The medical benefits of fasting is astounding, ranging from a stronger immune system, better hormonal balance, increased longevity, lowered heart risk and even to healing of various cysts and some cancerous growths. For these and other reasons fasting clinics have been popular throughout Europe for over 60 years.
But fasting is not only prescribed for its health benefits; it is rightfully still thought of as a spiritual exercise or discipline. Yet in our high-paced consumerist society this ancient discipline is not frequently practiced. So why should Christians fast? What is the promise behind this self-denying practice?
The 69th Psalm of the shepherd-king gives us unique insight into the purpose and power of fasting. In its opening lines David cries “Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my soul. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold… mighty are those who would destroy me, those who attack me with lies” (verse 1-2, 4). Two verses later he writes “O God, you know my folly; the sins I have done are not hidden from you.” (verse 5).
These opening phrases sketch the mindset of a troubled man in a hopeless situation: his soul is in anguish because of enemies much more powerful than himself, and to top of it his conscience is troubling him with the weight of guilt. Then David finds comfort in these words, the central thought of the Psalm: “I humbled my soul with fasting” (Psalm 69:10)
God alone can save
Why fast? Firstly, David “humbled his soul with fasting” to appeal for help: his fasting was a clear statement that all his strength, all his knowledge, all his resources was insufficient to save himself from this troubling situation. This great shepherd-king who killed the lion, the bear and great Goliath, who lead an army of mighty men that put fear in the hearts of his greatest enemies, this great David abstained from food and wine to shamelessly declare “I cannot save myself” – “my prayer is to you, O Lord!”, “Save me!”, “Deliver me!” (Verses 13, 1, 14). In his fasting he displayed his trust in God, saying “God alone can save!”
Years later his great-grandson King Jehoshaphat received troubling news that three great armies were marching against Jerusalem, greatly outnumbering the inhabitants of small Judah. His first response was to do what he learned from David: “Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah” (2 Chronicles 20:3). Rather than rallying the troops, forming allegiance, gathering supplies and fortifying the cities Jehoshaphat humbled himself with fasting to appeal for help from God. The closing line of his prayer captures the motive of their fast: “For we are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (2 Chronicles 20:12). And as they weakened themselves through abstaining from food and stood before the Lord helpless, the Lord answered “Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s” (verse 15). God responded with a great deliverance that day!
Still years later Ezra the priest was returning from exile, leading a group of elders and officials to rebuild Jerusalem and its temple. Although Ezra had special favour from King Darius carrying letters of his support, Ezra refused to ask for a royal guard for protection through hostile territory because he ensured the King “The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him” (Ezra 8:22). So what did Ezra and his company do before their dangerous journey? “I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods” (Ezra 8:21). The wise priest and his companions humbled themselves with fasting to appeal for help from God. And the hand of the Lord was upon them for good!
God alone can satisfy
The second reason David states in Psalm 69 why he humbles his soul with fasting is to facilitate holiness as he confesses and shows remorse for his sins (verse 5-7). After being confronted by the prophet Nathan for his adultery with Bathsheba and staged murder of her husband Uriah, the king fell on the floor in remorse and fasted for seven days (2 Samuel 12:15-18). From this time of fasting comes these words:
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment…
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.”
(Psalm 51:1-4, 10-12)
David did not invent fasting as a means of repentance and holiness; as a Jew David grew up and annually kept The Day of Atonement – the special Holy Day during which all Israelites fasted (“afflicted their souls”) and confessed their sins to God as a nation. On this special Sabbath the High Priest offered a Lamb for atonement of sins (Leviticus 23:27-28). Thus the nation annually humbled themselves in fasting as a sign of remorse to facilitate their holiness to God – as prescribed in God’s Law.
But fasting for holiness not only has to do with confession of sins – the key focus is to humble the soul by denying its carnal cravings. During a fast one shuts down all other impulses that tug at the heart and deny all the cravings of the flesh. This time of consecration therefore serves as both a reminder that God alone satisfies the desires of the soul, and an opportunity to grow in holiness and love for God. During a fast one can pray with the Psalmist “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God… Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls” (Psalm 42:1,7).
So Psalm 69 teaches us to humble the soul by fasting, firstly to obtain help, because God alone can to save, and secondly to grow in holiness, because God alone can satisfy.
When fasting is not selfish
But we ought to fast to obtain help for others, as the Lord instructed Israel in Isaiah 58:6 “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?” And Nehemiah and Daniel showed us that even righteous men humble themselves by fasting to show remorse for the sins of their nation, and to appeal for God’s mercy. (See Daniel 9 and Nehemiah 1)
Is there any situation in your life too big or difficult for you? Is your soul too cluttered, too worried, too demanding or overburdened with guilt? And do you crave intimacy with God, to share in his holiness? Then it’s time to slow down, and fast.