An Examination of Spiritual Fasting

“Where are the people today who will respond to the call of Christ? Have we become so accustomed to ‘cheap grace’ that we instinctively shy away from more demanding calls to obedience? ‘Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross.’ Why has the giving of money, for example, been unquestionably recognized as an element in Christian devotion and fasting so disputed? Certainly we have as much, if not more, evidence from the Bible for fasting as we have for giving. Perhaps in our affluent society fasting involves a far larger sacrifice than the giving of money” (Foster, 54).

When I read through the Bible, I am amazed at the significance and the power of fasting. For some reason, that I cannot explain, prayer, when combined with fasting, produces tremendous results. It makes me wonder why we have forgotten this practice that we can see Moses, Paul, Elijah, Daniel, and Jesus exercised. Richard Foster, in his classic book Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, pointed out that from 1861 to 1954 nobody published a single book in America on religious fasting (Foster, 47).

In an attempt at correction, we have overreacted to the abuses in the past and have decided to no longer fast. In the Middle Ages, fasting was extremely popular, mandatory in many circles, and people would show off their fasting prowess. The gaudiness of fasting was and still is overwhelming. Nobody wants an arrogant faster, so the pendulum swung back and we have avoided the external practice of fasting altogether. Some will say, "Nobody needs to fast anyway. It is not essential for us to be saved." But that misses the point. Fasting is not about being saved, it is about growing closer to God. Although fasting is gaining steam in the minds and practice of many Christians, I have yet to really see a church take hold of the practice and seek God's will for their church through it. I hope that will not be the case in a year.

So why have we stopped fasting? I have compiled a list of reasons from Foster's book and a book by Dean Trune entitled The Path Toward Passion: Nine Disciplines That Connect Your Heart to God's.

Reasons that we have stopped fasting (taken from Foster and Trune):
  • “With the decline of the inward reality of the Christian faith, an increasing tendency to stress the only thing left, the outward form, developed. And whenever there is a form devoid of spiritual power, law will take over because law always carries with it a sense of security and manipulative power…Modern culture reacts strongly to these excesses and tends to confuse fasting with mortification” (Foster, 47).
  • We are taught by the medical world that fasting is unhealthy, so I will give this disclaimer. Consult your doctor before fasting.
  • We are not taught about fasting. It is a subject most churches are silent about.
  • If we would be honest with ourselves, we are addicted to food.
  • We are spiritually lazy.
John Wesley said, “Some have exalted religious fasting beyond all Scripture and reason; and others have utterly disregarded it.” Yet Wesley turned around and would not ordain a Methodist minister who did not fast two days a week. We have the tendency to take a good practice and make it a law. When we do that - when we fast out of obligation rather than passion - we remove all the power from the practice. Fasting needs to not be about me receiving what I want but about God bringing about what he wants.

A biblical fast is for spiritual reasons. We might quit eating something for a period of time or remove something completely from our diet for health reasons; those actions, although fine, are not a biblical fast. A biblical fast is where we acknowledge our spiritual dependency and need for God through the physical action of abstaining from food.

Some Great Stories of the Power of Fasting

“The king of Britain called for a day of solemn prayer and fasting because of a threatened invasion by the French in 1756. On February 6 John Wesley recorded in his Journal, ‘The fast day was a glorious day, such as London has scarce seen since the Restoration. Every church in the city was more than full, and a solemn seriousness sat on every face. Surely God heareth prayer, and there will yet be a lengthening of our tranquility.’ In a footnote he wrote, ‘Humility was turned into national rejoicing for the threatened invasion by the French was averted’” (Foster, 50).

“In his book Shaping History through Prayer and Fasting, Derek Prince relates how God prompted him to organize a day of prayer and fasting in England after World War II. He had heard of Joseph Stalin’s plan to purge Russia by killing thousands of Jews. Many people in England joined Prince on a particular Thursday by praying for God to stop the plan to kill Jews. Two weeks later, to the day, God stopped the planned killings. Stalin had a heart attack and died” (Trune, 92)

Key Bible Verses on Fasting

Leviticus 23:26-32 – The Lord established a corporate fast for the Day of Atonement.

Deuteronomy 9:9 – When Moses received the Ten Commandments, he fasted for forty days without food and water. This fast needed supernatural intervention.

1 Kings 19:8 – Elijah fasted for forty days prior to encountering God and receiving news on who to anoint as king of Syria and Israel and the successor of his ministry.

2 Chronicles 20:1-23 – Jehosophat called Judah to fast for God’s protection in the invasion of the Moabites and the Ammonites.

Ezra 8:21-23 – Ezra’s group fasted because Ezra did not want to ask for the king’s help because he has told the king “The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all who forsake him.” The purpose of the fast was to humble themselves and seek a safe journey.

Esther 4:16-17 – Esther and all of the Jews that participated fasted for three days from food and water. This was a dire time for the Jews.

Psalm 35:11-14 – David “afflicted” himself with fasting when he was being verbally attacked by others.

Psalm 69:9-12 – David writes that fasting was to humble his soul and a result of mourning.

Isaiah 58 – True and false fasting. A true fast is not just abstaining from food but looking at bringing about God’s will to the world around us.

I will take a break from the Bible verses to share a ridiculous fast that an acquaintance of mine did. For Lent he gave up pop. We were out and he ordered a beer because he could not drink pop. He drank a lot more beer during Lent that year. What a ridiculous fast.

Daniel 10:3 – Daniel did a three week fast from delicacies, meat, wine, and anointing himself. This was induced by mourning and led to him having a vision.

Joel 2:12-17 – The Lord calls on His people to have a corporate fast to repent of their sins.

Zechariah 7:4-5 – We do not fast for ourselves but for God. A proper fast is a focus on God and his will.

Zechariah 8:19 – By the time this was written Israel had four regular fasts. The Lord said that the fasts should be “seasons of joy and gladness and cheerful feasts.”

Matthew 4:4 – During Jesus’ forty day fast, he answered Satan and said that his food is not the food of this world but “every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Matthew 6:16-18 – Jesus’ teaching on fasting. He used the phrase “When you fast.” Fasting is not to be done for public accolades but for worship of God.

Matthew 9:14-15 – Jesus says that his disciples will fast when he is gone.

Luke 2:36-38 – Anna worshiped with fasting.

Luke 4:1-13 – Jesus fasted from food for forty days and was tempted during his fast.

Luke 18:9-14 – It was common for the Pharisees to fast twice a week. This is not a condemnation of the fasting but of the Pharisee showing off his spiritual practices.

John 4:31-38 – To do God’s will and accomplish his work was Jesus’ food. We need to have the same attitude.

Acts 9:9 – Paul did a total fast after meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus.

Acts 13:2-3 – They church at Antioch fasted and were told to send out Barnabas and Paul.

Acts 14:23 – Paul and Barnabas committed the elders to the Lord with prayer and fasting.

Colossians 1:15-20 – This verse does not mention fasting, but a fast is a recognition that there is a spiritual reality and God is in control. In a fast, we feed, not on food for our body, but on food for our soul.

Some Practical Tips on Fasting

Consult your doctor and see if it will kill you.

Start light. If you’ve never fasted just do lunch and supper one day and drink juices while fasting.

Then after a few weeks, move on to a complete food fast for a day. All you drink is water.

After, that you can decide what it is you are being tugged to. Should you fast once a day every week for a few years? Should you go on and try an extended fast?

Remember you won’t start starving, as long as you are healthy, until about 21 days into a fast. The first three days of an extended fast are the worst. The body is cleansing. Experts say to start eating again once you start to feel hunger pangs after 21 days.

If you think I missed a key verse or you have a great testimony concerning fasting, please share in the comments.