As pastor, I have called our whole church to join me in fasting for at least 21 days beginning Sunday, January 6th. There are always questions when it comes to fasting. Some argue that it's an old ritual that has no place in the modern church. Some argue that a corporate and semi-public fast isn't even Biblical. I once held to a variation of that belief. Some suggest that there is no need for fasting because we have the Holy Spirit and fasting is simply a starving person groveling for answers. All of these characteristics and more have been attributed to fasting. Not ironically, most of these labels have come from individuals who don't fast, don't want to, and don't plan to. So let's see what scripture has to say about some of these things.
1. "We have the Holy Spirit. There is no need to fast anymore."
This is a common response to fasting. The overwhelming idea of fasting is to draw closer to God, to be more attune with Him, and to seek Him for needs and/or spiritual awakening. It is undeniably true that an individual can draw closer to God and seek Him for things and be answered in their attempts without fasting. It is true that the Holy Spirit lives in us and therefore provides a direct connection to the Father through Christ our Mediator. This is standard Christianity.
However, as with anything, there are levels. If you explore five different couples' marriages, you'll probably find different levels within those marriages. Some are good. Some are bad. Some are fun. Some are boring. Some communicate. Some do not. Some have one level of intimacy and affection. Some lack it altogether. As human beings, we understand levels. There are indeed levels in our relationship with God. These levels simply exist on our side though. God cannot love you more than He already does. He gave up everything just to save us and receive us to Himself. No amount of good deeds or in this case, fasting, will make God love you more. The level that I speak of is our attuning with God.
God may be touched, spoken to, and heard from on a regular basis. His desire for you and me is to have a relationship, a father / child relationship, that is reminiscent of the Garden of Eden (i.e. God, Adam, and Eve). Through Jesus Christ, the barriers of having that relationship have been removed. We can be as close to God as we want or as far away from Him as we want. Fasting then becomes less about trying to please God as much as it is about us making ourselves more aware of Him in our lives. Fasting empties an individual and teaches us to rely on the Spirit's strength. Fasting brings our level of receptivity to a higher place where we are able to discern the leading of the Spirit, experience greater intimacy with God, and be filled with peace.
Jesus was asked a question from John the Baptist's disciples in Matthew 9. They came to Him and asked why His disciples never fasted when they and the Pharisees did it on a regular basis. Jesus' response is interesting. In light of the Holy Spirit coming to dwell in us as Comforter and the Spirit of Christ, Jesus says that there will come a time where His disciples won't have Him and that's when they will fast. What did Jesus mean when He stated that the "bridegroom" would be taken from them? Jesus gives us maybe one of the clearest relational needs for fasting in His explanation. Knowing full well the plan to send the Spirit to us, Jesus speaks of the literal, physical reunion to take place between Himself and man in Heaven where there will be no more temptation, sin, and strife. Yes, we will see Jesus face to face. We will feel His touch and see Him as He speaks. We will literally see our names spoken from His lips. We will get to feel the greatest embrace ever known to creation. We are all longing for that day. We long to be reunited with Christ, our Savior, Redeemer, and Friend. Jesus makes it clear that when physical contact is no longer possible, His disciples will fast and in doing so, will find one of the greatest levels of intimacy with Him that can be had on this side of Heaven.
It's important to note that the only one keeping you and I from knowing God more is ourselves. Fasting teaches us to disregard and lay off the weights that tie us down and keep us from serving the Lord radically and openly. Hebrews 12 begins with these precise instructions on fulfilling the journey to Heaven. Fasting doesn't make you God's favorite, but it does help you clean your life out through sacrificial denial, introspective searching, and spiritual awareness. And as we learn those disciplines, we will find that the "static" between heaven and earth that so often exists begins to dissipate and our relationship with God becomes so much more clearer. So yes, you can receive answers to prayer and know God without fasting. But you can also allow your relationship with Him to rise to another level of reciprocity.
2. "Fasting is a waste of time because it's trying to bribe God."
I struggled with this idea for a long time. At some point, I found myself picturing a scenario where God held the answers to my situations and I went on a hunger strike until He gave them to me. It's for this reason, I struggled the most with fasting. I couldn't get that image out of my head. I knew God couldn't be bribed and wouldn't be impressed by me starving myself. I would only be causing myself pain and agony at laying it at God's expense. I had also had my fair share of run in's with fasting for something only to see it not come to pass and feeling like a fool and a failure. I totally got the idea of fasting to know Him more, but I struggled with the notion of fasting to receive. That's until I read Ezra 8:21, Daniel 6:18, Acts 9 and 27:9, 33.
In Ezra 8:21, we see a fast that takes place for a need. In Daniel 6:18, we see a fast beginning due to trouble. In Acts 9, we see a fast beginning due to desperation. In Acts 27, we see a fast beginning due to spiritual conflict. The Bible lists some 311 specific individuals who fasted ranging from 1 day to 40 days. Almost all of them are in response to a need or a calamity. And for the most part, the fasts accomplished what the individual set out to accomplish. The greatest example of fasting not producing the desired result is when David fasted that his baby may live in which the baby ultimately died.
So if we can't bribe God, but yet we are to fast to touch God and receive from Him, where do we draw the line? For me, I found a solution to my dilemma. It's a change of thought as it pertains to receiving from the Lord. We have trained ourselves to think of God as a Santa Claus of sorts sitting on His throne with all the answers to our problems in a bag. So we pray and pray hard. We fast and fast long. We try and live perfect. We try to do all the holy things the Bible seems to speak of in anticipation that in doing all of these things, God will reach in that bag and throw us a bone. We have the same view of Him as it pertains to negative things to. It's why the world asks the question, "Where was God," when bad things happen. It's why people say that a God who is love wouldn't do "this" or "that." It's that image again . . . God up on His throne throwing good and bad things down to the earth based on who prays the best, lives the best, and gives up the most. Have you ever thought this way? Come on. Admit it. You probably are right now. In fact this ideology is so thought of that we've developed spiritual rhetoric to back it up. When God doesn't answer someone's prayer, we'll attribute it to sin in their life, or that candy bar they ate half way through a fast, or not really "giving it their all." We find every way possible to take the blame off of God when He doesn't answer. Why do we do that? We do this simply because we believe that if we pray enough and do enough, God will give us things. We quote the verses where Jesus told us to ask anything in His name and it would be done and then chalk up the "failed" prayers as being a result of a lack of faith. But if the amount of faith needed to move a mountain is the size of a mustard seed, we have a problem. I've seen faith in action and I'd like to think it was greater than a mustard seed, yet no mountain moved. It's the great dilemma of Christianity. How do we or should we even, try to explain why God does and doesn't answer prayers?
For me, I came to a formative decision. I think some of the issue lies in the notion that God always answers by first of all saying yes and second of all by some miraculous gift giving. The Bible is clear that we are to fast when we are in need, but in the process, I believe we must make ourselves open to however God decides to respond. It doesn't have to be the proverbial mountain moving all at once from an invisible hand. Sometimes God answers through people. Sometimes God answers us not by giving us what we want, but by showing us what is keeping us from receiving. Sometimes God answers us by asking more of us (see the rich young ruler in Mark 10). And sometimes God just says that His grace is sufficient (see 2 Corinthians 12:9). In these cases, we are fasting for God to meet a need, but we're fasting trusting Him to answer in whichever way He deems fit. In this case, fasting is certainly not bribing God, but rather a inquisition for Him to meet our need according to His will and to reveal to us His plan. These are somewhat difficult ideas for the gift giving God viewer to accept, but when we understand God's economy to be more than depositing prayers and withdrawing rewards from Heaven's ATM and we begin to understand the relationship factor that exists between us and God, then we can begin to understand the process by which He answers.
One example would be a 14 year old asking for a brand new car. Legally, there is nothing wrong with purchasing a car for a 14 year old as long as he doesn't drive it. And in that case, one might could argue that the purchase was unnecessary at worst and bad timing at best. I think sometimes we're asking God for things that either are unnecessary or that we're truly unprepared for. I think we have to trust God that He knows what we need, when we need it, and how we need it. He isn't some cruel dictator divvying out blessings to His favorites. Instead, He's a loving Father who is able to see beyond our "needs" to our needs. We often quote Jeremiah 29:11, but miss the fact that the verse says that God has "plans" for us. The idea of a plan derives detail. I think we have to accept that God's plan for our life is detailed and just because we think we need something or should receive something doesn't necessitate a need to God. In fact, He knows what we have need of before we ask. I wonder sometimes if we shouldn't be praying and fasting for God to show us what needs to be done in our lives, what stumbling blocks are in the way, what relationships need to be mended, what forgiveness needs to be given, so that we may receive from Him.
So no, fasting isn't bribing God. Fasting is simply bringing what we believe to be a need to Him and asking Him to answer in whatever way He deems right.
3. "Fasting is supposed to be private so you announcing it like this is not scriptural."
This is another thing I struggled with to some degree when the 21 Day Fast became the newest fad in churches. Called the "Daniel Fast," many a church has embarked on the journey of eating veggies and so forth for 21 days to start off a year. "Daniel Fast" cookbooks started showing up in Christian bookstores showing participants how to eat their favorite foods during the fast without eating what was prohibited. And I couldn't help then, and still can't help now thinking the fast might just be a waste.
The very idea of fasting is self-denial for the sake of being more open to hear the voice of the Lord and to encounter His presence and direction. Biblical fasting always involved seeking and giving something up. I have a hard time reconciling giving up food or foods for fasting and simultaneously searching for ways to eat as if you haven't. I'm not going to say a person can't fast this way. I've learned not to be so quick to judge on some things. But I will say that in my opinion, this type of fasting leans more towards dieting rather than self-denial and seeking.
So does this mean the collective fast is wrong? Of course not. Matthew 6 deals almost exclusively with the Christian disciplines and how they are to be practiced in private. Fasting is listed in verses 16-18. Taken by themselves, one may derive that all fasting should be secret. However, this is not what Jesus is saying and there are ample examples of scripture to prove it.
First, Jesus was simply comparing the way the Pharisees fasted to the way fasting should be done properly. Jesus says that when we fast, we shouldn't walk around making ourselves look downtrodden and poor so as to garner attention. The Pharisees would literally take ash and paint it on their faces so everyone would know when they were fasting and think highly of them. Jesus said not to do this. He said that if we go about angling for attention due to our fasting, then we'll get it from men, but miss the reward from Heaven. Nowhere does Jesus say not to tell anyone you're fasting or not to share it with a group. His directive here is more about attention instead of sharing.
We see plenty of other examples in the Bible where Israel's kings would call a corporate fast to seek the face of God. Israel was to enter into a collective fast on the Day of Atonement. Jehosophat ordered a collective fast when facing invasions from neighboring countries. Paul ordered a collective fast while on a ship being tossed about by a great storm the Bible calls "Euroclydon." The three Hebrew boys along with Daniel entered into a limited fast together as they refrained from eating the king's meat and delicacies for a period of days. In other words, there is nothing against collective fasts being called by a church or a group of people. In fact, scripture proves that collective fasts are important when it comes to a group of people getting a response from Heaven. Thus, our church will participate in a collective fast as we pray together for God's will to be done in our church, in our services, in our evangelism, and in our efforts. We will also pray that God will lead us and guide us throughout the year as we seek to continue to progress in the vision He's given us. Fasting in this sense will bring us into one mind and one accord with the purposes and plans of God for us.
4. "I can't fast and God understands that."
Actually, you can fast. Everyone can fast. Everyone is called to fast. Jesus said in Matthew 6:16 "when you fast," not "if you fast." Fasting certainly isn't a requirement for Heaven, but a complete lack of desire to ever participate may be a stumbling point in the future. In fact, fasting is so important that Jesus said in Mark 9:29 that there are some things that cannot happen without prayer AND fasting. He was referencing the disciples' questions of why they were unsuccessful at casting a demon out. In fact when Jesus was called to intervene, He actually rebuked the disciples. His reasoning behind why the demon couldn't be cast out tells us that the disciples lacked either prayer or fasting or both. As we fight strongholds and sin in this world, Jesus is clear. There are some things that will not break in our lives until we move beyond prayer and add fasting. Faith needs prayer for its development and full growth, and prayer needs fasting for the same reason.
Now let's get technical. Some people can't go without eating due to medical issues. The Bible gives a great alternative in following the fast that Daniel participated in for 21 days in which the individual can eat certain foods during the fasting period. So a person can still eat for medical reasons and still fast as well.
What is very clear is that the Bible doesn't say there is a right and wrong way to fast. The overall meaning of the word "fast" is to go without food with the emphasis typically being going without all food. However, the example of Daniel referenced earlier proves that fasting can be done while eating certain foods or while eating in general. What can be understood is that fasting is something a person needs to feel led to participate in and needs to hear from God in how to participate. God may instruct a person to completely quit eating for a number of days. If He does, then it would be disobedient to not do so regardless of the reasons. God may instruct someone to do a "Daniel Fast" or to even give up eating a meal or two per day for a period of time. The fast ultimately is to be determined by the individual after careful prayer and consideration. However, a true fast involves food. This isn't to say that God won't deal with you and me about "fasting" TV or Facebook or something else. But this type of "fasting," is more along the lines of simple obedience and discipline. Fasting in the Biblical will always involve food or some sort.
So yes, everyone can fast and no, God doesn't understand if you say you can't. Is it hard? You bet! Can it be painful? Without a doubt! Is it unpleasant? Absolutely! Is it rewarding? More than you can imagine. Apparently the disciples learned their lesson in Mark 9, because there isn't another record of them having to call Jesus on the scene to clean up their mess. Imagine being able to break free from something that's had a hold on you or your family for years. Fasting breaks things off of us. Imagine feeling a closeness and an intimacy with the Lord like you've never felt before. It can happen as fasting empties us of ourselves that we may experience more of Him. Imagine getting counsel and direction straight from the throne room. It happens when we deny ourselves and seek after God with our whole hearts. Fasting opens up the spiritual realm by denying our physical bodies. If we truly want power with God and power to change things, Jesus' words are still clear. Some things will only break when God's people pray AND fast. You can do it!
Here are some other ways that fasting benefits us:
1. Fasting humbles the soul before God. (Ps. 35:13)
2. Fasting chastens the soul. (Ps. 69:10)
3. Fasting crucifies appetites and desires to give time for prayer. (2 Samuel 12:16-23, Matt. 4:1-11)
4. Fasting manifests earnestness before God at the exclusion of all else. (1 Corinthians 7:5)
5. Fasting shows obedience and gives the digestive system a rest. (Matt. 6:16-18, 9:15, Luke 5:33)
6. Fasting aids in prayer, victory, and mastery of flesh. (Matt. 4:1-11, 17:14-21)
Here are some times for fasting:
1. When being chastened (2 Samuel 12:16-23)
2. When under judgment (1 Kings 21:27)
3. When in need or desiring direction (Ezra 8:21)
4. When in danger (Esther 4)
5. When worried (Daniel 6:18)
6. When in trouble (Acts 27:9, 33)
7. When in spiritual conflict (Matt. 4:1-11)
8. When in desperate prayer (Acts 9)
Fasting is tough. It takes discipline which is precisely what being a disciple is all about. I invite you to open yourself up to fasting. Don't just think about it for a 21 day period, but may we make it a lifestyle this year and every year. Remember, fasting can be any length of days, even one. Imagine what it would be like to fast the day before a big job interview and in the place of eating, you spent that time in prayer and study. Imagine the confidence and peace you would possess from denying yourself and being open to the reassuring presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
It's my belief that as the church returns to the disciple of fasting on a regular basis and not just a predetermined 21 days at the beginning of each year, we will see true revival, true miracles, and true change. In fact, if there's ever been a time for it, it would certainly be now. So consider making fasting a part of your walk with the Lord and consider joining us in our church's 21 day fast. If you have questions about it or would just like to let me know you're agreeing with me, you can email me privately to let me know. We'll agree together in prayer for God to do great things, show us His plans, and to experience God in a deeper way.