I had a friend once who was greatly confused by God’s inaction. My friend had fasted for 40 hours in relation to a job he was pursuing. At the end of the fast, he learned that someone else got the job. His disbelief at another candidate being promoted turned into something of a crisis for this young man. He didn’t understand how he could be so zealous for God and have it come to nothing.
Yet, fasting is not about our proving to God how serious we are about life—or even about faith. God doesn’t need for us to testify about what is in us because he already knows what is in us, and he knows it better than we do (John 2:24-25). So, my friend was a little confused about the nature and purpose of Christian fasting. Fasting is not a means by which we can obligate God to act on our behalf. Rather, fasting is a means given to us by God to subjugate the flesh so we will act on God’s behalf. In other words, fasting does not prove our faith, it improves our faith. Fasting does not turn God’s will toward us; rather, it turns our wills toward Him.
Think of Jesus’s remarks in Luke 18 concerning the manner in which God views the righteous Pharisee in contrast with the manner in which He receives the unrighteous tax collector. On the one hand, the Pharisee didn’t simply fast every week, he fasted two times every week without fail. How would the tax collector compete with that level of righteousness? He wouldn’t compete with Pharisaical righteousness. All the tax collector could bring before God was his own sin and the desperate desire he had to be rid of it. The Pharisee was glad that he wasn’t like the tax collector, but such gladness did nothing to endear him to God. Indeed, Jesus taught that the sinner went home justified, while the Pharisee went home a self-righteous sinner who fasted twice a week in vain.
Fasting does not improve God’s disposition toward us. Instead, it is designed by God to improve our own disposition toward Him. Fasting changes us, while God remains the same yesterday, today, and forever. In Him, there is no variation or shifting shadow. Instead of changing God, fasting is designed to change us.
More specifically, fasting is designed to change our desires and our appetites and our hunger. When we fast, we come face to face with the power our flesh has over us. If you have gone a day or two without eating, then you will know what I mean. The first few hours after skipping breakfast, you still feel all right and think, “I’ve got this. No problem.” Fasting even feels good at first because it gives you a sense of righteousness, knowing that you are doing the right thing and God must be pleased.
But then, all of a sudden, it seems that God must be turning on you because everything starts to go wrong. Your head hurts. You have no sense of satisfaction. Instead, a sense of near panic enters in, and you wonder why you are doing this. Your body is crying out for sugar. Your head is shouting for caffeine. Your stomach and intestines are crying for nutrients. Of course, God isn’t turning on you; everything inside of you is in rebellion against you. You find out your body hates you, and it is screaming that you’d better find a solution to this problem quickly.
In the heat of the battle, you find God’s design for fasting—to bring your body into obedience to Christ. When your body is screaming at you, you are ready for spiritual battle. You pray that you will hunger for holiness the way your body hungers for food. Even as Jesus taught, you begin to understand more clearly what it means that you are not to live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God. So, you confess that you want your true food to be the word of God rather than that which goes into the stomach only to go out again. You want to put in the word and feed upon it so that you are full of Godliness, not fleshly desires.
Fasting is an opportunity for you to focus both your body and your mind on the will of God. It is designed to build into you an appetite for God the way that you obviously keep an appetite for food.
So, then, is it wrong to ask God for things while you are fasting? No, it isn’t wrong, but your asking must fit in with the purpose of fasting. What does that mean?
Well, think of it this way, when we pray for the lost, we aren’t saying, “God, I am really serious about this person being saved. You see how I am fasting? Then, surely, you must hear my prayer and save this person because I am really serious about seeing them saved.” That kind of prayer would be more in line with the Pharisee than with the tax collector who went home justified. Rather, the prayer that we would pray for the lost is, “Lord, I confess that I have never hungered for the souls of others to be saved the way I am hungry now for food. Oh, change me, Lord, that I might have the right desire to see Christ glorified in the salvation of sinners. Oh, bless me Lord with the right affections so that I might join all of Heaven as the shouts go out at the repentance of ___________. Save him for Christ’s sake, O God, and let me have a part in it according to your will.”