Between Jerusalem, on the central plateau which is the backbone of Palestine, and the Dead Sea there stretches the wilderness. The Old Testament calls it Jeshimmon, which means The Devastation, and it is a fitting name. It stretches over an area of thirty-five by fifteen miles.
[Explorers describe it as] an area of yellow sand, of crumbling limestone, and of scattered shingle. It is an area of contorted strata, where the ridges run in all directions as if they were warped and twisted. The hills are like dust heaps; the limestone is blistered and peeling; rocks are bare and jagged; often the very ground sounds hollow when a foot or a horse’s hoof falls upon it. It glows and shimmers with heat like some vast furnace. It runs right out to the Dead Sea, and then there comes a drop of twelve hundred feet, a drop of limestone, flint, and marl, through crags and corries and precipices down to the Dead Sea.
The Gospel of Matthew : Volume, ed. William Barclay, lecturer in the University of Glasgow, The Daily study Bible series, Rev. ed., p. 63 (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 2000, c1975).
And in this tortured wilderness that looks like it was designed by Salvador Dali, Jesus went more than six weeks without food. Not because he had to, but because he wanted to. We wonder at the wisdom of such privation, especially in light of the cunning attack of the Evil One at the end of his forty-day fast. Virtually every commentator I read remarked on how weak Jesus would have been, some claiming that he was at death’s door. “How unfortunate,” we think, “that Jesus wasn’t better prepared for this sinister attack.” But they miss the point.
That Jesus withstood the attack is undeniable. That he not only overcame Satan’s lies, but in fact overwhelmingly defeated the Enemy’s assault is plain. But what we miss is the reason. Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness and his extended fast was not designed to weaken him, but rather prepare him for the temptations! Physically, yes he was low. But spiritually, he was a dynamo!! The fasting, not to mention the solitude, enabled Jesus to triumph. As God Himself revealed to Paul:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2Co 12:9-10
I. What is fasting?
The Baker Encyclopaedia describes fasting as:
Eating sparingly or abstaining from food altogether, either from necessity or desire… Spiritual fasting entails setting aside activities as well as reducing the intake of food and replacing these activities with the exercise of prayer and preoccupation with spiritual concerns. The NT word which is translated “fasting” literally means one who has not eaten, one who is empty.
If we look at the example of our Lord, we can ascertain that fasting from food empties us physically, so that we may be filled spiritually. In other words, fasting is not so much about denying ourselves food as it is about availing ourselves of God’s power.
II. What fasting is not!
A. Physical Discipline
Basically this means that fasting is not dieting. Dieting may be something many of us need (including me!), but this is not the proper purpose of fasting according to the Scripture. Fasting is about spiritual health, not physical health.
B. A Coercion Tool
Fasting is not a way to win God’s approval, or twist His arm. Our motives in fasting must be spiritual, and must be in line with God’s will. Simply fasting as a religious tool is useless:
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Isaiah 58:3-7 (NIV)
C. A Status Symbol
Jesus made this plain:
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, 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 men 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 NIV
No one should know that you are fasting. Since fasting is to be done to draw closer to God, and to empty ourselves so that He may fill us, why should others even know?! Once we start playing that game, we’ve lost our focus, and we will derive no spiritual benefit.
II. What is the purpose of fasting?
Donald Whitney, author of Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, tells us that fasting "hoists the sails of the soul in the hopes of experiencing the gracious wind of God’s Spirit." It doesn’t guarantee spiritual blessing, but it often puts us in position to experience it as God moves. J. I Packer provides additional insight..."There’s nothing magical about fasting. It’s just one way of telling God that your priority at that moment is to be alone with him..." The Bible gives us several reasons for considering a fast.
A. We fast to strengthen our prayers.
Fasting has often been used by God’s people when there is a special urgency about the concerns they lift to the Father. This was Ezra’s motivation as he was about to lead a group of exiles back to Jerusalem (Ezra 8:21-23). Fasting is a way of giving ourselves more fully to God.
B. We fast to express grief and repentance.
- For some, it can be a way to express to God the depth of what we’re feeling. A good example is the response of the Jews to King Xerxes’ decree to kill them (See Esther 3:8-11; 4:3).
- For others, fasting is a way to demonstrate just how serious we are about repenting of our sin:
When [all Israel] had assembled at Mizpah, they drew water and poured it out before the LORD. On that day they fasted and there they confessed, “We have sinned against the LORD.”… 1 Samuel 7:6 NIV
C. We fast to seek God’s guidance.
After the Lord appeared to Saul (Paul) on the road to Damascus we are told that not only was he stricken blind, but he did not eat or drink for three days as he awaited further direction (See Acts 9:6-9). Later in his ministry, Paul (and Barnabas) did not dare to appoint elders without praying and fasting over the matter (See Acts 14:23). Calvin had this to say:
…whenever… any matter of difficulty and great importance is under consideration… when manifestations of the divine anger appear, as pestilence, war, and famine, the sacred and salutary custom of all ages has been for pastors to exhort the people to public fasting and extraordinary prayer. … it is clear that the apostles also acted thus… whenever supplication is to be made to God on any important occasion, it is befitting to appoint a period for fasting and prayer.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion; Originally published: Edinburgh : Calvin Translation Society, 1845-1846., IV, xii, 14 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).
In all, Scripture suggests at least ten major reasons for fasting:
- To strengthen prayer
- To seek God’s guidance
- To express grief
- To seek deliverance and protection
- To express repentance and a return to God
- To humble ourselves before the Lord
- To express concern for the work of God
- To minister to the needs of others
- To overcome temptations and dedicate ourselves to God
- To express love and worship to God
III. What are the instructions for fasting?
A. How often?
Fasting is expected by Christ. In Matthew 6:16 He says, "When you fast...," not "if you fast," implying that it is something He expects us to do. The historical record shows that when Christ ascended, the church embraced the discipline of fasting (See Acts 13:2; 14:23). What about us? We should fast as often as we feel it is necessary (to strengthen our prayer, express grief and repentance, to enhance our worship, to seek god’s guidance, etc.).
B. How long?
A fast can last for a portion of a day or it can last for weeks. That is really up to you and how you believe the Lord is leading in the matter.
C. How to? Here are some simple guidelines.
The Lunch-to-Lunch Juice Fast. Skip supper and breakfast and drink water and fruit juices, using your mealtimes for prayer. This is important! Remember, this is about “seeking God and His righteousness.”
The Three-Meal Fast. Pick a day and skip all meals, drinking only fruit juice or water and concentrate on praying throughout the day. (Any combination of three meals)
The Weekly Fast. A number of Christians fast on a weekly basis. Pick one day when you can afford to fast and focus on prayer and fellowship with God.
A Longer-Term Fast. This is for those who are more experienced and have consulted with their physician. If you do this, have a prayer partner to support and encourage you. Don’t attempt a longer fast unless you know what you’re doing.
The Replacement Fast. Find some habit that is nearly as central to your life as food and forego it.
Norwegian theologian O. Hallesby pointed out, “Fasting is not confined to abstinence from eating and drinking. Fasting really means voluntary abstinence for a time from various necessities of life such as food, drink, sleep, rest, association with people and so forth.”
Necessities aren’t the only things from which one might abstain. Sports telecasts, TV, romance novels, naps, dating, recreational shopping, or a weekly tennis match are all possibilities for fasting.
“The purpose of such abstinence,” says Hallesby, “is to loosen to some degree the ties which bind us to the world or material surroundings as a whole, in order that we may concentrate all our spiritual powers upon the unseen and eternal things.” Such fasting, with eternal things in mind, is usually accompanied by times of prayer.
Taken from Fasting On A Full Stomach, by Connie Alexander Huddleston, Discipleship Journal.
D. Plan, track and evaluate
- Clarify Your Goals What do you want to accomplish with the fast and accompanying prayer time? Are you seeking renewal, wisdom for a decision, the solution to a problem, guidance, or increased discipline? Perhaps like me, you want to break an addiction. Reminding yourself of these goals throughout the fast will help you persevere in times of temptation.
- Start Small If you haven’t fasted in this manner before, or if you’re trying to break a long-standing habit, begin with a 24-hour period. This will build your confidence for a longer fast. You will have already proven to yourself you can abstain successfully.
- Plan Alternatives It will be much more difficult to abstain from an activity, substance, or habit if you do not plan an alternative ahead of time. What will you do during your fast? I suggest to you that prayer and study are a most profitable way!
- Seek Accountability Find someone with whom you can be accountable. In an article in Christian Counseling Today, Wayne Schmidt states that accountability “reinforces our willpower to make tough choices and gives us someone to celebrate with when we’ve done what is right.”
- Keep Records Some people find it helpful to use a chart or calendar to monitor their progress through the fast. Marking off each day’s success builds motivation. Also, journaling can be important. Record thoughts, insights, prayers, and scriptures that stand out to you during your prayer times. You may discover something you are supposed to do.
- Evaluate After the fast, look over the notes you made during the fast. Reflect upon the goals you recorded at the beginning. Evaluate the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of your fast.
- Give Thanks to God After you evaluate your fast, move into a time of praise.
Author Don Whitney writes:
Many believe fasting turns us into something we don’t want to become and causes things to happen that we don’t want to happen. We fear that fasting will make us hollow-eyed fanatics or odd for God. We’re afraid that it will make us suffer dreadfully … For some Christians, fasting for spiritual purposes is as unthinkable as shaving their heads or walking barefoot across a fire pit.
Taken from Fasting: The Misunderstood Discipline by Donald S. Whitney. Disciples Journal.
Jesus did not teach that fasting is optional for his disciples. He did not say “if you fast.” He said, “When you fast…” and then he gave concrete instructions.
Jesus also indicated that now is the time for fasting and prayer:
“Then John’s disciples came and asked him, ‘How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ Jesus answered, ‘How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast’” (Matt. 9:14–15)
We are now waiting for the Bridegroom to return: if there ever was a time to fast, now is it! We are in a heated spiritual battle for the lives and souls of people. Our world is going to hell in a hand basket, and Satan is regularly tormenting and attacking the church. Should we not fast? Again, Don Whitney:
… There’s something about saying, “I’m not going to eat today,” that causes anxiety in many Christians. Most believers would rather give an offering of money than give up food for a day. Do you have a mild case of fasting-phobia? It’s silly when you put it in perspective. We willingly miss meals sometimes while shopping, working, or playing. Whenever we believe another activity is more important, we will go without food fearlessly and without complaint. We need to learn there are times when it can be not only more important, but much more rewarding to feast on God than on food (Mt. 4:4).
This is one of those times. May we learn the discipline and the rewards of fasting, and with Jesus be able to say, “My food is to do the will of [the Father]” (John 4:34).