GOD’S CALL TO FASTING
(A Practical Guide)
“I humbled myself with fasting…” (Psalm 69:10)
“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting….” (Joel 2:12)
“Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting….” (Daniel 9:3)
Prayer and fasting are significant spiritual disciplines any believer can utilize in order to yield our lives more fully to God. In Scripture, prayer is mentioned hundreds of times with no reference to fasting, but the opposite cannot be said. Fasting, in Scripture, is almost never discussed apart from prayer. They go together because fasting belongs with prayer and is, in one sense, an extension of prayer. In fasting we let go of our plans; in prayer we take hold of God’s plans. Prayer connects us to Heaven while fasting disconnects us from earth!
Here are a few simple but powerful reasons why every follower of Christ should incorporate fasting into their plans for spiritual growth.
- Fasting creates a deep passion for intense prayer
- Fasting increases our sensitivity to the Holy Spirit
- Fasting strengthens our resolve to obey God
- Fasting heightens our desire for His presence
- Fasting purifies our motives
- Fasting reminds us to pray without ceasing
- Fasting humbles us so our focus is on the Lord.
In addition to these thoughts, one of the most convincing incentives for fasting is the gallery of spiritual giants found in Scripture who fasted. We quickly think of Moses, Elijah, Daniel, and many others, but our primary example is Jesus. Jesus was obviously a man of prayer but He also was intensely committed to fasting. Not only did He practice it Himself, Jesus taught on fasting and expects His followers to fast.
WHAT IS FASTING?
The word, or some form of the word, fasting occurs more than seventy-five times in Scripture. Fasting was common in both Old and New Testament practice. Moses, Elijah, Nehemiah, Ezra, Daniel, John the Baptist, Paul, and Jesus all fasted. So did many others.
Fasting in scripture is always about denying ourselves food. For some today, fasting has become a metaphor for giving up almost anything for godly reasons. For purposes of developing self-discipline, there may be value in refraining from some practices for a time. The people of the Bible, however, would have never considered merely give up some pleasurable practice.
Consider, for instance, the Hebrew and Greek words we translate into English as “fasting.” The Greek word literally means “no eat.” The Hebrew is even blunter, where the word literally means “shut mouth!” When we discuss fasting, therefore, we mean refraining from food.
BIBLICAL FASTING FOR SPIRITUAL GROWTH
Jesus encouraged us to fast when He said: “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matt. 6:16-18 ESV)
Notice that twice Jesus said “when” you fast, not “if” you fast. For many centuries devout and sincere followers have fasted for spiritual power and to increase the effectiveness of their prayers. Fasting is an important spiritual discipline for our own generation. Some of the practical points Jesus mentioned are:
- Fasting is expected by the Lord (“…when you fast”)
- Fasting is for the Lord’s notice not for the approval of others (“…may not be seen by others but by your Father”)
- God will bless you when you fast (“…your Father…will reward you”).
IS FASTING FOR TODAY
One day, some followers of John the Baptist came to Jesus with a challenge about fasting. They wondered why the disciples of Jesus were not fasting. It’s an interesting exchange.
“Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” (Matthew 9:14-15 ESV)
Jesus told them His disciples didn’t need to fast while He was with them but after He would be taken away, “then they will fast” (v15). The time for fasting is now- while Jesus is away in Heaven, awaiting His return.
PRACTICAL WAYS TO FAST
There are three fasts I recommend for almost anyone. If you have specific health conditions which affect your diet, check with your healthcare provider about the medical aspects of fasting. Some people, it’s true, will face extra challenges with fasts. For most people in reasonable health, one of these simple but powerful fasts, with thoughtful preparation, can be undertaken to increase your sensitivity to God’s Spirit.
THE PARTIAL FAST
In Daniel 10:2-3, the prophet, who was no stranger to fasting, described a “partial fast” in which he denied himself “choice food,” including meat. During a partial fast, you might want to limit your food to only fresh fruits or vegetables in the smallest amounts without sugar, salt, or seasonings. You would not want to drink any beverages other than water or limited amounts of 100% fruit/vegetable juices (avoid concentrates which are loaded with added sugar). For coffee or tea drinkers, it is appropriate to have a cup or glass without sugar or cream.
This might be the perfect fast for those who need to eat a small amount in order to take medication but still want to fast. As always, a fast is self-denial. So the menu isn’t the only important thing but also the small portions that matter. Use common sense, limit your intake of food, talk to your doctor, and trust God.
The spiritual benefits will include a heightened sense of the presence and joy of the Lord, if you spend quality time in Bible study and prayer. It is an excellent way for those fasting for the first time to begin this exciting, refreshing, and rewarding spiritual discipline.
THE ONE DAY NORMAL FAST
I have discovered the wonderful results of a regular one-day fast in which I only drink water and a little black coffee during a twenty-four hour period. I like to fast on a given day until breakfast the next day. The rewards are tremendous! The Bible always comes alive during these days in a special way, and our prayer life during the one-day fast can be as powerful as we might ever experience.
A variation of the one-day fast covers the twenty-four hours from sundown to sundown. You eat nothing from a late-day meal on one day until the same time the next day.
As with the other fasts mentioned, common sense must be used by those with preexisting medical conditions which require special diets. This guide is not intended as a substitute for medical advice. Most adults and older teenagers, however, should be able to do a one-day water fast if He leads them to the fast and they seek God during the day.
THE EXTENDED FAST
For those more experienced with fasting, a three-day or long fast with only 100% fruit/vegetable juices, water, or, for the coffee/tea drinkers, a small amount of unsweetened black coffee, or tea is a great exercise in commitment and sacrifice.
During this fast, no solid foods, including fruits/milk products or soft drinks, are consumed. This is a more difficult fast since the body really begins to “cry” to be fed during the length of the fast. The spiritual benefits, however, outweigh the inconvenience and can be life-changing. Expect to hear from God during the extended juice fast. I do not recommend more than three days until you have checked with your doctor, spiritual leaders, and/or Christian family/friend. I did a 40 day fast several years ago and I’ve done a few 10 day fasts, and multiple 3 day fasts. I recently did a 21 day fast. I’ve never had any ill side effects. I highly recommend the extended fast.
Whenever you fast, remember to spend at least as much time in prayer and Bible study as you would have spent eating and preparing to eat. This isn’t a diet. Fasting is about seeking God for breakthrough in your spiritual life, so read the Word daily and pray and worship as much as possible each day. A lot of prayer and Bible reading are essential elements of a successful season of fasting.
PRACTICAL POINTS TO CONSIDER CONCERNING A FAST
• If you suffer from chronic health concerns (such as diabetes or other ailments) which demand a specific diet or regular medications requiring food, a complete fast of food might not be advisable without consultation from your doctor and careful planning.
• With any fast, drink plenty of water.
• On a long fast, consider supplementing water with a 100% fruit juice for an energy boost (do this in moderation as the sugar spike in fruit juice is not always as healthy as we might think!)
• Spend the time in prayer and Bible study that you would have normally spent in eating, preparing meals, cleaning up, or traveling to meals.
• Most physical activity is acceptable during a one-day fast, but avoid overexertion. If you feel dizzy or light-headed, rest and drink water or a small amount of fruit juice. Pace all activities. All of this depends upon how much control you have over your own schedule. It is important to carefully plan your fast, even a brief one.
• Exercise common sense. Talk to spiritual leaders and medical professionals, and be smart! • Ease into a fast by reducing your food intake slowly over a few days prior to the fast. This helps prepare your body for the lack of food during the fast.
• Remember, fasting is an exercise in self-denial. Always allow yourself the least amount of food (if any) and the most amount of prayer and Bible study.
• Ease out of the fast. For every day you fasted, spend the same number of days coming out of the fast by avoiding large meals.
YOU HAVE OPTIONS
During a called church-wide fast, or during any season of fasting, you have several options. The fast can last for several weeks, or perhaps you’ll decide to fast at least one day a week or fast for 3 days. Fasting is not a litmus test of your love for God in other’s eyes. Fasting is ultimately about seeking God for spiritual personal growth or spiritual breakthrough. Pray about any fast and proceed as the Lord leads you.
J. Kie Bowman
Hyde Park Baptist/The Quarries Church
Austin, Texas Prayer