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The relevance of fasting and prayer

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Jesus wants us to fast. Ironically, the critics of His day castigated Him for not fasting and for failing to lead His disciples to fast. Jesus reminded them He was still with His disciples; and if the disciples fasted while He was present, it would be the equivalent of wedding guests expressing misery at a wedding (Mark 2:18-19). The inquisition of the critics and the response of Jesus reveals a lot about fasting and its importance. 

For one thing, fasting was a discipline that highly devoted religious leaders were expected to practice. For example, the Pharisees themselves fasted on a regular basis (Mark 2:18; Luke 18:11-12). In addition, the disciples of John the Baptist were trained to fast, and they did so regularly (Mark 2:18). So, while fasting may seem extreme for some Christians today, it was unusual if religious devotees didn’t fast in Jesus’ day. 

The other insight about fasting gathered from Jesus’ response to the religious critics has to do with the nature of fasting. Jesus regarded fasting as a serious effort, not something that usually occurs as a joyous celebration (Mark 2:19). Instead, fasting is a time of personal reflection and, at times, unavoidable introspection. It’s a time when buried sin resurfaces and we see it for the failure it is. Fasting invariably leads to soul-searching repentance. 

This understanding aligns with other biblical descriptions of fasting. For instance, God told the prophet Joel, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (Joel 2:12). The Psalmist likewise said, “When I wept and humbled my soul with fasting, it became my reproach” (Psalm 69:10). By the time of Jesus, fasting was so associated with suffering that Jesus warned His followers not to draw attention to their personal fasts like hypocrites with “gloomy” or “disfigured” faces (Matthew 6:16). 

The most important thing Jesus said in response to the question about fasting, however, was that He expects us to do it. He said, “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day” (Mark 2:20). It is impossible to ignore that Jesus said, “they will fast.”

 The “they” Jesus referred to are His disciples – those who were with Him then and those who would follow. How can we be certain that the fasting Jesus insisted upon applies to modern Christians? For one thing, He told us exactly when His followers would fast. “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day” (v. 20). He is gone away. We are living “in that day.” In other words, when He said, “they will fast,” He meant us. 

What is fasting?

We live in an age when reality itself is being redefined. Can it be long before the confusion regarding objective truth starts to make inroads into Christian teaching? Are we already there? 

For instance, a pastor of a large church led his congregation to fast and advised them to “fast anything.” He happily reported that one young member decided she would “fast yoga.” 

The biggest issue, for our immediate purposes, isn’t about a church member deciding to forego yoga. The larger question is: How do we interpret truth and define fasting? Is it just a matter of giving up anything we enjoy? There can be value in self-sacrifice, but is that the same as fasting? 

For most of us, the correct answer is found in the objective truth of Scripture. The Bible is clear that fasting is the refusal of food for a period of time. In fact, the biblical language itself is revealing. The Greek word in the New Testament for fasting literally means “no eat.” The Old Testament Hebrew word for fasting is even more blunt, “shut mouth.” Scripture is unambiguous about fasting. 

Fasting is the voluntary refusal of food for some period of time in order to spend focused time with God through prayer. Moses did it. Elijah did it. Daniel did it. Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, and many others did it. Jesus fasted, and He expects us to fast too. 

How should we fast?

It’s important to understand fasting as an aspect of prayer. The late Bill Bright was ambitious on this subject. He said, “I believe the power of fasting as it relates to prayer is the spiritual atomic bomb that our Lord has given us to destroy the strongholds of evil and usher in a great revival and spiritual harvest around the world. In addition to intercession, adoration, confession, and petition, we need to add fasting to our regular prayer lives. Here are some practical steps to consider. 

Fasting is a discipline, so it isn’t easy. You will be tempted to eat, so drink a lot of water. Juices with no added sugar can be helpful, especially for longer fasts. 

People frequently assume they cannot fast if they need medication that has been prescribed to be taken with food. This is a legitimate concern, so a person who wants to fast should ask three questions: First, have you consulted your doctor? Next, what is the minimum amount of food required for the medication? Finally, can the food be liquid? With thoughtful preparation, almost anyone can fast, even if it is a moderated fast. 

Whether you fast one day, one week, one month, or longer, the goal of fasting is to disconnect from worldly distractions and prayerfully seek God. During your fast, indulge deeply in the reading of Scripture and longer seasons of private prayer. In addition, any opportunity to join with other believers in heartfelt praise, worship, and singing to the Lord will strengthen you spiritually. 

Why is fasting still relevant? Fasting gives us one more way to yield our lives to Jesus. As David Platt has observed, “One day, all of our praying and all of our fasting in pursuit of God will culminate in the goal of our salvation: everlasting, uninterrupted, uninhibited, unimaginable, indescribable, all-satisfying, communion with God.”

    About the Author

  • Kie Bowman

    Kie Bowman is senior pastor emeritus of Hyde Park Baptist Church and The Quarries Church in Austin, Texas and the SBC National Director of Prayer.

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