Beginning on July 10th, our midweek prayer meeting will begin at 7:00 P.M. instead of 7:30 P.M.. Beginning on July 14th, our Sunday evening service will become an afternoon service, meeting at 1:15 P.M. We will have a 'bring your own lunch' between the morning and afternoon service.

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Fasting: What Every Believer Should Know

Apr 12, 2024 By: Andy Rice Topic: Fasting Scripture: Isaiah 58

At the time of the birth of Jesus there was a precious servant of God named Anna, “who did not depart from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day” (Luke 2:37). When the early church was advancing evangelistically with a new mission, we found them fasting twice. This is recorded for us in Acts 13:2-3 where it says, “As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away.” In addition to these two illustrations of fasting in the New Testament, fasting was the norm in the Old Testament as well as in the early church.  

Many have the erroneous view that those who practice fasting are religious fanatics. Most of the misunderstanding and fear is based on our weak spirituality and Biblical ignorance. Jesus obviously expected us to fast because He said, “When you fast,” followed by instructions for fasting (Matt. 6:16-18). 

My purpose in this article is to give the basic teaching of the Bible on fasting in order to encourage each of us to take up this spiritual discipline and put it into practice in our lives.

1. The Definition of Fasting

Christian fasting is voluntarily denying yourself food, which is acceptable in the sight of God, for spiritual purposes, while devoting yourself to prayer, for the glory of God. Many give a much broader definition to fasting than the one I have given. Martyn Lloyd-Jones adds that fasting must not be “confined to the question of food and drink; fasting should really be made to include abstinence from anything which is legitimate in and of itself for the sake of some special spiritual purpose” (Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, (Vol. 2), p. 38).

2. The Purposes for Fasting

Before beginning our fast we should establish our purpose for the fast. Fasting should focus on reaching specific spiritual goals. A group fast is usually organized with a specific need or primary objective in mind. When you fast privately you should have a purpose clearly in mind. Fasting for the wrong purposes will not glorify God or bring His blessings (Isaiah 58:3-5; Jer. 14:12; Zech. 7:5; Matt. 6:16). In Luke 18:12 Jesus told of the man who boasted of his fasting and other religious practices and used him as an example of one who was religious but lost. 

We shall divide the biblical purposes for fasting into two categories. The first category listed are individual purposes for fasting.

–Desire or hunger for God (Joel 2:12-17; Luke 2:37; Acts 13:2-3).

–Death and mourning (1 Sam. 31:13; 2 Sam. 1:12; 1 Chron. 10:12; Psalms 69:10; 109:24). The expression of grief is closely connected with fasting in the Old Testament.

–Directed prayer (Ezra 8:23; Neh. 1:4; Dan. 9:3; Matt. 6:16-18).

–Devoted service (Isaiah 58:6-9).

–Decision-making (Judges 20:26-28; 2 Chron. 20:1-4; Acts 13:2-3; 14:23).

–Deliverance or protection (2 Chron. 20:3-4; Esther 4:15-17; Psalm 109:24; Ezra 8:21-23; Mark 9:29; Acts 10:30). This could be deliverance from any personal temptation, need, or area of struggle you may be facing. Most of the folks we learn about in the Biblical record who were fasting were facing some great need or serious difficulty. The second category we shall list are collective purposes for fasting.

–To ask God to open a door of evangelistic opportunity (Acts 13:2-3).

–To bring ourselves, others, or groups of people to repentance (Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 69:10-13; Jonah 3:5; Joel 2:12-13; 1 Sam. 7:6; Neh. 9:1-3; Daniel 9:3).

–To devote ourselves to any area of need which is recognized in a congregation, community, or nation (2 Chron. 20:3; Ezra 8:21-23; Esther 9:29-32). In the past, presidents of the United States of America as well as leaders of other nations have set aside days of fasting and prayer in times of war or national disasters.

We can combine our purposes but it is imperative that we have clear purposes in mind when we start a fast.

3. The Need for Fasting

Fasting is not mandatory. It is left up to each person to decide. It is one of the issues that we are at liberty to decide. For medical reasons some people should not fast. But for most of us it is necessary for many reasons. Jesus stated that once He had gone back to heaven His disciples would fast (Matt 9:14-15; Mark 2:18-29; Luke 5:33-35).

The primary need for fasting is to assist us with self-denial, which is closely related to, and a vital part of the mortification of the deeds of the flesh and its sinful desires. Wesley Duewel has written with great insight, “How do you take up your cross? To take up a cross is not to have someone place the cross upon you. Sickness, persecution, and the antagonism of other people are not your real cross. To take up a cross is a deliberate choice. We must purposely humble ourselves, stoop down, and pick up the cross for Jesus. Fasting is one of the most biblical ways to do so” (Mighty Prevailing Prayer quoted by Piper in A Hunger for God, p. 207).

4. The Benefits from Fasting

The first benefit we might note is that fasting forces us to our knees and adds a level of urgency to our prayers.  Andrew Murray makes this clear for us when he wrote, “Prayer needs fasting for its full growth. Prayer is the one hand with which we grasp the invisible. Fasting is the other hand, the one with which we let go of the visible. In nothing is man more closely connected with the world of sense than in this need for, and enjoyment of, food. It was the fruit with which man was tempted and fell in Paradise. It was with bread that Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. But He triumphed in fasting . . . . The body has been redeemed to be a temple of the Holy Spirit. In body as well as spirit, Scripture says, we are to glorify God in eating and drinking. There are many Christians to whom this eating for the glory of God has not yet become a spiritual reality. The first thought suggested by Jesus’ words in regard to fasting and prayer is that only in a life of moderation and self-control will there be sufficient heart and strength to pray much…. Fasting helps to express, to deepen, and to confirm the resolution that we are ready to sacrifice anything, even ourselves, to attain the Kingdom of God. And Jesus, Who Himself fasted and sacrificed, knows to value, accept, and reward with spiritual power the soul that is thus ready to give up everything for Him and His Kingdom” (With Christ in the School of Prayer, p. 100-01).

Another benefit we gain from fasting is it increases our sense of humility and our dependence on God. There is nothing we need more today than an attitude of lowliness of mind or meekness that expresses itself by preferring others ahead of ourselves. And whom should we prefer ahead of ourselves, more than God. Fasting reveals our dependence upon God that cannot be expressed more clearly than by this form of self-denial.

A third benefit received from fasting is that it is a good exercise to assist us with self-discipline. “Jesus takes it for granted that his disciples will observe the pious custom of fasting. Strict exercise of self-control is an essential feature of the Christian’s life. Such customs have only one purpose—to make disciples more ready and cheerful to accomplish those things which God would have done” (Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p. 188).

Fasting increases our spiritual senses and assists us in focusing our attention on God. This fourth benefit cannot be overestimated. “Fasting is a help to prayer; particularly when we set apart larger portions of time for private prayer. Then especially it is that God is often pleased to lift up the souls of his servants above all the things of earth, and sometimes to wrap them up, as it were, into the third heaven. And it is chiefly, as it is an help to prayer, that it has so frequently been found a means, in the hand of God, of confirming and increasing, not one virtue, . . . but also seriousness of spirit, earnestness, sensibility and tenderness of conscious, deadness to the world, and consequently the love of God, and every holy and heavenly affection” (John Wesley, quoted by Piper in A Hunger for God, p. 192).

Another benefit to fasting is it increases our spiritual growth and stamina for evangelism, discipleship, and spiritual warfare (Mark 9:29; Matt. 17:21). This is emphatically illustrated for us in Acts 13:1-3 when the church at Antioch set Paul and Barnabas apart and sent them out into the world with the desire of seeing the gospel preached and churches planted. Before elders were set apart for teaching the Word of God in the churches that were planted they were found fasting and praying (Acts 14:23). As Cornelius is seeking the Lord and desiring spiritual help from God he was fasting on the day that God gave him a vision to send for Peter so that he might hear the way of salvation (Acts 10:30-33).

The final benefit to be mentioned is that fasting offers a wonderful opportunity for the memorization of Scripture. Our minds are so easily distracted from God and His Word partly because of the culture we live in. But when I am devoting myself to fasting and prayer it would be a wonderful opportunity for me to select a chapter or group of verses which have the same theme (maybe something that is related to my fast) and put them to memory. While denying myself physical bread I will partake of the spiritual manna which God has given and promised to bless. My advice would be to put the verses you are striving to memorize on 3×5 cards and carry them with you throughout the day, taking every available opportunity to read over them until memorized. What a great addition this is to a day of fasting and prayer.

5. The Instructions for Fasting

The first instruction for fasting is that it must be for the correct motive (Zech. 7:3-5; Jer. 14:12; Matt. 6:16-18). It is not for public show even when a group may be uniting together in a fast. Fasting of necessity should humble us, not feed our pride. If it increases pride our fast is dishonoring to God.

Another instruction for fasting is that Bible reading and prayer must accompany it (Acts 13:2-3). Fasting which ignores prayer and Bible reading will not be blessed by God nor will it become a means of producing the desired results (Matt. 6:18). Even though these go together the emphasis of a day of fasting must be on prayer. As we read during our day of fasting the Scriptures should be translated into prayer requests and personal responses to God. We may also choose to read other books on doctrinal and devotional themes. It is not only appropriate to read good edifying literature but we may also sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs which lift our hearts toward the Lord in worship (Neh. 9:1-3). Each of these practices when included in a time of fasting will contribute to a spiritually rewarding fast.

A final instruction for this discipline is related to the possibility of fasting for different lengths of time. In the Bible we have examples of fasts lasting for part of a day, all day, one night, three days, seven days, fourteen days, twenty-one days, and forty days (Judges 20:26; 1 Sam. 7:6; 2 Sam. 1:12; 3:35; Neh. 9:1; Jer. 36:6; Daniel 6:18-24; Esther 4:16; Acts 9:9; 1 Sam. 31:13; 2 Sam. 12:16-23; Acts 27:33-34; Daniel 10:3-13; Deut. 9:9; 1 Kings 19:8; Matt. 4:2). Choose the length of time that is best for you.

6. The Approach to Fasting

Especially for beginners I would recommend that you fast for a 24-hour period or less. The time you select to begin and end your fasting period is between you and God but one practice that you may use is to fast from evening to evening. I would also recommend that you fast from food but allow yourself plenty of fluids. The best fluids would be non-acidic juices, tea, and water. Depending upon the demands of the day you should strive to give special planned blocks of time to Scripture reading and prayer. It is interesting to view the desire for food as a prompt to pray and to see it as an advantage that assists us to endure hunger pains.

For those who are unable to fast for medical reasons, it is legitimate to deny yourself other things and devote yourself to prayer during that time period. Some examples would be to avoid watching your favorite TV show or participating in an activity that evening and devote yourself to spending that time in prayer. Another example would be to deprive yourself of dessert for the whole week and get alone and pray at the conclusion of each meal for the goal you desire from God. Any legitimate pleasure can be given up and that time devoted to prayer. Remember that it is the heart that God is concerned with.

Whatever you deny yourself will be a means to glorifying God and reveal the seriousness of your commitment and the depth of your desire.

7. The Dangers of Fasting

One of the best passages of Scripture on fasting is found in Isaiah 58 and I highly recommend that you turn in your Bible to it and read it carefully applying its teaching to your life. The emphasis of the Prophet in this passage is upon the heart and desire of the person who was devoting himself to fasting. He is showing that Israel at this period is guilty of fasting with the wrong motives. With that in mind I shall share several dangers which must be avoided if our fasting is to be pleasing to God.

–Allowing your practice of fasting to produce a proud or judgmental attitude toward others (Luke 18:12-14; Rom. 14:3-6).

–Allowing your practice of fasting to produce the idea that it will automatically do a person spiritual good or magically remove sin or guilt from a life that is displeasing to God (Col. 2:20-23).

–Allowing your practice of fasting to be done in order to be seen and acknowledged by others (Matt 6:16). “It has been pointed out that in Judaism fasting was an outward sign of an inward condition but for Jesus fasting was an inward sign of an inward condition (Quoted by Piper, A Hunger for God, p. 75).”

Conclusion

The words of Jonathan Edwards as he edited David Brainerd’s journal make a fitting conclusion and powerful motivation to the discipline of fasting. “Among all the many days he spent in secret fasting and prayer that he gives an account of in his diary, there is scare an instance of one but what was either attended or soon followed with apparent success and a remarkable blessing in special incomes and consolations of God’s Spirit; and very often before the day ended” (The Life and Diary of David Brainerd edited by Jonathan Edwards).