“Fasting” is a topic we don’t hear as much about today… even in the church. Many of us may think of fasting as for the spiritually elite… those specially gifted. As those raised in a time of rather regular consumption, the very idea may sound strange or intimidating. So how can we discover the potential for spiritual feasting (growth) through fasting?
The words of Jesus reach out to us…
“WHEN you fast… your heavenly father who sees what is done in secret will REWARD you.” (Matthew 6:16-18)
Notice Jesus says “WHEN”, not “IF”, but “WHEN” you fast. For Jesus, the place of fasting was assumed. In this portion of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “When you give… when you pray… when you fast...” for they are equally natural parts of one developing life with God. We find after the resurrection, his disciples… His followers did fast, the apostle Paul said he “fasted often;” and throughout early church history fasting is a dynamic part of spiritual life. So why do we imagine it for the elite… the extreme? When “the landscape is dotted with shrines to Golden Arches and an assortment of Pizza Temples,” (Richard Foster); the idea of fasting naturally seems foreign to us.
Perhaps more striking, he said “… your Father will REWARD YOU.” Jesus would have us understand that a spiritual fast can be a spiritual feast. There is no getting around the fact that fasting is a discipline, and as with all disciplines we initially see the cost before we can appreciate the reward. But in fact, every day we are living out of the rewards of discipline… whether in sleeping, eating, exercise, learning, or such. Jesus knew our spiritual nature well; He knew the same value of discipline holds true for our spiritual life.
The following reflect some of the ways in which we can grow through fasting:
Fasting as a spiritual discipline provides a powerful means of SPIRITUAL DEPENDENCY by directing us to the provision of the Spirit.
You may recall that as Jesus’ began his ministry he was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Matthew 4:1-4
Similarly, we read in John 4:31-32, how once, “his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”
Dallas Willard explains… "Fasting confirms our utter dependence upon God by finding in Him a source of sustenance beyond food."
Fasting is a means of freedom from the distortion that we are merely physical creatures.
When we were first created… “God breathed His Spirit into us.” Having died spiritually in our fallen nature, we again can receive life as we are “born again by the Spirit”. Our deepest nature is that of spiritual life; alive by God’s Spirit.
So while its great to eat because I’m physical… to work because I’m rational & functional… Jesus came to liberate us from the distortion that these are the deepest source of our life. That source is found in PRAYER, and often sharpened and enhanced by FASTING… which focuses our attention. In this way we can understand fasting.
Fasting isn’t about pain, but perspective.
Fasting isn’t about renouncing the goodness of food, but recognizing the spiritual sustenance in God.
Fasting will be a battle because my spiritual nature is having to press through my physical nature.
In a similar way, fasting as a spiritual discipline provides a powerful means of SPIRITUAL DEVELOPMENT by disclosing us to the transformation of the Spirit.
David described his experience in Psalm 69:10 “I humbled my soul with fasting…”
If we come with humility marked by our dependence on God, it can reveal the condition of our inner life & hearts as well.
Like any of the spiritual disciplines which remove an outward element of activity from our lives- whether silence, solitude, or fasting, it can expose more of what’s within us… there’s a vulnerability when we fast.
Notice it was at this point of fasting when the devil came to tempt Jesus. When we dare to quiet ourselves thru fasting, our tempters may speak as well because our weaknesses are revealed.
Fasting as a spiritual discipline provides a powerful means of SPIRITUAL DIRECTION by devoting us to the leading of the Spirit.
We find an example of this in Acts 13:2-3, re: the church of Antioch: “While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit told them to set apart Barnabas and Saul for a special work.”
Fasting was a part of the context and disposition for the Spirit’s leading… and many continue to find it helpful to fast during times of seeking direction from God at significant junctures in life.
As is commonly the case, the loss of one of our senses is compensated for by heightening the sensitivity of another.
Dr. Julio Ruibal, who’s both an internationally known nutritionist and specialist in the art of fasting and prayer, says our brain is affected by many of our living habits. “Fasting helps to clear up our spiritual reception. It’s not that God begins to speak louder when we fast, but we begin to hear him better.” (Bright p. 95)
Fasting as a spiritual discipline provides a powerful means of SPIRITUAL DECLARATION by DEDICATING US TO THE BATTLES OF THE SPIRIT.
In Matthew 17, a man comes to Jesus desperately asking him to heal his boy… for he convulsed with seizure so much he often fell into open fires or water… the disciples hadn’t been able to heal him.
Then Jesus rebuked the demon in the boy and it left him, and from that moment the boy was well. Afterwards the disciples asked Jesus privately, “Why couldn’t we cast that demon out?” “Because of your little faith,” Jesus told them. “For if you had faith even as small as a tiny mustard see you could say to this mountain, ‘Move!’ and it would go far away. Nothing would be impossible. But this kind of demon won’t leave unless you have prayed and gone without food” (Matthew 17:18-21). Jesus is teaching us to take our spiritual stand through prayer… and at times… fasting.
Martin Luther King spoke of “the power of unearned suffering,” and our need to take a stand against evil through civil disobedience. In a similar way, fasting can be a declaration of our dependency on God against the powers of evil… civil disobedience in the spiritual realm.
Book of Esther: While Jews were in exile in Persia, we see deliverance following a corporate call to fast. A wicked man named Haman had risen to political power & influenced the king to kill all the Jews. Unknown to the king, his wife—Queen Esther—was a Jew. She “set an example which became a pattern for all subsequent generations of the power of prayer and fasting” to change history. Part of the account of how she helped save the Jews is found in Esther 4:15-17:
Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai [a Jew pleading with the queen to help her people]: "Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish."
The king’s decree made it unlawful for her to approach him unless he sent for her. Esther knew that breaking the law could mean death unless the king nodded his approval when she entered the throne room. However, after three days of fasting and prayer, Esther went in to see the king. To her relief he smiled his approval. In fact, he was so pleased to see her that he boastfully offered her half of his kingdom. Instead, Esther asked for the lives of the Jews. In the end, the evil Haman was executed and Israel was saved from annihilation.
Fasting has continued to effect the DESTINY of WHOLE NATIONS:
“In 1756, the king of England called for a day of solemn prayer and fasting because of a threatened invasion by the French. About that day, John Wesley wrote in his journal: “The fast day was a glorious day, such as London has scarce 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.” Later, he added a footnote saying: “Humility was turned into national rejoicing for the threatened invasion by the French was averted.”
Some practical suggestions for guiding you into a period of fasting…
- Choose a form of prayer and fasting that you feel personally prepared for. This may range from setting aside a single element of activity… a particular food… a single meal each day… a weekly day of fasting... to a full fast for a particular number of days (… in which case one should drink water and possibly juices).
- Prepare to fast in terms of adjusting your schedule as needed to allow some focused time for reflection and prayer. Consider sources of focus… perhaps a devotional guide or particular plan of reading Scripture.
- Enjoy being a “student" (disciple) in the process. Developing disciplines such as prayer and fasting usually don’t emerge quickly and easily as this involves facing many patterns we’ve developed. If you feel distracted or discouraged, don’t stop your season, simply use this as a means to learn more about what’s involved with connecting with God.