The first mention of fasting in the Bible is in Judges chapter 20 during a civil war between Israel and Benjamin. After Israel lost a battle on the second day of fighting, they were devastated and grieved. The Lord had told them to fight, yet still they had lost the battle. So in grief, they fasted and offered sacrifices and again inquired from the LORD, “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.”
What was the purpose of this fast? Was it the fast that made God say He would give Benjamin to them? That was His plan all along. He didn’t want His people divided. This war was an affront to the LORD. But when they lost the fight on the second day, their faith was shaken and tested. They were not certain of God’s will anymore. Did He really want them to fight their very own people?
Fasting and worship focused the people on the LORD. It strengthened their faith and allowed them to hear Him more clearly. In this passage as with many other instances of fasting, fasting was a way to seek God’s will and mourn sin. In this passage seeking His will was done by worship. It isn’t like the child who wants a toy and so cleans her room in order to make her parents more pliable to her request. It is removing distraction to worship God wholly.
They were making atonement for sin and in the desire to be purified they not only sacrificed animals but their comfort. They wanted God’s will more than food. They hungered and thirsted for God’s righteousness, not food. They hungered and thirsted for God’s righteousness, not victory over their brother but what was right to God.
Trying to control God like the child manipulating her parents by doing extra chores does not bring the results one hopes for. God knows the difference between genuine and insincere fasting. Isaiah 58 describes both types for us. Verses 3-5 read,
‘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.
4 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.
5 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?
The unacceptable fast is one is done to seek our own pleasure, our will not God’s. While the fast itself may be done with humility. That same piety doesn’t make it into the rest of the person’s life, he oppresses his workers, he quarrels as he makes his ideas more important than those of the people around him. This fasting is also one which puts on false airs of humility, pride dressing in humility’s clothes to appear good, to have people say, “Wow, that is one good Christian!”
I have known people who have done forty-day fasts. I remember one girl who carried around a gallon bottle of water and let everyone know that she could only drink water for all that time. Her eyes had black circles and she wore no make-up. She announced it to the world. I was impressed. I can barely fast for a day. But she was glorifying herself like the faster who spread sackcloth and ashes under him. She made me think that Christians tend to be self-righteous rather than righteous.
I know a man who I discovered on three different occasions had fasted for forty days. He didn’t announce it and I never would have guessed. But he was returning to normal foods slowly after the fast and his wife was the one to mention in passing, something about eating a light soup instead of a full meal. This man’s passion for seeking God astounds me. His trials have often been horrible and even while he felt his faith was waning, I saw it grow because he never gave up. God lifted this man up and he inspires me to remain faithful to God. Brian’s fasts looked more like Isaiah’s description of what God wants a fast to be. Verses 6-7 read,
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?
7 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?
Look at what the faster in these verses seeks. He seeks what God wants, loosing bonds, undoing yokes, freeing the oppressed and feeding the hungry. This person is living out Christianity by his fast, walking like Jesus.
God even makes us promises about what a genuine fast can produce. Verses 8-14 read,
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.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
11 And the Lord will guide you continually
and satisfy your desire in scorched places
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail.
12 And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to dwell in.
13 “If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath,
from doing your pleasure on my holy day,
and call the Sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly;
14 then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
God’s path lit up, healing, protection, and God’s presence and ear are only a part of it; He satisfies the desires of the afflicted guides, gives health, and uses the genuine faster for His kingdom. The fast described in Isaiah 58 is not about getting our way or boosting our prayer, it is about lamenting our sinfulness, it is about repentance of sin. Verses 1-2 read,
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.
2 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.
Jesus also contrasted honest and true fasting from dishonorable and hypocritical fasting. Matthew 6:1 reads,
Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
In Matthew 6:16-18 Jesus said,
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.
We don’t need it any more clear than that. Do we? Notice too, Jesus assumes that we will fast as a part of our Christian walk, He said, “when you fast,” not if you fast. Later, John the Baptist’s disciples asked Jesus about fasting. They said, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus again made a statement that lets us know that fasting is an expectation of the Christian life. He said, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”
There are several right motives for fasting. We have seen one is repentance of sin and another is worship. The overarching motive for fasting should always be to do God’s will and work. Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit to fast immediately after He was baptized and before He began His Messianic ministry. His fasting strengthened Him as He was tempted to give up His mission even before He started. The forty-day fast was specifically to focus on the Father’s will, guided by the Holy Spirit so He could know and proclaim that His will was the Father’s will (Matthew 4). Later when He was again fasting He said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:31-34). He didn’t announce His fast to the disciples, they didn’t even know he was fasting except they must have noticed he had not eaten.
Jesus taught that to worship through fasting grows our faith and makes His work possible for you. You would think that seeing Jesus transfigured on a mountain top and joined by Moses and Elijah and then Hearing the voice of God speak of Jesus as His Son would increase one’s faith to astronomical heights. But not long after Peter, James, and John saw this very thing, they and the other disciples tried unsuccessfully to exorcise a demon (Matthew 17:1-21).When they asked Jesus why, He told them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you. But this kind never comes out except by prayer and fasting.”[i]
You see prayer and fasting increase faith enough to do the works that are otherwise impossible. Notice in every instance of fasting, it is not alone, it is accompanied by prayer, by worship, or by service. Skipping food is of no purpose if we are not focusing on God rather than our stomachs.
Fasting as an individual grows faith individually, but fasting as a group increases faith for all those involved, it proves and exhibits unity for the benefit of the whole group, be it a few friends, an entire church, or an entire nation. This is demonstrated in the book of Esther. The Jews were in peril from an evil plan and would all face death. Queen Esther had to go to the King, reveal the plot, declare herself as follower of the One True God, and ask for the lives of her people. This was a daunting and dangerous task for which the king might kill her. But Esther stood up to the job and in order to increase their faith and reveal the unity of Israel called for a three day fast for the Jewish people. She said, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4).
If you do not fast now, Brothers and Sisters, I dare you to begin. Not to impress, not to look good but to grow in faith, know God’s will, declare His will and have the ability to accomplish it.
[i] Verse 21 is inserted in some manuscripts only.