What is Fasting?
Fasting is choosing to withhold something God has given you freedom to enjoy, in order to foster deeper intimacy with God in prayer. Often we withhold food, but it is possible to withhold any number of things, such as media usage (Facebook, television), sleep, or social interaction.
The point is to carve out time to focus in prayer, and to foster a hunger for intimacy with Jesus. When we fast food, it makes us physically weak. But when directed towards prayer, this weakness drives us to see our need for God, who we actually need more than we need food. The pain in our stomachs can remind us that we should hunger for God, more than anything else, because he can nourish us like no one else.
Fasting is often coupled with an intentional season of spiritual mourning and repentance. Corporate (church-wide) fasts are a time when Christians focus together on the brokenness in our hearts and in the world around us, and long for Jesus to return and make things right. They are a time to focus on praying that God's Kingdom come, and his will be done on earth at it is in heaven. God and his Kingdom are our greatest need. Fasting helps us to align our hearts with God's heart for God's world and God's people.
Is Fasting Something Jesus Wants from Us?
During Jesus' earthly ministry, he taught that during the age between his First and Second Coming, the church would fast. "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" (Matthew 9:15 ESV). Jesus is the bridegroom, and the wedding guests are his church.
Unlike his first hearers, we live in the time after he was "taken away." We live in the time when it is appropriate to mourn over the fact that Christ is not physically present with us, ruling the world and making everything right, which is what will happen at his Second Coming. Jesus says we should long for his coming, and mourn over the state of affairs that the sin in our hearts and world still causes. We should long for God's Kingdom and Christ's Coming.
Another passage where Jesus affirms a fasted-lifestyle is in his commendation of John the Baptist, who Jesus said, "I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John" (Luke 7:28 ESV). John lived a fasted lifestyle (Luke 5:33), in preparation of Jesus first coming. Christians should seek a fasted lifestyle in preparation of Jesus' Second Coming.
Finally, Jesus explicitly assumes that his disciples will fast, and gave instructions for fasting in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:16-18). He starts this discussion with the words "And when you fast," implying that fasting among his followers is a given, as much as prayer and helping the needy.
Gospel-Centered, Joyful, Secret Fasting
Sometimes Christians are afraid to fast, because they think that fasting works against believing in the Gospel. All Christian obedience is included in what the Bible calls our "good works," and our sinful hearts have the potential to turn any good thing into a legalism. But obedience itself is not legalism in any way. Jesus assumes all his disciples will fast, as we've seen above. You should never fast to earn something with God. There's a better reason.
When we remember that the Gospel is not only Jesus dying for our sins, but also the vital, intimate love relationship he wants with us, fasting makes more sense. Fasting draws us close to our God and Father, just as it did for Jesus (Luke 4:1-4). Gospel-Centered Fasting is a tool that God has given us to remind us of our deep need for what God supplies (including the Cross of Christ), and to help us to say no to our flesh and yes to God's will and presence.
Even though many corporate (church-wide) fasts are "solemn assemblies" and a time for spiritual mourning what's broken in the world around us, they can still evoke joy in our hearts. Fasting is a time to Live the Future Now, by focusing on what it will be like when Jesus, the Bridegroom, returns to us and fixes our world.
Finally, Jesus has instructed us to make our fasting a semi-secret affair, in Matthew 6:16-18. He is not saying that if someone finds you out God will be angry. Nor is Jesus condemning corporate fasts. His point is about your intimacy with God. Fasting is not so you can impress others with your level of spirituality. Fasting is about drawing near to God in prayerful intimacy. Show him that you know you need him; that you want Him. When your heart is connected to him, you can be free of the desire to show others.
River Valley Bridegroom Fast
In connection with our calling to reach the communities of the American Bottom river valley, surrounding East St. Louis, IL, our church fasts and prays for 3 days each month, and 7 days in December for a total of 40 days per year.
We have called this fast to align our hearts with God's heart for the broken place that we live and minister, and to petition our God to bring powerful change. We long for Jesus, the Bridegroom (Matthew 9:15), as a King to his Kingdom. We long for him to bring radical changes to the 26 towns and villages surrounding East St. Louis, in our lifetime.
We know many Christians are new to fasting. When people first join us in this corporate fast, we invite them to only fast food one day their first month, and only two days their second month. We also ask everyone to first read the resources listed below, before fasting.
Be careful. And don't be in a rush learning to fast. Fasting food can take a toll on your body. Fasting from water for extended periods is obvioiusly detrimental to your physical health. Some people have physical limitations or health conditions that prohibit them from being able to withhold food from their bodies. We do not recommend that children fast food or drink. There are many other ways to fast besides just withholding food.
For reasons practical, medical, and spiritual, we strongly encourage everyone new to fasting read through the "Fasting Guidelines" outlined by the International House of Prayer (IHOP-KC), prior to joining us in a fast. You can find them here.
Resources to help with prayer and fasting are found here.