I recently had an interesting conversation with a friend who I had partnered with in a prayer ministry several years ago. The entire ministry was pursuing the Lord in prayer, fasting and giving to the poor. We often had extended fasts that everyone partook in and many of us fasted a day or two a week. During this time my friend took a short-term mission trip to Nigeria for a month.
Last weekend at a party for this friend I met one of the Nigerians he had spent time with who had come to the United States to study medicine. The man told me that when my friend came no one had ever met a missionary from the United States quite like him. He recounted how my friend would sneak away amidst busy days of ministry to pray in secluded places. He spoke of how often my friend would fast while he was there and how he encouraged everyone to fast on a regular basis. The Nigerian said he and everyone at his church had never met an American Christian missionary who spoke or acted like this before.Jesus was very clear when he spoke to the Pharisees and said that while the bridegroom (himself) was with them, there was no reason to fast but that soon the bridegroom (again, Jesus) would be gone and his followers would fast. Our understanding should be that fasting is a part of normal Christianity; a very important part of normal Christianity.
I meet few people who speak about fasting or even know what its purpose is. I’d like to outline a few things about what fasting is and what it isn’t; how to do it and how not to do it. I think a discussion of this kind is very necessary for American Christians because the times we are living in demand a people who fast before the Lord.
First and foremost, fasting is not eating food, pure and simple. When you fast you give up that sustenance that our bodies rely on for energy. Fasting is not giving up television, meat on Fridays or alcohol. While those things may be good, they are not fasting. Pictures of food on a menu may look good, but a meal they are not, so let’s begin this with a proper definition: fasting is giving up all food.
Now, there are several types of fasting: complete, water, juice and “Daniel.” A complete fast is where you give up food and water–you take in absolutely nothing. These types of fasts should be limited to a few days (seriously). Water fasts are where you only take in water, nothing else. No calories whatsoever. “Water fasts” can last up to the 40 day mark or so, but extreme care should be taken when attempting this kind. Juice fasts are the most common and they involve eating nothing, but taking in an extremely reduced calorie count only through drinks derived from juices and vegetables (don’t puree a hamburger). The last type is called a Daniel fast, derived from the passage in Daniel where he said he ate “no choice foods, no meat of wine touched my lips.” (Daniel 10:3) Personally, I don’t consider this a fast (because eating continues with fruits and vegetables), but I’m not going to impose my view on an overwhelming majority who believe this to be a valid fast.
Whether a Daniel fast counts or not is of little importance, truthfully, when viewed in light of why we fast. I will defend myself here in saying that fasting only involves food (not television) because even a Daniel fast involves taking in fewer calories and fats than our bodies are used to. When we fast we send our bodies down a path they’d rather not go and we hear about it. Hunger pangs, headaches and weakness ensue when we fast, depending on the duration. Your body doesn’t go through physical withdrawals when you give up television or tennis for a month which is why I am adamant about maintaining the integrity of the term fasting only to refer to food. I believe this is important because we are willingly giving up something our body rightfully needs to survive in exchange for a closer walk with the Lord.
They physical aspects of fasting cannot be divorced from the spiritual aspects; they are one and the same. That’s what makes it such a hard thing to do and do often. Everything within our bodies screams for attention when we fast which in turn calls attention to why we are doing it in the first place. For the duration of a fast you bear within your body the desire of your spirit in a more tangible way than we normally experience. This can be a positive or negative thing, so care must be exercised when undertaking a fast. The fact that the physiological and psychological aspects of our selves are in such concert with one another during a fast has dramatic effects on what we choose to set our hearts on. Whatever you fast for you will become more set on and convinced of, no matter what that thing is.
If you fast to grow in the Lord, you most certainly will. If you fast to appear more spiritual, your heart will become increasingly locked into a realm of a hyper-spiritualism that will only be destructive to your soul in the end. We have the Pharisees to look to here. Some of them fasted two days a week, but their hearts were locked out of growing closer to God or recognizing the truth. Beware of this danger–carefully study your motives for fasting before you begin and ensure that they will not be damaging.
This brings me to probably the most important part of this topic: what are the proper motivations for fasting? I strongly believe that fasting does not get you anything with God, it only has the power to take you places with God. What I mean by this is that fasting doesn’t automatically make you a better or stronger Christian and thereby draw you closer to God. You don’t become a super-saint the more you fast. This was the Pharisees’ fallacy when they fasted. Fasting only has the power to set your heart before the Lord to grow and therein lies its power. To put it another way is to think of fasting as an accelerant rather than an ignition. It doesn’t get you where you’re going, it can only help you get there faster.
Fasting is a very hard thing to do well. I personally believe that if you fast well, you’re probably not getting it. I don’t think the Lord wants us to be good at fasting, only to try it and keep getting up when we fail. I’ve fasted quite a bit (but not nearly enough to brag about–there are so many people who fast much more than me) and I’ve broken two day fasts after 8 hours more often than I’d care to admit. I get better at it the older I get, but the struggle between spirit and flesh that goes on never goes away. My body tries every ploy to get me to eat it can come up with and sometimes my body wins.
There’s so much that can be said about the logistics of fasting and how to do it healthily, but I’ll let Google answer those questions for you. I’ll only say that if you are capable of fasting you should and if you’ve fasted before and it caused you serious health problems you need to reevaluate what’s going wrong.
It should be stated that fasting is not a good time to pray more. Thinking of fasting as just a way to carve out an extra 15 minutes of prayer time when you would have been eating is selling fasting short of it’s true beauty. I find that I often have to really work to even maintain the amount of time I pray when I fast. I know many people who break their fasts during busy days because they figure “what’s the point in continuing if they don’t have time to pray?” I wholeheartedly believe that if you feel you need to spend more time praying while fasting, what you really need to do is make a lifestyle adjustment to add more prayer time to your daily routine every day, fasting or not.
Most Americans lead relatively prayerless lives, so my goal here is not to help people pray more through fasting. No, fasting is again an accelerant when combined with the fuel of prayer. Your car won’t run very well if you don’t have the proper amount of fuel mixture entering the chamber, so when you add what is meant to be a turbocharger things will only continue to sputter along unless you first deal with the fuel itself. So make a commitment to increase the time you spend in prayer every day, then add fasting to make that time more fruitful.
I want to end by speaking to a difference I see between regular fasting and extended fasts. Please understand that I have few Biblical sources to back me up on this, so this is really my opinion from experience rather than a deeply held belief from the Word.
In my experience I have found that regular fasting is a choice. I choose to encounter the Lord through regular fasting and He tenderizes my spirit over time. That’s what I mean by choice, is that I choose to devote myself to the Lord in that way but I don’t normally feel called to fast. Extended fasts, however, I have experienced to be ordained. When I began to give myself more to fasting and began doing longer fasts (3+ days) I found that there was often God-ordained reasons to fast that long. For example, for a period of about three years I did several 10, 14 and 21 day fasts, during which I would have the same friend call me within the first three days every time and tell me how long I was fasting for and what the three things I was praying for were (I always set three things I’m praying for when I fast to give me direction and focus). The prophetic confirmation of those fasts meant to me that when I “chose” to go on extended fasts, I was really responding to God’s grace to fast for some ordained reason. Again, I don’t believe this to be a rule from scripture, only my personal experience, but maybe it will resound with some reading this.
Fasting is good for believers and all Christians who physically can, should. We Western Christians will begin to encounter the Lord in fresh and life-giving ways when we enter into the grace of a life of prayer and fasting.