says Jesus fasted 40 days and 40 nights but now let’s talk about how he quoted Scripture to the devil. So we notice that we sort of pass over it. But it’s a very important teaching in Scripture, it’s a very important spiritual discipline not in the sense that it’s a mechanistic way of getting our prayers answered. That if you will fast, that guarantees that God will answer. That’s a theology of works there. And even though our fasting doesn’t manipulate God, let’s be reminded, fasting is God’s idea.
The most important thing about fasting when you actually try it is to realize that fasting is to be done for a purpose, a God-centered, biblical purpose. Otherwise it becomes a miserable, self-centered experience.
So many people say, well, I’ve heard about fasting, so I decided to try it, and boy I was so hungry and all I could think about was the growling of my stomach and I thought, well if I ever get through this, I’ll never do this again. So they finish and their whole time, whenever they’re hungry, they think, how much longer till this is over? Their whole thought is how long till it’s over.
That’s just works, that’s just legalism, that’s just endurance and self-inflicted suffering in hopes that God will be impressed by my self-inflicted suffering. That’s not what fasting is about.
The most important thing about fasting is to practice fasting for a God-centered, biblical purpose. In my book, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, I summarize 10 purposes found in Scripture for fasting, but most of them have to do, in one way or another with prayer, to strengthen prayer.
John Piper speaks of fasting as an intensifier. Here’s how it should work, for the motive to be right. When your stomach growls, when your head aches and you say, man, I’m hungry. Your next thought’s going to be oh, that’s right, I’m hungry because I’m fasting today. If your next thought is, and how much longer till it’s over, wrong motive. It’s going to be just a bad experience. But your next thought should be oh and I’m fasting for this biblical purpose.
For example, let’s say you’re fasting for the purpose of praying for your spouse, or for the salvation of your child, and throughout the day your stomach aches and growls. Your head hurts and you think, oh man, I’m really hungry. That’s right, I’m hungry because I’m fasting today. Oh, that’s right, I’m fasting for the purpose of praying for my wife, for my child. So what do you do all day long? You’re praying. So actually you want to feel hunger, your hunger serves you, your hunger serves your higher purpose which is to pray all day for your spouse, or for your child.
That’s why hunger is a good thing when it comes to fasting, because you’ve got to, the goal is not to feel hungry. The goal is not to suffer and think that God will be impressed by your suffering. The hunger serves your higher purpose which is to pray for your spouse, to pray for your child or whatever it might be.
I think most people have a fear of fasting. Of all the spiritual disciplines, it is the one we feel in our bodies. And it’s an uncomfortable feeling. No one likes to feel hungry, but when you remember that your hunger serves you. I mean, is there never a time you want a prayer answered more than you want lunch? Is there never a time you want someone to be saved more than you want a Big Mac? Well that’s where fasting comes in, when you say, I want this so much. I want to pray about this all day and I’m going to fast as a reminder to use that hunger as a reminder for this all day long.
Some people say, I would like to serve others more. I would like to have more money to give. That’s where fasting can come in. Don’t have lunch. Use your lunch hour to serve someone. Use your lunch money to give.
So we dare not miss the many benefits there are fasting. Don’t be afraid of fasting. Now I think it’s important to add this feature, because I see this a lot with my students. When I talk about fasting, some people, a lot of people, in fact, will rule themselves out because they’re diabetic or maybe they’re pregnant or they have migraines if they fast. Well certainly we would not want to be asking anyone to do anything that would cause any harm to themselves or certainly to their unborn child.
But in the Bible, Daniel, you’ll remember, in the first chapter and his 10 friends had only vegetables to eat for a period of time and water to drink instead of the food that was offered to them. And so historically we have looked at that as a partial fast. So I have found that in almost every case where a person wants to fast but they have some physical limitation, by means of a partial fast, they can participate.
Traditionally, this has been one of two ways. If they balanced nutrition, they have a balanced meal, but much smaller portions. Or maybe they just have one simple food, like just rice, just bread. And the point is to get the minimal nutritional intake to keep them from having physical problems, but yet they still feel a lack of full satisfaction. They still feel a little hungry, or they have something that prompts them physically still to pray. So I think where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Our flesh wants to excuse all of us. We don’t enjoy hunger, so we say, well I can’t fast for this reason, or I can’t fast for that reason. Well we wouldn’t to ask anyone to fast in such a way that would cause them any physical harm whatsoever. However, where there’s a will, there’s a way.
So it may be through a limited meal that we’d call a partial fast. But usually where people want to do this, they can find a way to do this and I hope those who are watching this video, if they’ve never done that before will give it a try. You know, one meal can be a fast. It doesn’t have to be 24 hours. Anyone planning on a longer fast of three days or more maybe should get some medical advice before they do that. But even one meal for spiritual purposes can be a biblical fast.