The basic answer is that we are weak and needy people, and life is sometimes extremely difficult. Fasting is God’s appointed way for us to cry out to Him in situations of special need. If, as John Stott suggests, Jesus’s exhortation to “ask, seek and knock” in prayer (Matt. 7:7) “may deliberately be in an ascending scale of urgency,”1 we might think of prayer with fasting as knocking loudly on the gates of heaven. We resort to fasting out of a deep sense of our weakness and need in order to seek God in a more urgent, earnest, and heartfelt manner for something of great importance to us or to His kingdom. It is a response of faith to God’s promise, “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13), and, “call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me” (Ps. 50:15).2 Fasting shows God that we are desperate for His help and seeking His attention by the extraordinary measure of forsaking our necessary food, so that our voice might be heard on high. When we come to God in this way, privately and out of public notice, fully aware that we deserve nothing from Him and can earn nothing by fasting, but that He is a gracious, generous, and loving Father who cares about us, we can be sure that God does indeed hear (Matt. 6:16–18). Of course, this does not guarantee that He will grant exactly what we seek; He may or may not. Ultimately, in His wisdom, He will give us what He knows is best for us in the situation.
What are some of the reasons biblical people fasted? They cover a range of things, including national emergencies, deliverance from danger, protection, help in sickness or some other difficult situation, special guidance, and humbling oneself before God and drawing near to Him. Sometimes grief, mourning or lamentation, or sorrow over a particular sin or sins were reasons for fasting, as well as breaking bondages to certain sins. Fasting is also connected with seeking deliverance for the oppressed. In some instances, it is involved in receiving revelation from God.
Some Biblical Examples
In the Old Testament, every Israelite was called to fast on the annual Day of Atonement (Lev. 23:27–28). This was a sign of humbling and repentance before God as they sought His forgiveness for their sins.
Moses fasted from food and water in two back-to-back fasts, lasting a total of eighty days while he was meeting with God on Mt. Sinai and receiving divine revelation (Exod. 34:28; Deut. 9:9–10:10 ).
Daniel observed a partial fast for twenty-one days, at the end of which God gave him revelation into important aspects of Israel’s future (Dan. 10).
Hannah was barren, heartbroken, and desperate for a child. She sought God in prayer and fasting, and He answered her with the birth of Samuel, one of the great leaders of the Old Testament (1 Sam. 1:1–20).
While exiled in Persia, Ezra was commissioned by the king to help with the restoration of Israel and the proper worship of God. He proclaimed a fast among the Jewish exiles to ask God for safety and protection on the dangerous journey he and others were to take back to Israel. God answered them (Ezra 8:21–23).
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