Christian Living: When You Fast…
Who—me? Fast—what’s that?
Many Christians fast only when they have to — which is almost never. Since the new covenant does not command any particular times to fast (that is, to go without food and/or water), many new Christians find the idea to be strange, if not daunting. Some may conclude that it is an unnecessary bother or suffering.
However, fasting has an important place in the Christian life. Yes, even today! It is something to discover—or rediscover, as the case may be.
Fasting commanded for today?
Our Lord told his disciples, “When you fast…” (Matthew 6:16-17). When someone asked why Jesus’ disciples did not fast, he replied, replied: “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast” (Matthew 9:15). Mark 2:19-20 and Luke 5:33-38 also record similar words in their accounts, emphasizing the importance of this answer.
Christians have debated whether, by saying what he said, Jesus meant to command that we fast today. Although Jesus didn’t say “You must fast” or “You shall fast,” the consensus of Christians is that fasting is expected by Christ as the thing Christians do, like the other Christian disciplines of prayer, giving, studying God’s word, meditation, service, etc.
The one distinct difference with fasting, however, is that we can’t be doing it every day of our lives! We can fast only for certain periods and then get back to the normal routine of eating.
God’s people a fasting people
Both the Old Testament and the New abound with evidence that God’s people were a fasting people; that is, fasting apart from the commanded fast on the Day of Atonement, when it applied. Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Nehemiah, Anna the prophetess, John the Baptist’s disciples (and we might assume John the Baptist, too), Jesus, Paul and Cornelius all fasted for short or long periods.
Leaders during the biblical era also called for national or group fasting when a dire threat to the nation or a serious decision needed to be addressed – King Jehoshaphat (2 Chronicles 20:1-4), the king of Nineveh (Jonah 3:6-10), Ezra (Ezra 8:21-23), and the Christians at Antioch (Acts 13:1-3).
After the New Testament era, great servants of God have been known to fast, too, with amazing results. The Protestant Reformation led by Martin Luther, and the Great Awakening, with such stalwarts as Jonathan Edwards are outstanding examples of far-reaching renewal or revival accompanied by much prayer and fasting.
Who knows whether our own transformation has been the result of prayer and fasting by our members and Christians in other denominations?
A matter of motive
Fasting is not a monopoly of God’s people. Throughout the ages, including the present, Gentiles and non-Christians have fasted for various reasons – maybe a matter of ritual, or a health practice. Some even make fasting a political tool, as in hunger strikes to promote a cause, just or unjust.
As in other matters, God addresses the heart or motive of fasting. Why fast? The Bible gives us some right and some wrong reasons for fasting.
First, the wrong motives for fasting. Jesus criticized hypocrites who fasted to show off their super-religiosity before men (Matthew 6:16). In a parable, Jesus condemned the Pharisee who made a practice of fasting twice a week because the Pharisee had become proud of his religiosity and disdained sinners like the tax-collector at prayer in the temple (Luke 18:9-14).
Another wrong motive for fasting is to use it to force one’s way into God’s favor. Like what most hunger strikers exhibit, fasting can be a subtle form of temper tantrum: “I want my way, and I’m going to fast until you give in. If you don’t, I’ll die and you’ll be to blame for it forever!” Such a motive stems from a self-willed attitude that God condemns as rebellious and sinful: “…on the day of your fasting, you do as you please…” (Isaiah 58:1, 3). This lack of submission to God’s will only results in sin after sin, and God turning a deaf ear to the demands (vv. 3-4).
Now we come to the right motives of fasting. Fasting is an exercise in humility. To “afflict” the soul (Leviticus 23:27, 29, 32, KJV) is to humble oneself with fasting. We often said that a sack full of grain stands erect, but an empty sack lies flat on the floor—a picture of humility in fasting. But, as Isaiah 58:3, 5 shows, this form of humility can be futile. That is, unless the reason for fasting is true humility—to have a closer bond with God, to repent of sin, to seek and do his will more faithfully (vv. 6-7). When his son by Bathsheba was sick, David fasted with such a humble attitude that when God said, “no” to his plea for the boy’s life, David worshipfully accepted it (2 Samuel 12:15-20; Psalm 35:3).
Spiritual benefits of fasting
When one is more acutely in tune with God through fasting, God then answers in his compassionate and generous ways (Isaiah 58:8-14). One of Judah’s most wicked kings, Manasseh, was severely punished for leading his people in detestable idolatries. But when he showed the slightest sign of turning from sin as he humbled himself through fasting, God “was moved by his entreaty and listened to his plea” and restored him to his kingdom (2 Chronicles 33:1-20). God can cause extraordinary interventions, such as persistent demons being cast out (Matthew 17:21).
If we will let it, fasting—like no other exercise—drives home “to the pit of our stomach” our total and absolute dependence on God for life itself. If for no other reason, this should lead to heartfelt gratitude and praise to God—more of “thank you,” and less of “give me.” Richard Foster, in his book Celebration of Discipline, puts it compellingly about fasting: “That is the only way we will be saved from loving the blessing more than the Blesser.”
Let us fast so we can get closer to God and become more attuned to his will. We can get so carried away by our blessings and successes that we forget that it is God, not our gifts and energies, who has caused these achievements. Let’s fast, repenting, when our accomplishments cause us to become proud and look down on others who seem to lag behind.
Let’s fast when we are overwhelmed and discouraged by setbacks in our personal lives and ministries—due to finances, physical and emotional health, relationship problems, lack of growth, a recurring sin, etc.—and let’s throw ourselves before God in total dependence on and hope in him. Let’s fast so that God will give us the heart and the strength to obey his Great Commandment and his Great Commission. As we do, God will give us spiritual enthusiasm and strength.
How to start or re-start fasting
Fasting is not as hard or abnormal as it may appear. Actually, we fast every day, although we don’t normally see it that way. We take our rest at night (or in the day, for those who work the “grave shift”), and when we wake up we go for breakfast. Before we attempt a 24-hour fast for the first time (or after a long time since our last fast), it is advisable to skip only one meal, but take some liquid (juice or water). Next time, we can skip an additional meal, and then another meal, and that would bring us to a 24-hour fast. A fast longer than a day may need a physician’s advice or supervision.
Diabetics, nursing mothers, young children, elderly and other sick people may be advised not to even attempt a short fast. If such a person wants to fasting for a meal or two anyway, he or she is advised to be under the supervision of a physician, who may suggest to take in some fluid and light snacks during the whole time. The “affliction” involved in a fast is a slight discomfort, not something that totally disables a person. When one feels “afflicted” because of missing a meal or more, then fasting has already been reached.
Before one fasts, it helps to be prepared mentally and emotionally by accepting that fasting will entail some discomfort. It also helps to be prepared physically by not gorging oneself with food, as if to hoard some energy, before fasting. Doing so tends to make one even hungrier. Better to taper off on the meal just before fasting. Cutting down or even avoiding food and drinks beforehand also helps prevent feeling dizzy or having headaches during one’s fast. Headaches are often caused not by fasting itself, but by caffeine withdrawal, so it is best to avoid caffeine for several days before one fasts.
What to do while fasting
First-timers at fasting often feel woozy, and sometimes so lacking in energy that they just want to lie in bed the whole time. Rather than feeling self-pity, it’s good to use this as an opportunity to acknowledge before God that we “frail children of dust” need our Life-giver to keep us going.
A fast would be only a pointless exercise in endurance if we do not couple it with soul-searching prayer, study of God’s Word, meditation, and even singing some praise songs. The point of fasting is to focus on God, not on the grumbling of our stomach. When we keep in mind our purpose for fasting, God will give us the energy to fulfill that purpose. From experience, we also know that when we fast often, fasting does not bring the discomfort it did at earlier times. With practice, one can even go for longer fasts.
How to break a fast
Breaking a long fast is about as important as starting a fast. The idea is to go slow and not binge. Some suggest taking water first or some fruit juice or some clear vegetable soup. During a long fast, the digestive system goes into some kind of hibernation, so it’s not wise to wake it up through a blast of digestive work to do! After the first intake, let the stomach rest, and then go slowly to eat more solid food, chewing it well.
More guidance on fasting
This article cannot give all the information you may need about fasting. You can ask more tips from long-time Christians who practice the spiritual discipline of fasting. Libraries and bookstores also have magazines and books about fasting from the physical and the spiritual viewpoints. Some are helpful, and others are filled with fads and legalism. We need to ask God for discernment on the right, biblically sound teachings on the matter.
Fast, anyone? Who—me? Yes, you! And all of us who can! What an amazing difference it will make for God’s kingdom, for the church, for the community, for our family, and for ourselves!
Pedro R. Melendez, Jr., 2004
What to pray about
Prayer and fasting is not a method of getting our own way with God. Rather, it should be used to humble us to accept God’s will for us. Here are some suggestions about what we can pray about:
- Pray that we will be profoundly thankful for Jesus’ sacrifice for us. He loved us so much that he died for us even when we were his enemies. His love is greater than our ability to understand it (Ephesians 3:19).
- Pray that we will respond to Jesus’ love by growing in our love for him. We want to love him with all our emotions, all our thoughts, all our actions – all our lives (Matthew 22:37).
- Pray that we will experience the joy of salvation (Psalm 51:12) – the supreme blessing of knowing that we are cleansed of sin, forgiven, assured of salvation through faith in Jesus, and that through his saving work, we will live with God for all eternity.
- Pray that we will, through faith in our Savior, have “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). Let us come to Jesus and accept the rest that he gives (Matthew 11:28-30).
- Pray for greater understanding that Jesus Christ lives in us, giving us the love, joy and peace that we need, leading us closer to him, leading us to worship, serve and obey him, to live for him (2 Corinthians 5:15).
- Pray for one another, that you might strengthen the faith of your brothers and sisters, that the strong might help the weak, that we might all seek the strength that comes from Jesus Christ.
- Pray for Christians who have health, financial, or family trials. When one member suffers, we all suffer. We have suffered many things, and we need the support of one another.
- Pray for your local pastors and leaders, that our Lord will strengthen them to cope with the stresses they face, that they might lead the flock in the way that the Chief Shepherd wants.
- Pray for the decisions that must be made in organizing the church, in delegating responsibility to more people, in equipping all willing members for personal ministry opportunities.
- Pray that the Lord of the harvest supply the finances that we need to do his work, and pray that we find ways to use what he provides to serve his people effectively.
My closing prayer comes from Ephesians 3:16-21:
“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”
Author: Pedro R. Melendez, Jr. & Joseph Tkach