In this episode we will be exploring the topic of Holiness, and the role of fasting and prayer. This is a practice of holiness, or setting apart, which can create an intimate time of seeking to commune with God. But as we will see, it is also a strong metaphor for the concept of whole-hearted devotion to serving others.
Yeshua stated it this way:
Moreover when you fast, do not be as the hypocrites, of a sad appearance; for they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face, that you do not appear unto men to fast, but unto your Father which is in secret: and your Father, who sees in secret, shall reward you openly. Matthew 6:16-18
Now the primary purpose of this teaching by Yeshua was to address the issue of public pride that the Jewish leaders would practice to make a show of their obedience openly. He instead focuses on the private and sincere relationship that believers should have with God. Yeshua does not dissuade the practice of fasting, just the manner in which the Jews were using it to make themselves look better in the eyes of others.
Fasting is a practice of believers mentioned throughout the Bible, typically coupled with intense, focused prayer.
Daniel 9:3 And I set my face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes…
Mark 9:29 And he said unto them, This kind can come forth by nothing, except by prayer and fasting.
Acts 14:23 And when they had ordained themselves elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.
1 Corinthians 7:5 Do not deprive one another, except it be with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan not tempt you for your lack of self control.
Of course the admonition of Yeshua is that fasting and prayer should not in any way become a source of pride and vanity, as if you are doing something special that God should suddenly sit up and take notice of. He encourages fasting in the context of the daily routine, without any indication to others that you might be separating yourself apart. This “secret” aspect of fasting and prayer indicates the personal nature of this type of communion with God.
By reviewing how fasting and prayer have been used in the Bible, we can come to a better practical understanding of how God intends us to use this practice in ways that honor him. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but highlights some insights into this misunderstood practice.
Fasting and prayer as an act of repentance
Fasting is related to a humbling of oneself before God. In many English versions, this is typically translated as affliction or humbling; to “afflict one’s soul” was an act of humility before Yahweh. This was specifically listed as a commanded practice on the Day of Atonement each year, a day of seeking God and petitioning him for forgiveness.
And this shall be a statute for ever unto you: that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls and do no work at all, whether it be one of your own country, or a stranger who sojourns among you: … It shall be a sabbath of rest unto you, and you shall afflict your souls by a statute forever. Leviticus 16:29, 31
This corporate fasting was to be for a national representative humbling before God, that the community would always remain obedient to God’s ways and that his acceptance would be evident throughout their land for the coming year. Fasting, therefore, is a manner of self-denial in the service of a larger objective.
Fasting and prayer was for seeking God’s involvement and favor
These are some additional examples of corporate fasting and prayer that was used to seek God’s will and a hopeful outcome of events.
Ezra 8:21, 23 Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Aha’va, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him an upright way for ourselves, our children, and all our goods. … So we fasted and besought our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.
Esther 4:16 “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.”
It is interesting to note that these examples of corporate fasting were for the benefit of others, or for better understanding God’s purpose and will for their lives.
Fasting and prayer for the sake of enemies
We typically see fasting and prayer as a way of declaring our sincerity before God for our personal requests, yet the Psalmist carries a clear directive of how he was moved to fast and pray for even his enemies.
Psalm 35:11-14 False witnesses stepped forward and questioned me concerning things about which I knew nothing. They paid me back evil for good; my soul mourns. But when they were sick, I wore sackcloth, humbled myself with fasting, and prayed from my heart repeatedly. I paced about as for my friend or my brother, and fell down mourning as one weeps for one’s mother.
This, of course, echoes the later teaching of Yeshua.
Matthew 5:43-45 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
Fasting accompanied great times of testing, but also of revelation.
We see that Yeshua fasted during this pivotal time of testing at the outset of his public ministry.
Luke 4:1-2 Then Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan River. He was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where he was tempted by the devil for forty days. Jesus ate nothing all that time and became very hungry.
Likewise, Moses had fasted on Sinai during his time of communion with Yahweh which resulted in the provision of the Ten Commandments.
Exodus 34:28 And he [Moses] was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.
Both of these men had fasted in the service of others which resulted in bold empowerment in their public ministries.
Fasting and prayer with the wrong attitude
Isaiah is very bold in denouncing the corrupt religiosity of his day when he confronts Israel with a hypothetical conversation between the Israelites and God.
Isaiah 58:3-5 ‘We have fasted before you!’ they say. ‘Why aren’t you impressed? We have been very hard on ourselves, and you don’t even notice it!’ “I will tell you why!” I respond. “It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves. Even while you fast, you keep oppressing your workers. What good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarreling? This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with me. You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like reeds bending in the wind. You dress in burlap and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the LORD?
Fasting is not a cure-all for the deficiencies of the heart; if our heart is not right, we will not be praying right, fasting or not.
Through all of these passages, we are learning that fasting is significant, but only if it is done with a right and sincere attitude, and primarily in the service of others, not for our own selfish ambitions.
In teaching of the fulfillment of this kingdom, Yeshua continues this idea of being set apart through fasting. He encourages this practice among believers but cautions them not to make a show of it with others, otherwise their “humbling” would itself become a form of hypocrisy. Fasting and prayer was not to be something for personal benefit or gain, but for the service of others. Yeshua specifies that true fasting and prayer is “unto your Father,” as a means of private intimacy in communication with him.
“Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites [do,] for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees [what is done] in secret will reward you.” Matthew 6:16-18
When we fast, we should take measures to be certain it is not obvious to others. Our private works of humility and worship in the service of, and communion with, the one true God should remain private. If we are sincere in preparing our hearts and bodies to be receptive to the leading of God, we must maintain that intimacy.
When our inner convictions become just an outward show, we have denied ourselves and create a mockery of God. Self-adulation and false humility demonstrate a shallow understanding of our spiritual condition for the simple purpose of bettering ourselves in the eyes of others.
Ultimately, fasting reminds us who our Provider is, both physically and spiritually
Deuteronomy 8:2-3 And you shall remember all the ways which the LORD your God led you these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you, and to prove you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you, and suffered you to hunger, and fed you with manna, which you did not know, neither did your fathers know; that he might make you know that man does not live by bread only, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD does man live.
In the wilderness, the Israelites were forced to fast as a way of recognizing their dependence on God. Their lack of food provided the example that God would also supply their needs through the manna. They were set apart in the wilderness, a people called to a unique way of life that was to exemplify the kingdom of God on the earth. In this wilderness experience, they were to be humbled, proven. God wanted to find out what was in their hearts. He taught them dependence on him for their physical and spiritual needs.
This whole narrative is an appropriate allegory for us today, as this world system we live in can appear to be a vast wilderness devoid of any life-giving support. God uses this world system to humble and prove us, searching for what is in our hearts. He wants us to recognize him and depend on him for our spiritual and physical needs. This way, the kingdom community can grow and thrive.
The right kind of fasting
Going back to Isaiah, he provides us the clearest insight into God’s view of fasting and prayer:
Isaiah 58:6-11 – “No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help. “Then your salvation will come like the dawn, and your wounds will quickly heal. Your godliness will lead you forward, and the glory of the LORD will protect you from behind. Then when you call, the LORD will answer. ‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply. “Remove the heavy yoke of oppression. Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors! Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon. The LORD will guide you continually, giving you water when you are dry and restoring your strength. You will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring.
I have always loved this passage in Isaiah because it highlights the fallacy of fasting as a sort of magic charm that can be used to get God’s attention for personal desires. Instead, Isaiah says what really gets God’s attention is denying ourselves (i.e., fasting) through the service of others. The provision of justice and mercy is what true fasting is all about. What makes us holy or set apart from others should be our sincere and tireless efforts in outreach to those in need. Most people in the world are existing for their own wants and desires; God’s people should demonstrate a different mindset, one that seeks to focus on others, even to the point of denying oneself so that others can be benefited.
The apostle Paul writes:
Philippians 2:3-4 – Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
In summary of all I’ve discussed here today, denying body and soul is a personal discipline that is meant to take our eyes off of ourselves and our own needs. Making a display of it contradicts everything it is intended to accomplish.
However, maintaining a vital and dynamic intimacy with God through our heart understanding working in concert with our actions towards others provides great personal reward. Fasting with prayer is a spiritual practice that, done for the right reasons and in the correct, sincere manner, will provide a deep level of personal connection with God in the service of others. This practice provides us an opportunity to continually set ourselves apart in seeking God’s purpose within his kingdom. This is an unseen way in which we are strengthened to visibly serve others effectively in his name.
Well, once again, I hope I’ve been able to provide you some ideas and concepts to meditate on further. We need to keep in mind that fasting and prayer is not a personal discipline for our own selfish desires, but a means of humbling ourselves before God in the service of the needs of others.
If you enjoy these daily blog posts, be sure to visit the growing archive of the Core of the Bible podcast. Each week we take a more in-depth look at one of the various topics presented in the daily blog. You can view the podcast archive here. Questions or comments? Feel free to email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.