In the Gospel of Matthew, after the Transfiguration of Jesus in the presence of James, John and Peter, Jesus walks into a nearby crowd that is gathered by the mountain. While there a Father finds his way to Jesus, desperate for a divine intervention from the Master Healer. The father’s son is not well, and suffers greatly from epileptic episodes that causes him to fall into bodies of water and open flames. The father confesses to Jesus that he has brought his son to the Disciples, but they were unable to heal him—so he is bringing the concern of his son directly to Jesus. Jesus performs a miracle in that moment and sets the young boy and his worried father free. After watching the healing of the young lad, the Disciples ask Jesus why they weren’t able to heal him. Jesus’ response to them is somewhat stunning. He says that they, the Disciples, were unable to perform the healing because they lacked in faith, and did not compliment their lives with fasting and prayer (Matthew 17:21).
Biblical Fasting is a Spiritual Discipline that must always begin with a sacred purpose and intention. It is one of several Inward Spiritual Disciplines designed to stretch and mature us in the faith. Throughout the biblical cannon there 77 different references to fasting, and among those who practiced the Spiritual Discipline were Moses, Esther, David, Anna, Jesus and many others. In each of these instances those who fasted, abstained from eating foods of any kind, and sometimes abstained from drinking water too. While in our modern world we have stretched the idea of fasting to not find itself “confined to the question of food and drink…[but also] to include abstinence from anything” that keeps from closer relationship with God–mobile devices, driving cars, spending money, etcetera . For the purposes of this discussion, fasting is defined as abstiaining from food (and sometimes water) for spiritual/religious purposes.
It must be noted that fasting is not a Spiritual Discipline that stands isolated from other religious traditions. Some form of fasting, for spiritual purposes, is practiced by nearly every religious tradition in the world. In the Muslim tradition the season of Ramadan is established as a time for fasting. During this season Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, every day for a month. In the Jewish and Hindu religious traditions fasting is also encouraged and takes place on holy days like Yom Kippur (Jewish) and Purnima (Hindu). This is to say that fasting is not solely a Christian practice, but that it is a religious practice that is used throughout the world to discover and renews one’s connection with the Architect of the Universe.
In practicing the Spiritual Discipline of fasting within the Christian religious tradition a fast must begin and end with God, and the fast itself must be littered with prayer. To fast one must have a clear intention, from the outset, that it is designed to seek union/communion with God, otherwise the fast is simply a missed meal. In my own practice of this discipline I discovered a clear difference between fasting and missed meals. There are often days when I arrive to my study early in the morning to begin the work of the pastorate having not eaten breakfast. I settle in and begin praying, writing sermons and prayers, and exegeting Biblical texts—and hear my stomach growl. It is often late in the afternoon and I realize I have gone the entire day without eating. While I have been consuming myself with very important and life-giving holy work, the fact that I have missed meals does not make that time a fast—because I did not begin my day with a clear intention to fast. The truth of the matter is that in my zeal for holy work, I actively chose not eat–which is very different than fasting. Fasting in this regard is not about missing meals, but fasting, as Spiritual Discipline, is about seeking God. A Christian fasting must be led by the Holy Spirit, and have holy purposes and intentions in mind from the very beginning. Donald S. Whitney writes,
[w]ithout a purpose, fasting can be a miserable, self-centered experience about willpower and endurance.
It cannot be said enough that fasting, as a Spiritual Discipline, is not about dieting, losing weight, preparing for a medical appointment, or presenting religious superiority or soleminty. Jesus says, “And when you fast, don’t put on a sad face like the hypocrites. They distort their faces so people will know they are fasting…When you fast, brush your hair and wash your face. Then you won’t look like you are fasting to people, but only to your Father who is present in that secret place.” Fasting, when practiced as a Christian Spiritual Discipline, is about holiness, seeking godliness and transformation into the likeness and character of Jesus while still being present to fulfill the ordinary demands of one’s day.
John Wesley, often hailed as a father of Methodism, would refuse ministerial ordination to those who would not subscribe to the Inward Spiritual Discipline of Fasting twice a week, on Wednesdays and Fridays.
What happens when is fast is that we place our bodies under submission, and utilize the roaring, groaning and churning of our stomachs (bodies) to remind us of the holy purpose for which we fast and reset our minds and hearts on things that are holy and just. Fasting is not a difficult Spiritual Discipline to practice, and to be sure there are no hard and fast rules for the Christian on fasting–Jesus encourages it as a regular practice of our faith and offers in his silence, a freedom to practice it reguarly. The biblical text invites us to practice the discipline to mature and grow in holiness as did the many who fasted before us. To be sure, when Jesus spoke to the Disciples about their inability to bring about healing in the body of the young epileptic lad, Jesus expressed the need for the disciples to compliment their lives with fasting and prayer. There are many reasons Christians are led by the Holy Spirit to the Spiritual Discipline of fasting, a few of them are:
- A desire to strengthen one’s prayer life
- To seek Divine guidance and direction for one’s life
- To express grief and loss
- To seek deliverance and protection for life
- To express Repentance and Reconciliation with God
- To humble oneself
- To express concern for the work of God
- To minister to the needs of others
- To overcome temptation and rededicate oneself to God
- To express love, devotion and worship of God
If you have not practiced this Spiritual Discipline before, I want to encourage you to try it. Maybe you’ve practiced it years ago, but had not given it much thought until now, I want to encourage you to try it anew. Maybe you’ve witness the extremes of fasting and said, “…that’s not for me!” I want to encourage you to prayerfully reconsider it, as spiritual practice worthy of testing out and experimenting with; just as you’ve tested the Inward Spiritual Disciplines of Prayer and Meditation in previous weeks. In your discernment time, before you begin the practice of this discipline, ask the Lord to reveal to you a clear purpose and direction as it relates to your fast. What do you need? What are the needs of your community? your church? the neighborhood? the nation? the world? Perhaps you’ll begin the practice by setting aside a few hours on a certain day once a week. Maybe those few hours will lead to its practice a couple of times a week, from dawn to dusk. Perhaps that will then lead to a yearlong weekly commitment with a Sunday School class, men’s/women’s ministry or choir group. Whenever it is that you are led, or pulled by the Spirit, to begin the practice ease your way into it —and do so with godly intentionality and holy purpose. And who know, perhaps the sacred Scriptures we read and recite each week just might be true and the God who sees in secret will reward publically for the inward work on spiritual lives.
Some things will only change when we led by the Spirit, just like Jesus, into seasons of prayer and fasting.
 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Press, 1960), vol. 1, 38.
 Donald S. Whitney, 199.
 Matthew 6:16-18, CEB.
 Romans 12:2, CEB.
 Philippians 4:8, CEB.
 Matthew 16:21, NRSV.