First let’s look at what fasting is. The word used in the Old Testament is tsom. It means to abstain from food. It occurs seventeen times in the Old Testament. But it is more than abstaining from food. Skipping meals even for a predetermined amount of time does nothing for us spiritually. The earliest biblical mention of a fast is in Judges 20:26. Judges 20:23-28 says,
“And the people of Israel went up and wept before the Lord until the evening. And they inquired of the Lord, “Shall we again draw near to fight against our brothers, the people of Benjamin?” And the Lord said, “Go up against them.”
24 So the people of Israel came near against the people of Benjamin the second day. 25 And Benjamin went against them out of Gibeah the second day, and destroyed 18,000 men of the people of Israel. All these were men who drew the sword. 26 Then all the people of Israel, the whole army, went up and came to Bethel and wept. They sat there before the Lord and fasted that day until evening, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the Lord. 27 And the people of Israel inquired of the Lord (for the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days, 28 and Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron, ministered before it in those days), saying, “Shall we go out once more to battle against our brothers, the people of Benjamin, or shall we cease?” And the Lord said, “Go up, for tomorrow I will give them into your hand.”
It was a terrible civil war between Benjamin and the rest of Israel. Israel had no desire to fight her own brother, but Benjamin had done some very vile things and God would not let it go undisciplined. The people prayed all day and God answered and said, “Go against them.” The day before Israel had lost 22,000 men, after they prayed they lost another 18,000 men. So once again they prayed the entire day and this time they included fasting and offerings. When they asked again, God didn’t just say go up against them, He gave them specifics and a promise, “Go up, for tomorrow I will give them into your hand.”
So one reason we fast is to implore God for His will and favor. It is not a tool to manipulate God into giving us what we want, But to find out what God wants for us and from us.
Another purpose of fasting is repentance. We can get ourselves in some dire circumstances through our sins, especially habitual sins which can easily work their way into our lifestyle and displace The Holy Spirit. In 1 Samuel 7 Israel was in danger from the Philistines because of the idolatry they had practiced. 1 Samuel 7:3-11 says,
“And Samuel said to all the house of Israel, “If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your heart to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” 4 So the people of Israel put away the Baals and the Ashtaroth, and they served the Lord only.
5 Then Samuel said, “Gather all Israel at Mizpah, and I will pray to the Lord for you.” 6 So they gathered atMizpah and drew water and poured it out before the Lord and fasted on that day and said there, “We have sinned against the Lord.” And Samuel judged the people of Israel at Mizpah. 7 Now when the Philistines heard that the people of Israel had gathered at Mizpah, the lords of the Philistines went up against Israel. And when the people of Israel heard of it, they were afraid of the Philistines. 8 And the people of Israel said to Samuel, “Do not cease to cry out to the Lord our God for us, that he may save us from the hand of the Philistines.” 9 So Samuel took a nursing lamb and offered it as a whole burnt offering to the Lord. And Samuel cried out to the Lord for Israel, and the Lord answered him. 10 As Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to attack Israel. But the Lord thundered with a mighty sound that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion, and they were defeated before Israel. 11 And the men of Israel went out from Mizpah and pursued the Philistines and struck them, as far as below Beth-car.”
Israel wanted out of their circumstances but the reason for the fast was not so God would destroy Philistia, it was because they earnestly wanted to be reconciled to The Lord. They trusted God would take care of the enemy for them. Once again the fast was accompanied by prayer and worship.
Another purpose of fasting is mourning. When Saul and Jonathan were killed, Israel fasted. (2 Samuel 1:11-12). But mourning doesn’t always mean fasting. David wept, prayed, and fasted for his sick son born out of his adulterous relationship with Bathseba, in order to beg God to heal him. When the child died, David got up, washed, anointed himself and went and worshipped God. He accepted God’s judgement and worshipped Him. (2 Samuel 12:16-23). Fasting does not mean God gives us what we ask for, no matter the sincerity of the fast. It means we reconcile ourselves to God’s will. David put it this way in 2 Samuel 12:22-23,
“He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ 23 But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”
Sometimes we want things very badly, but those things are not God’s will for us. In the book of Acts some men tried to manipulate God and the government by declaring a fast until Paul was killed. (Acts 23-12-15). There fast was not ordained by God. They were not seeking God’s will but their own. I doubt any of those men was able to keep his oath since Paul lived for at least three years after they swore no food or drink would pass their lips.
In The New Testament the word for fast is nésteia. It also means to abstain from food, but it is connected with religious uses, private prayer and The Day of Atonement. In Acts every mention of fasting is done when people were appointed and set apart to ministries. So we know that it is by God’s will we are selected and sanctified for service. Jesus fasted for forty days before He began His ministry. He spent that time heavy in prayer and in scripture. When tempted to give up His fast and therefore not consider the gravity of His ministry, Jesus replied, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4). He quoted Deuteronomy 8:3 He reminded us, it is not food, provision, or pleasures which give us our lives, it is the Will of God that we live and it is by His will we worship, serve, and walk. Our own desires, don’t matter when we take pleasure in God’s desires. He replaces our old wants with His perfect ones. (Ephesians 4:17-24). We seek His desires, His will by prayer, scripture, and fasting.
But we don’t fast to make ourselves look good. We fast because we want God’s will above our own. We want to glorify God. Jesus told us how to fast. Matthew 6:16-21 reads,
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
I knew a girl who amazed me with her self-control and perseverance. Every year, she fasted from all food and every liquid except water for forty days. I have no idea what the purpose of her fast was, but it made her look like a very spiritual person. It made her look great. She carried a gallon of water with her. She declined food with a statement that she was fasting. Her fast glorified her. I am not sure if it glorified God. I cannot say what went on in her spiritual life. I know a man today, who fasts regularly but I rarely know when he is fasting. He never tells. I’ve been at restaurants with him and seen him surreptitiously not eat, but still enjoy the fellowship, still laugh. I only know he is fasting because I know him well. We are brother and sister in Christ, walking the same walk, with the same Spirit. I see his growth, I see the service and good works he does, not because he flaunts them but because his faith has clear results. The girl I knew got a lot of recognition and reward for her discipline and spiritual prowess. My friend, his treasure, his hope, and his joy are in Heaven and the results are here on earth in his walk, in the growth of the kingdom, and the love manifested.
Believer, I encourage you if you have not fasted, or if like me, you hate fasting, that you try it. That you set apart a predetermined time, forgo food and seek God’s will through prayer, scripture, repentance, and worship. See what God will do. “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” (Psalm 34:8).