Fasting is Slowing
Fasting is a spiritual discipline that many religions incorporate in their faith. It was an accepted practice from before the time Christ Jesus walked the earth. The people of the day questioned Jesus concerning His disciples and their lack of fasting.
Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to Him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”
Mark 2:18 ESV
We can see in this passage that fasting was an acceptable practice, so much so, that it seemed odd to the people that the disciples of Jesus were not fasting. We will see that Jesus did not deny fasting, rather, He said His disciples would fast at the appropriate time.
And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the
bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.”
Mark 2:19-20 ESV
While with the bridegroom, the guests celebrate with food and beverage; they are not fasting. Christ Jesus is the bridegroom, and the believers are His bride. When was the bridegroom taken from the disciples? First at the night of His trial and the crucifixion. Then Jesus went away at the time of His ascension. After these things, as Jesus said, “then they will fast.”
We see here that Jesus did not disapprove of the practice of fasting, He actually acknowledged it in saying His disciples would do so. We need to realize that this was an acceptable practice by Christ and after he ascended to the throne in heaven. It was not just an Old Testament religious practice. Being disciples of Christ, we ought to seek God as to how He would have us to fast.
Fasting is to abstain from food for the purpose of dying to self and connecting with God. It is a spiritual practice and it has spiritual purposes and effects. It is a disconnection from the body, the flesh, and the world, in order to strengthen the spiritual connection with God. Being a spiritual event, the activities of dining, those being planning, purchasing, preparing, eating, clean-up, should be time replaced with the pursuit of God through worship, prayer, and the word (reading and/or studying). This is a time to feed the spirit while denying the body.
The Israelites were allowed to be hungry after leaving Egypt so they could appreciate the provision of God. The manna from heaven was symbolic of the word of God. Moses was reminding the people of God.
“And He humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but
man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”
Deuteronomy 8:3 ESV
God is the provider of every good gift. His word is truth, and it is what ought to dictate our life. Moses went on to remind the people that in addition to the manna as food, their clothing was not wearing out and their feet were not swelling for those forty years in the wilderness. That was all by the grace of God. In addition to the disciplines of God, God brought them into the promised land of brooks, fountains, and springs, with wheat, vines and trees.
Jesus also referred to this when tempted by the devil during His fast. The first temptation of Christ was with food.
And the tempter came and said to Him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loves of bread.” But He answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by
every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Matthew 4:3-4 ESV
Feeding the spirit is to take priority over feeding the body, or the flesh.
Fasting is Slowing
The practice of fasting in conjunction with drawing near to God, slows down the world around us. This is a perception as our focus on the spiritual increases and our focus on the worldly and fleshly decreases. As we draw closer to God, having a heightened awareness of His presence, His peace comes upon us in a greater way. Peace is calming to the spirit and to the mind. The chaos, or the hustle and bustle of the world, seems to fade from our main view.
This is the main key to successfully fasting – drawing near to God. Without the spiritual aspects of fasting, the practice is simply an activity of going hungry. Seek God concerning the fast and how he would have you go about it. We will discuss some of the variations later.
We also need to understand that fasting does not bring us closer to God. As disciples of Christ, Holy Spirit dwells within us, and the Son and the Father make their home with us. Fasting does, however, heighten our awareness of the presence of God in our life as we fast properly, drawing near to God.
Fasting serves as a means of disconnection from the world, or the flesh. Food is such a main part of life as we observed earlier with all that is involved in our dining practices. It was also the first temptation of mankind in the garden as the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil was used to bring sin into the world. We saw it was the issue after coming out of Egypt as well as the first temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.
We were created from the earth. Our food has connection to the earth. Our bodies need food to survive as we live on this earth. It is easy to let the carnality of the body take the lead, warping our view of life as being a body first, that has a spirit. The proper view is that we have an eternal spirit, being housed for now in the tent of this body. The spiritual feeding is more important than the physical feeding in our life. This is one of the ways we die to self, and we are called to do it daily. It is one point in the renewing of our mind. We are to develop a biblical view rather than remain in the worldly view of our old man; life before surrendering to Christ.
When fasting with the proper spirit and attitude, breakthrough in the spiritual life can be expected. Breakthrough in something does not normally happen during the time of fasting, but afterwards. We can actually expect temptations during the fast, perhaps revealing something in us that God wishes to have us deal with. As we saw in the fasting of Jesus for forty days in the wilderness, He faced temptations during the time, and then He began His time of ministry soon afterwards.
From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Matthew 4:17 ESV
A couple of chapters later in the Gospel According to Matthew is the sermon on the mount, during which Jesus instructs the people how to pray to the Father in heaven, immediately follows it with fasting instruction.
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But
when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Matthew 6:16-18 ESV
Jesus expected that the people did and would fast. He did not say, “If you fast.” He said, “When you fast.” It was a normal part of life for the Jewish people.
Jesus also cautioned the people concerning their motives and actions. Though they may have been going through all that is involved in a fast, they were to outwardly appear as though things were going on as they normally would. Personal hygiene and a pleasant demeanor were the behavior while fasting, not groaning, and moaning about it and looking as if they were suffering. According to these verses, there is a reward for fasting with a proper attitude and behavior. One seeking special attention for doing so, as we read, already has the reward in receiving that attention.
It is interesting that these verses are immediately after learning how to pray. We often see importance in prayer, but we rarely give thought to the importance of fasting. It is time to renew the mind and think properly of the idea of fasting and its importance. The temptation of a tasty dish or dessert that we see could fall under the lust of the eye. Allowing the body to dictate our feeding patterns could fall under the lust of the flesh. The thought that fasting is not necessary, or just not for me, could fall under the pride of life. The only reason we have for not doing it in some way is a lack of instruction on the matter. The lack of knowledge can cause us to miss out on the blessings of God, and in some cases, cause us to perish.
There are exceptions that need to be considered, usually being a matter of health. For example, is it good for a pregnant woman to participate in a fast of any duration? The health of the child is a matter of concern. A person on certain medications, or with certain health concerns, ought to take care in determining what type of fast to consider. Wisdom and leading of the Lord is important as with everything else in life.
Another pitfall of fasting can be legalism. If the practice becomes a ritual that takes on a different meaning, dangerous territory has been entered. As with any ritual, fasting can become the object of worship rather than the means of worship. To fast religiously can become a vain exercise, losing all spiritual value. Fasting can be a regular event, however, once it becomes a legalistic event, the practice needs to be re-evaluated. Any practice that is legalistic in nature, and is not offered up freely and willingly, is akin to what the Scripture refers to as vain repetitions. It can also lead one into bondage.
The reason for fasting, I believe, should be one or more of these things:
- The desire to draw closer to God.
- The desire to heighten the awareness of the presence of God.
- The desire to hear God with more clarity concerning something.
Through the proper practice of fasting, one can clear the mind of selfish desires and seek to clarify the will of God. Prayer, worship, and meditation on Scripture will contribute to accomplishing such things.
Fasting is a good thing when done properly, otherwise it is a bad diet plan or just going hungry. Generally speaking, many fast for reasons other than those I mentioned above. Sometimes it can be done for a tangible reason such as employment, financial needs or decisions, or for relational issues. Sometimes the focus can be to clear up general feelings of being lost, confused, or being uncertain about the path of life. Whatever the initial reason, the focus needs to be on pursuing God, not on the problem at hand. Do we believe that God will do what He says He will do?
Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear
the LORD, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones.
Proverbs 3:5-8 ESV
The first thing is always to trust in God, drawing near to him, and turning away from evil. He adds on what we need when we do our part in the relationship with Him. Jesus, recorded in Luke 12:22-31, instructs His disciples concerning the needs in this world, “… do not be anxious about your life, … Instead, seek His kingdom, and these things will be added to you.” Likewise, this is the attitude we need to adopt when fasting.
If the focus is on the fast rather than on God, or on the problem rather than the provider of all good things, the results of the efforts will be nothing, or very close to nothing. If the focus is on the victory of having accomplished the fast, then the result has been achieved, or not, and nothing more should be expected, though the grace of God may still administer something. Or midstream, by the mercy of God, He may break through and put one’s attention into proper focus.
As one fasts, the expectation of some desired result needs to be open to change. One may decide to fast due to one thing, but God may wish to deal with something else. Many times I have gone into a fast with a desire to correct something within me, or to deal with an issue of life. More often than not, God changed the focus during the fast. God knows better than we do as to what the real root of the matter is that needs to be dealt with. If we stubbornly refuse to adjust with Him, we will miss out on the best result to come out of our fast. Such stubbornness is pride, which puts my will ahead of the will of God. Fasting is a practice of dying to self, setting aside the will, and surrendering to God and His will. To clear the mind of one’s own agenda will allow the focus to be on God and what He knows we need to deal with.
Concentrating on God will allow one to see what God is bringing forth, that which needs to be dealt with at that time. Seeking His will for one’s life will bring understanding of what He wants to deal with, knowing that His will is the best choice in life. One must be willing to receive instruction, and/or correction, and then act upon it, whether it is to build upon something that already exists, or to be a matter of repentance and starting over. A successful time of fasting is a transformation of one’s agenda at the beginning, to the agenda God desired to accomplish. It is a renewing of the mind to be receptive and responsive to His leading.
Fasting is not a means of having God serve us. We need to remember that we have committed to follow Him, not to have Him serve us. This is not to say that God will not deal with our initial desire or concern. God has full knowledge of what is on our mind. He also has full knowledge and concern for what is best for our life and for our relationship with Him. Sometimes it is our focus that needs to change.
Sometimes there will be struggles during a fast. We need to persevere through the challenges we face and accomplish the time that was set. We should always seek God on the fast that He has for us, and He will be with us throughout the experience. Though a true fast would be abstaining from food, having water only, there may be times where variations are suitable. Here are a few examples of fasts I have done:
- Abstaining from food, water only.
- The classic fast for whatever duration, typically 1 day, 3 days, or anything up to 40 days.
- Foregoing any single meal for any number of days.
- Usually dedicating that time to Scripture and prayer.
- 40 days of water only other than a morning protein smoothie.
- During a period I had a physical job involving ladders, etc.
- Multiple days (7-21) of a single meal with my wife.
- A longer fast, while still promoting unity at home, and having strength for a physical job.
- Multiple days (7-30) of eating only what is put in front of me.
- Leaving it up to God, and over a month there can be multiple consecutive days of no meals, then out of the blue getting invited to lunch.
- Multiple days (7-30) of eating only what my wife puts in front of me.
- Usually a week when I don’t tell her I’m fasting.
There are other variations as well. The key thing here is to do what is prayerfully agreed upon with the Lord. Come into agreement and follow through on carrying it out.
Those who cannot, for whatever reason, go without a meal, can opt for something else to fast. How about turning off all of the electronics for a number of days? It should be something that the flesh, the things or desires of this world, generally cries out for. The purpose is to deny self, to sacrifice something, casting it aside. The second part is replacing that time and behavior in drawing near to God.
There are also times when a leader will call for a fast for whatever reason. Here again, this is my advice, each person should seek the Lord and determine if participation is the correct thing to do. Perhaps the leading will be to full participation, a variation of the called fast, or a differing time frame, or direction to not participate. In any case, the prayer time and seeking God can still be accomplished.
The disciples fasted when seeking God before sending out Barnabas and Saul.
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid
their hands on them and sent them off.
Acts 13:2-3 ESV
There was prayer and fasting when the elders were appointed in Derbe and other cities.
When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging
them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and
fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
Acts 14:21-23 ESV
Esther called for a three-day fast when she faced a life or death situation.
Then Esther told them to reply to Mordecai, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young
women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.” Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.
Esther 4:15-17 ESV
God even called for a fast of the people, stressing the attitude of the heart, not the physical action.
“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD your
God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and He relents over disaster.
Joel 2:12-13 ESV
Nehemiah grieved for the condition of Jerusalem and the state of those who escaped and survived the exile.
As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.
Nehemiah 1:4 ESV
Jonah went to Nineveh and proclaimed the judgment of God against the city. The people received it and humbled themselves.
And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.
Jonah 3:5 ESV
In those verses we see a number of reasons for the fasting by biblical characters.
- For clarity and blessing before sending off missionaries.
- For clarity and blessing when appointing elders.
- When facing a potentially life-threatening assignment.
- When called by God for repentance and return to Him.
- When concerned for a city and its people.
- For repentance and for God to relent from His judgment.
And there are many more examples in the pages of the bible.
Another example I would like to explore is in Isaiah 58. While some may take a few verses and teach that this is the only true fast, I believe the context is missing. The previous chapter ends with a warning to the wicked from God.
“But the wicked are like the tossing sea; for it cannot be quiet, and its waters toss up mire and dirt. There is no peace,” says my God, “for the wicked.”
Isaiah 57:20-21 ESV
Then to begin chapter 58, God tells the prophet to “Cry aloud.”
“Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins.”
Isaiah 58:1 ESV
God criticizes their fast as hypocritical. He says the people asks why they have not been heard by God. Then He answers their question.
“‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’ Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your
workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high.”
Isaiah 58:3-4 ESV
God will not hear the cries of those who want justice while committing injustices. It is hypocritical and He will not be a part of it. We need to do a little introspection if we feel our prayers are not being heard. They humbled themselves for a day with sackcloth and ashes, bowing their heads. Their behavior, meanwhile, told another story of self-seeking and fighting.
Let’s read verses 6-10. These are the verses that some would say is the replacement for fasting and prayer.
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with
the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”
Isaiah 58:6-7 ESV
These are the things god expects of His children, then and now. We are taught these things in the New Testament and that we ought to do such if we want our prayers heard. In fact, we are told it is sin to not do the right thing.
As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
James 4:16-17 ESV
God then tells the people that if they would do the right thing, He would hear them and answer their prayers.
“Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you
shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour
yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall you light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.”
Isaiah 58:8-10 ESV
Doing the right thing in the sight of God will garner His protection and He will hear the cries of the righteous.
In my opinion, God was not saying this is a fast. These are good works that we are all called to do as we see the need. I believe God was calling them out for not doing these things, yet thinking God should still hear them, recognize their fasting, and respond to their cries. While I believe this is an example for us as well, I do not believe God did away with fasting as it has been. The real question is the purity of our motives with the same consistency in our lives.