Most of us love good food. Why do people choose to regularly fast and willingly give up eating and drinking? Because the spiritual purpose of a Biblical fast outweighs the natural sacrifice. We like to use the acronym H.A.M.S. to describe the purpose of fasting, because fasting is to Humble, Afflict, Mourn, and Sanctify. Let’s explore this in the scriptures.
The Purpose of Fasting:
Fasting is a way to humble ourselves, or to bring ourselves low before God. When Ahab, an extremely wicked king, heard a word of the Lord pronouncing judgment, the Bible records, “he rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth, and went softly” (1 Kings 21:27). God had mercy, telling Elijah, “Seest thou how Ahab humbleth himself before me? because he humbleth himself before me, I will not bring the evil in his days” (1 Kings 21:28-29). With fasting, we abandon our pride, acknowledge our need for God, and seek His help alone.
David said in Psalm 35:13, “I humbled my soul with fasting.” The soul in scripture often relates to our desires, affections, and emotions. It is even depicted in Hebrew pictographs as the action of the mouth and teeth, because our soul connects to our appetite, the things we want and crave. When we fast, we are humbling our soul. When you notice your soul is trying to take control and your desires, emotions, and appetites are governing your life, fasting is a great way to bring your soul down, so God’s spirit is prioritized above your soul’s desires.
Fasting is not only to humble your soul; Isaiah 58:3-5 describes fasting as “a day for a man to afflict his soul” (cp. Lev. 16:29, 31; 23:27, 29, 32). To afflict is to overthrow, strike down, distress severely, and to cause to suffer. Whereas your soul often screams, “I want!” and your body might be hungry, when you fast you are afflicting your soul by telling it “NO!” You’re denying yourself, letting your soul go through, because there is something you need from God, and you desire Him more than any fleshly lust.
When you fast, you’re temporarily sacrificing a natural necessity (food and drink) to prioritize spiritual goals and growth over earthly distractions. Fasting makes a statement to God and your soul: “It’s not about what I want! My soul is not the focus because I want God more! I need God more!” The things we need from God for ourselves or others are more important; fasting displays that urgency and helps your soul not be in control.
Fasting is repeatedly associated with mourning (2 Sam. 1:12; Zech. 7:5). To mourn is to be sorry, feel or express deep regret, to be sorrowful, or to grieve. As we fast, humbling and afflicting our soul, we are dying out to our will and way. We may need to repent, so our fast can be part of our turning to God and getting things right. In Joel 2:12-13 the Lord said, “Turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning: And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the LORD your God.”
Did you receive really bad news? It’s definitely the time to fast, mourn, and seek God for His help.
- When Nehemiah found out that the Jews he asked about were “in great affliction and reproach: the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire” (Neh. 1:3), he “sat down and wept, and mourned certain days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven” (Neh. 1:4).
- In Esther, the Jews received letters “to destroy, to kill, and to cause to perish, all Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day” (Est. 3:13). In response, “there was great mourning among the Jews, and fasting, and weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ashes” (Est. 4:3).
Fasting is a solemn time, not a time of celebrating. That is why when the disciples of John asked Jesus why His disciples did not fast, He said, “Can the children of the bridechamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast” (Matt. 9:14-15). That time is now. When we fast, humbling ourselves, afflicting our soul, and mourning, we show we are serious about getting God’s attention when the issues or situations we face are great.
Fasting is a time to sanctify, and in Joel 1:14 & 2:15, God told them to sanctify a fast. To sanctify is to make sacred or holy: set apart to a sacred purpose or religious use. The fast was not meant to be a diet or starvation; it is a time we set aside for God, to seek Him. In Isaiah 58, the people asked God why He didn’t see or acknowledge their fast.
He told them, “Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact all your labours… turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day… honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words” (Isaiah 58:3, 13). They gave up food and drink but did what they wanted. They did not set apart that day and make it holy to God.
Fasting should be a time dedicated to the Lord so it is not the day to plan a party, hang out with friends, watch your favorite shows, scroll on social media, and indulge your soul’s desires. That is why the Bible tells married couples (who have a license) to come together, except for the time they consent to “give [themselves] to fasting and prayer” (1 Cor. 7:5). When taking time to fast and pray, their focus is not on each other’s bodies, but on the Lord. Our fasts are about Him, and we give up food and distractions to make Him the focus.