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The Place of Fasting
As the Scriptures present the issue of prayer, there are continuing references and examples linking prayer with fasting. Prayer coupled with fasting characterized times when believers were fervently seeking God. Old Testament examples of prayer linked with fasting show God’s instruction to His people to “Return to me with all your heart, and with fasting” (Joel 2:12). There are many examples which show God’s people responding to His instructions to fast, such as Nehemiah chapter 1, and Esther 4:14, etc.
Some may say, “But those are Old Testament instructions and examples. We are living in New Testament times.” Since Jesus is the head of the church, what is His instruction regarding fasting? Jesus taught in two ways, through His words and His example.
In the Gospels, we note that Jesus fasted and prayed regularly. By His example, Jesus demonstrated that fasting was a vital part of His prayer life. In addition, Jesus taught His disciples about fasting. The Scripture records that many in Jesus’ day had questions about fasting.
Jesus was asked, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?” Jesus replied, “While the bridegroom is with them, the attendants of the bridegroom cannot fast, can they?… But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day” (Mark 2:18-20, Luke 5:33- 35). Christ, the bridegroom has been taken away; and we, the church, are awaiting His coming.
Teaching about issues in the life of a disciple, Christ said, “When you give” (Matthew 6:2). Then Jesus went on to talk about, “When you pray” (Matthew 6:6). Then Jesus twice said, “When you fast” (Matthew 6:16-17). Does fasting sound optional for one who is a disciple of the Lord? It seems, by our Lord’s example and His clear instruction, that fasting was a vital part of being a disciple.
In the book of Acts and the Epistles, prayer and fasting were common spiritual practices in the early church. Fasting is noted as a vital part of seeking God in prayer. Acts records prayer, fasting and church expansion all going hand in hand. Both prayer and fasting are means God uses to advance His purposes. Acts 13:2 records, “…while they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit” came to them with instruction and guidance. The expansion of Paul’s ministry and the expansion of the church into Asia Minor and Europe began in prayer and fasting. The advances of the Gospel in the early church were built on a foundation of prayer and fasting. Paul spoke of his fasting often (II Corinthians 11:27, KJV). Paul related that, as he confirmed new bodies of believers, churches and their leaders, he prayed and fasted with them (Acts 14:23).
History relates that the early church fasted and prayed two days a week. It is our conclusion, by the instruction of our Lord and His example, and that of the early church, fasting is presented as God’s will. The Lord expects His disciples to fast. Fasting is also presented as a vital aspect of prayer and fervent intercession.
Since the Lord by His example and instruction is clearly calling those who are His disciples to fasting, let us look at what fasting is and what purposes the Lord may have in calling us to fast. The Hebrew word for fasting means “to cover the mouth.” Scripture reveals several types of fasts:
- a partial fast: Daniel 10:3, abstaining from delicacies, or meat and wine or the example of John the Baptist who ate only simple food.
- an absolute fast: Acts 9:9, Esther 4:16, no solid food or liquids.
- a total fast: Deuteronomy 9:9, Moses, or I Kings 19:8, Elijah
While we are talking of types of fasts, we note the Scripture presents both personal and group fasts. The Scriptures give no specific instruction regarding the type, length or frequency of our fasting for spiritual purposes. It seems if we really want to know, God’s Spirit will lead us.
So Biblical fasting is presented as the deliberate abstinence, from some or all food, for a spiritual purpose. This deliberate fasting reveals a burden of the heart, a deep seeking of God, that is greater than the desire for physical food. It involves the setting aside of legitimate appetites of the body to concentrate on spiritual communion and intercession.
What could be the Lord’s reasons for calling us to fast? Why has fasting been designed into the Christian life? In the following, you will see that God has given fasting as the means by which many purposes are accomplished. All these purposes reinforce God’s call for us to fast.
“God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). David said, “I humble my soul with fasting” (Psalm 35:13). Ezra led the nation to fasting so “we might humble ourselves before our God” (Ezra 8:21). Fasting is a way we humble ourselves by cultivating a heart for God’s grace. Fasting is a way of dealing with a specific area of our flesh, our pride. Christ cautioned that, “When you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do” (Matthew 6:16-17). There is the need to be on guard against our pride turning fasting to hypocrisy. Even good things, as in the spiritual discipline of fasting, can be subverted by our pride. One reason God has given us to fast is as a means of humbling ourselves before God.
The apostle Paul reminds believers, “you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body” (I Corinthians 6:20). Paul gave personal testimony that, I discipline my body and make it my slave (I Corinthians 9:24-27). Disciples of the Lord are to lead disciplined lives. Our lives are not to be controlled or dictated by our flesh. Rather, the body is to be kept in subjection to our spirit and His Spirit. Through fasting, we begin to deal with self-will by building and strengthening habits of self-denial. None of us like to say no to ourselves. Fasting, as a regular discipline, is a means of dealing with our flesh so that we develop a willingness to deny self and follow God, to allow the Spirit to reign in our flesh.
Jesus’ disciples questioned Him one day about a particular ministry problem. His reply was that this kind of problem is “only overcome by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:21). “The Lord said, is this not the fast which I chose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, (self-will) to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6). The Scriptures associate fasting with a deep seeking of God and His working. In such passages as Esther 4:15-17 and II Chronicles 20 we see the course of nations has been changed through fasting. Fasting is a means of bringing spiritual strengthening to individuals and the church.
The Lord said, “Return to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, weeping and mourning; and rend your heart and not your garments ; Now return to the Lord your God, For He is gracious and compassionate, Slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and relenting of evil”
(Joel 2:12-13). The Lord was pleading with Israel to repent, change their minds, for God is always ready to respond to sincere repentance. The repentance involves not just being religious, but turning to God. Fasting is often seen in connection with confession of sin and sincere repentance as in Jonah 3:5-10. Fasting is the means of expressing a work of repentance in our heart.
The Lord taught that to receive heaven’s answers, we need to ask, seek, and knock. Each of these words indicates a deeper intensity of seeking (Matthew 7:7). “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6). A paraphrase may be: “Blessed are they who cultivate a spiritual appetite for God.” Blessedness is a progressive state that is dependent upon the fulfilment of the conditions given. Anna “was serving with fastings” (Luke 2:37). She hungered for the Lord. We are told that Paul “was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank” (Acts 9:9). For Paul, understanding spiritual realities was so important that he prayed and fasted from all food and drink for three days. Daniel, by fasting and prayer, sought to be more spiritually sensitive and receive understanding of God’s Word (Daniel 10:3-12). Acts 13:1-4 records a time of fasting and prayer preceded the Holy Spirit’s call to a greater ministry and advance of the Gospel. Fasting is a means of intensely pursuing the Lord for His hand of blessing.
In the various reasons God gives for calling us to fast, there is much overlap. It seems like the core reason that a disciple is to fast is that it is a means God has given which allows us to live closer to Him. Fasting is for our benefit. The cultivating of such spiritual disciplines as fasting involves the conscious choices to feed the spirit and deny the flesh and its dictates. Jesus had much to say about self-denial, not as an end in itself, but in order to follow Jesus. Denying self helps make the Lord the center of my life (Matthew 16:24). “Like a city that is broken into and without walls, is a man who has no control over his spirit” (Proverbs 25:28). The cultivating of self-discipline leads to security. Cultivating spiritual disciplines is a vital part of abiding and growing in intimacy with the Lord. Spiritual disciplines, such as fasting, are modeled in Scripture as an integral part of the lives of Godly men and women.
Much of what is characterized as Christian work is based on the organization of an abundance of material, financial and educational resources. In the church’s efforts to reach people for Christ we seem prone to organize evangelistic crusades, open-air preaching, films, all types of training, literature distribution, community development and humanitarian aid, and so forth. What seems greatly overlooked is the cultivation of a deep dependence on the Spirit for accomplishing the work of God in us and through us. The Scriptures caution us against our inclination to seek to do spiritual work in our flesh. The early church fasted and prayed because there was no other way to advance the Gospel into enemy territory.
As we think about fasting, we face three enemies: the world, the flesh and the devil. The world will think we are crazy to fast and not to indulge ourselves with the good things which are at our disposal. Our flesh will rebel at fasting, but it is clearly God’s will. The devil will stand against our fasting by filling our minds with many excuses as to why we cannot fast. The question is: will we humble ourselves and cultivate the Godly discipline of fasting in our lives to see God’s spiritual purposes moved forward in us and through us?
What is our response to God’s call for us to fast? Do we have a spiritual hunger to experience Him more fully in our lives? To see the continuing defeat of Satan in our lives? Are we thirsty to have God at work in our churches? Are we thirsty to have God at work in our land? Will we let the world, the flesh and the devil have their way? Times of prayer and fasting have always preceded times of revival among God’s people. “And my people will…then I will…” (II Chronicles 7:14).
If the Holy Spirit is heightening your sensitivity to grow in your understanding and ability to fast then faithfully pursue Him on it. The apostle Paul gave us understanding of how it is possible for us who are so weak to respond to God’s call to fast. The Holy Spirit works within us, giving both the desire and the ability to do His will (Philippians 2:13). If God is giving you the desire to fast, know He will also give you the ability to fast. Pray, ask God for the ability to develop this area of your spiritual life. Then set a plan to fast and do it as a part of developing your prayer life. Continue to pray for God’s enabling and rely upon His empowering.
From Prayer that Strengthens and Expands the Church by Glenn Livingston