To start off this discussion on fasting, I would like to first mention that fasting is a common practice found throughout scripture. In fact, it was a spiritual discipline of God’s people. In the Old Testament, the people of God called corporate fasting and praying for a number of reasons. In the New Testament, Jesus taught on prayer and fasting and often used the words when you fast (Matthew 6:16). He also once told the disciples of John that His people would fast when He was no longer physically with them (Mark 2:18-20, Matthew 9:14-15). It can be seen within scripture that fasting was a normal practice among believers and not just an occasional event.
I say this to express that I believe it is in the heart of God for His people to fast. Fasting is an idea from God but for His people, and Jesus said that we would do it. As you grow in your understanding of fasting, I pray it would start to become a normal discipline of your spiritual lives. Jesus knows what’s best, and if God’s people are seen fasting corporately, individually, and for various reasons and amounts of time throughout Scripture, then we should also pay attention to the role it plays in our lives. There is something significant that happens in God’s people when they fast and pray. Like many others, I have made it a habit to fast at the beginning of each year as well as various times throughout the year. Fasting has become a powerful and refreshing time of isolated prayer, reflection, and direction for my family and me.
Here are a few of the many examples of fasting found in Scripture:
Ezra began to fast in response to the sins and unfaithfulness of the Jewish exiles. He avoided bread and water for a short period of time, and cried out to the people to repent and make confession before God in regard to their transgressions. (Ezra 10:6-11)
In the book of Esther, Esther called for the Jews of Susa to fast on her behalf. She and her own maids would do the same fasting of no food or drink for three days, in order to pray for her safety and the well-being of her people as she planned to illegally approach the king for their deliverance. (Esther 4:16)
Daniel and his Hebrew friends, who were exiled to Babylon, abstained from the foods of the Babylonians and ate only vegetables and drank water. They ended up looking healthier and better nourished than the other men who were eating delicacies and drinking wine. They gained greater favor with man and received wisdom from God. (Daniel 1:8-17)
Later on, Daniel was also seen fasting for three weeks in order to hear revelation from God regarding a vision he had. He avoided pleasant foods, meat, and wine as he desired to hear the Lord better. (Daniel 10:2)
Another infamous fast is that of Jesus before he started His public ministry. Jesus spent 40 days and nights in the wilderness where it is believed that He had no food or water before he was tempted by Satan. (Matthew 4:1-2)
In Scripture, you can find fasts that last for 1 day, 3 days, 7 days, 21 days, and 40 days. You find people fasting for spiritual breakthroughs, as a time for mourning, as a time of repentance, for safety, to see change or reformation, to see deliverance from demonic strongholds, and so forth.
Some people abstain from all food when fasting. Others only fast different kinds of food items like sweets and desserts, or meats. I have even heard of people avoiding specific forms of media such as video games, movies, and music as their fasts. Traditionally, fasting consists of fasting food items for various purposes and for a specific amount of time, in conjunction with offering expressions of praise, mourning, reflection, repentance, celebration, and most specifically, prayer. I tend to adhere to the more traditional ways of fasting which includes avoiding food and drink. I often let abstaining from other things, like social media, television, or movies, become an additional part of the discipline.
Being in ministry, once in a while I am asked, “Why fast?” or “How do you do it effectively?” When I speak with others on fasting, everyone seems to have a different method of fasting for a number of various reasons. Is there a right and wrong way to fast? Are there methods that I can put into practice that can help me practically and spiritually? How do I know my fasting is being effective? I want to spend the next few moments addressing some of these questions. Hopefully you will gain some insight and assurance as you begin to seek the Lord through prayer and fasting. As the types and reasons for fasting vary in the Bible, I find it difficult to say if there is a right way to fast. Nevertheless, I hope to offer some ways you can make sure you are fasting more effectively.
Try fasting food.
I guess a good disclaimer would be to make sure you check with your physician first before you start to do long fasts or if you have a medical condition. But if all is well with avoiding food for certain periods of time, then I will suggest you try fasting food above anything else. Fasting media, fellowship, and fun is good, but I believe fasting food provides a powerful avenue for a person to experience something in a way that can only be understood through feeling hunger. When you fast food, you begin to detoxify your body from waste. You cleanse your system, which can be a great way to also relate to the cleansing of your heart, mind, and spirit. It is almost like your body, mind, and spirit get a fresh start. When one begins to feel the pains of hunger, he starts to look for ways to fulfill the lack. When you are fasting food, something happens in your spirit as you displace the physical hunger for a deep spiritual need for God to be the only thing that fulfills you. It is tremendously powerful to have an encounter with God, as you deny yourself of something so easily fulfilling. For me, one of the easiest ways for me to obey my body is to get a snack when I get the munchies. When you are fasting food, it places your whole being in a position to get before God, and tell yourself, “I will deny you and lean upon God as my fullness and sustenance.”
Spiritual hunger and desperation are two amazing elements of fasting. Let your hunger take you deeper into becoming satisfied by nothing other than the presence of God. Cry out to Him when you are hungry. Take the time you would spend normally eating a meal, and get alone with God. Say to Him, “You are my daily bread.” The Word says if we hunger and thirst for righteousness we will be filled (Matthew 5:6). Another verse reads, “For he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things (Psalm 107:9 NLT)." It also says that he rewards those who diligently seek him (Hebrews 11:6). There is something to say about desperate people who are denying themselves, taking up the cross of fasting, and coming after Him. If one of the easiest ways to fulfill the flesh is through food, maybe we can recognize that fasting offers us an opportunity to deny ourselves and to become satisfied by nothing or no one other than God.
When you fast, make sure you spend time with God through prayer, worship and in the Word.
What good is avoiding food for a time of spiritual discipline if you are not approaching God with specific and intentional times of prayer and of meditating on the Word? Fasting can become a very powerful time of hearing from God and growing in intimacy with Him through prayer. Don’t just make requests to God during your fast, but sit and listen. Soak. Be with Him. One of the greatest forms of prayer is just being with God in a meditative state. Think of His goodness, and sing songs of love. Repent of hidden and willful sins, and receive His grace. Find Scriptures that will help you fast and then meditate on them. Pray the Psalms. Repent. Rinse. Repeat! Rejoice and renew your love for His presence and your hunger for His Word.
I have seen people fast from food, yet, they do not set time aside to actually pray. Their fasting just becomes a miserable diet. Fasting and prayer go hand in hand. Reading the Word and fasting are inseparable. Make special room in your life to abide in God. Find His presence and stay there. You may find yourself crying out loud. You may experience times of just nothingness--You are just there with no words or feelings. You might experience a significant increase of sensitivity to God’s presence. You may find a renewed hunger to read the Bible and actually see the words in a different way. You might find yourself really broken in the time you pray. You may feel like you are receiving an impartation or direction from Him. Whatever you experience, make sure your heart is to come near to Him. Draw near to God. His Word promises that He will draw near to you (James 4:8). As you deny yourself, find your complete strength in prayer, worship, and meditation. Eat from the Word, and taste the goodness of His presence. Keep a journal nearby to write down any impressions or words He may speak to you. Enjoy genuine fellowship with God.
Limit your media intake.
Limiting your media intake during fasting can create wonderful opportunities to have more time with God and to focus your mind on God and what He may be saying to you. You can shut out the noise of what society says, and disconnect for a short time from the influences of the world in order to have uninterrupted time with God. Instead of watching hours of television, listening to music, or surfing the web, use your time to be alone with God, and allow Him to update you on what He is saying and doing. In the past, I have found myself “fasting," yet, I would spend hours watching TV and hanging out with friends. It became very difficult to sense the presence of God and almost made the fast seem insignificant or ineffective. Fasting can provide great times of hearing from God. Become very familiar with the voice of the One you love, and choose to fast movies, music, and social media in addition to fasting food. As you have developed a deep hunger by avoiding food, you can now set up some important times of refreshing in the presence of God without the influences of media.
When I was in high school, I attempted a small food fast and decided to fast all music at the same time. It was very impacting on my life because I never realized how I counted on background noise to make me feel right. When everything was silent, I could see and hear things differently. I became very broken in that season because I felt so close to God. I was out of the loop concerning the current events and latest songs, but I was definitely in a sweet place with my fellowship with God.
Avoid being too hard on yourself.
One of the hardest things to do while fasting, especially if it is for more than one day, is to not give up. A large percentage of the people I speak with about fasting say they “gave in” and ate food before the set amount of time for fasting was over. Others confess that they “cheated” and would sneak foods. I can always see and hear the shame or guilt these people express, because deep down in their hearts they want to feel like they can do a legitimate fast.
I don’t believe it honors God to feel guilt and shame when you are attempting to fast. I believe it is supposed to be a time in which our hearts are leaning in towards God. I do not believe God is disappointed or will rebuke you for ending a fast early or for giving in to food. Honestly, avoiding food is not the point, but it tends to be the focal point of failure or success for people who are fasting. The most important element to fasting is the heart towards God and the quality time spent with Him. The focus is misplaced if you start using will power to fast. God is not gauging how spiritual you are by how well you can fast. Let yourself off the hook from the legalistic view that you did or did not fast well. Take whatever time you have offered to God, and make it a genuine offering to Him. Ask Him to help you in future times of fasting, but please do not get a complex from not feeling “successful” in fasting. God is always looking at and working on our hearts, and He usually does it with patience, mercy, and grace.
Don’t become arrogant.
You aren’t doing God a favor by fasting and He is not going to put you on a higher pedestal because you can successfully make it through avoiding food. Essentially, fasting is a time of humility before God and towards man. Fasting, although ordained by God’s Word, is for you. As mentioned earlier, fasting is a great way to draw near to God. In drawing near to God, we become more aware of who He is and who we are. It starts with reverence and humility. Even though fasting can help you become more aware spiritually, it doesn’t necessarily make you more spiritual. We should never compare our spirituality with others in regards to fasting. I once heard a person speak of fasting, and you could hear how well they thought of themselves because they had accomplished several 21 day and even one 40 day fast. There are no notches to make on the belt of spiritual success when it comes to fasting. If you get through a 21 day fast, give God the glory. You are blessed to have gotten through 3 days!
Arrogance with fasting is one of the reasons why people say, “The Bible says you aren't supposed to let people know you are fasting.” This phrase is not actually found in Scripture, but I understand why people would assume that it is. It is unavoidable to have a corporate fast without others knowing you are fasting. It is hard to fast in secret when you live in a household of people. In fact, I talk about fasting often—with my wife, my family, and the ones I minister with. The point is that fasting should not make us feel more spiritual, more holy, or better than anyone else. We should not speak of how well we fast for others to want to revere or honor us. It is pride and arrogance to want praise for our ability to fast.
Jesus offers admonishment in Matthew 6:16-18.
“Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”
The point is really about what is in your heart. God wants us to approach Him during a fast, and it doesn’t matter what people see or know. Is the fast you are attempting really about you and God, or how others will see you? As a side note, you do not have to be or look miserable in your fasts. I once knew a pastor who fasted all the time, and he happened to be one of the most joyful, satisfied, and smiling people I knew. The hypocrites Jesus refers to fast to be seen by men, and they look miserable doing it. A hypocrite is a person who does something but is not genuine about it within their hearts. Fasting before God can be a treasured time in which we grow in humility, joy, and intimacy with the only One who is worthy of attention and praise.
Isaiah 58 is a great scripture source on fasting. Verses 6 and 7 offer some interesting insight on what pleases God during a fast:
“Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;
When you see the naked, that you cover him,
And not hide yourself from your own flesh?”
A great way to stay active and involved while fasting is to ask God for opportunities to help someone. While you are avoiding food, you may be able to share with someone who does not have food to eat. During your fast, find ways to feed people, and meet the needs of the unfortunate. Not only does this help keep you humble, it also allows God to move through you in a very tangible way. If you have been saving money from not eating out as much during your fast, then consider using that extra cash to buy groceries for a family in need, or to purchase blankets for homeless people in your town. Give an extra offering to the church or bless someone unexpectedly. If you are fasting corporately, gather a few of your church friends and come up with a special way to look after the least of these together. Although you may want to spend significant times alone with God during fasting, do not get fat with receiving from Him alone. Share what God has been doing in you by being around people who need an encounter with the love of God. Speak into peoples' lives. Prophesy into their destiny. Become the hands and feet of God as you deny yourself.
Don’t stop trying.
Over the years, I have heard people say they have tried to fast, but couldn’t do it, so they gave up. These people tend to be apprehensive to do it again. There are many factors that can hinder a person from fasting, and one of them can be bad experiences with fasting. I will say that I usually never feel good the first few days I avoid food. If I am on an extended fast, the first few days are cloudy. I get a headache as I overcome caffeine. My stomach will growl constantly and my mood seems to change at first. My body will desperately crave a bite of anything edible, and every scent of food smells delicious. I even begin to daydream about what I will eat when the fast is over.
It is tough at times, but it is worth it. One suggestion I have is to try fasting regularly. You may want to try to fast one solid day a month. Try to get use to the feelings and sensations that come with fasting. Believe me; it’s not initially supposed to feel great. However, as you understand what the purpose is and how your body responds, you may be able to develop a mindset to fast more often, and for longer periods of time. After a while, turn a one day fast into a three day fast. Before jumping into a long 21 day fast of only water, attempt a 21 day Daniel fast of vegetables and water only. Learn of ways to start an extended fast by reading books on fasting, or by asking someone who has made fasting a discipline in their lives. Ease into it by juicing and taking vegetable broth, and learn to ease out of the fast the same way. Treat your body with respect as you fast, and you will begin to develop an intentionality and anticipation to fast more often.
Fasting is very powerful for the believer. Having said that, I can see how anything and everything would keep us from trying to really fast. If you have attempted a fast that didn’t end the way you thought it would, don't worry. You have given that time to God. It was a sacrifice to Him. So rest assured that it was received, and then try again later. I have attempted long fasts that ended early, and I discovered that the time that was invested was the perfect time set aside for God to do something in me and in my life. The results and effectiveness of fasts are always up to God. Don’t stop trying. You may never fully enjoy fasting, but once you really do it, you will never want to live without the intimacy you gain in the process.
Something else worth mentioning is that it is never convenient to fast. You will always have people invite you over to eat while you are on a fast. You will always feel like you need the physical energy to do things, so you will avoid fasting. Every time I fast, I am asked to do something physically tasking or am invited to special events involving food. There are some things you cannot plan or avoid, so you have to make up your mind that you are going to fast no matter what may come your way. Please also remember not to be legalistic about it. Pray about how you can fast. You may ask the Lord what He is looking for. He will give you the grace to do whatever you attempt to do. You might be amazed at what His strength can do in your weakness.
My last encouragement regarding fasting is to just go after God with all of your heart. Fasting can become a religious duty where you feel pressure and condemnation. I personally see fasting as a deep and special time to approach my God just as I am. I say, “Whatever you want for this season, God, do it. Lead me. I am coming after you.” If you have deep needs during your fast, make your requests to God. If you need to see a miraculous breakthrough, let your fasting be a time to develop your faith and trust in the One who is faithful. If you are seeking direction, honor Him by acknowledging Him in all of your ways. If you are just a hungry person wanting more of God, I can assure you, fasting can be the perfect way to greater intimacy, passion, and revelation. As you break your fast, you will be left deeply fulfilled and more satisfied than ever before.