The significance of fasting
We are probably familiar with the phrase, “listen to your body”. Every day, we pay a lot of attention to our physical well being; our hunger, needs and desires. They determine our priorities and actions. The Bible warns us that such fleshly messages are not from God but from the world. One crucial way to subdue our worldly desires is by fasting.
1 John 2:16-17 ESV For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.
Self-denial and self-control are certainly not mankind’s strongest traits. As human beings, we tend to resist discipline, and fasting certainly requires physical, mental and spiritual discipline. But if we are to mature as believers, then we certainly need to mature in this area too. We cannot be ruled by our appetites or allow our stomachs to become our “god”. Also, see Serving God vs. our belly god.
1 Corinthians 9:27 ESV But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
Philippians 3:19 NIV Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.
Physically vs. spiritually full
It is estimated that the body can go on for three weeks without any food, and three days without any water. Interestingly, the Bible records that both Moses and Elijah went without subsistence for as long as 40 days and nights. Although they were not technically prayer-fasting, they didn’t seem to need to eat or drink when they were in God’s presence.
Exodus 34:27-28 ESV And the Lord said to Moses, “Write these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” So he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.
1 Kings 19:7-8 ESV And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.
Could it be that the more we are filled with the Holy Spirit and remain in God’s presence, the less our physical appetites will dominate our thoughts and desires?
Psalm 73:26 ESV My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
It’s not a matter of “if” we fast, but “when”
When Jesus addressed the crowds during his famous Sermon on the Mount, He provided instructions on how to fast. In fact, it is recorded in Matthew 6:16-18 that Jesus twice said, “when you fast”. He did not say, “in case you decide to fast”.
Matthew 6:16-18 ESV “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Jesus taught His disciplines not to seek their own glorification when they fasted, but to wholeheartedly seek God’s pleasure instead. Earlier in the very same sermon, Jesus said the very same thing when He taught about “when you pray”. Both prayer and fasting must not be hypocritical. Both require humility and a pure heart towards God, and both are what practising Christians do.
Matthew 6:5-6 ESV And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Reasons to fast
We enjoy several important spiritual benefits from fasting, in addition to the physical benefits.
1. To attune our spirits to the Holy Spirit
The Bible reminds us that God is spirit and we are to worship Him in spirit and truth. Christians can worship God in this way because the Holy Spirit lives in us and our bodies are “temples” of the Holy Spirit. Learning to fully attune our spiritual eyes, ears and hearts to the Holy Spirit however, takes practice.
John 4:24 ESV God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
1 Corinthians 6:19-20 ESV Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
It is virtually impossible to worship God in spirit, when we allow our fleshly desires and the things of this world to keep screaming at us and hold our attention. The apostle Paul warns that the desires of the flesh are often opposed to the desires of the Holy Spirit.
Fasting is one way to discipline our minds, our eyes and our appetites in favour of worshipping God in spirit. The more we learn to overcome our fleshly desires, the more we can walk in self-control, worship and spiritual discernment. As we fast, we become more aware of His Spirit leading us, because we have to lean on God to sustain us.
Galatians 5:16-17, 24 ESV But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. … And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
2. To walk in God’s enabling
Having our spirits attuned to the Holy Spirit prepares us to be vessels for God’s pure love and empowerment. A great example is how even Jesus Christ, who came to earth as fully man and fully God, fasted before He began His full-time ministry on earth.
It was the Holy Spirit who led Jesus into the desert to fast, so as to prepare Him spiritually for all that was to come; the first of which was Satan’s deceptive wiles and temptations. During His time on earth, Jesus demonstrated great love, wisdom, humility, forgiveness, grace, patience, and power. He preached to huge crowds, stood up to strong opposition, cast out demons, healed the sick and raised the dead. This could not have been done based solely on His human flesh, but fully in His spiritual empowerment.
Luke 4:1-2 ESV And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry.
3. To seek God’s will
The Bible also shows that leaders in the early church received God’s guidance on who to send out as missionaries after they fasted and worshipped, and then sent Paul and Barnabas on their mission after they had fasted and prayed some more. Similarly, Paul and Barnabas also prayed and fasted for those whom they had appointed as leaders for other churches. These are examples of church members uniting as the Body of Christ to fast and seek God’s will for the work before them.
Acts 13:2-3 ESV While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.
Acts 14:23 ESV And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
4. To be sharpened for spiritual warfare
Fasting can sharpen us for spiritual warfare. When our hearts and spirits are aligned with the things that matter most to God, we will be moved to continue Jesus’ work in tearing down spiritual strongholds; to “set the captives free and give sight to the blind”. This aspect of fasting is highlighted in Isaiah 58.
Luke 4:18 ESV “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
Isaiah 58:6-7 ESV “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
The role that fasting can play in spiritual warfare was demonstrated on one occasion when the disciples were unable to cast out a demon. Jesus explained that certain types of warfare require faith and prayer, accompanied by fasting.
Matthew 17:18-21 ISV Then Jesus rebuked the demon and it came out of him, and the boy was healed that very hour. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” He told them, “Because of your lack of faith. I tell all of you with certainty, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you. But this kind does not come out except by prayer and fasting.”
Some ways to fast
The Bible records different types of fasts. Daniel continued with his regular meals but abstained from meat and wine for three weeks. Jesus did not eat any food for 40 days in the desert. Paul did not eat or drink anything for three days. The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable in Luke 18 fasted twice a week.
Daniel 10:2-3 ESV In those days I, Daniel, was mourning for three weeks. I ate no delicacies, no meat or wine entered my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, for the full three weeks.
Luke 4:2 ESV For forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry.
Acts 9:9 ESV And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Luke 18:12 ESV I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’
Whichever type of fast we decide to do, we should keep some key principles in mind.
1. Start slow, end gently
When we fast for the first time, we should start by abstaining from solid food for just a few days. For example, we may choose to only consume soups and beverages for two to three days. We should not immediately go off food and drink altogether. As we become more accustomed to the spiritual discipline of fasting, we can fast for longer periods of time.
When we finish fasting, we should gradually re-introduce solid food, as our bodies adjust to consuming more again. The longer our fasts, the more gradual this adjustment period should be.
2. Prioritise “feeding” on the Word
Physical fasting must be accompanied by spiritual “feeding”. Otherwise, it will be merely abstention from food. Throughout the Bible, the Word is described as giving us life. It is vital to be intentional about studying the living word as we fast.
Hebrews 4:12 ESV For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
Jeremiah 15:16 ESV Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O LORD, God of hosts.
3. Seek to be filled with the Holy Spirit
The initial hunger pangs we experience during a fast become less and less prominent, as our bodies adjust to the reduced level of food and as we “consume” more of the Word. It becomes easier to listen to the Holy Spirit’s promptings when the cries of our bodies die down. We should seek to maintain this heightened awareness of the Holy Spirit both during and after a fast.
John 6:63 ESV It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
4. Be humble, repent, fast with the right motives, seek His will and glorify God
Having the right attitudes and approach towards God when we fast is as essential as when we pray. We need to fast with the right motives, seek His will and glorify God at all times. If God calls for us, we must be prepared to act.
Fasting is crucial to our spiritual maturity as disciples of Jesus. As we practice fasting regularly, we will learn to subdue our bodily appetites and experience greater peace, hope and joy through the Holy Spirit as a result. Only the Holy Spirit can give us the abundant spiritual life that God has intended for us.
John 3:6 ESV That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
When we seek God through denying our flesh and humbling ourselves before Him, He can sometimes bring spiritual revelation that is only possible by being still in prayer and fasting. Below is a testimony from Zee, who experienced this truth for herself.
Testimony: Spiritual revelation from fasting
“Having prayed and fasted for a cleansing prayer in the past, I knew the power of aligning myself with the Holy Spirit to bring His revelation and spiritual work in my life. A misunderstanding with a friend revealed that I still struggled with deep-rooted hurt and fear that were disproportionate to my situations. As we prayed, my friend asked if it might have something to do with my grandma. I truly had no idea. What I did know was that my grandmother thought she was going to die as her family left China on a boat when she was a child. Later on, another friend told she had a word for me, and that is, “Perfect love casts out fear”.
Through all this, I was convicted to pray and fast to seek God for answers. Over the next few days, I noticed that I live with a low-level buzz of anxiety and began to think that the fear might be the result of my premature birth.
Then I asked my mother if anything happened to me when I was a baby. During that conversation, my mother told me more about her own mother. As she related her memories of her mother, I started to feel the same kind of intense pain, sorrow and fear I had felt earlier – it was a deep fear of loss. Both my grandmothers had lived through world war II and I am sure they lived under a lot of fear that they never spoke about. A spirit of fear had ruled over the women in my family line for generations.
A friend then gave me a few ideas for how I should pray to break these generational curses:
- Praise God for my birth and the circumstances
- Thank God for protecting me even though I was born prematurely
- Confess my mother’s fears when I was still in the womb
- Cut off any words that were spoken over me when I was in the womb, at birth, and after birth
- Declare that I am God’s child
- Cut off ungodly soul ties with my mum as well as the doctors, the operating theatre, and the hospital
- Cast out the spirits of fear and death
During this time, I began to recall other instances of death and dangerous events in my family, and I prayed over those too. I also realised that God has protected me and my family from harm many times. When I look back at my own life, I see that my fear of loss or grief was not grounded in reality, because I have never experienced deep loss myself. God has always come in to save and provide.
The reminder that “perfect love casts out fear” was confirmed by a promise that I received as I was prompted to read Zechariah 9:8-12 afterwards. God will turn the deep-rooted fear of loss into a deep-rooted tree of love where all kinds of birds and animals will come to take shelter. I have nothing to fear. Even if I feel that fear again, God will be there. God will return twice as much as what has been stolen from my family.
This gives me the assurance that I am already becoming less sensitive to fear. I thank God that He revealed all this to me as I prayed and fasted to seek Him first for the answers to my fear. I received more than an answer, I also received a promise.”
Zechariah 9:8-12 But I will encamp at my temple to guard it against marauding forces. Never again will an oppressor overrun my people, for now I am keeping watch. Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit. Return to your fortress, you prisoners of hope; even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you.
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