In the first week after the Christmas Holidays, many I spoke to talked about dieting, exercise and their need to lose some excess poundage. For many people, myself included, Christmastime is a time of year when the food is abundant, candies and sweets are sitting on every countertop, and there are plenty of occasions to toast the year with an artery-clogging eggnog or some other calorie-laden adult beverage. Tighter belts and blowing up like a well fed tick are the obvious consequence of our culinary indulgences.

Immediately following New Year’s, people make commitments to get back into shape, so it came as no surprise when I opened an email from a friend on the topic of fasting; I don’t think he intended it to be a personal message about my need to shrink my waistline—but it did get me thinking about the topic of “fasting.”

Fasting has largely been a religious act of devotion

For thousands of years, people across many cultures have practiced fasting, the act of willingly abstaining from food for a set period of time. Modern medicine indicates that fasting can have many health benefits, but traditionally fasting has been done predominantly in a religious context, some people doing it in an effort to demonstrate their piety and devotion to God. The general thinking seems to be that God will pay more attention to their prayers when He sees how serious they are, even going so far as to suffer through hunger.

Fasting can be spiritually beneficial

From personal experience, I understand that fasting can have some spiritual benefits. When I’ve fasted, I have found it helpful in staying more focused on God and the things that I truly need to pray about. It has helped me disconnect from my physical needs and concentrate on the spiritual. Many of the “greats” in the Bible spent time fasting, such as Jesus for forty days (Matt. 4), Daniel (Dan. 9:3), etc., but we must be careful to not fall into the mistake of a fast becoming a “hunger-strike,” a refusal to eat like a bratty child in order to coerce a parent. The fact is that God cannot be manipulated or coerced and does not capitulate to pressure to answer our prayers. We fast for our benefit by being able to increase our concentration and focus on prayer, not so that we get God’s attention.

What is the kind of “fast” that God desires?

Going without food so that you can concentrate on prayer is a good thing. When Jesus was asked about fasting he said, “do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting” (Matt. 6:16). Instead when we fast we are to go about our day looking normal and not drawing any attention to it. In the New Testament we also have references to the prophetess Anna fasting and praying day and night at the Temple (Luke 2:37), and the disciples fasting in Acts 13:2 and 14:23 prior to the commissioning of Paul and Barnabas.

We must also be aware, though, that God has little patience for those who do so called “spiritual acts of worship” while their hearts are really moving in another direction. God will not be mocked in this way and this is why He had Isaiah reprove the people for their hypocritical fasting. They were using their fast as a type of “hunger-strike” to get God’s attention, while in the meantime they were quarreling, fighting, and exploiting others. This is why in Isaiah 58, God says the kind of fast he desires includes kindness, compassion, mercy, and love towards others. When we fast the way God wants us to we:

– Break the chains of wickedness

– Untie the ropes of the yoke

– Set the oppressed free

– Tear off every yoke

– Share our bread with the hungry

– Care for the poor and homeless

– Clothe the naked

– Take care of our own families

Take Away Lesson:

If you want God to pay attention to you and your prayers, do what is right by doing what is right for others.