The most literal translation of the Greek New Testament word for fasting could be, “no eat.” The Hebrew Old Testament root word is even more direct: “shut mouth.” Clearly, fasting is a discipline of self-denial at the most basic level of refusing to eat for the sake of deepening our relationship with God. Does that sound like the kind of sacrifice the average person will be likely to embrace? Perhaps the answer is no, but not just anyone is called to fast: Christians are called to fast.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus expressed the expectation that his followers are to fast, so he gave some basic instructions on how we should practice the discipline (Matthew 6:16-18). In his most famous sermon, Jesus didn’t say “if you fast” but said, “when you fast.” He clearly expects us to incorporate fasting into our walk with him. He even modeled the necessity of fasting in his intense 40-day fast in the desert of Judea.
Later, someone confronted Jesus about why his disciples were not fasting, even though John the Baptist’s disciples did fast. Jesus reminded them that he would soon go away and “then they will fast” (Matthew 9:14-15). When he predicted that a day would come when “then they will fast,” he was referring to times like now. He is in heaven, seated on his throne awaiting his return, and we are here—behind enemy lines—needing every spiritual advantage we can get.
The early church practiced fasting as a part of their worship, too. In Antioch, for instance, Paul and other leaders fasted and prayed and the Spirit appeared in their midst to give them direction about world evangelization (Acts 13:1-4).
It is clear that fasting was part of the New Testament experience, and it can be traced through Christian history starting as early as the writings of the North African Christian apologist Tertullian, more than 100 years after the New Testament was completed and the last apostle died.
The question remains, should we fast today, and if so, why? The answer of course is yes, and the main reason should be obvious: Jesus expects it. Fasting is a spiritual discipline like prayer or Bible study given to us by the Father to strengthen our discipleship and develop our fellowship with Jesus.
In Scripture, fasting is closely related to prayer. The word prayer, for instance, or a derivative of it, occurs about 500 times in the Bible. The word fasting occurs about 50 times. Ninety percent of the biblical references to prayer do not include fasting but most references to fasting are related to prayer. Put another way, we can pray without fasting but we really can’t fast without praying. Prayer connects us to heaven while fasting disconnects us from Earth. The joining of prayer and fasting, therefore, is the equivalent of spiritual spontaneous combustion. Something powerful always happens.
One noticeable benefit of fasting becomes obvious when we study the well-known fasts in Scripture. Fasting, we learn, precedes breakthrough. New works of God are often the result when God’s people fast. For example, after Moses fasted, he received the Ten Commandments. After Nehemiah fasted, he led the rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem. After Ezra fasted, he safely led men, women, and children on a multi-month journey along a dangerous route from Babylon to Jerusalem. After Daniel fasted, he received a vision of the end of time. After Elijah fasted, he anointed kings and received a personal successor. After Jesus fasted, he began his public ministry. After Paul and Barnabas fasted, they began the first mission to take the gospel to the Gentiles and thus changed the world.
What if we fasted and prayed for a breakthrough of fresh works of God? Could prodigals be prayed back to the Lord? Could marriages be saved? Could churches baptize more new believers? Could local churches experience revival? Could we live to see the next great awakening in America? Why not?
Is God waiting for a passive, self-indulgent church to rediscover the ancient disciplines of prayer and fasting in order to grow strong in Christ and increase its ministry effectiveness? Perhaps the answer is embedded in an observation from the late A.W. Tozer: “Anything God has ever done He can do again. Anything He’s ever done anywhere He can do here. Anything He’s ever done with anyone He can do with you.”