What does God look for when we fast? What are the deeper spiritual purposes and benefits?
There were no knife cuts or gunshot wounds on his body, nor had he been suffering from disease. Yet only days before, he had slipped into a coma from which he would never recover. It was May 5, 1981, when the 27-year-old prisoner breathed his last.
Malnutrition is what killed Bobby Sands! He had not eaten for 66 days. Why?
Bobby Sands had been a member of the Irish Republican Army, viewed by most of the English population as a terrorist organization, but by many Irish Catholics as freedom fighters. He had organized a group of fellow IRA prisoners to fast in defiance of British prison authorities, hoping to force them to label the IRA inmates as political prisoners. This hunger strike catapulted him to the global spotlight, focusing world attention on the conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland.
For Bobby Sands, what is supposed to be a tool for spiritual growth was turned into a religious and political weapon!
What God says about fasting
But, as the book of Isaiah reveals, God does not heed weaponized fasting. In reproaching Israel for its hollow worship, devoid of morality but full of ritual and pretense, God addressed this issue.
Israel had asked, “Why have we fasted … and You have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls, and You take no notice?”
The answer from God is clear: “Indeed you fast for strife and debate, and to strike with the fist of wickedness. You will not fast as you do this day, to make your voice heard on high” (Isaiah 58:3-4).
Throughout the Bible we see many examples of people fasting with pure intentions, drawing close to God. But like so many aspects of spirituality, the pure values and purposes of fasting have often been corrupted. Even today, many religious people commonly fast for wrong reasons, such as:
- To make penance. A number of religions teach that fasting should be used for penance, which is self-abasement for the purpose of demonstrating repentance. In essence, individuals who fast in this way attempt to pay for their sins or, perhaps, to punish themselves before God gets around to it!
- To impress other people. During what is often referred to as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned about the all-too-human tendency to seek to impress other people. He explained that we should not adopt a “sad countenance” and “disfigure [our] faces” when fasting so we can impress our neighbors (Matthew 6:16).
- To force God’s hand. Many people would not admit, even to themselves, that through fasting they are trying to push God into granting their requests, but that can be a hidden motivation. Fasting with this mind-set is the equivalent of rubbing the brass lamp to release the wish-granting genie!
Clearly, God is not impressed when we fast for strife or any other wrong reason.
So what makes for a meaningful fast? The Gospel of John provides a fascinating way of looking at this topic by showing how Jesus viewed the contrast between physical and spiritual food—and with it we find some profound insights that underlie fasting.
Encounter with a Samaritan woman
Jesus and His disciples had been traveling from Judea in the south to Galilee in the north. On their way, they went through Samaria, a region inhabited by an ethnically mixed population. The Samaritans, rejected by the Jews as religious imposters, worshipped God at a temple on Mount Gerazim rather than at God’s temple in Jerusalem.
When Jesus and His disciples reached Sychar, the Samaritan city at the base of Mount Gerazim, He remained at Jacob’s Well to rest. The disciples continued into town to purchase food. It was while Jesus waited at the well that He broke Jewish custom by speaking with a Samaritan woman.
After He had told the woman things about her no stranger could know, she acknowledged Jesus as a Prophet. Then she spoke of the Jewish and Samaritan temples, pointing out that the Jews claimed God was to be worshipped only in Jerusalem. She wanted to know the thoughts of this unusual Rabbi about where God could be worshipped. She was focused on the physical.
Jesus replied with a surprising declaration: “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father” (John 4:21).
After repeating this shocking statement, Jesus added another thought: “Those who worship [God] must worship in spirit and truth” (verse 24). Christ focused on the spiritual, telling this woman not where, but how God is to be worshipped.
When the disciples returned, and after Jesus had concluded His conversation, they urged Him to eat. Saying that He had “food to eat of which you do not know” (verse 32), Jesus confused His disciples. They wondered who had given Him food. They, too, were focused on the physical.
The next statement He uttered, however, is the one that seems strange to our way of thinking: “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work” (verse 34).
The Bread of Life
Jesus used the incident as an object lesson that reveals the chasm between a spiritual outlook and a physical one. This incident is not the only one John recorded about this contrast between physical food and spiritual food.
Fasting, at its core, represents the most important choice we’ll ever make. As we fast, we set aside the physical, choosing rather the spiritual—we set aside our will, choosing as our food the will of God.Just a couple of chapters later Jesus miraculously fed a crowd that numbered 5,000 men (John 6:10). The group undoubtedly included women and children as well—it was, after all, a “lad here who has five barley loaves and two small fish” who provided the small amount of food that Jesus multiplied (John 6:9). After performing this miracle, Jesus left to be by Himself because they intended to “take Him by force to make Him king” (John 6:15). Ironically, eating this miraculous meal had emboldened them to force their will on the Son of God!
The next day, the crowd caught up with Jesus on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus knew their motivation had more to do with the meal they had eaten than with the words they had heard (John 6:26). He followed up by once again drawing the contrast between physical food and spiritual food: “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life” (John 6:27).
During this same interaction, Jesus identified Himself as “the true bread from heaven” as well as “the bread of God” and “the bread of life” (John 6:32-33, 35). Moments later, Jesus again declared His steadfastness in seeking “the will of Him who sent Me” (John 6:38).
On two separate occasions, then, Jesus had equated Himself as the “water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:14) and as the Bread of Life. In each case He had emphasized His determination to do the will of the Father.
There is clearly a connection between true spiritual food and the will of God.
The choice is ours
Our lives are filled with choices every day. Some are insignificant, but some are crucial. So crucial, in fact, that Moses described the alternatives as “life and good” versus “death and evil” (Deuteronomy 30:15).
The apostle Paul addressed the same subject, telling the church at Rome that “to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace” (Romans 8:6). In the very next verse, he explained that by nature people set themselves up in opposition to God. Without God’s Spirit, our minds are “not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be.”
So where does that leave us? As Christians, we must continually seek God’s will rather than our own, yet as long as we are in the flesh, our natural tendency is to rebel. What true Christian has not experienced a struggle in his or her own heart while striving to please God? What true Christian does not join with Paul in saying “what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do” (Romans 7:15)?
Fortunately, God offers us His Holy Spirit, through which we must “put to death the deeds of the body” (Romans 8:13). And God also gives us the tool of fasting for this very purpose.
When we fast, we decide not to eat or drink for a time. Our bodies protest our decision with hunger pangs, growling stomachs, fatigue and headaches. It’s a reminder that if we continued without food and water we would die, but we fast with the hope of living forever. And we are reminded of the words of Christ at the end of His 40-day fast when He was tempted by Satan: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God” (Luke 4:4).
Fasting, at its core, represents the most important choice we’ll ever make. As we fast, we set aside the physical, choosing rather the spiritual—we set aside our will, choosing as our food the will of God.
And the Lord will answer
God did not end His message about fasting in Isaiah by censuring ancient Israel. In fact, He explained that He does want His people to fast, but that it must be “the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke” (Isaiah 58:6).
If we fast to seek God’s will rather than our own, choosing to “loose the bonds of wickedness” beginning with our own hearts, we can be confident that when we pray, “the Lord will answer,” and when we cry, “He will say, ‘Here I am’” (verse 9).
Read more about fasting in the Life, Hope & Truth article “What Is Fasting?”