Moses was commanded of God regarding the Day of Atonement, “On the tenth day of this seventh month hold a sacred assembly. You must deny yourselves and do no work.” The Day of Atonement was a special gathering, where the Israelites acknowledged that they as a people group had sinned, and where they sought forgiveness for that sin through an offering. It was a very serious observance, as the Lord instructed in Leviticus 23, “Hold a sacred assembly and deny yourselves, and present an offering made to the Lord by fire. Do no work on that day, because it is the Day of Atonement, when atonement is made for you before the Lord your God. Anyone who does not deny himself on that day must be cut off from his people. I will destroy from among his people anyone who does any work on that day. You shall do no work at all. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live. It is a sabbath of rest for you, and you must deny yourselves. From the evening of the ninth day of the month until the following evening you are to observe your sabbath.”
The Hebrew wording transliterated “deny yourselves” literally means to become empty. It means to fast. The ideas of both humility and hunger are called to mind. Simply put, fasting is abstaining from something (usually food) for a period of time in order to focus on spiritual matters (primarily prayer). Fasting is meant to accomplish two things – to humble ourselves before God, and to sharpen our focus on Him. It is a powerful spiritual discipline, and it always is used in conjunction with prayer. Although Scripture demonstrates prayer as often done apart from fasting, it never demonstrates fasting apart from prayer.
Though the observance of Lent is encouraging a resurgence of the practice, fasting may still be described as among the least practiced spiritual disciplines in all of western Christianity. But Jesus expected His disciples to use that discipline, and in conjunction with prayer. To that point, having just finished teaching His disciples how to pray, Jesus turns His attention to fasting. He begins, “When you fast…”
That Jesus used the Greek word transliterated <hotan> (meaning “when”) instead of a word meaning “if” tells us that Jesus had that expectation of His listeners. And although other fasts in addition to the Day of Atonement came to be regularly observed (see Zechariah 8:19), fasts were not normal behaviour. They still are not. To that point, fasting is understood as a spiritual discipline that is expected, but not regular. It is a holy observance – a special thing to be used on occasion.
That is because it marks an unusual appeal to God, above and beyond our normal, day-to-day prayer. But just because it is not a normal part of everyday life doesn’t allow that we can forgo it altogether. There are times of special consecration (like the day of Atonement) and times of special appeal to God on account of national or private tragedy. These times call God’s people to seek Him in an unusual way, proportional to the event at hand. Simply put, they call for fasting.
Fasting provides an environment for tuning our lives to God. It is not that the Lord speaks louder when we fast, but that our spiritual ‘receptors’ are able to receive what He is saying to us. It is perhaps one of the deepest expressions of dying to self and of surrender to Him. We are better able to hear what God is saying.Julio Ruibal
When did you last fast? What did God say to you during that time?