Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Fasting - Hungering for God

As we are heading into a week of prayer and fasting From January 7-14, I thought I'd post a pamphlet on fasting that I put together a few years ago.

After the story of the transfiguration in Mark 9, when Jesus and the three disciples come down from the mountain, there is a crowd waiting for them.  There is a little boy who has been terrorized by a demon.  The demon keeps him from talking and often throws him into fits that endanger his life.  Jesus casts the demon out and frees the boy to live the life of God.  The nine disciples that were waiting at the base of the mountain had already tried to cast the demon out.  Afterwards they ask Jesus, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”  Jesus answers, “This kind can come out only by prayer and fasting.” 

Since Jesus cast the demon out immediately, He must have been talking about the regular practice of prayer and fasting rather than a concerted effort of prayer and fasting for this particular boy.  Which brings us to the question, “What is fasting, and how do we do it?”

What is Fasting?
Simply put, fasting is the voluntary abstinence from food for spiritual purposes. It is important to note that fasts have a spiritual purpose – it is not just missing lunch because you are too busy .A fast can last anywhere from one meal to forty days without food. 

There are different types of fasts. The most typical fast is to go without any food; some people will fast from food and water – although you can only do this for a short time.  There are limited fasts, when people will allow themselves juice or other liquid sustenance during their fast. There are partial fasts, where you will give up certain types of food for a period of time.  Many people do this during Lent when they will give up sweets, or meat, or something else for the forty days from Ash Wednesday to Easter.
While we are going to concentrate on fasting from food, people will also fast from TV, screens, and other media, from talking, from computers, computer games or social network sites;  from shopping; married couples can fast from sexual intimacy… You can fast from anything that is habitual in your life.  It is good to fast from the things that you obsess about – it reminds you that you can get by without them.  I have a friend who hates holidays – work is so important to him that a holiday is like a fast from work rather than a rest!  Another friend fasted from going to the gym  for lent—he realized that he was obsessing far to much about fitness.

Is Fasting Christian?

The simple answer is yes.  Everyone of importance in the Bible practiced fasting: Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Anna, Paul, Jesus, just to name a few.  When Jesus taught on fasting, He would say, “when you fast,” not “if you fast.”  He assumed that we would fast.  It is not just the great people of the Bible that practiced fasting, but also the great saints of the church down through the ages that practiced fasting as part of their regular spiritual discipline.

Why Fast?

Fasting can increase our hunger for God

John Piper writes in his book, A Hunger for God:
If you don’t feel strong desires for the manifestation of the glory of God, it is not because you have drunk deeply and are satisfied.  It is because you have nibbled so long at the table of the world.  Your soul is stuffed with small things, and there is no room for the great.  God did not create you for this. There is an appetite for God. And it can be awakened. I invite you to turn from the dulling effects of food and the dangers of idolatry, and to say with some simple fast, “This much, O God, I want you.”  (p.23)

Fasting reminds us that we can get by without most things in our lives for a time, but we cannot get by without God.  The first and main pupose of fasting is to draw closer to God.

Fasting can train our passions

We are so used to giving ourselves whatever we want. We say, “I feel like a doughnut,” so we go get a doughnut.  Richard Foster says that our stomach is like a spoiled child, and spoiled children do not need indulgence -- they need discipline.  Even Oh! Henry commercials speak to the control that our stomachs have over our lives.  We are not to be controlled by our stomachs, but controlled by the Spirit of God.  Fasting is spiritual training in self-control.

The way that gold was refined in ancient days was that the ore was placed in a great cauldron with fire underneath it. As it heated up, the ore would melt, and all the impurities would rise to the surface.  The smelter would then skim off the impurities – the dross.  But he wasn’t finished there; he would stoke the fire more, and more impurities would rise to the top.  He would skim those off, and heat it up even more.  He would continue this process until the gold was pure.  And it is said that he knew that the gold was pure when he could see his reflection in the gold.

God does the same thing.  He heats things up in our lives so that the dross rises to the top. When we go through hard times, things in our lives are brought to the surface: sins, things that we are holding on to that we need to let go of, pride, etc.  These things can become very obvious when we go through struggles, and it gives God the chance to skim them off and purify us.  He knows when He is done when He can see His reflection in us.

God wants us to be like pure gold. We can turn up the heat ourselves, or we can wait until He does. Fasting is voluntarily turning up the heat in our lives.

 Richard Foster says:
More than any other single discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us.  This is a wonderful benefit to the true disciple who longs to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ.  We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface.  If pride controls us, it will be revealed almost immediately.  David said, “I humbled myself with fasting” (Ps. 69:10).  Anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear – if they are within us, they will surface during fasting.  At first we will rationalize that our anger is due to our hunger; then we know that we are angry because the spirit of anger is within us.  We can rejoice in this knowledge because we know that healing is available through the power of Christ. (p.48)

The Apostle Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 4:7-8:
Spend your time and energy in training yourself for spiritual fitness. Physical exercise has some value, but spiritual exercise is much more important, for it promises a reward in both this life and the next.

Out of all the spiritual disciplines, fasting is most like physical exercise.  It is both physical and spiritual, and it builds our “faith muscles” so that we can withstand the bigger contests that come our way.

Fasting can be earnest prayer

Many people fast when they are desperate for God to answer their prayers.  We can fast for rescue from a bad situation, for healing of a loved one, for direction in life or for other requests that are close to our hearts.
Fasting is not some kind of spiritual hunger strike that compels God to do our bidding.  The Israelites got this wrong in Isaiah 58:3 when they say,
Why have we fasted,
       and you have not seen it?
       Why have we humbled ourselves,
       and you have not noticed?

On the other side, fasting can bring a note of urgency to our praying.  We are coming to our Father and telling Him (and ourselves) how important this issue is to us.

Arthur Wallis writes:
Fasting is calculated to bring a note of urgency and importunity into our praying, and to give force to our pleading in the court of heaven.  The man who prays with fasting is giving heaven notice that he is truly in earnest… Not only so, but he is expressing his earnestness in a divinely-appointed way.  He is using a means that God has chosen to make his voice to be heard on high.

When my sister Faith was diagnosed with cancer, as I prayed for her, Jesus’ words that “these can come out only through prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29) kept coming to me, so I began a weekly fast for her as well as my constant prayer.  When we fast with a specific request in mind, our fast can be a wordless prayer to God.  Our hunger pangs also remind us to lift our voice up to God.

Fasting for change

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, would not ordain anyone for ministry unless they fasted every Friday.  While I was looking into the horrors of the modern slave trade, I discovered that the reason that Wesley fasted, and required his clergy to fast, was to see the end of the African slave trade.  Two hundred years ago, his prayers and fasting were answered when the British parliament abolished the slave trade in the British Empire.  Today, groups like Living Water International are inviting people to fast for fresh water provision in the developing world.  The modern slave trade is actually more extensive than the African slave trade was; Christians need to renew the practice of fasting for social change.

Fasting can help us humble ourselves

Fasting can humble us. Oftentimes all the things in our life that we take pride in are stripped away in fasting – the ability to move and think fast, the ability to be productive, and our physical strength are all reduced in fasting.  Fasting really should be called “slowing!”

Fasting can be an act of humility – just as kneeling or bowing before God is an act of humility, so is fasting.

One of the most wicked men in Jewish history, King Ahab, eventually humbled himself before God and demonstrated it by fasting: “When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly.
Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite: ‘Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day …’ ” (1 Kings 21:27-29)

David, one of the most righteous kings, also humbled himself through fasting (Ps. 35:13).

Fasting can be a sign of repentance

Repentance is a decision to turn away from sin in our lives. In Christianity today, repentance can be a light thing.  It is just some words we say, and it can be over in seconds.  But many people in the Bible fasted to show their seriousness in repentance.

You might be uncomfortable with this, but God isn’t.  While we would like our confession and repentance to be as short as possible, fasting takes time.  This might lengthen our discomfort with our guilt, but it might cause us to take more seriously our decision to turn from sin.

When we fast in our repentance, it is not an attempt to punish ourselves for our past sin, but a commitment and preparation for our future righteousness.  It is a sign that we are starting something new.

People have also fasted out of grief for others’ sins, not just their own.

There are many more reasons to fast and you can read about them in the resource material listed at the end of this pamphlet.

How to Fast

Start small. Fasting is a bit like physical exercise. You want to train yourself. You wouldn’t try to run a marathon without training, so don’t jump into a forty-day fast without training; Start by fasting for one meal, then two, then do a twenty-four hour fast.  You may want to use the season of Lent to fast once a week, adding a little to the fast each week.

Determine the purpose of the fast. Is it to seek God, to seek direction, to pray for others, or for change?

Determine the nature of the fast. Is it a partial fast?  Many people do partial fasts through Lent. Is it an absolute fast, or solid food only?  As a person who suffers from low blood sugar, I actually find it easier to fast with only water.  When I have allowed myself juice, it spikes my blood sugar, and for every high there is a low.

Plan for the fast. Set the time specifically. It is likely best not to be fasting if you have a presentation or a job interview that day. Determine the length of the fast. Is it one day? Two meals or three? Is it longer? (For fasts longer than three days, please read the supplemental material recommended at the end of the brochure, and consult a doctor if there are any medical questions.) Don’t plan to decide as you go – that doesn’t work so well.

Is it going to be a working fast, where you keep your schedule the same, but use the time that you would otherwise be eating to pray? Or are you going to clear your schedule and retreat during your fast? Is it also a media fast? 

Get people praying for you. There is so much potential power in seeking God in this way that Satan will do whatever necessary to derail your plan.

Don't call attention to your fasting. A simple "I'm skipping lunch today" will be an adequate explanation for most situations.

Stay continually focused on the Lord. If your fasting leaves you irritable with family or coworkers, it will not honor God.

Pitfalls of Fasting


The Pharisees were very self-righteousness about their fasting, and it is easy for us to become self-righteous as well.  Remember that your fast is about you and God, not about impressing others, or even yourself.
When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18, TNIV)

There is also the temptation to judge others who don't fast, or who don't fast as long, or who don't deny themselves as many things.

Fasting can also trap its participants in legalism. As soon as rule-making begins about whether juice is okay or water only, or what media are excluded, the joy and power of the Spirit will be lost. 

Coercion of God

Remember that we are not twisting God’s arm; we are trying to draw closer to Him. 


There is a heretical tradition in Christianity of punishing ourselves for sins.  God’s forgiveness of our sins comes with no requirement of us except confession and repentance.  We shouldn’t deprive ourselves of food as a way to punish ourselves or gain favour with God.  We already have God’s favour through Jesus.

It is tempting to see fasting as a great weight-loss program. Although you can shed weight during fasting, this is not its first goal.  The goal is spiritual, not physical.  If you want to lose weight, find a way to eat more healthily and exercise; if you want to draw closer to God, try fasting.

Mental Health
Fasting can complicate mental health issues that you may be dealing with.  I’ve had friends go into a deep depression after a prolonged fast.   If you struggle with mental health, talk to your doctor or therapist before you fast, and have someone monitor your health during the fast.  If you have an eating disorder, fasting from food may not be healthy for you.  Again, make sure you talk with your doctor, therapist, or 12-step sponsor before you fast.

For further reading:
John Piper, A Hunger for God (Crossways Press, 1997).
Arthur Wallis, God’s Chosen Fast (Christian Literature Crusade, 1980).
Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline (Harper, 3rd. ed., 1988), ch. 4.

Check out more on the web!
Go to Navpress.com, click on Magazines, then Discipleship Journal, then Archives, and search for these articles: A Day to Pray, Confronting Prayer Myths, Speaking God’s Language, The Listening Side of Prayer, Fasting on a Full Stomach and other articles on fasting.

1 comment:

  1. I really appreciate this blog on fasting Mike. Fasting is something that I never really took seriously until recently and I have come to see what a powerful spiritual aid it is. I would encourage everyone to fast regularly. I have a quote on my fridge that reads: “RESISTANCE IS HOLY” and indeed the most holy resistance that exists is God’s resistance to ‘fix’ us. Instead our God gives us glorious free will and allows us the gift of being able to cooperate in our own redemption. To those who would regard penance as you suggested – a form of self-punishment for our sins; I would like to suggest an alternative way to view penance as exactly what you describe in your blog – purification. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are all a part of our penance here on earth which is in line with the Catholic teaching on purgatory. We can cooperate with God in this purification in this life by taking up our cross daily or God will choose our penance/ purification in the next if we die in his friendship but have not yet been purified, (that is, if we still hold on to some of our sin) since nothing impure shall enter Heaven Revelation 21:27. We are called to suffer and sacrifice in order to be purified and we can unite those sufferings and sacrifices to Christ on the cross for our prayerful intentions.
    1 Peter 2-4; Luke 9:23; Colossians 1:24; Hebrews 12:6-10.
    As I heard a wise man say recently, ‘Jesus did not suffer and die so we don’t have to – He suffered and died so that our suffering and death would become salvific in him.
    “For In him and through him and with him are all things. To him be glory for ever. Amen” Romans 11:36
    God Bless
    Wendy Breedon