During His time on earth Jesus taught His disciples the principles of the Kingdom of God. In the sermon on the mount a triplet of principles is presented; “when ye pray…”, “when ye give…” and “when ye fast…”
Jesus did not say if you fast, but when. He placed fasting alongside prayer and giving as a normal and expected part of Christian lifestyle.
The specific verses we refer to concerning fasting are found in Matthew 6:16-18. Take 2 minutes right now to look them up and note down what you learn.
For the purposes of this session we define fasting as follows:
Fasting is the practice of voluntary abstinence from food for spiritual purposes. (Fasting may also include abstaining from such normal activities as sleep, recreation, and other special enjoyments, but abstinence from food is what is generally referred to in the Bible)
When we add fasting to prayer our effectiveness in the spiritual realm is intensified. The implication from the teachings of Jesus recorded in Scripture even suggest that there are certain victories that simply cannot be won without engaging in the spiritual discipline of fasting:
“However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.””(Mat 17:21)
Jesus Teaching and Example
On several occasions throughout Scripture we witness Jesus teaching about fasting. We have already considered His reference in the sermon on the mount.
He speaks of fasting again in Mark 2:18-20. Fasting was a regular practice among the Jews at this time, and also for the disciples of John. When Jesus is questioned why His disciples are not fasting in like manner He replies that the day will come when His disciples will fast, “and then shall they [the disciples of Jesus] fast in those days.” Those days that Jesus refers to are the days in which we now live, anticipating His return.
Jesus own life was also marked with periods of fasting. The most notable season of fasting was His forty day abstinence from food recorded in Matthew 4 and Luke 4. It is also worth recognising that Jesus went out to the wilderness at the beginning of His fast, “full of the Spirit” (Luke 4:1), but “returned in the power of the Holy Spirit” (Luke 4:14). Mahesh Chavda speaks of similar experiences of enduement of supernatural power as a result of fasting in His excellent book, “The Hidden Power of Prayer and Fasting”.
This fast was the final phase in Christ’s preparation for His public ministry. Fasting also plays a part in the preparation of His disciples for effective fulfilment of God’s call upon their lives.
Fasting was the regular practice of the early church
The Scriptures also record that Jesus’ example was followed fervently by the early church. Individually the disciples (meaning “disciplined ones”) fasted as part of their devoted lifestyle. Paul, for example, speaks of proving his ministry as an Apostle through many “fastings” among other things (2 Cor 6:3-10). He reiterates in 2 Corinthians 11:23-27 that the lifestyle of a true minister of Christ will include “fastings often”.
Collective fasting was also a part of early church culture. It was part of their corporate ministry to God. Luke records in Acts how the church fasted, ministering unto God, and received direction from the Holy Spirit. They then fasted again in response to God’s directions (Acts 13:1-3). We see a similar practice in Acts 14:21-23 when Barnabas and Paul confirm the churches in the faith and ordain elders.
Clearly the practice of fasting, both personally and corporately was not strange to the early church, and nor should it be to the church of Jesus Christ today.
Kinds of Fast
Several different kinds of fast are revealed in Scripture. They can be broken down into a few categories, each with its own form and principle.
Firstly the Bible has examples of:
Personal and Private fasting
This is the kind of fast Jesus refers to in Matthew 6:16-18; 9:14-15. Cornelius is an example of man who fasted as part of his devotional life. Acts 10:30
1 Samuel 7:5-6; 2 Chronicles 20:3-4; Ezra 8:21-23; Nehemiah 9:1-3; Joel 2:15-16; Jonah 3:5-10; Acts 27:33-37
No food or drink for the duration of the fast No solid food for duration of the fast. Drink only liquids.
A supernatural fast. Water should only be abstained from in obedience to God’s direction. Not drinking during a fast is very dangerous for the body, although God can supernaturally sustain a person as in the example of Moses who fasted 40 days without food or drink.
Examples: Moses (Exodus 34:28; Deut 9:9), Esther (Esther 4:16)
No solid food for duration of the fast. Drink only liquids.
The most common form of fasting. Can lead to physical discomfort in the first few days as the body removes toxins from the system. Plenty of fluid should be taken.
Most Biblical fasts were of this kind, where water would be taken but no solid food.
Cut out certain types of desirable food. Eat no meat, sweets or bread. Eat only fruits and vegetables and drink only water.
A useful fast if a full fast is difficult or impossible.
Example: Daniel (Daniel 10:3)
Abstain from a chosen type of food or drink, or other comfort of the flesh, for the duration of the fast.
In 1Cor 9:27 Paul says he disciplined his body, bringing it into subjection to his spirit. To deny the flesh gratification, whether sugar, caffeine, comfort, entertainment etc, can be considered a kind of fast before God, if done for spiritual purposes.
A fast may comprise of a mix of these, possibly beginning with a full fast for 1-3 days followed by a number of days on a Daniel or a partial fast. Be led by the Spirit as to what will work effectively for you.
I have heard of some who fast seven meals a week. This may be completed in a couple of days of full fasting, or simply by missing one meal each day.
Others choose to eat only one meal each day for a prolonged fast, curtailing what is eaten during in that one meal. Still others have fasted every second day for a period of time.
Follow the leading of the Holy Spirit as you decide to engage in fasting, and see what He directs.
Duration of a Fast
Examples in Scripture include:
i. One day (from sunrise to sunset) – Judg 20:26; 1Sam 14:24; 2Sam 1:12;3:35
ii. One night – Daniel 6:18
iii. 3 days and nights – Esther 4:16
iv. 7 days – 1Sam 31:13; 1Chr10:12; 2Sam 12:16-18
v. 21 days – Dan 10:3
vi. 40 days and nights – Moses Ex 34:28; Elijah 1King 19:8; Jesus Luke 4; Matt 4
vii. Continually (as a lifestyle) – Luke 2:37
The duration of a fast and the type of fast is determined by the person entering into the fast. On a practical level, particularly if you a new to fasting, realistic goals should be set, and then developed as the body and spirit grow used to the discipline. A three day full fast (drinking only liquids) is realistic for almost anyone (although a doctor should be consulted prior to the fast if there are medical reasons why this may present problems).
The attitude of the heart during a fast
A very important element of any fast is the attitude of heart. God responds to the genuine, sincere, and humble heart of the faster, not a proud and religious show-off, full of pretence. The Scriptures tackle this point head on, both in the Old and the New Testaments.
Jesus made it very clear that fasting alone does not impress God. He reviled the idea of fasting with a proud religious attitude (Matthew 6:16; Luke 18:9-14). Paul, who advocated bringing under the flesh and not living according to the dictates of the stomach or appetites), also pointed out that aestheticism (strict and harsh discipline of the body, self-abasement) is not from the Spirit of God (Col 2:18,23).
Isaiah in the Old Testament castigates hypocritical fasting in Isaiah 58, lamenting the hardened hearts of those accusing God of inaction. Jeremiah similarly endorses God’s refusal to heed a people full of religious ritual but in their heart far from God (Jeremiah 14:12).
Some attitudes criticised in such records are:
- Hypocrisy (Matt 6:16)
- Self-abasement and external show of humility to appear spiritual before men (Matt 6:16; Joel 2:13)
- Desire for the praises of men rather than the commendation of God (Matt 6:16)
- Religious pride, believing God is impressed or indebted to us because we fast (Luke 18:12)
- Continuing in selfish, secular lifestyles despite claiming to fast and repent, no real self-humbling (Isaiah 58:3)
- Failing to turn from evil attitudes of greed, selfishness, pride and oppression (Isaiah 58:4)
- Attitudes of legalism (the yoke), criticism (pointing the finger) and insincerity (speaking vanity) (Isaiah 58:9-10)
The act of fasting is indeed a humbling of the heart, and a form of mourning over our sins and the sins of the nations. If the attitude of the heart is right, fasting promises many rewards.
The attitude of the heart that pleases the Lord in fasting:
- Unpretentious, private, secret devotion to God (Matthew 6:18)
- Faith that God will reward (Matthew 6:16)
- Humility and repentance (Joel 2:12-13; Dan 9:3-5)
- Worshipful, ministering to the Lord (Acts 13:2; Luke 2:37)
- In agreement with God and with others (Isa 58:9-10)
- Generous and open to practically help others; not ‘super-spiritual’ (Isa 58: 7)
- Prayerful (Isaiah 58:9; Nehemiah 1:4; Daniel 9:3; Acts 10:30)
- Set apart from other affections and appetites (1Cor 7:5)
The benefits of fasting
Apart from simple physical benefits of fasting, such as detoxifying the system, breaking addictions to certain types of foods, sugars and additives etc, the Scriptures declare many powerful spiritual benefits that are available to the one who avails him/herself of this important spiritual discipline.
Fasting releases us from bondage and addiction to sinful habits and strongholds.
“Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke?” (Is 58:6 NKJV)
Jesus made it clear to His disciples that certain demonic strongholds and afflictions will not yield to prayer alone, we must add fasting if we want to experience total victory:
“So He said to them, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.”” (Mark 9:29 NKJV)
As believers we are also encouraged to rid ourselves of ‘besetting sins’ (Heb 12:1) and to ‘cast of the works of darkness’ (Romans 13:12). Fasting can help us to accomplish this.
We are also called to fast and pray, humbling ourselves before God, in order to realise the healing of nations:
“if My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”
(2Chr 7:14 NKJV)
Fasting brings deliverance and Victory over our enemy
Throughout Biblical history fasting has been utilised to bring deliverance, not only on a personal level, but also on a national level.
2 Chronicles chapter 20 records an event in Israel’s history when impossible odds were facing the people of God. Enemy armies were threatening from every direction when Jehoshaphat, King of Judah, proclaims a fast (2Chr 20:3). Every man, woman and child was expected to participate (2Chr 20:13). What follows is a mighty supernatural victory.
The book of Esther also records an amazing deliverance from the enemies of God’s people, and the place of fasting and prayer in the accomplishment of this victory. Collective fasting was instrumental in saving the nation.
Modern history of nations is also marked by victories won as the people were called to fast. Several times during the first and second world wars, national fasts were proclaimed, with miraculous results. (in relation to Britain David Gardner’s historical book, ‘The Trumpet Sounds for Britain’ records several of these. ‘Shaping History Through Fasting and Prayer’ by Derek Price records instances of corporate fasting in the history of America.
Fasting is God’s ordained means of humbling ourselves, in order that He might lift us up
God resists the proud but lifts the humble (James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5).A proven and Scriptural way to humble oneself is to fast:
“I humbled myself with fasting….” (Psa 35:13 NKJV)
“I wept and chastened my soul with fasting.”(Psa 69:10 NKJV)
Rightly practiced, fasting humbles the soul, bringing the soul and body in subjection to the spirit. It is not the proud and strong who get the ear of God, but the humble and broken, whose hearts are humble before Him:
“For all those things hath mine hand made, and those things have been, saith the LORD: but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word.” (Is 66:2 KJV)
Fasting is also closely associated with repentance, and often accompanied repentance leading to deliverance and aversion of disaster:
“Therefore also now, saith the LORD, turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning: And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the LORD your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil. Who knoweth if he will return and repent, and leave a blessing behind him; even a meat offering and a drink offering unto the LORD your God?” (Joel 2:12-14 KJV)
On a national level, the fast of the heathen city of Nineveh is a classic example of fasting and humbling averting the destruction of the city (Jonah 3:3-10).
Fasting precedes spiritual renewal, revival, reformation, healing and salvation
Both history and the Scriptures themselves testify to this truth. The famous chapter in Joel promising an outpouring of the Spirit (Joel 2:28) are prefaced by verses compelling prayer, fasting and repentance (Joel 2:15-18).
Every major move of God throughout history has followed this pattern. Throughout history reformation and revival leaders all fasted; Martin Luther, John Knox, the Hussites, the Moravians.
John Wesley believed so fervently in the necessity of fasting that he refused to ordain anyone into ministry who would not covenant to fast two times each week. He is quoted as saying, “The man who never fasts is no more in the way to heaven than the man who never prays.”
- Then shall your light break forth like the morning,
- and your healing (your restoration and the power of a new life) shall spring forth speedily;
- your righteousness (your rightness, your justice, and your right relationship with God) shall go before you [conducting you to peace and prosperity],
- and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.”
(Isaiah 58:8 AMPLIFIED)
He continues in verses 10-12 and 14:
“And if you pour out that with which you sustain your own life for the hungry and satisfy the need of the afflicted,
- then shall your light rise in darkness,
- and your obscurity and gloom become like the noonday.
- And the Lord shall guide you continually
- and satisfy you in drought and in dry places and make strong your bones.
- And you shall be like a watered garden and like a spring of water whose waters fail not.
- And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of [buildings that have laid waste for] many generations; and you shall be called Repairer of the Breach, Restorer of Streets to Dwell In.
- Then will you delight yourself in the Lord, and I will make you to ride on the high places of the earth, and I will feed you with the heritage [promised for you] of Jacob your father; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.”
(Isaiah 58:10-12,14 AMP)
With so many promises of reward we would be foolish not to accept, believe and act upon them by fasting both individually and corporately.
Fasting Prepares the heart to hear clearly from God
Faith comes by hearing God speak to us personally (Rom 10:17). Regular time in the Word sensitises the heart to His voice. Added to this, fasting focuses the ear of the disciple to receive direction and comfort from the mouth of the Lord.
“Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, Here I am…” (Is 58:9 AMP)
In many places throughout Scripture we find God’s people fasting in order to more clearly hear God’s direction.
Ezra and the returning Jews fasted for safe conduct and protection in their journey back to their homeland. God heard and answered and the group returned confident of God’s direction. (Ezra 8:21-23)
The book of Acts records instances of ministry unto the Lord in fasting, resulting in clear direction from the Holy Spirit:
“While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, Separate now for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” (Acts 13:2 AMP)
“And Cornelius said, This is now the fourth day since about this time I was observing the ninth hour (three o’clock in the afternoon) of prayer in my lodging place; [suddenly] a man stood before me in dazzling apparel, And he said, Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and harkened to, and your donations to the poor have been known and preserved before God [so that He heeds and is about to help you]. Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon who is surnamed Peter; he is staying in the house of Simon the tanner by the seaside.” (Acts 10:30-32 AMP)
Fasting ushers in God’s prophetic purposes
Daniel 9 records how Daniel realised God’s stated prophetic purpose through fervent prayer coupled with fasting. He read of God’s promise, and interceded for its fulfilment. In a similar way, we too must contend for the purposes of God to be fulfilled in our lives and nations. Fasting can play an integral part in this process.
Practical Guidelines for Fasting
- Make fasting a regular part of your Christian Lifestyle
To effectively avail yourself of the benefits of fasting seek to make it part of your Christian lifestyle. Do not wait for an emergency, but incorporate both short and longer fasts in your regular schedule.
- Prepare yourself spiritually
Confess any known sin to God, and set your heart and mind to seek God. Keep yourself from worldly distractions and detoxify not only naturally but in your mind and emotions also. Refrain from too much TV during the fast, and abstain from any negative talk.
Check your motives for fasting according to Isaiah 58, and ensure that your heart is right before God.
Enter the fast with positive faith, knowing that God promises reward as we do so (Matthew 6:18; Hebrews 11:6).
- Prepare yourself physically
If you have health concerns consult your doctor prior to beginning a fast and explain what you plan to do.
Begin with realistic goals for the length and type of fast you plan to accomplish. Better to succeed in a two day Daniel fast than fail in a total 7 day fast. As you develop in the discipline of fasting you can extend your fasts.
Drink plenty of water to flush your body, and eat fruit and vegetables to clean your system of toxins. In the early stages of a fast you may experience headaches or bodily aches and pains, as well as a coated tongue and halitosis. This happens because the body is expelling toxins, and withdrawing from caffeine and sugars etc. Don’t give up, this is a good thing for a system clogged with unhealthy residues!
At the end of a fast, especially a longer fast, do not overeat. Eat smaller portions of easily digestible foods as your body gets back into gear. Eating the correct foods before and after fasting can also help guard against uncomfortable constipation.
Exercise moderately during the fast, and take time to rest as necessary.
- Set clear goals for your fast
Decide at the outset how long, what kind of fast, and the purpose of your fasting. Is it for the salvation of family members? Revival in your city? With a clear purpose faith can be released and difficulties or discouragements during the fast more readily overcome.
- During the fast set aside time for Bible reading and prayer
Fasting is not dieting! Fasting is an effective way to set ourselves apart from the usual activities we engage in to seek God’s face and direction and blessing in our lives. Make sure that during your fast as much time as possible is set apart for this purpose.