Fasting is not easy; rather, it requires great self-discipline, self-control, and self-denial to temporarily say “No” to our natural appetites in order to say “Yes” to God. The Puritans called fasting a “soul-fattening” exercise. Fasting runs counter to our self-indulgent, “me, my, mine, now!” mindset, and thus it is not surprising that many Christians have not given serious consideration to the spiritual discipline of fasting. During a recent lunch conversation with a pastor, he pointed to his rotund middle and said, “I hate fasting … but I know that Jesus said we need to do it.” “As Martin Luther, an inveterate [seasoned] faster, quaintly expressed it, ‘the flesh was wont to grumble dreadfully’”.[i]
Fasting and Prayer
In both the Old Testament and the New, fasting and prayer often go hand-in-hand (Jer. 14:11-12; Neh. 1:4; Ezra 8:21,23; Mt. 6:5-18). Andrew Murray observed that “Prayer is the one hand with which we grasp the invisible; fasting, the other with which we let loose and cast away the visible.”[ii]
Fasting clothes the prayers of the righteous in the cloak of persuasiveness.
In his book, God’s Chosen Fast, Arthur Wallis wrote, “Fasting is designed to make prayer mount up as on eagles’ wings. It is intended to usher the suppliant into the audience chamber of the King. … It is calculated to give an edge to a man’s intercessions and power to his petitions. Heaven is ready to bend its ear to listen when someone prays with fasting.”[iii]
“In Scripture people can pray without fasting, but they cannot fast without praying. Fasting and prayer are always linked together.” John MacArthur
“The man who prays with fasting is giving heaven notice that he is in earnest.” John MacArthur
Maximum impact before the Throne of Grace occurs during Step 4 of the following progression:
- Prayer + Faith
- Prayer + Faith + Righteous Lifestyle (Obedience) [See Isaiah 58]
- Prayer + Faith + Righteous Lifestyle (Obedience) + Fasting
When You Fast …
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus began His teaching on fasting by saying, “When you fast …” (Mt. 6:16, ESV). Not “If you fast”, but “when”, implying that Jesus expected – and expects – His followers to fast.[iv]
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. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 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. Mt. 6:16-18, ESV
Bishop J.C. Ryle underscored Jesus’ words when he wrote, “One thing must never be forgotten: those who fast should do it quietly, secretly and without ostentation [showiness].”[v] We do not fast for men but for God who sees what we do in secret.
Marcus Yoars observes,
“The good news is that countless believers are rediscovering the power of fasting and, as a result, it’s discussed more these days. The bad news is that it’s still a missing element of most American Christians’ lives. Until we as a church realize fasting isn’t a matter of if but when, we will continue to lose spiritual ground.” (Marcus Yoars. 10 Revolutions for the New Year. Charisma Magazine, January 2013, Page 6.)
Motives for Fasting
Fasting is not like a spiritual hunger strike because by fasting we do not and cannot compel or obligate God to act on our behalf. God remains sovereign and independent. Hence, we fast to seek God, not to manipulate God.
One result of fasting is this: not only do we become more sensitive to God’s will [His desires, His plans]; we also become more willing to do it.
Generally, when our physical hungers are satisfied (or over-indulged), our spiritual hungers wane (diminish). However, when our physical hungers are held in-check and we turn to God through Scripture reading and prayer, our spiritual hungers grow stronger.
Reasons for Fasting
In Scripture and throughout church history people have fasted for a variety of reasons including the following:
1. Routine Spiritual Maintenance
One reason we fast is to keep our relationships with God fresh and growing.
Based on his study of Scripture combined with extensive experience with fasting, Jentezen Franklin boils down the benefit of fasting to this:
“Fasting and prayer bring you closer to God.”[vi]
In the same article Franklin observes, “So many people have lost the edge in their lives; they’ve lost their homes, their marriages, their commitment to the Lord. We stand in church and sing the songs and lift our hands, but there is no edge to our worship. There is no edge to the preaching. It all has become just dull routine and ritual. Fasting can change all that.” See also his book, The Fasting Edge (Charisma House).
2. To Beseech God for Help in and through a Pressing Time of Need
– a long journey; a difficult conversation; a confrontation; a test; an interview; a pivotal decision; a disintegrating marriage; an employment crisis; a health issue
Once again I quote from The Chosen Fast:
We face situations that call for divine wisdom and understanding. Pastor Hsi was faced with a serious crisis in the early days of the opium refuge work when the supply of foreign medicines failed. These were vital for the treatment of the patients. In this desperate situation the thought came to him that maybe God would use his knowledge of native drugs to compound a medicine to take the place of the foreign supply. He sought the Lord with prayer and fasting to show him the proper ingredients. Mrs. Howard Taylor then records the sequel:
Very simply it all came to him just how those pills were to be made. The drugs were at hand in his store, and, still fasting, he took the prescription, compounded the medicine, and hastened back to the Refuge. It proved an entire success and entirely changed the aspect of opium refuge work. Willis, 59-60
3. To Be kept Safe During Approaching Danger
Jehoshaphat provides a good example for us to follow.
After this the Moabites and Ammonites, and with them some of the Meunites, came against Jehoshaphat for battle. 2 Some men came and told Jehoshaphat, “A great multitude is coming against you from Edom, from beyond the sea; and, behold, they are in Hazazon-tamar” (that is, Engedi). 3 Then Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. 4 And Judah assembled to seek help from the Lord; from all the cities of Judah they came to seek the Lord. 2 Chron. 20:1-4, ESV
4. To Receive Equipping for a Bigger-Than-Normal Ministry Assignment
Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon …, Lucius …, Manaen …, and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. Acts 13:1-3, ESV
5. To Add earnestness to Sincere Repentance; To Demonstrate a True Sorrow for Sin
Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads. 2 And the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers. 3 And they stood up in their place and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for a quarter of the day; for another quarter of it they made confession and worshiped the Lord their God. Neh. 9:1-3, ESV
John Wesley called for a time of fasting “To express our sorrow and shame for our manifold transgressions of His holy law.”[vii]
6. To Break an Addiction or Stronghold
7. To humble oneself before God
Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) wrote,
“This, then, is the philosophy of fasting. It expresses repentance, and it uncovers the life to God. ‘Come down, my pride; stand back my passions; for I am wicked, and I wait for God to bless me.’”[viii]
8. To Deal with a National Emergency
In the 1750s, the leaders of Great Britian called the nation to a day of solemn fasting and prayer in view of a threatened invasion by the French. On Friday, February 6, 1756, Wesley recorded in his journal:
The fast day was a glorious day, such as London has scare seen since the restoration. Every church in the city was more than full, and a solemn seriousness sat on every face. Surely God heareth prayer, and there will yet be a lengthening of our tranquility.
A footnote informs us:
Humility was turned into national rejoicing for the threatened invasion by the French was averted. Wallis, 29-30
9. To Be Empowered to Deliver People who are Demonized
According to Jesus some evil spirit cannot be driven out except by fasting and prayer.
And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” [Some manuscripts add ‘and fasting’]. Mk. 9:29, ESV. See also Willis, 53-56
Corporate Fasts – Examples of
Although the primary emphasis of this post is on fasting as an individual, Scripture also gives examples of corporate fasts. See, for example, 2 Chron. 20:3 and Ezra 8:21-23. Reflect on these verses in their context and note who calls the group to fast? Why? What happens during the fast (actions of the leader and the people)? What is the outcome?
How to Fast
1. Prayerfully decide what you will say “No” to, and for how long.
Some options include these:
- Say “No” to one meal per week for one month.
- Drink water but say “No” to food for 24 hours.
- For three days drink water and juice and eat fruit only.
- Say “No” to television for one week and limit internet usage to business essentials.
- Say “No” to dessert for one week.
- Other …
Note: Be wise about your personal health issues. Some people are unable to fast from food. Others will need to consult their physician before proceeding.
2. Prayerfully decide what you will say “Yes” to.
Fasting provides a time for deeper spiritual self-examination and re-orientation. It frees up time that would otherwise be spent cooking, serving, cleaning-up and/or reading the newspaper or watching television for fellowship with God. Fasting is giving up the physical in order to heighten the spiritual.
Here’s a good place to start:
Say “Yes” to a block of time (e.g., 30, 45, 60 minutes or more) during which you read Scripture, both the Old and the New Testaments; pray; journal; sit quietly in Jesus’ presence; walk in Jesus’ presence conversing with Him; listen to worship music …
More thoughts on Fasting
To fast is to hunger for God.
“One of the main purposes of fasting is to wean us from our dependence upon God’s gifts and enable us to become dependent upon God alone.” Robert Mulholland
“Fasting reveals our excessive attachments and the assumptions that lie behind them.” Marjorie Thompson
“Fasting, then, is a divine corrective to the pride of the human heart.” Arthur Wallis
“Fasting is saying ‘No’ to self in order to say ‘Yes’ to God.” PJN
“Fasting empties a space within us for God to pour in His love, His power, and His perspective.” PJN
Testimonies Regarding Fasting
Norman Grubb penned an account of Rees Howells’ initial experience with fasting.
In his biography of Rees Howells … Norman Grubb records how God first dealt with His servant along this line:
It was at a time when he had a great burden for a certain convention, which was being disrupted by assaults of the enemy. The Lord called him to a day of prayer and fasting which was something new to him. Used, as he was, to a comfortable home and four good meals a day, it came as a shock to realize that it meant no dinner, and he was agitating about it. And would it only happen once? Sup’ posing God asked him to do it every day!
When midday came he was on his knees in his bedroom, but there was no prayer that next hour. ‘I didn’t know such a lust was in me’, he said afterwards. ‘My agitation was the proof of the grip it had on me. If the thing had no power over me, why did I argue about it?’
At one o’clock his mother called him, and he told her he wasn’t taking lunch. But she called again, as a mother would, and urged, ‘It won’t take you long to have it.’ The goodly aroma from downstairs was too much for him, and down he came. But after the meal, when he returned to his room, he couldn’t get back into the presence of God. He came face to face with disobedience to the Holy Ghost.
‘I felt I was like the man in the Garden of Eden. I went up the mountain and walked miles, cursing that old man within me’. …. He didn’t take dinner for many days after that, but spent the hour with God. As he said later, ‘The moment I got victory in it, it wasn’t a very big thing to do. … It is while you still want a thing that you can’t get your mind off it. When you have risen above it, He may give it back to you; but then you are out of it. Willis, 66-67
Personally, after years of practicing the spiritual discipline of fasting I still do not look forward to it. My will and my flesh protest. Generally I find that spiritual benefits do not come to me on the day I fast. Rather, God’s promised rewards (see Mt. 6:18) come in little and surprising ways in the days that follow. For example, I have experienced keener insights into God’s Word; a release of humor; wisdom to see solutions to knotty problems; a deep peace; breakthroughs in the lives of the people for whom I am praying; and more.
Barbara Gordon tells about her first time fasting. She fasted one day a week for 9 weeks during which time she was lead to pray for 9 individuals that had requested prayer. At the end she said,
“God moved in many ways during that time. While most of the answers didn’t appear during the 9 weeks, God increased my faith that they would come.
- Within a year of that first fast, my lost friend came to Christ. Another friend was delivered from a long standing addiction.
- A couple whose marriage seemed doomed is still married several years later.
- My unmarried friend is still single, but I see her enjoying new peace.
I learned that fasting is not a guarantee that every request will be answered.
It is, however, a way to prepare ourselves to pray more in line with God’s will.
The most important personal result of my first fast was that I felt more in love with my Savior. Circumstances were indeed changed, but more importantly, I was changed.[ix]
… and your Father
who sees what is done in secret
will reward you.
Mt. 6:18, NAS
[i] Willis, God’s Chosen Fast, 66
[ii]The Caledonian, Volume 12, pg. 77
[iii] Willis, God’s Chosen Fast, 40
[iv] For medical reasons some people should not fast. Consult your doctor before fasting especially if you intend a longer fast.
[vi] Jentezen Franklin, “Fasting to Regain Your Edge.” Charisma, Jan. 2012, pgs 31-32. Charismamag.com
[vii] Sermon by John Wesley, quoted in Wallis, God’s Chosen Fast, 34.
[viii] Phillips Brooks. Fasting (A Sermon For Lent) in: The Candle of the Lord and other Sermons (New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1881), p. 207.
- Franklin, J. (2011). The Fasting Edge: Recover your passion. Recapture your dream. Restore your joy. Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House.
- Pipper, J. (1997). A Hunger for God. Inter-Varsity Press. ISBN: 9780851111933.
- The Caledonian, Volume 12. (n.d.).
- Wallis, A. (7th printing, 1975). God’s Chosen Fast. Ft. Washington, PA: Christian Literature Crusade.
Originally posted Dec. 2012.
© 2017 Philip J. Noordmans