In our attempts to remove ourselves from the dead religion of many of our forefathers, we in the current church are sometimes guilty of casting out the good with the bad. One such tradition that has been wrongly demonized by some is that of fasting. Over my time in the church, I have often seen the topic of fasting abused or else excused by the very people for which it is meant as a blessing. Using the Biblical text as our guide, I would like to take a moment to analyze what God intended for fasting and how we can utilize it to empower our walk with Christ.
The topic of fasting is noted 119 times in the ESV by some counts and thus is not a topic to which we need to devote a massive amount of study. It is, however, one that we should not disregard either. A quick survey of the Word shows us that fasting is an act of worship that can either be used to draw closer to Christ or one that can be covered in religious piousness and serve no purpose at all. The prophet of Joel conveys the Lord's heart on fasting when he says,
"Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; ” (Joel 2:12, ESV)
Unfortunately, throughout the Old Testament, fasting is often used as an outward act only, and not one that indicates an inward closeness to Jesus. God reprimands Israel in a number of places for this false show of religion…
“‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’ Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. ” (Isaiah 58:3–4, ESV)
If we are going to use fasting for the purpose the Lord intended, it must be for the purpose of increasing in our walk with Jesus, mourning for and loosening the bonds of sin in our life, encouraging revival, and seeking the Lord's will.
There are 4 overall types of fasts that are shown in the word. In all cases, one should take into account their physical health and if necessary, even consult with their health professional in cases of extreme health issues. The first type of fast is the normal fast in which one abstains from all food for a set period of time. The second is an absolute fast in which one abstains from all food and drink for a short period of time. Again, this should be undertaken cautiously. Third, there is a partial fast in which one abstains from certain food or drink in the midst of their normal diet. Finally, there is a rotational fast in which a certain food is removed from your diet on a rotating basis over a set period of time.
The type of fast does not necessarily matter as long as the heart behind the fast is correct and the purpose is clear. The point of fasting is to put the flesh in submission to the Spirit. Most of our lives, especially here in the Western world, are spent focusing on anything other than Jesus. We silo Him and our walk with Him into a small portion of our days. Fasting consciously puts a halt to this and puts our earthly, fleshly bodies into a state of submission in which we must look to Christ for strength and keep our minds stayed upon Him. How does this work out practically you might ask? Here are some basic steps in undertaking a fast to seek after God:
1) If you are struggling and feel that the Lord is asking you to undertake a fast, define your purpose and pray for guidance on what type of fast to undertake.
2) If you have health issues that need consideration, discuss the fast with a health professional.
3) Decide on a time period and what food and/or drink from which you will abstain.
4) Begin the fast with a set time of worship and communion. This can be a corporate worship gathering in your church or a personal time of worship before the Lord.
5) Read through a section of Scripture throughout the time of your fast. A good rule of thumb is that at every point that your flesh cries out in hunger or thirst, turn to prayer and reading/reciting of the Word of God. If you are led to journal, these are also times in which you can record your thoughts and heart towards serving Jesus.
6) If the fast is for the purpose of a corporate need (sickness in the church, revival in a city, etc.) it is a great idea to perform the fast with other like-minded people. This is a great way to encourage one another in your fast. Take time to pray together, worship together, and read scripture together.
7) End with a set time of worship and communion either personally or corporately.
So when should I fast? What if I have never fasted? How will I know when I should? As stated earlier, there must be a purpose to fasting. Fasting just for the sake of fasting is a religious act that has no meaning. Here are some examples of when fasting was used in the Word that may give you an idea of when you might want to employ this spiritual weapon:
1) When looking for guidance on a large decision:
“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.” ” (Acts 13:2, ESV)
The church at Antioch was looking for guidance as to what to do next to serve Jesus. This is similar to Paul's need for guidance in Acts 9:9. If you are facing a large decision or looking for guidance and direction, collect whatever information you can on the pros and cons of all possible decisions, get counsel from trusted advisors, and spend time seeking God's will in prayer, reading of scripture, and fasting.
2) When desiring to spark revival:
“So they gathered at Mizpah and drew water and poured it out before the Lord and fasted on that day and said there, “We have sinned against the Lord.” And Samuel judged the people of Israel at Mizpah. ” (1 Samuel 7:6, ESV)
When we finally realize that we have sinned before God as a people and desire to spark revival among our neighbors, co-workers, and friends, we can seek the Lord's glory through fasting. In a sense, this is an outward mourning that is done as a result of a broken heart from the sin around us.
3) When desiring to break loose the bonds of sin in our life:
“However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” ” (Matthew 17:21, NKJV)
If we are struggling with certain sin in our lives that seems to have a strangle hold, we are given one major offensive weapon in the Word. “How can a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed according to Your word. ” (Psalm 119:9, NKJV) We are also given a minor offensive weapon in fasting. Fasting is a way to build our reliance on Christ in times of weakness. If we change our minds to turn to Christ and His Word in times of weakness, we will see victory in our life as those same sins no longer have the same power. It is not our devotion through will power, but rather, our reliance on the strength of Christ in moments of weakness that give us victory.
4) For protection as we are sent forth in the service of Christ:
““Go, gather all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me; neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will fast likewise. And so I will go to the king, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish!” ” (Esther 4:16, NKJV)
If you feel that the Lord is asking you to have that tough discussion, step out of your comfort zone, engage that person that you are a bit fearful about, or you are feeling called to serve the Lord in a dangerous place, fasting will not earn the favor of the Lord, but rather give you strength in the fact that His calling means His protection and covering, however that might play out. Relying on He who is greater than he that is in the world allows us to walk forward in confidence.
I pray that this quick introduction to fasting is helpful and encouraging to you. Please feel free to respond with questions. For further study on this topic, I would highly recommend the book "Fasting for Spiritual Breakthrough" by Elmer Towns our of Liberty University. May God bless you as you dig in further to know Christ and His will!