A couple of years ago, my husband and I started doing forty-day fasts, and we’ve been doing them about twice a year ever since. It’s not that we don’t eat at all for forty days; but on any given fast, we’ve done a combination of the following:
Two-to-three days per week of liquid only -or liquid plus smoothie / vegetable soup purée.
Limit food to a small bowl at each meal.
Fasting things we like – coffee and sugar for me; bread and cheese for the Frenchman.
Fasting all TV and books, except for spiritual books.
Get up at five or six AM to read and pray.
Isaiah 58 is a great reference for what true fasting is, as is Zechariah 7. It’s not a ritual to be followed to fulfil the law. It’s all about the heart. “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.”
There are Biblical reasons for fasting, apart from any fast set out by church schedule or religious authorities (although those are perfectly fine if the heart is in the right place). Let’s take a look at some of those.
Fast for guidance:
The early church was continually breaking new ground (undergoing persecution, salvation for the gentiles, a risen Messiah). They had to remain constantly in prayer to know what to do. In Acts 13, here is one example. “While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.” They didn’t run the church the best they could as they saw fit – they constantly relied on God through fasting and prayer. (See also Acts 14:23)
Fast for others:
When the saints (that means you and me, as well as the heroes of old) were urgent for their loved ones – or on a larger scale – for their people, they prayed and fasted. It’s impossible to fast effectively without prayer. The first form of fasting is self-reliant (and uncomfortable). The other is an urgent and glorious communication with an Almighty God.
When Daniel found out that Jerusalem would lay in ruins for seventy years, he was so distraught, this was his reaction: “So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.“
It was common in those days to tear your garments and cover your head with dirt and ashes to show how miserable you were. Of course, later on, people kept the ritual of tearing clothes and/or putting ash, but there was no feeling behind it. No agony, no distress . . . no feeling at all. Daniel, on the other hand, gives a beautiful example for a prayer of confession and supplication on behalf of the Israelites in Daniel 9.
Fast when there’s a major life change:
Did you know that there were two “Saul”s in the Bible? There was the first Israeli king before David was chosen. And there was Saul (later called Paul) who persecuted the Christians to death for years before this happened:
“As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’
‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked.
‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. ‘Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.’
The men travelling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing.” Acts 9
Saul was so troubled about what God was doing. He was so overwhelmed, torn apart, speechless with shock and (I imagine) grief for his part in the murders, “For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.“
Fast when there is great distress:
One of the most beautiful stories of our shared heritage with the Jews is the story of Esther. She was a young Jewess who was chosen to be queen. Her uncle learned of the enemy’s decree to kill every Jew in the land , and he went to her as the only person who could do something about it. And this was this brave young woman’s response:
“Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.’ Esther 4
Fast for deliverance
Very close to the feeling of great distress was the urgent prayer for deliverance. Jonah was ordered to preach to the Ninevites their impending destruction if they would not repent. And here’s what happened in Jonah 3.
“Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.’ The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.” God saved them from destruction because they humbled themselves – from the greatest to the least.
Fast for protection:
Ezra was part of the remnant that was returning to Jerusalem from Babylon, which was far from being danger and trouble-free.
“There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions. I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, ‘The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him.’ Ezra 8
Ezra relied on prayer and fasting for protection rather than the king’ soldiers and horsemen. And once those words were out there, he couldn’t get nervous, start to doubt, and change his mind. He fasted for protection.
Fast for God to act:
Nehemiah was an exile like Ezra. He was the cupbearer to the king, and when he found out about the state of the wall in Jerusalem, he wanted to go do something about it. But a captive servant doesn’t just say to the king, “Sorry. I’ve got to go see about a thing.”
He needs the king to be in a good mood, look upon his request favourably and – not only NOT put him in prison for his audacity – but actually let him go!
“When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.” You can read the rest of his prayer in Nehemiah 1.
The King not only let him go, but he also gave him a letter to ensure his safe crossing.
Now that we’ve looked at some different reasons for fasting, let’s take a look at how to fast. I’m not talking about what to give up. I’m talking about what the state of your heart when you fast.
With perfume and makeup!
I mean, not if you’re a guy and all. But don’t let people know you’re fasting by looking all somber and gaunt. Here’s what Jesus said. ‘When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. Matthew 6
So don’t, for instance, shout out on the worldwide web that you’re fasting so that everyone will think you’re spiritual because that will be your reward.
Oh . . . wait . . .
With a softened heart:
Honestly, this could have been listed with the reasons to fast, but I chose to put it here. This is the biggest reason that we fast. We live a relatively safe and trouble-free life. It’s so easy to get lulled into complacency. We want to rend our hearts. We want to get close to God in ways we are unable to do when we’re going about our daily business, not even feeling a tinge of discomfort.
“Rend your heart
and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
and he relents from sending calamity. Joel 2
The point being? Fast with a soft heart or there’s no point in doing it at all. And then you will see the face of your beautiful God, who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.
With a surrendered heart:
David was the beloved king of Israel, and a man after God’s own heart. But he still sinned. He committed adultery, got Bathsheba pregnant, and had her husband killed so he wouldn’t find out. Nathan was not afraid to tell him like it was, and David accepted the rebuke.
He understood that he had sinned against God so a mere man could say whatever he wanted to him. It didn’t matter that he was king. Nathan warned him the child would die, and David fasted for the child to live. But when the child finally did die, he got up and ate. This surprised his servants.
He answered, ‘While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, “Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and let the child live.” But now that he is dead, why should I go on fasting? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.’ 2 Samuel 12
Fast and pray to get what you want. But be surrendered if you don’t get what you’re asking for.
And . . . finally – we can’t do better than to look at the way Jesus fasted, and that is:
“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting for forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.’” Matthew 4
After not eating or drinking in the desert for forty days and nights, Jesus was hungry. That is the understatement of the millennium. Satan tempted Jesus first in his physical weakness. Then he dug for pride, saying if you are really loved by God, then no harm will befall you. When neither of those caused Jesus to stumble, he threw a last minute snare out for greed. Jesus fought back with Scriptures every time.
Fasting can make you grouchy. And when your boss is breathing down your neck, or your kids are running circles around the couch, whooping like cowboys, you might not be in the best frame of mind to respond graciously. But fasting is no excuse to toss aside truth, nobility, righteousness, purity, loveliness, and grace.
Fasting is a chance to see God.
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