What Is The Point Of Fasting?
Of all of the spiritual disciplines, fasting is incontestably the one in which I am weakest. While I have been aware of the practice ever since I became a Christian and have attempted it on a number occasions over the years, I have always struggled to find the sort of satisfaction in it that I imagine I should. My first attempt came on the heels of my return from Pisa, Italy, where my missions team spent six weeks working with local university students. Having seen God move in the lives of so many during that time, I was on quite the spiritual high and didn’t want to lose the momentum that I had gained during the trip. So I decided it was time to deepen myself with a fast. While we were on the road, a couple of my team members had told me about the forty day fasts that they had done and how much closer to God it had brought them, and this was something I very much desired for myself. Surely, I thought, if they could accomplish such a feat, then I could manage a measly seven days. Thus I embarked upon my first multiple-day fast.
Though I was mostly successful in keeping my fast, save for a few peanuts and crackers that I cheated down one day to give myself some small respite from the hunger, I found the whole experience to be terribly discouraging from a spiritual standpoint. I had approached the endeavor with all the best intentions and with what I thought was a genuine burden to grow in my faith, but as my hunger mounted with each new day of deprivation, I constantly found my attention drifting from my pursuit of God to the thought of eating again. And when I did manage to focus on God for a while, He seemed as far off as He might were I not to think on Him at all. Once the seven days finally came to an end, I looked back on them with resentment and dismay. I had set aside seven full days to meet with God, but it seemed He hadn’t set aside any to meet with me. I had tried to bring God an acceptable sacrifice, and it seemed He hadn’t wanted anything to do with it. I felt as if I was no better off for my pains, as if I had gained virtually nothing from the experience, which became an emotional blot on my view of fasting and kept me from attempting it again for several years.
I share this story because I suspect that I am far from alone in my frustrations. How many of us have dedicated ourselves in prayer day after day, sometimes for years, only to be answered with vexing silence? And how many of us have come before God in desperation and fasting only to feel just as alone at the end of our time of offering as we did at the beginning? The astute theologian will no doubt remind us that we are sinners and that God has no obligation to meet with us at all, but this is hardly helpful to sustaining a man’s faith in God or in his standing as a son of God. Though I concur with the theologian that we are indeed sinners and undeserving of God’s least attention, I would add that even sinners, when they fix their eyes on God in faith, are promised healing and fellowship by One who cannot lie (Num. 23:19, Titus 1:2, Isa. 53:5, John 10:14-15 ⟴). If we do not perceive the healing and fellowship of God through prayer and fasting, perhaps it is because we have set our eyes on something less. I hope that through what follows I might help us all to lift our gaze to its proper Godward inclination, that we might reap the full benefits of the gift that He has given us in fasting.
Before I share those particular insights which have reawakened me to the benefits of fasting, I think it important that we have a basic understanding of the practice. When we see fasting in the Old Testament, though some instances are connected with mourning (1 Sam. 31:11-13, 2 Sam. 1:11-12 ⟴) and others with seeking God’s favor in times of pressing need (2 Chr. 20:1-4, Ezra 8:21-23, Neh. 1:1-11, Ps. 109:21-25 ⟴), the great majority are connected with participants’ acknowledgement of their sin and subsequent repentance, the tone of which is both somber and dire. In many cases, it is accompanied by the wearing of sackcloth and the donning of ashes as an outward display of just how deeply one feels the weight of his sin before God and how desperate he is to be rid of it. Because the combination of “sackcloth and ashes” so often accompanies occurrences of fasting, I think it important that we have a sense of what each of these things entails, as I believe that together they say a great deal about how our fasts can be made most effective.
Beginning with sackcloth, the name itself tells us most everything we need to know. Sackcloth was a rough cloth used for making sacks for common use. The material was meant to be durable, inexpensive, and long-lasting and was not at all concerned with comfort or fashion. Only a very poor man, who had no money for proper attire, might think of using such a thing for clothing and, in his poverty, would consider himself blessed of God that he had anything to wear at all. We should understand then that for a king or some other societal elite to put on sackcloth in place of his usual fineries would be a sign of deep contrition and humility (2 Kings 19:1-7, 1 Chr. 21:14-17, Jonah 3:1-10 ⟴). It would be an admission of his utter poverty before the Lord and, at the same time, his gratitude to God that He would see fit to provide even the barest necessities of life. Such a man is concerned neither with his own comfort nor how he appears to his fellow man, but only that he lives, for he knows that life itself is a luxury beyond his deserving.
The reasoning behind the ashes is not quite so obvious. As I began to investigate their use, I could not help but wonder where one is expected to obtain these ashes. Does he simply grab some from his stove and dump them over his head? Does he search out something to burn in his backyard to manufacture the ash? Perhaps in a pinch one might do such things, but were he to do so, I’ve no doubt that his thoughts would be fixed upon the reality of the burnt offering as he did (Lev. 4:1-12 ⟴). In presenting this offering, a man would deliver a blemishless bull to the anointed priest to sacrifice in atonement for his sin. After symbolically laying his sins on the bull by placing his hand on its head, he would slit its throat, spilling its blood into a bowl for the priest to offer up before God. The priest would then burn select portions of the bull on the altar of burnt offering. The rest he would bring “to a clean place outside the camp where the ashes are poured out and burn it on wood with fire” (Lev. 4:11-12, 6:10-11, Num. 19:9-10 ⟴). Some of these ashes would then be reserved for mixing with the water used in purification rites, water whose power to cleanse the unclean derived from its infusion with these very ashes (Num. 19:9, 17-19, Heb. 9:11-14 ⟴). The ashes, being what is left of the sacrifice after sin has been burned away, are clean, and by applying them to himself in faith, whether directly or by the sprinkling of ash-infused water, the believer likewise hopes to become clean.
But this cleansing involves far more than the mere application of a material thing to one’s body. These ashes in themselves were no more clean than the water into which they were infused was, in itself, holy—as if God’s purity and holiness were physical substances to be passed about and traded. Rather, the ashes’ cleanness was a matter of a worshipper’s belief that they embodied his sins, now purified through God’s cleansing flame. As with all of Israel’s ceremonial practices, the effectiveness of every ceremonial act only ever blossomed out of the personal faith in which it was grounded. Always, the believer’s faith connects his heart with the acts that God prescribes, both for his initial healing and for his continued flourishing, and this is no less true today than it was back then. Rote ritual and feigned solemnity are as detestable to God as the sin that they are meant to redress (Pro. 15:8, Isa. 1:10-17, Hosea 6:6 ⟴). Only faith, lived out in loving obedience, has the power to cleanse a man.
Even so, what might compel a man to decorate his body in ashes? Why would the prophets encourage such behavior in the Israelites, commanding them to “roll” and “wallow” in ashes as their judgment drew near (Jer. 6:26, 25:34, Eze. 27:30-31 ⟴)? What good might come of covering oneself so thoroughly?
The answer, I believe, is threefold.
Imagine a man who has begun to comprehend the full gravity of His sin. He feels it not only within, but in every inch of his fragile earthen body. He cannot cleanse his heart, so he pursues in the extreme the only course he knows. A bit of ash on the head or sprinkling of water simply will not do. His heart demands that he be fully immersed in the purifying flame of God, and wearing his own sin offering is as close to this reality as he can come outwardly and still live. The act of dousing himself in this purified ash feels cleaner to him than the nominal purity of a bathed body, and he gains an emotional satisfaction from the act.
Intellectually, he understands that, though an innocent animal has been slaughtered and burned up on his behalf, the real problem has yet to be addressed. He is yet a sinner, ever straying and ever in need of God’s mercy, and no amount of external sacrifice will cure him of this inward blight. He himself must be purified, his sin burned from within him. In some sense, he must become the sacrifice that he would offer to God, a living sacrifice who perpetually presents himself upon the altar for God’s service. By covering himself in ash, he identifies himself as closely as is outwardly possible with the sacrifice that he has made and demonstrates his inner longing for transformation. Surely Paul must have had in mind this very image when he wrote, “I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God to present your bodies as a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:1-2 ⟴).
Spiritually, this man is compelled to the uttermost humility. He acknowledges himself as a man of dust, whose every dimension and measure of substance was given Him as a gift by God. He knows full well that God has every reason to strip him of these gifts and blend his soul back into the soil from whence it came (Gen. 3:19 ⟴), and he freely confesses in the spirit of Abraham and Job, “I am but dust and ashes” (Gen. 18:27, Job 42:6 ⟴). And what are these ashes but dust, symbolically purified of sin’s curse? By so immersing himself in ashes, this man of dust admits his natural insufficiency to be the man he ought and his need to be torn down in himself and fashioned anew in God’s holiness. Ashes then represent the fiery building blocks of the new man that God will make of him in the coming creation, which itself will be reborn out of God’s sin-purging fire (2 Pet. 3:10-13 ⟴). No man can be reborn while he clings to the spiritual deformity birthed in him by sin, but if he humbles himself to “dust and ashes,” God will exalt him at the proper time (1 Pet. 5:5-7 ⟴).
Now why, in a chapter on fasting, have I given so much attention to the act of dressing oneself in sackcloth and ashes when it seems at best coincidental to the practice of fasting? I have done so because I do not think these coincidental at all. While it is true that the wearing of sackcloth does not accompany every mention of fasting, it does accompany many (1 Kings 21:27, Ps. 35:13, 69:10-11, Joel 1:13-14 ⟴), several of which also mention ashes (Neh. 9:1, Es. 4:1-3, Dan. 9:3, Jonah 3:4-9, Mat. 11:21, Luke 10:13 ⟴). The move from mere fasting to putting on sackcloth—and later to covering oneself in ashes—always comes with progressively deepening levels of distress, a heightened sense of self-awareness, and an intensification of focus as one begins to perceive the awesome gravity of what it means for a sinful man to enter into the presence of a holy God. And it is during these times, when we men esteem God with the utmost seriousness, that God is most open to hearing our requests. Why then would we bother fasting at all if we do not intend to approach him with the same earnestness as those who participate in such extreme acts of contrition? I am not suggesting that anyone add a sackcloth section to his closet or dump ashes on his head every time he sits down to pray. Yet I would suggest that if we do not have in mind the seriousness of our sin and our constant spiritual poverty as we come before God, our pride cannot help but infect our requests, for we shall no doubt issue them as if standing atop a pillar when in truth we speak from the pit.
If sackcloth and ash can assist us in perceiving our true place before a holy God, then we should wear them. But what good will such ragged raiment do us if our hearts are not likewise attired? And if they are so attired, what need have we of making such an outward display? We who worship God do so in spirit and truth (John 4:22-24 ⟴)—sinners clothed in the one true offering of Christ, on whose head all of our sins were laid, so as to be purified by God’s fiery wrath (Gal. 3:26-27, Heb. 9:11-14, 10:4-10, 13:10-14, Ps. 89: 38-51 ⟴). To put on Christ is itself to wear the ashes of the Son, who endured the Father’s burning indignation on our behalf (Jer. 21:12-14, Zep. 3:8-11, Nahum 1:6, Isa. 53:1-12 ⟴). It is to immerse ourselves in His indelible purity, that we might finally be clean.
Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore, we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection. (Rom. 6:3-5 ⟴)
Though in the flesh we are baptized in water—the element out of which the natural world and natural men were created and symbolically recreated through the flood (Gen. 1, 1 Pet. 3:18-22 ⟴) and which is useful for the cleansing and renewal of our bodies—John the Baptist reveals the nature of our true baptism when, in reference to Christ, he says, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Mat. 3:11 ⟴). We must all pass through the cleansing flame of God’s holy wrath (1 Pet. 4:17 ⟴), but only those who have put on Christ and had their consciences purified of the guilt of their sin will pass through whole.
Yet if a man’s heart has already been set aflame by the love of God alight within him—if the Father has made the man himself holy ground (Ex. 3:1-6, 1 Cor. 3:16-17 ⟴)—what is left to consume him? He already burns with the very Love that would judge him. Can God condemn Himself (2 Tim. 2:13 ⟴)? Certainly not! To the contrary, His greater flame will only bolster His servant’s lesser flame and ignite him to even deeper and greater acts of love than before. And in this way, the sinner clothed in Christ and made clean by His sacrifice can stand amid the flame of God, not only unharmed, but transfigured by the unsullied joy pouring from within him. This is the man that God has called each of us to be—not in some distant future that lives only in our imagination, but right now in this ever so dark and despairing world (John 8:12, Mat. 5:14-16, 2 Cor. 4:6, Pro. 4:18 ⟴). Children of God do not wait to live until they die, but live presently and persistently by God’s grace, always looking for opportunities to shine forth His light. But if this is how we are to live, how then ought we seek God in prayer? What should be our attitude when we fast?
As I consider some of my own attempts at fasting in view of these questions, I begin to understand why they proved so unprofitable. When I came to God on so many of these occasions, I did so with the thought that I was doing something noble, that I was laying a most worthy sacrifice before God, one which He surely must notice and perhaps in time even reward. I came as a rich man reluctantly bidding on God’s favor rather than the man that I am, a poor, desperate sinner, unable to offer the least recompense to settle his debt. This is not to say that I did not genuinely have a desire to grow in my faith and become a more agile servant of the Gospel. I suspect that even the most foolish or amateur believer who thinks to fast in his pursuit of God must have gotten something right. Yet this spark of good intent that I displayed is simply not enough to deliver a man from the overpowering burden of his pride and the pretense that follows it, the pair of which drags behind him like a rusty ball and chain wherever he goes, hobbling him in all his spiritual endeavors. When I came before God during that first seven-day fast, it was not in dust and ashes, but with this subtle self-assurance of what a good and spiritual person I must be for attempting such a feat. I was quite full of myself, and being already filled with my own praise, I neither had any place left for His filling nor the capacity to render to Him the undivided worship that He rightly deserved. As a result, I exited that week far hungrier both in body and in spirit than I had entered.
Thankfully, failure did not pass me by without leaving a lesson in its wake, although it has taken me many years to discern it and learn to articulate it. And this is the moral of my story: we cannot fill ourselves by dining on our own emptiness, but only on God’s fullness, nor can we partake of His fullness until we really believe that we are empty, that we truly have nothing in ourselves that can satisfy. This pervading awareness of our personal insufficiency before God is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of any fast. Fleeting images that we are, we are ever-dependent on His radiance for our existence and for whatever beauty we reflect to one another. Likewise, the world around us can at best reflect God’s goodness to us and only inasmuch as we have learned to see it by and submit it to His light. It cannot sustain us. Whatever worldly thing presently commands our attention may seem to satisfy for a while and may even be necessary to prolonging this brief, fleshly existence, yet it will never be enough, and any satisfaction that we gain from it will eventually fade to despair. Lasting joy is not to be found in the thing provided, but in the One who has provided it. When we fast, we are temporarily setting aside the thing provided—pleasurable or helpful as it may be—and looking in gratitude to the good God who has graciously given of Himself, that we might enjoy it. We set aside what He created to partake of the Creator Himself.
If we are to benefit from fasting, then we must agree with Jesus, confessing from the heart, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work” (John 4:34 ⟴). If the goodness, kindness, and abiding being of the Father are our true sustenance, then even the most exquisite worldly fare cannot help but fail us, becoming increasingly blander and less satisfying the longer we taste of it. All the many delights of this world may for a time take on the semblance of substance and necessity as they dance seductively before our eyes. But, in fact, they are not necessary at all. At best, they serve as a temporary means of binding us to this world and enabling us to do our Father’s will for as long as He would have us remain. At worst, they serve only as distractions from our true purpose, and the more we indulge in them, the more we starve ourselves of the true food that He offers us in His service. When we fast from the good gift of food, we are saying to God, “I know that this food does not sustain me, but You who made it sustain me. My hunger goes deeper than food.” When we fast from the good gift of sex (1 Cor. 7:5 ⟴), we are telling Him, “I know that sex is not my life, but You who made it are my life. My hunger goes deeper than sex.” These and so many other good gifts are powerful demonstrations of God’s love when viewed in their proper context and equally powerful snares when they become ends in themselves.
When we fast with a humble spirit, our hearts and minds set upon our Father—not to obtain something from Him—but simply to behold Him in wonder for the good God that He is, we begin to see the world for what it is and to recognize the deceitful snares that the Devil has set for us. We become capable of acknowledging worldly things for what they are—passing gifts given us as stepping stones to eternal glory, each to be held loosely and enjoyed in its proper time and way before being released in favor of better things yet to come. When the things of this world become too precious to us to let go, they take on a life of their own to us, becoming little gods which steadily grow in their power and influence over us the longer we cling to them. Impotent and lifeless as they are, they overcome us, and “by what a man is overcome, by this he is enslaved” (2 Pet. 2:19 ⟴). As we living people, held fast by the fetters of our own vapid appetites, choose to bow down to dead things, we become like the gods we worship, growing progressively weaker and less able to resist their languid grasp.
Now if it is our appetites that bind us (Rom. 16:18 ⟴), then fasting may well prove the only key to delivering us from our particular form of bondage. While we may meet with some success in combating fleshly urges through prayer and upward focus (Php. 4:6, Col. 3:1-17 ⟴), there is a pronounced difference between merely asking God to help us tame our flesh and embracing the means by which He might actually grant our requests. If I invite a friend to enter my home and then keep the door securely locked, how will I enjoy fellowship with him? In the same way, if I plead with God to stamp out some unholy or unhealthy desire but then refuse Him entrance to any one of those paths by which He might remove it, how can anyone take seriously my request? Fasting then not only serves as a tool by which God can loosen our grip on some good thing that we have come to hold too tightly, but also reveals a genuine desire to put worldly things in their proper place, so as not to obscure our view of God’s glory. As we fast, we practice releasing those things which have gained an unhealthy hold on our souls back to God, that we might see them anew in the light of His goodness rather than the muted tones born of our own shadows, as we shrink from His light to conceal what has truly mastered our hearts.
Having recognized our need to relinquish our hold on the world and be filled instead with God, I think the next most important question that we can ask is, “What does it mean to be filled with God?” Unlike the food that we eat, God is not a physical substance that can be mindlessly digested to quell our spiritual aches. As I learned over seven hard days, going through the motions of feeding oneself is useless if he does not first grasp the substance of which he is partaking. If we are to feed our souls through fasting, then we must first, in some small but real way, grasp the substance of the Bread on which we feed (John 6:26-58 ⟴). Of all the passages in the Bible, I think that Isaiah fifty-eight answers this question more powerfully than any other, and I think it will profit us all to read it in its entirety. He writes:
Cry aloud—do not hold back! Raise your voice like a trumpet and declare to My people their transgression, and to the house of Jacob their sins. They seek Me day by day and delight to know My ways, as if they were a nation that has done righteousness and has not forsaken the ordinance of their God. They ask Me for just decisions. They delight in the nearness of God.
“Why have we fasted, and You do not see? Why have we humbled ourselves, and You do not notice?”
Behold, on the day of your fast, you seek your own pleasure and drive hard all your workers. You fast for contention and strife and to strike with a wicked fist. You do not fast as you do today to make your voice heard on high. Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed and for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed? Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the Lord? Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house, to cover the naked when you see him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then your light will break out like the dawn, your recovery will speedily spring forth, and your righteousness will go before you. The glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer. You will cry, and He will say, “Here I am.” If you remove the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness, and if you give yourself to the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness and your gloom will become like midday. And the Lord will continually guide you and satisfy your desire in scorched places and give strength to your bones, and you will be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters do not fail. Those from among you will rebuild the ancient ruins. You will raise up the age-old foundations and will be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets in which to dwell.
If because of the sabbath, you turn your foot from doing your own pleasure on My holy day and call the sabbath a delight, the holy day of the Lord honorable, and honor it, desisting from your own ways, from seeking your own pleasure and speaking your own word, then you will take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth and feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (Isa. 58:1-14 ⟴)
If anything is clear from this passage, it is that mere humility before God is insufficient to garner His favor. Isaiah presents the Israelites here as being genuinely humble, a people who daily seek God and delight to know His ways (2 ⟴), who bow their heads like reeds and fast in sackcloth and ashes (5 ⟴). Yet God takes no notice (3 ⟴). Why? To put it simply, they failed to love.
Humility, while a necessary first step in our pursuit of the Lord, cannot by itself bring us to God. The humble man admits to his hunger and his inability to satiate it. He cries out to Heaven and pleads with God to give Him the Bread that will sustain him in his helplessness. In doing these things, he thus far seems quite spiritual, a man most suited to divine communion. But what should we make of him were God to offer him the very food for which he had asked only to watch him refuse it? We would see in him precisely what Isaiah saw in his fellow Israelites—a man whose obsession with his own pleasure and wisdom made the love of his fellow men impossible (3, 13 ⟴). And “anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8 ⟴).
God is love, and Jesus, who is God in the flesh, is the Bread which came down from Heaven and of which we are meant to partake (John 1:1-5, 6:26-58 ⟴). He is that with which we must fill ourselves if we are to know God. Thus, when we pray and ask God to fill us with Himself, we are not asking for some abstract, spiritual anointing or blissful feeling, nor are we seeking real or perceived elevation of status, so as to relish in our own self-importance, nor are we requesting His assurance or comfort or peace. We are asking Him to fill us with the Spirit of Love, in whom all of these things are found and without whom all will eventually fail. Love is our daily Bread. It is the end to which every effective fast points. What sense then does it make to fast to God and ask for His filling if we are unwilling to love our neighbors? Are we not in such a case preemptively denying ourselves the very thing for which we are making our plea? Will God grant us greater love when we have despised what little He has already shone within us?
Jesus loved the Father and did precisely as He commanded Him, even unto death (John 14:21, 31, Php. 2:8 ⟴). His love of the Father, displayed through obedience, was Jesus’ food, that which sustained Him and delivered Him untainted by sin through each cursed day in this world (John 4:34 ⟴). If love for the Father sustained the Son, then so it shall sustain every son who truly tastes of it by heeding His command, and He has commanded us, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18 ⟴). “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar, for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also” (1 John 4:20-21 ⟴). “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have and deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:1-3 ⟴). And if I fast of every conceivable indulgence with the utmost humility and sincerity, but have not love, I remain nothing. But when I love others with the love of Christ, however clumsy or meager my offering may be, I prove myself God’s son.
As with all Heavenly blessings, when it comes to love, “to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away” (Mat. 25:29 ⟴). If we wish to receive from God, we must first be about obeying His commands. We must love Him above all else and authenticate our love for Him by loving one another, for it is through the act of loving that God feeds our souls with His own Spirit and matures us in His love. Fasting is no exception to this rule. As the Israelites discovered, much to their surprise, a fast that is not surrounded on all sides by one’s love for his neighbor is no fast at all, and no amount of showmanship can change that (Mat. 6:16-18 ⟴). But a fast immersed in the love of God through one’s selfless love of his neighbors makes him “like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters do not fail” (Isa. 58:11, John 7:37-38 ⟴) and from which “light will break out like the dawn” as God Himself rises behind him and shields him from harm (Isa. 58:8 ⟴). And perhaps most importantly, when we pray and fast in love, God doesn’t just hear us—He responds (Isa. 58:9 ⟴). He steps into our lives and walks with us on the arduous path ahead. And by His enduring fellowship, He gives us the strength we need each day for one more step.
After all this, what shall we say is the point of fasting? We might offer any number of sound Biblical answers. Fasting demonstrates the seriousness of our convictions in our pursuit of God. It leads us to lay aside our idols and look beyond them to the God who created every good thing. It clears the platform from which we speak to God of all distractions, making it most suitable for acts of confession and repentance and for issuing our most earnest requests. It helps us to perceive ourselves as the barren people we truly are, that we might reach out for God’s merciful provision and enjoy the true food of knowing Him (Deu. 8:2-3 ⟴). It drives us to a level of humility that we cannot know until we have learned to acknowledge worldly things and pursuits for the vacant realities that they are. Most important of all, when we do it out of a love for God and others, it increases in us His love, by which both we and all who surround us are sustained.
Love is the final end of fasting and the summation of all other ends. It is also the beginning of fasting and the means of reaching that end. God is love, and love is all in all, so it should not surprise us that an effective fast must always be enveloped in love, manifested in our love for one another and a desire for obedience to His commands, which themselves arise from the heart of Love. Jesus says, “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst, but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life” (John 4:14 ⟴). The filling of God is not meant only to satisfy our individual appetites, but to overflow in abundance to others. If we ask for His filling merely for our own satisfaction, then we have rather missed the point of our request, and this is all the more important to understand as we fast. If we fast from one worldly pursuit only to have God feed another, what of lasting value would we gain were He to answer? But when we empty ourselves of some worldly delight in hopes of pouring it out upon others, we gain love. We empty ourselves of the world, if only temporarily, to experience a permanent gain in our fellowship with Christ through His Holy Spirit and in our ability to minister to others. Is such a brief abstinence from a temporary good not worth the lasting pleasure that it purchases for us in our capacity to experience ever more powerfully and purely the divine mystery of love? I cannot imagine anyone’s denying the benefit of such an exchange. The only question left then is this: Do we truly have it in our hearts to love? If the love of God is not in us, fasting will be of no benefit to us.
As an avowed failure in the arena of fasting, I hope that as I close I might persuade you to avoid the pitfalls into which I, in my pride and ignorance, so readily stumbled.
First and foremost, if you are fasting merely for your own gain, whether in some worldly matter or in a more abstract spiritual sense, you may as well have your fill, for you will gain very little if anything from such a self-absorbed venture. Fasting in service of the self is simply starvation and is of no benefit to godliness. I think this is obvious enough when it comes to physical things. But when we convince ourselves that we are seeking some spiritual empowerment or blessing or anointing in order to be more proficient servants but are, in fact, only seeking the emotional high or sense of importance that accompanies such things, it is a simple matter to deceive ourselves. Such, I am quite certain, was my mistake. When I first fasted, I had just returned from a mission trip, where I had genuinely invested myself in others, and I didn’t want it to end, but, rather than continuing to find ways of investing in real people, I chose to fast as an alternative. In hindsight, I would have made much larger strides in my spiritual journey had I pursued and sought to serve my neighbors just as I had those I met on the mission field. I fasted for myself, for my own satisfaction rather than the overflow that God’s filling would spill into the lives of others. And that is the primary reason why I failed.
Second, if you have in mind to fast in order to prove to God your willingness to suffer for Him, you would do far better to continue enjoying those good things that He has provided and offer up a sacrifice of thankfulness instead. God is not impressed by mere suffering, nor does He wish it on us, at least not as a thing in itself. Whenever God calls us to suffer, He does so to reveal some facet of Himself that we had previously overlooked, that in knowing Him more completely we might have life more fully (John 10:9-10, 17:3 ⟴). When we cast ourselves into the fires of life without a clear idea of how the subsequent pain will bring us closer to God, we become like a suitor who thinks to woo his lover from afar by jabbing his body full of needles and throwing himself upon the rocks, whereas a simple, honest conversation would have gone much further to win her heart. Suffering in itself can neither establish nor mature a relationship, and it is by our relationship with God through Christ that we know eternal life (Mat. 7:22-23 ⟴). So if we feel that God has burdened us to suffer in some manner, we should never enter into that suffering to prove our love, for in treating love—or anything else for that matter—as a thing to be proven, we shall inevitably treat it as a work, whose success or failure depends upon our own finite, subjective measures, rather than the boundless mystery that it is. Rather, we should view suffering in light of the opportunity that it avails us to participate more deeply in His love, knowing that Christ, whose Spirit lives and works within us to enliven our affections towards the Father, has already offered up on our behalf every proof required of us.
Third, if you have learned to think of fasting as an act of deprivation, then I would encourage you, before you embark upon it, to try to think of it instead as a clearing of the way for the Lord’s approach. When we think of fasting as our making a sacrifice to God by depriving ourselves of something that we enjoy, we risk viewing it as a transaction, wherein God is obligated to meet with us. He is certainly not thus obligated, nor should we expect Him to reward such an entitled attitude with His presence. But when we humbly make a place of honor for Him amidst all our daily pleasures and wait patiently for Him to fill it as and when He pleases, we open the way for Him to come to us and render to us the fellowship that we so desperately crave. If we are to approach fasting with the sort of sincerity to which God responds, then we must acknowledge the true nature of our hunger and the food for which we are presently starving. Only then will His presence seem enough to us, and our fast will seem a mere setting of the table before we sit down to dine with our Savior (Rev. 3:20 ⟴).
And lastly, do not stop fasting because God has failed to show Himself when or how you thought He should. We so often tolerate tardiness and even neglect from men who have infinitely less care for us than does God. Why then should we fault Him who created us and loves us and acts for our good in ways that are presently unrecognizable to us for not operating according to our schedule? Is not He, above all others, worthy of one more clearing of the way in the hope that He might visit us? Paul writes, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7 ⟴). If we truly love God, then we should endure our disappointments with God in the hope of faith, seeing that every door in our hearts of which we are aware remains open, so that we do not miss His approach, and never relinquishing the thought that one day He will come and meet with us. Until that day, we must trust that there is value to be found even in our preparation and that God knows those days when we will be able to host Him to our and others’ greatest benefit.
Novice that I am when it comes to the discipline of fasting, I must say that God took me quite by surprise when I felt Him leading me to take on this subject. What counsel or insight could I possibly offer that a seasoned veteran of the practice could not lay out far better and with greater authority? But our God is renowned for doing the most miraculous of acts through the most marvelous of failures, so that His glory may be clearly seen for what it is, distinct from the humble vessel out of which it flows. With that in mind, I doubt He could have chosen a better man through whom to speak on this matter. I have by no means come to embody the vision that I have set before you, but at least I feel that God has given me a roadmap in the things that I have written by which to find my way. I hope that in one manner or another He has done the same for you, that we may walk this road and grow together with the God whom we love. As we clothe ourselves in the humble righteousness of Christ and strive to love as He loved, however imperfect our execution, I believe that God will meet with us, healing all our wounds and tediously shaping us into that perfect form that He imagined for us before the foundation of time. We have but to set the table.