I’ve been thinking a lot about fasting lately. We are about to begin a period of fasting and prayer for ourselves and others who may not know Jesus. Historically in the Church, prayer and fasting went together and both were built into our common practice through discipline. The fathers of the Church taught us that it was essential to fast and pray, to practice denying ourselves and turning to God as we wait for the Bridegroom to return. Over time, especially in the western church, this discipline has become optional and even altogether absent. It is foreign to our practice of Christian spirituality, and to get it back again seems harder than if it had been an expected part of our life with Christ. What are we to do, especially when it was such an important part of the people of God?
The first thing is to learn what it is and what it isn’t, which I want to outline here for the sake of those who may want to incorporate this practice into their lives, especially as the seasons of Advent and then Lent come upon us. The central idea is that fasting is the voluntary denial of an otherwise normal activity for the sake of God, and though you can fast from just about anything, it is usually about abstaining from food, our most basic need. In the Church, the tradition has been to partner fasting (self-denial) with the practices of doing good (self-giving) such as praying for yourself and others and giving to the poor. This is especially due to the warning given in Isaiah 58 on fasting without seeking the good of others.
The New Testament assumption is that all Christian believers will fast. Jesus did not say ‘if’but ‘when’ you fast in Matthew 6:16. Jesus prophesied that his own followers would fast: ‘How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them; then they will fast.’ (Matthew 9:15). When you look at the Bible, you get the impression that fasting was almost a routine.
- Moses fasted for forty days and forty nights.
- King David fasted;
- Elijah fasted during his time of greatest trial.
- Daniel fasted when he lacked God’s understanding.
- The apostle Paul fasted.
- Jesus famously fasted forty days and forty nights
The Old Testament frequently speaks of the people of God being called to prayer and fasting.
- The people of Israel prayed and fasted on the Day of Atonement –Leviticus 23: 27, 29.
- King Jehosaphat called for a time of fasting for Judah – (2 Chronicles 20:3)
- The King of Nineveh proclaimed a fast following Jonah’s warning.
- Under the threat of the Philistines the people of Israel fasted under Samuel’s leadership (1 Samuel 7:6).
- The prophet Joel called for a fast in the light of disaster.
- Ezra made tremendous claims about God’s power before his enemies and then felt the need to call people to fast. (Ezra 8:22)
In the book of Acts the early Church combined worship with fasting and the result was that God spoke and acted on behalf of his people as he had done in the Old Covenant. Paul and Barnabassaw prayer and fasting as the means by which God launched their strategic ministry: “While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” (Acts 13:2)
So why should we pray and fast?
1. Our motive of honoring God.
Following Jesus assumption that we would fast, the first thing that Jesus said about fasting was about motive – Matthew 6:16-18 “When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth; they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.’ Fasting needs to be because first and foremost we want to honor God, to earnestly seek Him.
2. To express earnestness and urgency in our prayers.
You don’t have to fast to express earnestness and urgency in your prayers, but it is a good Biblical option that we are encouraged to take. Fasting says to God, through what we do with our body (rather than saying it only with our mouths) that we really mean business; is to give God our complete attention, even to the point of denying ourselves basic needs for a season.
3. Showing God that we are sorry.
In terms of the earnestness of our prayers, fasting can also be the means by which we express to God our sorrow over sin and our repentance. This does not mean we fast every time we sin, but when we feel a weight of guilt and a separation from God, or when we have sinned gravely, we can fast to deny our flesh and draw closer to God.
4. To increase in humility.
Our hunger and physical weakness will remind us how we are not really strong in ourselves but only in the Lord. David writes, Psalm 69:10 “I humbled my soul with fasting.” Prayer and fasting – reveals the things that control us. We can cover up what is inside through food and other distractions. If pride controls us, it will be revealed almost immediately. Anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear – if they are within us, they will surface during fasting.
The Christian writer Richard Foster says, ‘At first we will rationalise that our anger is due to our hunger; then we will realise that we are angry because our Spirit is angry within us. When we realise this we can then seek Jesus’ forgiveness and healing.’
5. To recover a godly balance in our lives.
Fasting can be the means by which we recover balance in life – it is all too easy for the non-essentials to take precedence in our lives. I have noticed that I have a higher desire for material things just after Christmas. I always spend more money on me just after Christmas; which is a disaster. It is almost like having received so much over the Christmas time that I have fired up an enduring habit of wanting more. We need the contrast to remind us of what we take for granted. A period of abstinence can break this habit. Fasting can have the same spiritual effect.
6. To acknowledge our dependence upon God.
Fasting reminds us that we are sustained, ‘by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,’ Matt 4:4. When the Disciples were concerned that Jesus had not eaten they said to him in John 4: 32-34: “Rabbi, eat something.” But he (Jesus) said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?” “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.’’ This was not a clever metaphor but a genuine reality. Jesus was in fact being nourished and sustained by the power of God.
It is the same for us – this is why Jesus says don’t be miserable when you fast because we will be nourished and sustained by the power of God.
7. To teach us discipline.
If we can refrain from eating food, which we would ordinarily desire, it strengthens our ability not to give into temptation and to say “No” to our body when it craves something it believes it needs right away. It practices self-control and puts off instant gratification through praying to God and seeking the Spirit when our body says it must be satisfied.
8. To heighten our spiritual alertness to God’s will and God’s power.
We are instructed to know God’s will. Ephesians 5: 17, “Therefore,’ says Paul, ‘Do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.” We know that this is not always clear. Many Christians have found that a period of prayer and fasting helps them to clarify their understanding of God’s will. Fasting clears our minds of earthly desires and expresses to God our desire to be close to him and know His will for us.
In Daniel 9:3 it says: ‘So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.’ and 10:3 ‘I ate no choice food; no meat or wine touched my lips; and I used no lotions at all until the three weeks were over.’
Fasting also helps connect us to God so that we may draw from His power, once we know His will. In Mark 9:29 the disciples wanted to know why they could not cast out a powerful demon: ‘After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” He (Jesus) replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer and fasting.”
In Church history some of the most faithful men and women of God have spent time in prayer and fasting when they have felt the need for more of God’s power. When our prayers seem unanswered, there is a Biblical precedent that shows us that God honors prayer and fasting by bringing us the clarity we seek and the power that we need.
Are there any cautions about fasting?
Yes. As written above, fasting while ignoring the good of others (fasting for the sake of fasting) doesn’t profit us anything and, in some cases when injustice is occurring through us without our concern or repentance, it can bring us judgment and discipline. Here are a few other more practical concerns:
- Don’t fast if you have a health problem. God is not calling any of us to injure ourselves and we do and fast what we can when we can. He knows our conditions and our hearts: intent is what matters the most, over and above the spiritual benefits of the physical act.
- Keep yourself safe when you fast. Do not fast without drinking at least water, especially if it is for multiple days.
- Pray when you can as you fast, replacing food with being in the presence of God. As the day goes on, however, and you feel weak and irritable, be sure to remain in a spirit of prayer even if you no longer have the energy to pray. Sit or lie down in God’s presence – make fasting about drawing close to God however it is you can do it in any given moment.
- Do not expect spiritual revelations or immediate answers to prayer from fasting. The results of this kind of practice are more long term than immediate. Let your focus remain just “being” with God your Father.
- Do not be tempted to self-righteousness. Jesus warned against those who made sure others knew they were fasting so that they could be praised. And in Luke 16:11-12, he spoke about the Pharisee who: stood up and prayed about himself: `God, I thank you that I am not like other men–robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ It is another good discipline to refrain from telling people you are fasting and keep it between you and God.