There are many congregations across our city that regularly fast the first 21 days of the year (or for three weeks at some point in January). Whether your church is doing it or not, I’d like to encourage you to join us. It is quite a powerful way to start the new year. Here is a brief teaching on fasting, what it is and how to do it.
The power of fasting cannot be overstated. Jesus said that there are certain demons that will not come out apart from prayer and fasting (Matthew 17:19-21). Jesus Himself fasted for forty days before entering His epic battle with the devil (Matthew 4:1-11). Daniel fasted and prayed for 21 days before break through in the heavenlies arrived (Daniel 9). From time to time, all of Israel was called to fast (Judges 20:26, 1 Samuel 7:6).
King Jehoshaphat called a fast throughout Judah when they faced a huge, powerful and very hostile army invading their land (2 Chronicles 20:1-30). In the context of the fast, the Lord released His strategy for this situation where He called His people to sing praise as a weapon. The enemy self-destructed and a fear of the God of Israel filled all their enemies.
Fasting can be defined as “a voluntary and deliberate abstinence from food for the purpose of concentrated prayer” (Cho, Prayer Key to Revival).
Jesus taught His disciples that “when they fast…” (Matthew 6:16-18), implying that fasting is not something only a few mature believers were to do. All followers of Christ are instructed to fast. When Jesus was asked why His disciples didn’t fast He replied that the friends of the bridegroom don’t fast while He is still with them, but that a day is coming when the bridegroom will be gone and then they will fast. We live in that day!
Fasting is not something we can wield anytime we need an extra boost. It is something that needs to be God initiated and ordained (Zechariah 7:5). On the eve of Jesus’ greatest battle, instead of fasting He feasted with His disciples. Then He led them out singing praise to Gethsemane (Matthew 26). Remember, God seeks our obedience not just our sacrifice.
Fasting has been associated with dynamic church growth, revivals, spiritual warfare victories, and even healing. When Jonathon Edwards, the great American evangelist of the 1700’s wasn’t sensing spiritual breakthroughs he would fast and pray until he felt it and then he’d get up and preach with such great power that people would fall under tremendous conviction. The great Reformers Luther, Calvin, Knox and Latimer all practiced fasting and associated it with increased effectiveness in their ministries. Wherever great breakthrough is occurring fasting is usually somehow closely tied to it.
Though fasting does not change God, it definitely changes us. As a form of voluntary humility fasting brings our body and soul into submission. And humility draws God’s presence. Fasting is a powerful weapon when accompanied by prayer and is used as God directs.
There is a right way and a wrong way to fast (Isaiah 58). Fasting is not a stick we hit the enemy on the head with. Nor is it a trump card we deliver to God saying pay out. Fasting releases God’s presence in us and through us and our circumstances. Though there are many physical benefits to fasting, these benefits cannot be why we do it (i.e. to lose weight). Our purpose in fasting must be to submit our bodies to the Lord and ask for His plan, will and purpose to be fulfilled. His power, grace and glory are most manifest in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
How to Fast
Biblically, a fast involves abstaining from food. It is definitely a good idea to lay aside things such as social media, video games, TV, watching sports and news, etc., for a season. Denying ourselves of things is not a true fast. In fasting we buffet our body (flesh) and bring it into submission. In a food fast our flesh becomes weak. On the other hand, just giving up things will probably make us stronger and healthier.
If you have never fasted before, or have health issues, it is good to check with your physician to be sure it won’t be harmful. Start in small steps. Try fasting a meal once a week, then move to fasting one day a week. Increase to two or three days a week, before trying a whole week.
Types of Fasts
The Normal Fast
“After fasting forty days and forty nights, He was hungry.” Matthew 4:2 (NIV)
Jesus’ fast in the desert was what is called a normal fast. He went without food, solid or liquid, but not without water. The passage says that afterwards he was hungry, but not thirsty. The human body could not live forty days without water unless it is supernaturally sustained.
The Total Fast
“And for three days he was without sight, and he neither ate nor drank.” Acts 9:9 (ESV)
The total or absolute fast is abstaining from both eating and drinking. This was normally never more than three days, probably because anything longer would have been dangerous for the body. Ezra spent the night, neither eating bread nor drinking water because he was mourning over the faithlessness of the exiles (Ezra 10:6). Queen Esther called for a total fast of food and water for three days (Esther 4:16) because of the threat of annihilation against the Jews. The absolute fast is an exceptional measure for extreme situations.
The Partial Fast
“I ate no choice food; no meat or wine touched my lips; and I used no lotions at all until all three weeks were over.” Daniel 10:3 (NIV)
The partial fast allows for a wide variety of expression. There was a season in John Wesley’s life when he adopted a diet where he lived exclusively on dry bread. Others have partially fasted by omitting a certain meal each day, thus restricting the quantity of food consumed. Rees Howells, as a way of preparing for a new work, didn’t eat dinner for many days, but would spend the time with the Lord.
Fully giving ourselves to seek God through prayer and fasting enables God to do things that He will not do without the level of praying that is reached by the added fast.