This article is in response to a request from South Africa asking:
“Please can you tell me ‘what is the correct way of fasting?‘ I have heard of so many ways but I’ve never fasted because I don’t want to do it the wrong way. I was told once that if you fast, you have to do it the ‘right’ way, because if you don’t, it will be offensive to the Lord and it will be done all in vain.”
While many wonderful books have been written on this subject, this is the whole topic into this one article.
* What is Christian Fasting?
Fasting may be defined as: voluntary abstaining from food for spiritual reasons.
* Is it biblical?
Yes! Jesus did fasted and He expects all Christians to fast. Throughout the Bible: ‘Fast, ‘Fasting’ or ‘Fasted’ appear 117 times in 104 Bible verses from Genesis to Revelation.
Twice in Matthew 6:16-17, Jesus said to His disciples, and therefore to all Christians: “.. when you fast…” Note: Jesus did not say, “if” you fast, but “when” you fast! Ergo, Jesus expects all Christians to fast as He did.
In Matthew 4:2 we read “And when He [Jesus] had fasted forty days and forty nights, He was afterwards hungry.” We are called to be Christlike, and if Jesus fasted, so too must his disciples.
Finally, Jesus himself even teaches His disciples (and us) about fasting, saying in Matthew 6:16, for example: “… when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, of a sad face.” Yes, Christian fasting is Biblical!
* What is the purpose of Fasting?
The primary purpose of Fasting is for self-humbling. As King David said in Psalm 35:13b “….I humbled my soul with fastings; and my prayer returned into my own bosom.” As Albert Barnes says of this scripture, “Humbled, “afflicted;” so the Hebrew properly means.
The word “soul” here is equivalent to “self;” I afflicted myself. He subjected himself to the pains of hunger, that he might be better prepared to offer fervent and acceptable prayer. Among the Hebrews, fasting and prayer were much more closely connected than they are with Christians.”
Throughout the Bible, God requires His people to humble themselves. Here are four New Testament examples:
Matthew 18:4 “Therefore whoever shall humble himself like this little child, this one is the greater in the kingdom of Heaven.”
Matthew 23:12 “And whoever shall exalt himself shall be abased, and he who shall humble himself shall be exalted.”
James 4:10 “Be humbled before the Lord, and He will lift you up.”
First Peter 5:6 “Therefore be humbled under the mighty hand of God, so that He may exalt you in due time …”
Note clearly in these four examples, the onus, the responsibility for humbling ourselves, is placed on us, we, ourselves! To pray, “Oh God, please humble me,” is unscriptural, as the scripture always says: Humble yourself!
Psalm 61:16-17 speaks simply to this desire of God for our humility of heart, not our works or sacrifices, saying:
“For You do not desire sacrifice; or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.”
In the Old Testament, the Jewish ‘Yom Kippur’ or Day of Atonement exemplifies God’s views on fasting (Leviticus 16:29-31 AMP):
“It shall be a statute to you forever that in the seventh month [nearly October] on the tenth day of the month you shall afflict yourselves [by fasting with penitence and humiliation] and do no work at all, either the native-born or the stranger who dwells temporarily among you. For on this day atonement shall be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall be clean before the Lord. It is a Sabbath of [solemn] rest to you, and you shall afflict yourselves [by fasting with penitence and humiliation]; it is a statute forever.”
We can see two important things regarding fasting here:
1) Fasting was to be man’s response to God’s forgiveness and cleansing and
2) Atonement was only effective for those who accepted it through Fasting.
* How often to Fast?
In the Old Testament, we see that there were set times for fasting, which Jesus and His disciples would have adhered to. I believe that if the Jews had not been exiled from Rome at start of the Roman Church, their influence would have mandated that all Christians honour all the Old Testament Fasts. However this is not the case. Nevertheless, if we are disciples, we naturally inherit the same traditions and life styles of our masters; meaning that as Jesus and His disciples fasted regularly, so too, ought Christians. The early Church certainly fasted, so we need to do so as well. As Paul guides us in Second Corinthians 6:4-6,
“but in everything commending ourselves as God’s servants, in much patience, in troubles, in emergencies, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in riots, in labours, in watchings, in fastings; in pureness, in knowledge, in long-suffering, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in love unfeigned …”
If the primary purpose of Fasting is self-humbling before God, then reasonably the number, timing and extent of fasts ought to be individually determined in conjunction with the Holy Spirit, through Prayer.
Jill and I fast when we feel a burden from the Holy Spirit to do so.
Many times there is no single discernible ‘reason’ for the fast. Other times we feel it necessary to fast for a particular cause (petition) or reason (e.g. a deliverance session), which we are supporting or attending, in extended prayer with others.
Doing the right things for the wrong reasons, does necessarily please God, who reads our hearts and intents. Thus, participating in a ritual fast, “just because everyone else is doing it”, or artificial fasts, like fasting from Television while still enjoying all other worldly carnal lusts, seems rather pointless and may not result in any benefits, other than to feed self ego.
* Are Fasting and Prayer Linked?
Undoubtedly, there is a link between Prayer and Fasting. Jesus said so in Matthew 17:21 “However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.”
As prayer is a supernatural supplication to God, similarly, I believe that Fasting is supernatural. It is a physical and active and intentional renouncing of the flesh and the natural, which invokes the supernatural. God is supernatural and He requires from us that which is also supernatural (spiritual), rather than natural: as Psalm 61:16-17 shows a contrite heart trumps sacrifice.
I believe that fasting helps us align ourselves with the will of God, and so makes prayer and spiritual and supernatural encounters with the Holy Spirit more effective. During a fast, we demonstrate in the natural, that we are prepared to endure and overcome the lusts of our flesh and our natural instincts, in favour of that which only God provides. Fasting may be seen as a demonstration of Faith – a trust in that which we cannot otherwise see.
We can see in the Bible how Jesus was changed by His 40-day fast. As we read in Luke 4:1 “… Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness ….” Immediately after His 40-day wilderness fast we read in Luke 4:14 “… Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee… “
The 40-day fast empowered Jesus for His ministry. I believe we too can be empowered by the Holy Spirit for ministry when we too, Fast and Pray.
* Specific Biblical Fasts
The Bible contains many records of Fasts, in which the nature or means of the fasts differ, as do the lengths of the fasts. They may be classified into six groups as follows:
1. Normal – abstaining from food.
Example: Jesus “ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them was hungry” (Luke 4:2).
2. Absolute – abstaining from both food and water; normally no more than 3 days.
Examples: “… he (Saul/Paul) was three days not seeing, and did not eat or drink” (Acts 9:9), Moses (Deuteronomy. 9:9), Israel (Ezra 10:6), Israel (Esther 4:16).
3. Partial – restricting diet of certain foods or a meal a day.
Examples: Daniel “So Melzar took away their part of the food, and the wine that they were to drink, and gave them vegetables.” (Daniel 1:16), (Daniel 10:3).
4. Regular – fast days that commemorate an event or weekly fasts on a regular day.
Examples: Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:27; Psalm 35:13; Isaiah 58:5), a fast day (Jeremiah 36:6); four separate festivals (Zechariah 8:19); twice a week (Luke 18:11-12).
5. Public – fasts called for times of special need or emergency. Almost all regular fasts were public fasts, but all public fasts are not necessarily regular ones.
Examples: King Jehoshaphat when Judah was invaded (Second Chronicles 20:1-4), Ezra returning the exiles (Ezra 8:21-23) Ninevah, as a result of Jonah’s preaching (Jonah 3:5,10).
6. Involuntary – no desire for food because of anxiety, sorrow, or mental distress (Daniel 6:18), and where a person finds themselves in a situation where no food is available (Matthew 15:32; Second Corinthians 6:5, 11:27)
I believe that the type and period of any particular fast to which you are called by the Holy Spirit, will also be laid upon your heart. For example, usually, but not always, do Jill and I fast at the same time or for the same period. Often we are burdened differently as our circumstances are different.
* Starting a Fast
Especially if you are an older mature adult and have never faster before, it is only common sense to check with your doctor to ensure that you are healthy enough for the fast you wish to undertake.
If you drink coffee, wean yourself off it one week in advance of the start of the fast. Fasting with caffeine withdrawal headaches is no fun.
We need to train our bodies to deal with less food, or no food, during a fast. Rather than “pigging-out” right up to the eve of the fast, it is better to slowly reduce the quantity of food intake a few days before the start of the fast.
As a fast is a lifestyle change for a period, stop eating snacks and titbits between meals at least one week before the start of the fast.
* During a Fast
The very first thing Jill and I do upon starting a fast is to pray together that the Lord will take away any and all hunger pangs and hunger feelings in our bodies, and replace them with a hunger for Him. All praise and glory be to the Lord, for He has faithfully answered this prayer each and every time, so that neither Jill nor I, have ever felt hungry during a Fast!
If you are involved in a job which required strength for the sake of safely, bear in mind that during fasting, one’s energy levels and physical stamina will become less than normal. Do not endanger your life.
When I fast I lose weight, and as I lose weight my blood pressure drops. I have “passed out” while walking as a result of low blood pressure so I am very conscious of the possible dangers of even driving at the end of a long fast. I change my lifestyle to suit my condition.
One day I passed out in the middle of a long fast, Jill and I prayed for guidance from the Lord as to whether to continue or stop. The Word was to continue and I did, and was protected from further incident. I believe it is better to stop a fast for medical reasons, than to continue on and die as a result. The Holy Spirit will guide!
My last couple of fasts have ended with continual hiccups for 4-5 days as my body eventually reacted to the fast. It was no fun. At home I solve the problem by drinking the water from boiled vegetables, but when traveling, this is not possible. Be prepared to modify your fast if circumstances really require it, so as not to endanger your health.
During a fast, it is likely you will find you have new and unaccustomed spare time available. Since the Bible was written, mankind has many more carnal opportunities available to us. We ought not to spend this ‘extra time’ which this supernatural spiritual effort of fasting may give us on ungodly and unspiritual pastimes. Keep focussed on the reason and purpose for the Fast. Do not invalidate your fast by ungodly and unrighteous living.
In closing, please at all times be led by the Holy Spirit. When you become obedient and teachable and reach out to God in humility and in faith, He will answer you and guide you.
Sometime it takes a little practice to convince ourselves that what we feel, or think, or sense, really is the Holy Spirit communicating with us. Just step out in faith and you will find, it probably is! Gosh, if we can, you can!
~ Angus MacKillop