Adding Fasting to Your Prayer Life
Fasting isn’t a complicated business. When you fast, don’t eat. You stay away from all food or refrain from specific types of food for a set amount of time. (Refraining from all food makes you the hungriest.) The duration of the fast may be a solo meal, one day, a week, or, in some cases, even longer.
Fasting from food can be done for a variety of purposes, either physical or spiritual. So abstaining from food alone doesn’t constitute a Christian fast. Instead, a Christian fast is accompanied by a special focus on prayer during the fast, often substituting the time you’d spend eating with prayer instead.
In many Christian churches today, fasting has become a lost discipline, one that is rarely, if ever, discussed and practiced. Yet, in spite of its decreased emphasis, there are a host of reasons to fast:
- Fasting has always been considered standard operating procedure for Christians. Fasting has been a common practice by God’s faithful throughout history. The Old Testament includes a multitude of examples of the Israelites fasting when seeking the Lord’s blessing or direction. The New Testament records that Jesus himself fasted, as did leaders of the early Christian church.
- Jesus didn’t talk too much about fasting during his ministry, but the one time when he provided specific instructions on fasting, in Matthew 6, he started by saying “when you fast,” not “if you fast.” So it seems logical to conclude that Jesus expected his followers to incorporate fasting into their lives.
Although Jesus assumes that his followers will fast, he never instructs people on the frequency or duration of fasts. Some Christians believe that he left those specifics up to the Church to decide, while others believe he left it up to individuals as prompted by the Holy Spirit.
- Fasting provides self-discipline in an undisciplined age. The age in which we live despises discipline. When was the last time you saw a TV commercial with a slogan like one of these:
• Buy this TV later, after you actually have the cash.
• Eat just one of our chips, so you can have some tomorrow.
• Do you really need a new car? Your old one still works fine.
• Friends don’t let friends drink. Period.
- Fasting offers a way to impose self-control in your life; it gives you a “splash in the face” to awaken you to the need for the personal strength of will that you need to grow spiritually. When you restrain yourself physically, you’ll find it easier to apply this same self-discipline in your spiritual life.
- The benefits of fasting “rub off” in your relationship with God. Normal exercise and a good, balanced diet go hand in hand in my life. Although fasting is a physical activity, the practice affects you deeply on the spiritual plane of your life as well. In other words, the amount of restraint and will power you practice physically has a tangible relationship to your willingness to submit to God’s will.
- Fasting fosters concentration on God and his will. Oswald Chambers once said that fasting means “concentration,” because when you’re fasting, you have a heightened sense of attentiveness. Food or any physical sensation can satisfy, fill you up, and dull your senses and spiritual ears. In contrast, a hungry stomach makes you more aware and alert to what God is trying to say to you.
- Fasting provides a real-life illustration of dependency. Although modern man thrives on the idea of being independent, beholden to no one, fasting helps you put the facts in the proper perspective. It’s easy to believe in your independence with a full stomach, but when you start to feel hunger pains in your belly after missing a meal or two, you awaken to your body’s dependency on food to survive. Fasting reveals a physical reliance on food that points to the ultimate dependency — the fact that you’re dependent on God for things far more important than food.
- Fasting prepares you for a big decision or an important event. Time after time in the Bible, God’s faithful spend time in fasting and prayer before a major decision or event in their lives. For example, just after getting baptized, Jesus undertook a 40-day fast in the desert as a preparation to starting his ministry. Just before she put a plan into action that risked her life in an effort to save the Jewish people living in Persia, Esther calls for fasting (Esther 4:16):
- Go, gather together all the Jews and fast for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day: I also and my maidens will fast in like manner; and [then] will I go in to the king.
- Fasting brings you in line with God to seek his will and to simultaneously show your devotion to him before the big event or decision occurs.
- Fasting often surrounds God’s special work in the world. On occasion, God moves in the world in a special way. For example, consider God’s interaction with the Israelites, Jesus’ three years of ministry, and the formation of the early Christian church. More recently, God has moved on occasion to bring people to him in what is commonly called a revival, an event where large numbers of people come to the Lord. Fasting preceded the revival known as the Great Awakening that swept through the American Colonies in the 1700s. If you start to study many of these major events, you’ll invariably find that God’s faithful fasted before them.
- Fasting empowers. Fasting can also give you newfound strength in your spiritual life because of the intimacy you gain with God as a result.
- The discipline of fasting can be problematic or even downright dangerous if you have experienced or are susceptible to eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia. Therefore, keep the following in mind:
- Don’t fast beyond the time limit you originally set. If you find that you can’t stop your fast, see your doctor immediately.
- If you feel yourself preoccupied with the physical aspects of going without food (such as possible weight loss), then the act of fasting may be a hindrance to your prayer life rather than a help. If you focus on the fast and have difficulty praying, break the fast immediately and pray about what you just experienced.
- If you’re recovering from an eating disorder, avoid fasting altogether as a spiritual discipline.