Modern Christian books and magazines contain much about Christian doctrine, Christian standards, problems of Christian conduct, techniques of Christian service — but little about the inner realities of fellowship with God. We do not spend much time, alone or together, in dwelling on the wonder of the fact that God and sinners have communion at all; no, we just take that for granted, and give our minds to other matters. Thus we make it plain that communion with God is a small thing to us.
Packer’s comments fit well with our most recent series of messages from Paul’s words in 1Timothy 4:7 where the Apostle exhorts Timothy to exercise himself towards godliness. Though Paul does not give us an exhaustive list of spiritual exercises, the New Testament gives us many clues on how to develop the “inner realities of fellowship with God.” One such spiritual exercise is Fasting. Defined simply, fasting is the “abstinence from food for spiritual purposes.”
One of the most important principles related to fasting is found in the second part of that definition. Fasting must have a definite purpose or aim. Without a purpose, fasting quickly become a miserable experience defined by hunger pains and headaches. Though having a clear target won’t make the hunger and headaches go away, it will give added strength to overcome the pain. Donald Whitney, in his book, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life identifies 10 Biblical purposes for a fast and they include:
1) To strengthen prayer. In Ezra 8:23, Ezra proclaimed a fast in order to help the people see their desperate need for God as they sought safe passage back to Judea from Babylonian captivity. In what has become a Christian Classic on fasting, Arthur Wallis in his book, God’s Chosen Fast writes….. Fasting is calculated to bring a note of urgency and importunity into our praying, and to give force to our pleading in the court of heaven. The man who prays with fasting is giving heaven notice that he is truly in earnest. He is expressing his earnestness in a divinely appointed way. He is using a means that God has chosen to make his voice to be heard on high.
2) To seek God’s guidance. In Judges 20, it wasn’t until God’s people both prayed and fasted that they received the necessary guidance from God on whether to pursue a battle with the Benjamites or not. This purpose for fasting is also communicated in Acts 14:23 where Paul and Barnabas must choose elders for each of the churches they planted. Although fasting doesn’t guarantee we will always get clear guidance from God, it does help us become more receptive to His leadership.
3) To express grief. In 2 Samuel 1, the Bible tells us that upon hearing of the death of King Saul and his son Jonathan, David and his men tore their clothes, mourned and wept and fasted until evening for Saul and Jonathan. In addition to grief related to death, fasting can also be associate with grief over one’s sin or the sins of others. Our fasting in no way atone for our sin or the sin of others but does express a brokenness brought about by Holy Spirit’s conviction.
4) To seek God’s protection. In 2Chronicles 20:3-4, we read that King Jehoshaphat “proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah” in order to seek God’s protection from an invading army. One of the best-known fasts in the Bible comes from Esther 4 where Queen Esther requested that her fellow Jews fast for God’s protection while she entered her husband’s presence unannounced on behalf of the Jewish people. As Christians become more aware of their nation’s sins against God, fasting helps us depend upon His mercy for our own protection when judgment comes to our respective countries. Even though you and I may not contribute directly to the sins of our country, Christians are not automatically exempt from seasons of national judgment.
5) To express repentance. Though very similar to fasting associated with grief, fasting can also represent a signal to commit one’s life to obedience in a new direction. We see this example of fasting in 1Samuel 7:6 when the Israelites repented from their idolatrous ways. The same thought is expressed in Joel 2:12 where God actually commanded his people to give evidence of repentance by fasting. “‘Yet even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with morning.’” In every Christians favorite fish story, Jonah records the repentance of the Ninevites in Jonah 3:5 when he writes, “The people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.”
In our next blog, we will look at the remaining 5 purposes for fasting and how to begin a normal fast.