Note: when I began to write this post, I had no idea that it would be so long! But I wanted to include as many details and examples as possible, which I hope will be helpful! There are many Scripture references provided. I purposely didn't include entire passages/verses in some cases, because this post was simply getting too long for a blog post. But I hope that some readers might find it helpful to look up these passages and really just meditate upon them and put them into practice as the Lord leads them. This blog post could also be used over the course of one's devotional time if someone really wanted to study this topic. I pray that these thoughts would be a blessing to you; my goal was to write this prayerfully and completely; I hope that you find it so.
"Bear up the hands that hang down, by faith and prayer; support the tottering knees. Have you any days of fasting and prayer? Storm the throne of grace and persevere therein, and mercy will come down."
- John Wesley
Lately, the Lord placed this topic upon my mind and my heart. The other day, He brought it to my memory that a reader had asked me a while ago if I had ever written on the subject of fasting. I have mentioned fasting in some of my posts, but never dedicated a post to that topic, and so I determined to write about some of my thoughts now. I pray that they will be a blessing and that the Lord will use them to draw you nearer to Himself. As a believer, fasting is something that the Lord has at times and in different seasons of my life, impressed strongly upon me to do. When I have obeyed the Holy Spirit's leading in my heart and sought the Lord through fasting, it has benefited me greatly spiritually, and I believe that the Lord has used it to bring about answers to prayer in my life that I do not believe would have necessarily been accomplished without it. My goal in writing this post is not to provide a comprehensive theological study on the topic of fasting, but rather to illustrate how the Lord has used fasting in my life to draw me closer to Himself as well as to provide some ideas and Biblical direction in terms of how and when and why we fast. I believe that prayerful, sincere fasting draws us closer to the heart of our Heavenly Father. I believe that it helps to wean us a little more from the things of this life. I believe that it presses us closer into fellowship with the Father, causes us to part in a very small way, of the suffering of the Son, and that it knits our hearts mystically with the Holy Spirit in a special inexplicable way during seasons of fasting and prayer. I also believe that fasting is not an end in itself --that it should never be pursued with the sole purpose of trying to "force" God to do a specific thing that we want Him to do. It should always be approached with an attitude of reverence and surrender--that He is God--and the outcome of all things belongs to Him. Our attitude must be one of bowing before His sovereignty.
Yet, coupled with this attitude of reverence, there is also a holy boldness of coming before the throne of grace with confidence. We are asking God to move, at times, against humanly-unbreakable odds. There is something mysterious and mystical about prayer and fasting. When we see Him act on behalf of our prayers, we are compelled to give Him the glory and glory is given to His name. Prayer and fasting move the Father's heart as He acts on behalf of His people. And prayer and fasting magnify His honor and presence in our lives as we are quiet and still and humble before Him. This brings Him glory. Fasting and prayer go hand in hand; they are "married," so to speak. And fasting should never be done in an effort to draw attention toward oneself; instead the focus should be upon the Lord Jesus. As soon as we fast so that others will notice that we are fasting, we need to examine our hearts and our motives. 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. (Matthew 6:16-18 NKJV) There are many reasons to fast, and I'll discuss some below. Many times, we think of fasting as taking place during extraordinary times of need--such as is the situation in the book of Esther when the Jewish people's lives were threatened (see Esther chapter 3). But there are so many other reasons that we may fast--fasting in repentance, fasting for wisdom, fasting for spiritual growth in our life or in the lives of others; the list goes on and on. I'm sure that you'll think of others that I haven't listed. Above all, fasting, done in humility and reverence before the Father, combined with the boldness of entreating the Lord to work in whatever area of our life or the life of someone else's that we are, moves the Father's heart and unites us with Christ Jesus. John 14:13 NKJV--And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.
The kind of fasting that pleases the Father
When should we fast? There are so many different times and seasons when the Lord may place it upon our heart to fast. Here are a few that came to my mind:
Times of distress, trial, and need~ These are times of extreme stress in our lives when we are calling upon the Lord to act. Perhaps one is facing an impossible financial situation, or as is sometimes the case with the persecuted church, our lives are threatened. Perhaps our ministry is being threatened or our children are rebelling against the Lord in a dramatic way.
An impossible situation~This ties in to the point above, but also would include "quiet" challenges such as the need for the Lord to provide funding for something we believe to be His will, a difficult person in our lives, the need for a physical provision such as a vehicle, the need for employment after losing a job; any area where all human options have been closed to us and we don't know what to do. Again, the list can go on here.
The salvation of a friend or loved one~ We all have people in our lives that don't know the Lord personally. At times, the Lord may prod one to focus upon this person in fasting and prayer. There is a beautiful story about Hudson Taylor's mother shutting herself up in a room to pray for the salvation of her son, which she believed that the Lord had burdened her heart heavily with. She did not leave the room until she felt that the Holy Spirit had answered her fervent prayer. When she saw her son, he told her that he had come to the Savior at just the time she knew her prayer was answered. As many know, Hudson Taylor went on to found one of the most Christ-dependent Missions organizations in his time, the China Inland Mission.
For our children--This is one that has become a real part of my life and I have seen the Lord work tremendously through it, both in my own heart and in the lives of my children. Parenting, for me, has become one of the greatest challenges in my life and one of the greatest areas of dependence upon the Lord. Daily, I sense my weakness in raising up children that love the Lord in my own strength. I realize that I am completely dependent upon the Lord for wisdom and direction in how to raise my children and for grace in surrendering myself fully to the work that He has called me to do here. And so, by His grace, I have made it a practice to cry out to Him for help in this area of my life. He has blessed me tremendously in this way and ministered to my weakness with His strength.
A health situation for oneself or someone else~At times we plead with the Great Physician to act on behalf of ours or someone else's situation here. Someone may be facing cancer, or surgery, or a number of different problems and we bring them before the throne of grace in a special way. I won't get into it here, but there is also the scriptural admonition to pray over someone who is sick and to anoint them with oil. I wonder sometimes, if we might see more of the Lord's miraculous intervention in loved one's lives who are sick if we followed this Scriptural admonition with sincere hearts. The Lord does not always choose to heal, but sometimes we may not see His hand because we have not asked or continued to ask. (see II Kings 20:1-11 for a powerful example of the Lord's healing when death was imminent, in response to earnest prayer, and I believe, fasting.)
Marriage~There are times when ours or someone else's marriage may be in crisis and we plead to the Father to restore a marriage before it is destroyed. The movie Fireproof is a good example of a marriage that is disintegrating and in trouble. There are times when the Lord impresses it upon our hearts to fast and pray over the state of our marriages, even if there is no immediate threat. At times, it may be good to fast and pray even about a "good marriage," that the Lord would protect it and strengthen it.
A national crisis~ war, terrorist attacks, famine, economic distress; all of these may be responded to with prayer and fasting.
Our church body~ We may pray for spiritual growth in the member's lives, protection, the leading of the Holy Spirit when selecting church officials, evangelistic efforts and outreaches, specific church ministries, etc.
The nation of Israel~ this seems like a strange one to list, but it came to my mind. If the nation of Israel is precious in the Lord's sight, shouldn't we also be praying for it's salvation and restoration?
The persecuted church~ Many of our precious brothers and sisters are suffering terribly for their faith. We should continually be upholding them in prayer--and at times, as the Lord leads us, with fasting. Hebrews 13:3-Remember the prisoners as if chained with them—those who are mistreated—since you yourselves are in the body also.
Our own spiritual growth~We may see or the Lord may show us an area in our life where we could grow in our faith. Prayer and fasting helps to focus our eyes upon a specific area and be open to the Holy Spirit's leading as we seek to obey Him.
Strongholds in our life or in others~There may be a specific area of struggle in one's life--maybe continual anxiety or anger or a spirit of unforgiveness toward a particular person. At times we may seek after the Lord in fasting for spiritual freedom in these areas.
Fasting in repentance~ Perhaps we have grieved the Lord in some area in our lives. We may fast as an act of humbling ourselves under the Lord's mighty hand in a spirit of humility and sorrow. There are several examples of this in Scripture--the Ninevites under Jonah's preaching, the people of Israel in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah after their captivity, King David after his acts of adultery and murder. Tremendous good and restoration came from these individuals and nations fasting in repentance before the Lord. When we see sin as it is--destructive and deadly, we take it very seriously in our own lives-Psalm 130:4 NKJV-But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared.
What do we fast from? There are so many different kinds of fasting. The most commonly thought of, of course, is fasting from food. But at times, the Lord may lay a different kind of "fast" upon a person's heart or a variation of fasting from food. The following are some kinds of fasting that may be helpful in our daily walk with the Lord--
Fasting from food~This is the obvious one--and food, how we love it and look forward to it! :-) Abstinence from food for any period of time helps us to refocus our attention upon the Savior as we seek Him and are reminded of Him in the absence of food. I think that it's helpful to take the time that one would be eating a meal to seek the Lord in prayer during these times.
*Most people can fast from food, at least for a short time--even if it is just one meal, but if health restrictions are preventing you from fasting from food, there are so many other things that a person may "fast" from (I'll discuss some of these below). The Lord knows the heart. When we surrender before Him and come to Him in reverence and obedience with a desire to honor him, He will show us how to fast and pray in the way that He desires us to in our unique situations. When I was nursing my babies, I would fast from certain foods rather than food altogether. I had a difficult experience with my body breaking down after I delivered my second baby, and so it was difficult for me to fast from food completely. The Lord knows the heart! Fast when you are strong to do it; His grace is sufficient for us when we are weak.
Fasting from social media~ This has been a helpful one for me. We can become so distracted by the plethora of "activity" on social media. Sometimes it is good to step back for a time and seek the Lord in solitude away from all the crowding "voices" of the internet. It is good and can be important to "connect" with people and to show them love and compassion in this way, but it can also be helpful for our own souls to step away for a time to "re-connect" with the Lord. Sometimes I feel that the connection with other humans is placed on a higher value level than connection with the One who is our greatest Friend and Lord. This is a struggle that we all have, I believe.
Fasting from a certain kind of food or fasting from "pleasant foods"~ I have sought the Lord in this way a lot. I remember being struck by the account of Daniel fasting from "pleasant foods" (Daniel 10:2-3 NKJV-In those days I, Daniel, was mourning three full weeks. I ate no pleasant food, no meat or wine came into my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, till three whole weeks were fulfilled). I think that this can be especially helpful for those with little children, those who struggle with bodily weakness, or those who need energy for certain activities during the day (such as Daniel would have in the Kingdom of Persia). This is a way to maintain energy, and yet give up the "pleasure" associated with food to turn our focus upon the Savior. Examples here might be giving up meat or "sweets" for a season or eating very bland foods.
Fasting from an activity~ Putting a favorite activity to the side for a time can be helpful in focusing on the Lord and in effect saying to Him, "I want You more than this." Perhaps it is shopping (just for fun) or an athletic activity that is not essential, or a recreational activity that one may lay aside for a season and taking that time to pray and to seek the Lord instead.
Fasting from sex~ This is one that I very seldom have heard discussed, and yet the Word of God addresses it. It is interesting because I believe that we often think of sex as our "right" in marriage, especially when we have abstained before marriage. But there are times when we can choose to lay aside this "right" as a couple and humble ourselves before the Father. I think that this can be helpful in subduing the flesh and seeking the Lord together as heirs of the grace of life" (I Peter 3:7). But I would add a note that, just as the Word admonishes, both people must be in agreement with it and it is not to be for a prolonged amount of time. Otherwise, Satan is given an opportunity to use what was intended for good to cause harm in a marriage as the fasting becomes an act of selfishness rather than one of surrender. I Corinthians 7:5 NKJV-Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
With whom should we fast?
Alone~Some examples are Jesus in the wilderness (see Matthew 4:1-11), Daniel (see the entire book of Daniel for a beautiful picture of a life of fasting and prayer), Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1:4) and John (very possibly) on the island of Patmos (Revelation 1:10 ).
With other brothers and sisters~ A wonderful example of this is in the book of Esther, chapter 4, verse 16: Go, gather all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me; neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will fast likewise. And so I will go to the king, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish! Another example is the believers in the Book of Acts(Acts 13:3), and the nation of Israel in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah (see Ezra 8:21-23 and Nehemiah chapter 9). The "closer" we are to other brothers and sisters in the Lord, the more natural it becomes to fast and pray together. This is why it is so important to pray for and have fellowship with other believers in the church.
The church as a body~ during special seasons the church may come together as a whole to fast and to pray; an example may be in times of persecution or entreating the Lord for the lost.
What fasting accomplishes.
Spiritual discipline: There is no doubt that fasting helps us to "strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees;" (Isaiah 35:3 NKJV) it builds spiritual stamina and strengthens our spirit as we hope in God in the situations that we face in life and in our continual dependence upon Him. It helps us to subdue our flesh, that we all know can be so strong within us. In this sense, we are building up spiritual "muscles," so to speak, especially when combined with disciplined times of prayer and seeking the Lord. The Lord can use fasting to help us to become more disciplined, determined followers of Christ. We are purposefully coming before Him in order to seek His face in a deliberate way.
Communion with Christ; we are united with Him through the Spirit as we rest in Him and seek after Him determinedly.
Uprooting sin in our hearts: There is nothing like fasting to point out sin in our own hearts! Many times when I have fasted and prayed over a situation, the Lord has shown me things in myself that I needed to change through His strength. Oftentimes, when we are fasting, the Lord will reveal these things to us. The light of His Spirit is so piercing, and actually refreshing as He removes the darkness of any sinful places in our lives or areas where we are not fully surrendered to Him.
Giving spiritual insight: As I have fasted and prayed, the Lord has shown me things spiritually that I did not see before. He opens up one's discernment and focuses one's eyes upon Christ. Other things are illuminated in this focus.
Answer to prayer: He answers prayer; yes, He does! At times He says No, He often says wait (which is also an answer), and then there are special times when He supernaturally moves in our circumstances for His glory. It is true, as the Word of God teaches us, that some things are not accomplished except by prayer and fasting (see Matthew 17:21). They simply aren't! The spiritual world is very real and present, one only has to read the book of Daniel or Revelation to see this. Sometimes, there may be battles between spiritual forces that we cannot comprehend and the Lord uses prayer and fasting to break down spiritual strongholds and blockages; I truly believe this and see it in Scripture. I'd like to share two examples of how the Lord has used fasting in my life to accomplish His purposes and to strengthen my hope in Him:
~My marriage (you may read about that story HERE and HERE).
These were both situations that the Lord broke through humanly-impossible circumstances to display His glory. Both were situations that I had become strongly convinced were the Lord's will through years of prayer and seeking His wisdom and direction. Both were not accomplished without fasting. It was only after fasting and purposefully praying for a determined amount of time that the Lord opened a place for my husband and I to begin the ministry that He has called us to in the Midwest; I am still in awe of how the Lord worked in that situation, even in regard to His perfect timing. He is a merciful God who hears our cries and answers in His perfect love.
And then as I mentioned above, there are times when we fast when the Lord answers no--and that is the purpose accomplished. A powerful example of this in Scripture is of David and his son (see II Samuel 12:14-24). David was devastated over his sin of adultery and murder and sought the Lord through prayer and fasting for his infant son's life. The Lord answered no and took the life of his son. David submitted to the Father in His sovereignty and love and was later blessed with another son through the same woman he had sinned with after they sincerely repented-Jedidiah, better known as Solomon. When we submit to God's "no" in response to our prayer and fasting and recognize His sovereignty and love, we have great peace with God, as David did. And we will ultimately see His answer as good and perfect, either in this life or in eternity when all things are clear to our hearts.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, But trust Him for His grace Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face. His purposes will ripen fast Unfolding every hour The bud may have a bitter taste But sweet will be the flower ~William Cowper
Fasting accomplishes many things when combined with prayer and dependence upon our Heavenly Father. Fasting is not a means in and of itself, but it is a means, and a means that He intended for us to use to be drawn nearer to His loving Father's heart. Let Him teach you. Pray to Him, confess your sins to him. Seek Him in prayer and fasting. Seek Him simply and quietly and dependently. And then rest in His will and in His perfect timing. He makes all things beautiful in their time (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
Prayer is reaching out after the unseen; fasting is letting go of all that is seen and temporal. Fasting helps express, deepen, confirm the resolution that we are ready to sacrifice anything, even ourselves to attain what we seek for the kingdom of God.