“Fasting” isn’t usually a word that conjours up ideas of blessing. In western cultures, it’s more associated with hair shirts, self-flagellation, and shaved heads. In the Protestant church, we look at it more as a tool to refocus. But it’s a whole lot more than that.
While “fasting” from facebook, a cell phone, etc., might be useful to an extent, it’s the voluntary abstention from food (either totally, or in usual quantities) that Scripture presents as the norm. That denial of a visceral need that must be fulfilled for life does something that other abstentions don’t. Even if you do seem addicted to your phone, you would not be dead by Christmas if someone took it away. It is fasting from food for a limited, particular time (24 hours, skip-a-meal, etc.) that reveals what a gift it is to our health as Christians. Fasting isn’t a hunger strike that makes God do what we’re asking; it’s a gift from our Creator that helps us increasingly recognize our true spiritual condition, enables us to pray for others, and aids in spiritual growth and development.
One, fasting humbles. It is humbling to realize, as your stomach growls, that despite health and plans and busyness, we are mortals in dire need. We really do depend on our Creator for life.
Two, it is a graphic reminder of how awful sin is. Fasting in grief and repentance is a tangible way to keep ourselves from getting comfortable with sin and from repenting lightly.
Three, fasting is a constant reminder to pray. Those hunger pangs are like calls to prayer, a repeated reminder, “Time to pray!” Instead of heading for the fridge, you go before the Throne of grace. Fasting reorients towards prayer.
Four, it fosters deeper prayer for many Christians. If you’re praying for someone every day, it is easy to repeat the same thing each morning or night in the midst of a larger prayer. When you’re fasting, praying repeatedly for a person or situation through a day develops prayer as repeated petitioning creates depth. New aspects of the situation open up and new requests and thanks become more clear.
Five, fasting facilitates self-denial. Boy, does that bacon-cheeseburger start looking good after six hours… and then begin the prayers for help in perseverance. Faithful fasting helps build the muscles of self-denial that are essential to the Christian life (Luke 9:23).
Six, it creates thankfulness for basic provision. In a culture that is so glutted with everything, the simple becomes despised and ignored. When you have eaten nothing since yesterday and finally bite into an apple or a slice of buttered toast, that food seems almost miraculous. God’s provision becomes precious again and our tastes are reshaped. Fasting is one massive way to fight the sin of gluttony.
Seven, it’s good for our bodies. Not only does fasting reorient our tastes to simple, healthy food, it is also good for other aspects of bodily health. There is mounting evidence that frequent, moderate fasting can, all by itself, significantly reduce blood pressure, cholesterol, cancer rates, risk of Alzheimers, diabetes, and raise life expectancy.
Eight, it’s simple obedience: “When you fast…” (Matt. 6:16).
Although there are stages in life where fasting would be foolish (childhood, pregnancy, nursing, sickness, old age), most of the time most of us are candidates. Perhaps one of the reasons the western church is so weak is a result of its neglect of the spiritual discipline; it’s something our spiritual forbears, like Calvin, took very seriously. Fasting isn’t just a good idea, or something that really holy people do, or a lifestyle if you’re into that sort of thing: it’s God’s gracious gift to His people who are in desperate need of it.