Pastor John, what is the purpose behind fasting?
Richard Foster wrote a book on the spiritual discipline, and in it he argues that the most important text in all the Bible for establishing the importance of Christian fasting is Matthew 9:14–15. Let me read just a couple of verses of that and show you the sentence I think he is right about.
Fasting to Fuel Longing
“Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’” — So he is not fasting. — “And Jesus said to them, ‘Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.’”
“Fasting is a physical exclamation point at the end of our pleas to God.”
Now that last sentence is the sentence that Foster said shows that in Jesus’s mind, when he is taken away, that is, when he dies and ascends to the Father, there will be fasting. Therefore, the context of fasting in Jesus’s mind is longing for the not yet of the kingdom.
While he was here, they didn’t fast because the bridegroom was present. But when the bridegroom was taken away to come a second time there is this ache in the heart of God’s people. Fasting is a physical exclamation point at the end of the sentences: “I need you! I want you! I long for you! You are my treasure! I want more of you! Oh, for the day when you would return! Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!”
The heart of it is longing. We are putting our stomach where our heart is to give added intensity and expressiveness to our ache for Jesus. We fast to express our longing or our ache for all the implications of Jesus’s power in the present moment that isn’t completely realized.
We want to see people healed. We want to see people saved. We want to see marriages redeemed. We ache, and we long for this to happen; therefore, we ask Jesus to come by putting this exclamation point of longing at the end of our desires.
Fasting to Kill Idols
Here is one more point. I say this largely from experience, and people can test whether they think it has biblical roots or not. I think it does. I think fasting is not only a positive statement saying, “This much I want you, or you are more important to me than food.” But it is also a negative way of exposing latent idolatries. When I am not being medicated by food, what comes out of my heart? Anger? Lust? The need for television — more and more of it? People need to know what is at the bottom.
“We fast to express our ache for all the implications of Jesus’s power in the present moment.”
I think Job was basically a good man. But at the bottom of Job’s life was some latent sin. When God took away his health and his children, a horribly enforced fast from children and from health, Job got bent out of shape. He said some things for which he had to later repent.
I find that if I go without food for 24 hours from supper to supper or breakfast to breakfast, my, oh, my, what is exposed of my heart towards my wife and my daughter. It is a very good discipline. Not only as a positive expression of longing in prayer, but also a negative exposure of the heart so I can deal with these things as they come up.