The spiritual discipline of fasting, while unfamiliar to some Christians, is mentioned throughout the Bible as a practice with deep spiritual benefits. In fact, there are indications that the only way to achieve some of these benefits is through fasting.
Fasting is the practice of going without food or some other essential element for an extended period of time in order to seek God. It demonstrates our reliance on God as expressed in Jesus’ response to the tempter: “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.”
Here are some of the purposes of fasting that we see in the Bible:
- Demonstrating humility and repentance. There are numerous examples of this especially in the Old Testament. The Jewish people have always practiced fasting on the solemn occasion of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. When the Israelites returned to Jerusalem from Babylon, it culminated in a time of corporate fasting and repentance. [Nehemiah 9:1]
- Seeking the face of God. Anna was a prophetess who lived in the temple. Her entire life was characterized by worship and regular fasting. Not surprisingly she was one of a small group who recognized Jesus as the Messiah from the very beginning. [Luke 2:37]
- Seeking direction and spiritual power for ministry. It was during a time of corporate fasting by church leaders in Antioch that Paul and Barnabas were called to their mission. They carried on the practice of fasting in the process of ordaining future church leaders. [Acts 13:2, 14:23]
And of course, Jesus himself entered into a time of extended fasting before beginning his ministry. [Matthew 4:2] If it was a good practice for Jesus, what does that say about us?
- Calling on God in time of need. In the time of Esther, the Jews were under a dire threat from their enemies. Part of their strategy, in addition to Esther's personal intervention, was corporate prayer with fasting. [Esther 4:15-16] Similarly, when the Israelites were embarking on the journey to Jerusalem from Babylon, Ezra proclaimed a time of fasting “so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions.” [Ezra 8:21]
For a believer who wants to incorporate fasting in their spiritual practices, there are several possible methods.
- Water-only fast. If you choose to abstain from everything but water, be sure to drink plenty of it!
- Liquid fast. A slightly more moderate method is to abstain from all solid foods, but allow water, juice, and other clear liquids such as tea, coffee, and broth.
- “Daniel fast.” This is similar to the kind of diet that Daniel and his friends used in Daniel chapter 1. It involves abstaining from meat and rich items but allowing simple food like fruit, vegetables, and bread.
- Single-item fast. For an extended time of fasting such as Lent, some people choose to abstain from a single item of food such as chocolate, alcohol, or caffeine.
Another question is how long the fast should last? Depending on the purpose and situation, it may be appropriate to fast a single meal (say, from after breakfast to before dinner, thereby skipping lunch), a full day, several days, or several weeks.
Many people have even followed the example of Jesus and fasted for 40 days in order to seek the Lord for specific ministry purposes.
Whatever form your fast takes, there are a few key things to keep in mind:
- The purpose is to seek God, not follow a set of legalistic rules. Ask him for guidance in terms of what practices he wants you to follow.
- At the same time, fasting is a discipline. If there’s not a measure of discomfort and self-denial, it’s not an effective fast. So expect it to be a little uncomfortable physically. It is not uncommon to experience headaches or feelings of weakness; these are to be welcomed as part of the fasting discipline.
- Always drink lots of water during your fast.
- Your fast may occur during a time when you need to carry on with normal responsibilities, but ideally you should try to set aside time specifically to spend with the Lord.
- Be careful as you start eating again, especially after an extended fast. It is best to start with light, easily digestible foods rather than a heavy meal.
- If you have health problems, you might need to discuss your fasting regimen with your doctor. However, all basically healthy people should be able to practice some form of fasting.
How to get started: if you’ve never fasted before, a good way to start might be a single-meal, water-only fast. Commit to avoiding food from immediately after breakfast to your normal dinner time. If possible, use your lunch hour to spend time in prayer and meditation on Scripture—while enjoying a big glass of water!
The Convention of States movement is not just a political movement but is in the process of confronting some significant spiritual forces in American society. As such we need all the tools available—and one of the most powerful is fasting.
I encourage you to incorporate this practice into your personal spiritual walk and join with other COS prayer warriors as we use it in our intercession for America.