On the Purpose of Fasting

7 Reasons to Fast After Breakthrough Weekend

David Barrett, Groups Pastor

A few years back, I was working on our deck. Some boards were rotting and I was replacing them with new ones. I don’t know if you have any experience working on a deck but the planks and pilings can be pretty hard while deck screws are pretty long.

So I was having kind of a difficult time getting those long deck screws into the wood with the regular old hand-held drill I was using. Well, my father-in-law was in town visiting and one morning he came outside to see what I was doing. I guess he saw me pushing the drill with everything I had into those screws, struggling and sweating with each one.

And he goes, “You got a hammer drill?”

I’m like, “What’s a hammer drill?”

He says, “Let’s go to Home Depot.”

So I get this thing called a hammer drill. And I don’t know if you have ever used one of those bad boys before but I started to put those big deck screws into that wood like it was a hot knife through butter. See a hammier drill is different from a regular hand-held drill because it relies on a mechanical technique known as percussion drilling where short, rapid hammer bursts fire into the wood. So as the hammer drill drives in the screw, it is also breaking down the wood. And what you get is quicker, more efficient drilling.

Fasting as the Hammer Drill

Of all the spiritual disciplines, fasting might be the most misunderstood and underused. I think it might be fair to say that most of us probably understand the spiritual discipline of fasting like I understood the hammer drill before my father-in-law told me about its existence.

I didn’t know what it was for.

I didn’t know how to use it.

It wasn’t on my radar as even a possibility.

And yet, when he told me about it, the hammer drill was exactly what I needed.

Spiritual disciplines are simply tools that God has given us for spiritual growth. So think of fasting as our hammer drill. What you’ll find below are some things to use this tool to accomplish. Most of these were taken from Donald Miller’s excellent book, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. Check it out for more ideas and resources.

1. Fast to Strengthen Your Prayers

Of all the purposes for fasting found in Scripture, fasting in order to strengthen prayer receives the most emphasis by far. In fact, in one way or another, all the other biblical purposes of fasting relate to prayer. Consider the particular example of Ezra. When Ezra was about to lead a group of exiles back to Jerusalem, he proclaimed a fast in order for the people to seek the Lord earnestly for safe passage. They were to face many dangers without protection during their nine-hundred-mile journey. Their vulnerability meant that this was a very serious matter.

“So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty" (Ezra 8:23).

Now, the Bible does not teach that fasting is a kind of spiritual hunger strike that compels God to do our bidding. As Donald Miller writes, “Fasting does not change God’s hearing; it changes our praying.” Christians who pray while fasting communicate that they are truly in earnest and are expressing that earnestness in a divinely appointed way. John Piper has put it this way; fasting “is an intensifier of spiritual desire.”

2. Fast to Seek God’s Guidance

Fasting doesn’t always ensure clear guidance, but it does make us more sensitive to God and His leading through His Spirit and His Word. By its nature, fasting helps us tune out the world and focus on the Lord, so that we might listen more attentively to His Word.

Think of the leaders in Acts 13 fasting before they sent out Paul and Barnabas. They wanted to be more sensitive to the Spirit's leading as they looked at God’s word, so they fasted. From Acts 13:1-3: “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.”

3. Fast to Seek Deliverance or Protection

Back in the Old Testament, there is a brie story about the king with the most unfortunate name ever. When King Jehoshaphat and the Kingdom of Judah was threatened from an invading army from the Kingdom of Edom, the king called for a national fast for deliverance and protection. Consider 2 Chronicles 20:2-4:

"Some men came and told Jehoshaphat, “A great multitude is coming against you from Edom, from beyond the sea; and, behold, they are in Hazazon-tamar” (that is, Engedi). 3 Then Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. 4 And Judah assembled to seek help from the Lord.” (2 Chronicles 20:2-4)

Interesting thing about national fasts by the way; national fasts have a large role in American history. Presidents John Adams and James Madison each called all Americans to fast while they were president. Abraham Lincoln even called for a national fast on three separate occasions during the Civil War.

Fasting can very well be a line of defense against an invading army however, since that might not be as likely for the typical American, fasting can also be a practice to seek deliverance or protection from persecution from family, schoolmates, neighbors, co-workers, or even other Christians. In fact,

4. Fast to Express Grief

The Bible contains many examples of fasting to express grief over sin or calamities that befall God’s people. After King Saul and his son Jonathan were killed in battle, 2 Samuel 1:11-12 notes that David and his men fasted in response.

"Then David took hold of his clothes and tore them, and so did all the men who were with him. 12 And they mourned and wept and fasted until evening for Saul and for Jonathan his son and for the people of the Lord and for the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword" (2 Samuel 1:11-12).  

This is a practice that Scot McKnight calls “body grief.” Experiencing grief and the practice of fasting are inextricably linked. In fact, body grief is perhaps the purest example of what fasting is all about. In it, a human being, overwhelmed by the sacredness and sadness of a moment, chooses not to eat in order to experience his or her communion with God deeper and participate fully in one of life’s most grievous of moments.

5. Fast to Express Repentance and a Return to Trust in God

Closely related to expressing grief, fasting can also signal a commitment to obedience and a new direction. From Yom Kippur to Lent, this particular reason to fast has a deep and rich history. Whenever the people of God need to be reminded of their solemn duty to turn away from sin and to face the Lord, as in Lent or following the realization of some personal sin, fasting is always appropriated. The words of Joel the prophet remind us what to do:

“Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God? Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly. (Joel 2:12–15)

Fasting is turning from sin to faithful devotion to God. It is a natural response to sin, repentance, conversion, and the healing graces of forgiveness. Consider John Calvin’s words about the logic of fasting like this even today: “Since this is a holy exercise both for the humbling of men and for their confession of humility, why should we use it less than the ancients did in similar need?”

6. Fast to Minister to the Needs of Others

Fasting isn’t just about personal introspection. Rather, it is very much a tool that can be utilized for meeting the needs of others. After all, spiritual disciplines are not only for our sake, but for the sake of others, too. In Isaiah 58, which is the most extensive passage in the Bible on fasting, God emphasizes the discipline for the purpose of meeting the needs of others. Consider Isaiah 58:6-7:

"Is not this the fast that I choose: To loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?" (Isaiah 58:6-7). 

I have a friend who walked through a season where he was at the end of his rope about another close friend.

He tried talking. He tried reasoning. He tried pleading. However, the guy was stuck up in some sinful patterns and wasn’t moving toward the Lord at all; if anything he was going in the opposite direction.

Well, my friend got this conviction that he needed to fast for a breakthrough in that relationship. So he committed to fasting for once a week on Fridays for a year. During that time, he would only consume liquids.

To make a long story short, God completely changed the life of his friend. He started going back to church. He started taking his family back to church. He actually became a deacon. However, more than that — and what he didn’t expect at all — was that his feelings of frustration and resentment toward his friend began to fade away.

7. Fast to Overcome Temptation

Fasting is a good exercise in self-discipline.  Refraining from eating food can strengthen our ability to refrain from sin when we are tempted. Think about it. If we train ourselves to accept the small “suffering” of fasting willingly, we will be better able to accept other suffering for the sake of spiritual growth. Cornelius Plantinga was right when he said that, “Self-indulgence is the enemy of gratitude, and self-discipline usually its friend and generator. That is why gluttony is a deadly sin. The early desert fathers believed that a person’s appetites are linked: full stomachs and jaded palates take the edge from our hunger and thirst for righteousness. They spoil the appetite for God.”

Fasting combats our propensity to giving into temptation. If our body won’t do what our spirit knows is good and right, then the body must be brought in line. And bringing the body back in line with the moral life is what fasting can accomplish in us.

However, a word of cation might be appropriate at this point.

Richard Foster reminds us that,, “More than any other spiritual discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. If pride controls us, it will be revealed almost immediately. Anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear—if they are within us, they will surface during fasting.”

This is the hammer drill metaphor. Only this time, we’re the wood. The way a hammer drill works is through a mechanical technique called percussion drilling. The wood is hit rapidly to make it softer so that the screw goes in easy. This is another reason why we fast; to shake loose the things that imprison us and overcome temptation.