The church has traditionally set aside the season of Lent, the forty days prior to the crucifixion as a time of self examination, repentance, self-denial and fasting. Self-denial is not a popular sell in our culture. When I was doing my doctoral project, I developed a Spiritual Assessment Questionnaire that measured 38 different aspects of discipleship. This was given to each of participants who volunteered to be part of my research project. Of all the Spiritual disciplines, fasting and self-denial scored the rock bottom lowest of all the 38 categories.
Fasting is refraining from eating for an agreed period of time. It is done for a specific spiritual purpose as a spiritual discipline. In fasting, I determine in my own heart before God to refrain from eating either completely or partially (certain foods) for a set time. Jesus assumed that His disciples would fast (see Mark 2:20). He also instructed His disciples to fast in secret (Matt. 6:16-18). Jesus himself fasted in the wilderness as He prepared Himself for ministry. (Matt. 4:1-2). John Wesley, the great evangelist of England stated that “The man that never fasts is no more on the way to heaven than the man who never prays.”[i] Wesley was not making fasting a requirement of salvation but was pointing out that one of the fruits of salvation is a life of self-denial and earnest wholehearted prayer, which ought to include regular fasting.
Why is fasting such a powerful spiritual discipline? When I fast, I release the hold of the physical over me. I deny my body that which is good (food) for a higher purpose. I also humble myself before God and declare by my actions that I am in desperate need. I acknowledge that I am too much tied to my senses and my appetites and I practice self-denial in order to draw near to God. The scriptures are full of examples of people of God fasting in times of distress, in times of seeking guidance, in times of great need. Moses fasted for forty days before receiving the Ten Commandments (Ex. 34:28). Queen Esther fasted with all the Jews when they were faced with certain destruction, just before she was to put her life on the line by going into the king (Esther 4:16). Daniel fasted for three weeks in order to understand the vision that he was given about the end times (Dan. 9:3).
When I fast for a specific purpose, be it guidance, healing, as a sign of repentance or sorrow for sin, or to plead for healing or for the salvation of someone, I come before God and show Him my earnestness by my self-denial. God takes notice when I do this. My physical hunger in fasting parallels my desperate hunger for God and His help. In the process, all my spiritual senses are honed and made more acute. I become more in tune with God and I allow the Holy Spirit to move me in profound ways.
In addition, fasting breaks the power of the flesh in me. The old man, that sinful-self is mortified with Spiritual power as I fast. In fasting I declare myself master over my body. I declare that I will not allow my bodily appetites to rule over me. Fasting ought not be legalistic, wherein someone else mandates it. Rather it ought to be as a purely voluntary act, with a specific purpose in mind that I lay before God in prayer. In this way, fasting and prayer go together. The time that I would have spent eating, I spend in prayer. Fasting reminds me that I need God desperately.
Perhaps this Lenten season, we should all take some time to experiment with this neglected discipline.
[i] John Wesley, “Sermons on Several Occasions” (Weslyan Conference Office. London, 1868), Vol. 3, Sermon 116, Section 14, P. 276.