Fasting isn't new to us; in fact, it's something that we've always heard about. Some of us have even participated in the well known Daniel fast, or another form of fasting with our respective congregations, but do we know the true reason why fasting is so important in the lives of Christians? Do we truly grasp the amazing results that we can reap from fasting?
Fasting, using a simple definition, is the act of going without food/drink for a certain period of time. That definition, however, is very simple and doesn't get into the power of fasting. Throughout scripture, fasting is used in a variety of ways. There were three ways in particular that we see fasting used as a reaction to either our poor decisions, or circumstances beyond our control.
(1) As an act of repentance (Jonah 3:5-9)
(2) As a response to intense grief (1 Samuel 31:13)
(3) When the children of Israel needed God to step in during situations of life and death (2 Chronicles 20:3)
There is nothing particularly wrong with using fasting in these manners, as it is certainly a better response than letting our emotions guide us. In the NT, however, Jesus weighed in on this topic by how fasting shouldn't be used.
Matthew 6: 16-18
"Whenever you fast, don’t be sad-faced like the hypocrites. For they make their faces unattractive so their fasting is obvious to people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! But when you fast, put oil on your head, and wash your face, so that you don’t show your fasting to people but to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you."
Clearly, Jesus had heartburn over this improper portrayal of fasting as the Pharisees were devaluing it to a mere public contest of who's more religious. That's why Jesus clearly said they have already earned their reward. It's a good thing that the bible illustrates what true fasting is. For that, we have to go back to the OT.
"Cry out loudly, don’t hold back! Raise your voice like a trumpet. Tell My people their transgression and the house of Jacob their sins. They seek Me day after day and delight to know My ways, like a nation that does what is right and does not abandon the justice of their God. They ask Me for righteous judgments; they delight in the nearness of God.” Why have we fasted, but You have not seen? We have denied ourselves, but You haven’t noticed! Look, you do as you please on the day of your fast, and oppress all your workers. You fast with contention and strife to strike viciously with your fist. You cannot fast as you do today,hoping to make your voice heard on high. Will the fast I choose be like this: a day for a person to deny himself,to bow his head like a reed,and to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast and a day acceptable to the Lord? Isn’t the fast I choose: to break the chains of wickedness,to untie the ropes of the yoke,to set the oppressed free,and to tear off every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,to bring the poor and homeless into your house, to clothe the naked when you see him, and not to ignore your own flesh and blood? Then your light will appear like the dawn,and your recovery will come quickly. Your righteousness will go before you, and the Lord’s glory will be your rear guard."
Chains broken, setting the oppressed free, and tearing off every yoke....that is the true reason of fasting. Returning to these passages of scripture, we see that an individual denying him/herself and spreading out sackcloth and ashes (common customs of fasting) aren't the true purpose. In fact, they mean nothing if they don't lead to freedom from strongholds and oppression. This is what the Pharisees in Matthew 6 forgot, which led to them receiving their reward of a meaningless, powerless, outward appearance with no power to bring about freedom to the people. Watering down rituals are a key theme that we should take note to avoid. We lose out on a tremendous opportunity for God to do wonders, and we can't afford to misunderstand fasting. You're missing out if you do.