Fasting

On what kinds of occasions did people fast?

When pleading to God for request

2 Samuel 12:15­16 (NIV) After Nathan had gone home, the LORD struck the child that Uriah's wife had borne to David, and he became ill. 16 David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and went into his house and spent the nights lying on the ground.

Joel describes the plague of the locusts and calls the people to mourn, tremble, fast and pray.

"The grapevines are dead; the fig trees are dying; the pomegranates wither; the apples shrivel on the trees; all joy has withered with them. O priests, robe yourselves in sackcloth. O ministers of my God, lie all night before the altar, weeping. For there are no more offerings of grain and wine for you. Announce a fast; call a solemn meeting. Gather the elders and all the people into the Temple of the Lord your God, and weep before him there." (Joel 1:12-14)

Once all of the people joined in the fast and sought God’s face, the Lord promised restoration.

"See, I am sending you much corn and wine and oil, to fully satisfy your need. No longer will I make you a laughingstock among the nations. I will remove these armies from the north and send them far away; I will turn them back into the parched wastelands where they will die; half shall be driven into the Dead Sea and the rest into the Mediterranean, and then their rotting stench will rise upon the land. The Lord has done a mighty miracle for you." (Joel 2:18-20)

When King Jehoshaphat heard the news that the surrounding kingdoms had declared war on his kingdom he gave orders that "everyone throughout Judah should observe a fast. So the people from all the towns of Judah came to Jerusalem to seek the Lord." (II Chronicles 20:3)

The people cried out to God and declared, "Whenever we are faced with any calamity such as war, disease, or famine, we come to stand in your presence before this temple where your name is honoured. We cry out to you and you will hear us and rescue us". (II Chronicles 20:9)

Before embarking on a difficult task

Esther 4:16 (NIV) "Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish."

When seeking God's will

Acts 13:2 (NIV) While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them."

Exodus 34:28 (NIV) Moses was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant­­the Ten Commandments.

Daniel 10:3­5 (NIV) I ate no choice food; no meat or wine touched my lips; and I used no lotions at all until the three weeks were over. 4 On the twenty­fourth day of the first month, as I was standing on the bank of the great river, the Tigris, 5 I looked up and there before me was a man dressed in linen, with a belt of the finest gold around his waist.

This verse indicates that there was a revelation given to Daniel as a result of this time of fasting.

When anointing leaders

Acts 14:23 (NIV) Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.

When asking for forgiveness

Deuteronomy 9:18 (NIV) Then once again I fell prostrate before the LORD for forty days and forty nights; I ate no bread and drank no water, because of all the sin you had committed, doing what was evil in the Lord's sight and so provoking him to anger.

When experiencing great temptations

Matthew 4:1­2 (NIV) Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.

Jesus took on extreme temptations by the devil after He has fasted for a prolonged period of time.

When you need a spiritual breakthrough

Matthew 17:14­21 (NIV) When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him. 15 "Lord, have mercy on my son," he said. "He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. 16 I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him." 17 "O unbelieving and perverse generation," Jesus replied, "how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me." 18 Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed from that moment. 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, "Why couldn't we drive it out?" 20 He replied, "Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you." 21 But this kind does not go away except by prayer and fasting.

Note: Some people may want to ignore verse 21, which is not found in the most ancient manuscripts. From the context, it seems like it does not fit in because there is no indication that even Jesus fasted before He casted out the demon.

Observation: Fasting was practised on very important occasions.

What is the purpose of fasting?

The word used to denote fasting is the Hebrew word anah which means to humble and afflict. (The meaning of the word afflict is to cause suffering or discomfort.) Some versions of the Bible translate the word as humble while others translate it as afflict.

Ezra 8:21 (NIV) There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble (anah) ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions.

Ezra 8:21 (KJV) Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river of Ahava, that we might afflict (anah) ourselves before our God, to seek of him a right way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance.

Genesis 16:6,9 (NIV) "Your servant is in your hands," Abram said. "Do with her whatever you think best." Then Sarai mistreated (anah) Hagar; so she fled from her....:9 Then the angel of the LORD told her (ie Hagar), "Go back to your mistress and submit (anah) to her (ie Sarah)."

Perhaps the best way to understand the meaning of anah is the biblical usage of the word to denote rape. To take a woman sexually by force is described as anah.

Genesis 34:2 (NIV) When Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, the ruler of that area, saw her, he took her and violated (anah) her.

Therefore, when we fast, we are both afflicting our bodies as well as humbling ourselves before God.

Why is fasting so effective?

After knowing that fasting does two things - humble and afflict us - is fasting effective because God likes us to humble ourselves or is it effective because God likes us to afflict ourselves or both?

Does God like us to humble ourselves?

James 4:6 (NIV) But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble."

Isaiah 57:15 (NIV) For this is what the high and lofty One says­­ he who lives forever, whose name is holy: "I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.

2 Chronicles 7:14­15 (NIV) if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land. 15 Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place.

Does God like us to afflict ourselves?

The Bible tells us that afflictions should be welcomed because it provides training value.

James 1:2­3 (NIV) Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.

But there is no indication that we should afflict ourselves so that we can be trained by it. There is certainly no instruction that we should punish ourselves for our sins by afflicting ourselves. This is Roman Catholic teaching.

Conclusion : It does not seem that God sees any value in us afflicting ourselves. Rather fasting is valuable because it is a means for us to humble ourselves.

Why is fasting a humbling experience?

It is easy to understand how fasting can be an afflicting experience because experiencing hunger can be quite a suffering. But how is fasting a humbling experience. In other words, what has an empty stomach have to do with humility? Why can the act of fasting symbolise humility? I propose two possible reasons but prefer the second.

1. Hunger makes us physically weak and humbles us by reminding us that we are also spiritually weak and in need of God's strength.

2. Fasting is a act which symbolises our humility.

In Old Testament thought, humility was closely associated with individuals who were poor and afflicted. In other words, when one thinks of the humble people, one thinks of those who are poor, hungry and suffering. Therefore, fasting, which produces hunger and suffering becomes an appropriate symbolism for humility.

The Bible talks about other symbolisms of humility.

2 Chr 34:27 Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before God when you heard what he spoke against this place and its people, and because you humbled yourself before me and tore your robes and wept in my presence, I have heard you, declares the LORD.

Here, humility is symbolised by torn robes. Again this reminds us of poor people and their torn clothes.

Therefore, it could be that fasting is only a symbolism. Whether the hunger actually cause us to be humble is not intended by the act of fasting. But if fasting is only a symbolism, why is it important? Surely God cannot be so serious with a mere symbolism. Can=t we be humble without fasting?

Even though fasting is only a symbolism, it is important. The Bible is full of examples of God taking symbolisms seriously.

Leviticus 23:27­29 (KJV) Also on the tenth day of this seventh month there shall be a day of atonement: it shall be an holy convocation unto you; and ye shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire unto the LORD. 28 And ye shall do no work in that same day: for it is a day of atonement, to make an atonement for you before the LORD your God. 29 For whatsoever soul it be that shall not be afflicted in that same day, he shall be cut off from among his people.

On the Day of Atonement, the Jews were to "afflict your souls". This was explained by later tradition (history books outside the Bible) to indicate fasting and repentance. Notice that verse 29 says that whoever does not fast on that day will be cut off from God=s people. God is dead serious when it comes to symbolic acts.

Jer 6:26 O my people, put on sackcloth and roll in ashes; mourn with bitter wailing as for an only son, for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us.

God doesn’t just tell His people to mourn; He tells them to mourn by putting on sackcloth and rolling in ashes.

However, symbolic acts are only important if the underlying feelings are there. In other words, fasting is only useful if the people=s hearts are really humble before God. If the people carry on with their sins, no amount of symbolic act will win them God=s favour.

Isaiah 58:3­9 (NIV) 'Why have we fasted,' they say, 'and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?' "Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. 4 Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. 5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one's head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? 6 "Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter­­ when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? 8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. 9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. "If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk,

To summarize this complicated principle of the Bible: God wants us to be humble in our hearts. He also wants us to portray this humility by symbolic acts. Symbolic acts are important to God. But if the heart is not right before God, no amount of symbolic acts will get us anywhere with Him.

Another example will clearly drive the point across. In the Old Testament days, God requires every male child to be circumcised. Anyone not circumcised will be cut of from God=s people. Yet circumcision is only a symbolism of getting rid of sin in our lives. If the people continue in their sins, God values their acts of circumcision as nothing.

Genesis 17:12­14 (NIV) For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner­­those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant."

We have to understand that circumcision is a sign (Genesis 17;11). A sign has no meaning by itself. What has the cutting of the male foreskin have to do with anything? But what it symbolizes is important. At the end of the wanderings in the wilderness, Moses summoned his fellow Jews to circumcise their hearts ie to bring their wilfulness against God to an end.

Deuteronomy 10:16 Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.

Later God promised His people that He will circumcise their hearts and the hearts of their descendants to love God with all their heart and with all their soul so that they might live.

Deuteronomy 30:6 The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.

Thus the act of circumcision, which literally means "cutting off", symbolizes the "cutting off" of sin from our life. Clearly, a person who was circumcised physically was expected to respond sincerely to the spiritual significance of the act i.e. to be circumcised in the heart by "cutting off" sins from his life. The physical act alone guarantees nothing. In fact God punishes all those who were merely circumcised in the flesh but not in the heart ­­ which is the true significance of circumcision.

Jeremiah 9:25-26 "The days are coming," declares the LORD, "when I will punish all who are circumcised only in the flesh-- {26} Egypt, Judah, Edom, Ammon, Moab and all who live in the desert in distant places. For all these nations are really uncircumcised, and even the whole house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart."

Things to remember when you fast

Fasting is an absolute waste of time if our lives are not right before God.

Fasting without prayer is merely dieting. The Bible is full of examples of people who fast and pray.

Do not show off your fasting hoping to get praises from men.

Mat 6:16 "When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.