Fasting is a topic I was not overly fond of for quite some time. It isn't very pleasant to think about and really isn't something you'd just think to do, you know? "Gee, I think I'll stop doing x activity, or eating y food, or stop eating solids altogether for a period of hours, days, or weeks." I was familiar with the fasting and abstinence required by my church, but didn't know why they did that or what good it would do for me. I certainly never would have wanted to stop eating anything for any period of time. I might get hungry!
My thoughts have changed and I can now see fasting as beneficial for spiritual as well as health related reasons.
What is fasting? Fasting is primarily the act of willingly abstaining from some or all food, drink, or both, for a period of time. An absolute fast is normally defined as abstinence from all food and liquid for a defined period, usually a single day (24 hours), or several daytime periods. Other fasts may be only partially restrictive, limiting particular foods or substance. The fast may also be intermittent in nature. Fasting practices may preclude sexual and other activities as well as food. (Wikipedia)
Fasting then can mean abstaining from something for some time. For Lent, many people give up sweets or soda or coffee or the internet or some other activity or food for the 40 days. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, we give up most food. On all Fridays of Lent, we refrain from eating meat. Those are all examples of fasts. Other religions also practice fasting. Many also practice voluntary fasting that has nothing to do with Lent.
The Bible has many examples of fasting. These are just a few:
2Sa 1:12 And they mourned, and wept, and fasted until even, for Saul, and for Jonathan his son, and for the people of the LORD, and for the house of Israel; because they were fallen by the sword.
Psa 35:13 But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth: I humbled my soul with fasting; and my prayer returned into mine own bosom.
2Sa 12:16 David therefore besought God for the child; and David fasted, and went in, and lay all night upon the earth.
Est 4:16 Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day: I also and my maidens will fast likewise; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law: and if I perish, I perish.
Act 14:23 And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.
Dan 9:3 And I set my face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes:
Neh 9:1-2 Now in the twenty and fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, and with sackclothes, and earth upon them. And the seed of Israel separated themselves from all strangers, and stood and confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers.
Mat 9:14 Then came to him the disciples of John, saying, Why do we and the Pharisees fast oft, but thy disciples fast not?
Luk 2:37 And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day.
Act 9:8 And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink.
Moses, Elijah, and of course Jesus fasted for extended periods of time. Jesus spoke of fasting:
Mat 6:16-18 Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.
Note two things here - first, Jesus says when. Not if, but when. There is an assumption the followers of Jesus would be fasting. Second, Jesus does not want us to fast for the recognition of men. In other words, fasting is not a way to show how awesomely holy we are.
But why? Why all this fasting to begin with? If not to show how awesomely more holy than everyone else we are, what is the purpose? With so many religious groups doing it, what is the effect? For Christians, we need no other reason than Jesus thinks we'll be doing it, but that doesn't answer a lot of questions. Fasting goes hand in hand with prayer in the Bible. Fasting humbles us before God. Fasting brings us closer to God. It also helps to discipline our flesh. Jesus says (above) the Father will reward us for fasting.
There is no flow chart for the various reasons to fast or the spiritual benefits of fasting, but that doesn't stop us from other activities such as prayer. Praying to God has all sorts of questions too, but we still do it. Fasting can bring many benefits, in my experience, in excess of a simple prayer. Fasting is very powerful with prayer.
Mat 17:14 -21 And when they were come to the multitude, there came to him a certain man, kneeling down to him, and saying, Lord, have mercy on my son: for he is lunatick, and sore vexed: for ofttimes he falleth into the fire, and oft into the water. And I brought him to thy disciples, and they could not cure him. Then Jesus answered and said, O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? bring him hither to me. And Jesus rebuked the devil; and he departed out of him: and the child was cured from that very hour. Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast him out? And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you. Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.
Prayer was not enough in that instance. It required fasting.
Paul also speaks of fasting, in reference to the marital bond:
1Co 7:4-5 The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife. Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency.
One does not need to embark on a 40 day water fast to fast more than just the season of Lent. In fact, taking such a dramatic step initially would probably not go very well. Some people abstain from meat on Fridays the whole year, or Wednesdays and Fridays. Some people will not eat between breakfast and lunch for a time. There is also juice fasting, which eliminates solid food but allows you to drink all the juice that you want.
The question arises if such activity is safe, and the answer is that yes, usually it is. Contrary to popular opinion, skipping a meal or two will probably not kill you. People with health conditions, are pregnant, nursing, etc will want to look into it more. But otherwise, there are many purported health benefits to fasting of some kind. Research suggests there are major health benefits to caloric restriction. This doesn't really surprise me, as activities which bring us closer to God typically have good effect on our bodies. People who regularly attend worship services live longer in fact.
Jesus' warning against fasting for public gain does not prevent you from discussing your fast plans with your doctor, just to be sure. Nor does it restrict telling others with the right motivation - say, if you wanted to fast with someone. Or you wanted to explain to your family why you were not going to be sharing meals with them.
I have found huge benefits to fasting with prayer. If nothing else, it reminds my selfish flesh that it isn't in charge anymore - the spirit is. It helps with self control, prayer, and general well being.