When You Fast
Let’s get biblical: Jesus assumed that fasting would be a part of his followers’ prayer lives. So why are we hesitant about taking up the practice? Here’s how to get started.
By Charles F. Stanley
Of all the spiritual disciplines, fasting is probably the least understood. The discipline is rarely taught or explained in most churches today, and few Christians know why they should do it or what it accomplishes. In a culture that promotes indulgence, not self-denial, fasting seems out of place. But Jesus calls us to a level of devotion that goes beyond convenience and comfort.
Despite our current unfamiliarity, fasting was commonly practiced in both the Old and New Testaments. Moses fasted for 40 days when he was on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments (Ex. 34:28). Queen Esther asked the Jews to fast before she approached the Persian king on behalf of her people (Est. 4:16). Even Jesus fasted for 40 days before beginning His official ministry (Matt. 4:1-2). And the early church relied on this practice in asking the Lord’s guidance for important decisions (Acts 13:2; Acts 14:23).
This scriptural evidence should cause us to give serious consideration to the importance of fasting, but Jesus offers even more incentive—His teaching on this subject (Matt. 6:16-18). He begins by saying, “Whenever you fast,” not “If you fast.” This implies that fasting should be a vital part of our Christian life. In fact, the context of His teaching also includes instructions on giving (Matt. 6:1-4) and prayer (Matt. 6:5-15). None of us would exclude either of those practices from our lives, yet too often we consider fasting irrelevant or unnecessary.
The most basic meaning of fasting is abstinence from food. But it can also apply to other activities, such as refraining from entertainment (Dan. 6:18) or from physical intimacy between a husband and wife (1 Cor. 7:5). Since Scripture sets no rules regarding the length of a fast, each person is free to determine the duration. It might be for one meal or several, or can even consist of giving up of certain foods for a period of time. No matter what the form, the common denominator is an attitude of humble petition before God.
What does fasting accomplish?
Fasting isn’t a diet plan or a magic bullet to get God to do what you want. Nor is it for the purpose of earning forgiveness. Jesus’ shed blood is the sole source of atonement for sins. However, as part of the process of keeping our lives pure, fasting can play a role in helping us recognize and repent of sin.
The goal of prayer and fasting is to bring our natural, physical desires under the control of the Holy Spirit for the purpose of hearing from God. When we refrain from regular activities that distract us, we’re better able to discern what the Lord is saying. It sharpens our minds and increases our spiritual perception. In essence, we are acknowledging that food is not as important as hearing from God.
Jesus taught us how to fast.
When Christ instructed His followers about fasting, His focus was not on the method or duration, but on the appropriate attitude. In those days, the Pharisees followed a strict routine, usually abstaining from food on Mondays and Thursdays. The problem, at least for some, was their motive. They wanted everyone to see and praise them for their religious dedication. In an effort to enhance their piety, they’d put dirt and ashes on their clothes and leave their hair disheveled.
Jesus confronted their hypocrisy with instructions about the proper attitude for fasting:
- With sincerity. Fasting should never be done to show off one’s devotion to Christ. It’s supposed to be a time of intimate, private fellowship with the Lord. Jesus told the people to dress normally and not draw attention to themselves. Although we don’t wear sackcloth and ashes today, we can still be guilty of insincerity or self-righteousness by wanting others to see our sacrificial devotion.
- In secret. Jesus advises us to keep our fasting quiet, rather than announce it openly. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t tell those who are affected by your decision. For example, you should let the people close to you know that you won’t be eating if it will affect a shared meal. The point is to keep it between yourself and the Lord as much as possible.
- For the Lord. The goal is simple, really: to seek God. When we sacrifice for Him, He delights in us and promises a future reward. But if we start showing off before others, their fleeting praise will be the only reward we receive.
Why should we fast?
Although there are many occasions for fasting, I think they can be summed up with three basic reasons:
For cleansing. In the course of time, sinful habits and attitudes can take up residence in our lives, and we may not even realize they are there. The symptoms are obvious, but not the cause—God’s power and joy are absent, and we wonder why He doesn’t seem to be using us or answering our prayers.
Hidden sins slowly fill the cracks and crevices of our spiritual life, much like the way dust accumulates in a house that’s not cleaned. It’s so gradual that we may not notice—until unexpected company arrives. In the same way, fasting opens our eyes to see ourselves from God’s perspective. The sins we hadn’t noticed before suddenly become obvious when Jesus “walks in.”
For guidance. Perhaps the most frequent reason people fast is to receive God’s direction for a decision or a situation. Although He’s promised to instruct and teach us the way to go (Ps. 32:8), sometimes we can’t hear His voice until we diligently seek Him with prayer and fasting. This is because we need the deep cleansing process of a fast to open our spiritual ears. I’ve come to realize that this is a necessary step because the clutter of sin must be removed before I can accurately hear His voice.
For deliverance and protection. Trouble is another occasion for fasting. Anytime we find ourselves in a helpless situation, we should follow the example of King Jehoshaphat in 2 Chronicles 20. When Judah was threatened by three powerful enemies, Jehoshaphat called the entire nation to fast and cry out to God for deliverance (2 Chron. 20:3). And sure enough, He came to the rescue. Time after time throughout the Scriptures, the Lord has protected His people when they’ve humbled themselves in prayer and fasting, acknowledging their dependence upon Him. If He did it for them, He will also do it for you.
Fasting honors God and benefits us. Fasting is a privilege that helps us draw closer to the Lord. If it didn’t assist and enhance prayer, God would not have called us to do it. Even Satan recognizes its power. He’ll try to keep you from fasting, because he knows it will uncover anything that hinders your effectiveness for God and unleashes divine power in your life.
Fasting also reveals who’s in control. If you can’t bring yourself to miss a meal or two in order to hear from God, you might have to admit that your appetite is in charge and your commitment to Him is rather small. Even if you can’t fast because of medical reasons, you can still set aside other things, or a lot of specific times each day to focus your attention only on the Lord.
If you’ll seek God’s direction in genuine humility, He will clean up your life and begin to work through you with His almighty power. You’ll discover that fasting produces an amazing sense of oneness with the Lord, teaches you about yourself, and unlocks the powers of heaven to act on your behalf. I cannot predict what God will do in your life, but I know one thing for certain: What you ultimately gain will be far more than the sum of what you gave up—more of God Himself.
Do You Know God?
Fasting is a means for Christians to draw closer to the Lord, but if you have not trusted Jesus as your Savior, it’s merely an exercise in self-control. Learn how to begin a relationship with Him here.