The act of fasting, biblically speaking, is both a physical and symbolic expression. Physically, it’s simply deprivation of food and/or water for a specified period of time. Symbolically, though, it represents something much more.
In the best sense, fasting symbolizes two things in the believer. First is deep sorrow or grief, which explains why the Hebrew expression for it was: “afflicting the soul.” This sense of great sorrow is the basic understanding that Jesus himself emphasized in Matthew 9:14-15. When asked why his disciples didn’t fast, he immediately equated fasting with mourning: “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn,” he responded, “while he is with them?” Sorrow is also the symbolic expression seen most frequently in Old Testament history, particularly in regard to the death of a loved one, the appearance of a sudden calamity, or in the face of an extreme threat (see 1 Samuel 31:13, 2 Samuel 1:12, 3:36, Nehemiah 1:4, and Esther 4:3).
Second, fasting signifies abject humility and repentance before Almighty God. In this context, fasting is a physical symbol of spiritual desperation over sin, both individually and as a community. It is a visual plea for God to show mercy instead of administering deserved judgment on the helpless, sinful one (see see 1 Kings 21:27, Jonah 3:6-10). There is no example in Scripture of God refusing mercy to one who expresses this kind of sincere, helpless plea for pity.
On the opposite end of those two symbols, fasting can also represent an unpleasant third option. Fasting that is insincere and self-important appears to be something God finds repugnant. When that happens, fasting becomes symbolic of an ugly aspect of spirituality: Hypocrisy. In the Old Testament, God rebuked the Israelites sternly for insincere ritual fasting (Isaiah 58:1-5), and Jesus did the same in the New Testament in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:16-18).
Fasting then, is not something to be approached casually, but is instead intended to be an intimate, humbling, sincere time of sorrow shared between God and each individual believer.
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