Fasting from food serves as an extension of prayer, and it uniquely helps us connect with God. While we can pray using different postures, fasting involves our bodies in its own unique way. Fasting should be combined with actual spoken prayers, but in a sense:
Fasting itself is a prayer—a prayer that we speak to God with our whole bodies.
Going without food is a rather strange means of God’s grace, isn’t it? It’s not too often that we consider hunger pangs a gift! Furthermore, the apostle Paul affirms food as a good thing when he says to Timothy about abstaining from certain foods, “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4:4). So if food was created by God to be enjoyed, then why should we abstain from it? We can safely say that fasting is a Christian discipline because not only did Jesus fast but he also told us how to fast (Matt. 6:16–18). Let me be clear that no command in the New Testament says Christians must fast, but the expectation remains. Plus, the experience of Christians through the millennia proves that this practice holds an important place in the spiritual disciplines for disciples of Jesus. What adds to its importance is how it can intensify other disciplines, such as prayer, reading Scripture, solitude, confession, and listening. Here is an important truth to remember:
Fasting is a gift from God.
When words do not give enough voice to our prayers, fasting utilizes our very bodies to help us pray with every fiber of our beings. This is a gift, without which we would be limited in the depth of our abilities to express desperation to God. How does this fit within the spiritual formation journey? Through fasting, we mysteriously connect with God through self-denial, and God forms our souls to follow Jesus with increased levels of self-denial. All this gives us reason to fast, but how do we fast on a practical level? Let me explain the purpose of fasting, as I understand it, then offer some suggestions for how to plan your fasting habits.
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The Purpose of Christian FastingWe can pray and fast on all sorts of occasions, but one basic longing drives all types of fasting. It’s a common thread that ties all examples of fasting in the Bible together: desperation (for example, Deut. 9:9; 2 Sam. 12:15–17; Est. 4:1; 1 Kgs. 19:8; Neh. 9:1–3; Dan. 9:1–5; Jon. 3:5; Matt. 4:1–11; Acts 9:9; 13:2–3).
People who fasted in biblical history were all desperate for something.
Whether desperate for salvation, restoration, or renewal, fasting was the means through which God’s people expressed their desperation. Sometimes we fast to repent over our sin or selfishness; sometimes we fast about an important event or situation; and sometimes we fast because we’re sorrowful or sad. Whatever our reason, fasting gives voice to our prayers of desperation like nothing else. We fast alone and with others. When we fast with others, we experience a certain kind of power, so I encourage leaders to initiate fasting with their church, group, or family. And when we fast together, we can encourage each other in this discipline because let’s face it: going without food is challenging! Plus, when we fast as a group, we can learn from others how to do it. In the Old Testament and in the New Testament, we find records of God’s people fasting together, so we have a strong biblical precedent for group fasts.
But what does a group fast look like today?
A church can fast every week on a certain day of the week or a certain month of the year—and other fasts might come in response to a specific circumstance or situation within the group. While these types of group fasts carry immense value—whether it’s with your family, your small group, your entire church, or even your city— the main point is about helping you as an individual take your next steps in fasting. Even so, ask a friend or a mentor to join you as you grow! And if you’re a leader, don’t wait until you’ve figured it all out before you invite others to join you.
You can all learn to fast together.
As you learn to fast, remember the immense freedom, grace, and mercy you have in Christ. Fasting from food presents a unique challenge because it’s so bodily and visceral, which can cause us to forget the basics. I’ve personally experienced and seen in others acute temptations with regard to feeling guilt, shame, and comparison as they begin this practice. That’s why, I suppose, we don’t find specific regulations about the particulars of fasting in the Bible, and why we find heart-level instructions in places such as Isaiah 58:3–9; Zechariah 7:1–7; and Matthew 6:16–18.
My suggestion, then, is to grow in this discipline incrementally.
That is, don’t bite off more than you can chew! As you start small and go slow, invite people to fast with you, even if you’re not yet able to guide anyone on how to fast. If this practice is new to you, you might want to start by eliminating snacks or one small meal for one day. Then, go without one regular meal; after that, try going without food for two meals. After that, go thirty-six hours without food, then three days, and so on. These are common increments of progression in fasting, but there’s no set formula or path. And everyone who’s new to fasting should consider consulting their doctor first, especially as you consider fasting for longer periods of time.
Make Space for Spontaneous FastingAs you cultivate habits of personal fasting, make space for both spontaneous and regular fasting. Spontaneous fasting can happen when we feel a special desire to fast. Fasting when we have an acute sense of desperation tunes us into our spiritual desire for connecting with God through this discipline. By cultivating our relationship with God on this spontaneous level, we can more naturally plunge into regular fasting, when we don’t particularly feel like it.
If you want to start fasting but the moment of decision is not “coming to you,” try a spontaneous fast.
Here’s one way you can start, and it works especially well if you’ve never fasted and you want to make sure to engage your heart: Get the Your Spiritual Formation Plan workbook and put it in front of you every night before bed for the next seven days. Or make a physical reminder for yourself. Use that to remind yourself to gauge your heart’s readiness. Each night ask yourself, Do I feel desperate for God about anything? Is there anything weighing heavily on my heart? Is there something in my life that feels like a spiritual burden? Even ask, What is going on in my life that is heavy on your heart, God? Allow God’s heart to affect your heart through these questions. This type of self-reflective prayer can help you measure your level of desperation. When you feel desperate for something, just go for it the next day! That’ll be your next spontaneous fast.
You don’t have to feel “super spiritual” to start.
You don’t even have to hear directly from God about when to fast. Withhold judgment about when you decide to fast, especially when you’re starting out. Decide on a day for fasting, then make preparations and adjust your schedule as best you can. Even though this is spontaneous, make sure to prepare yourself spiritually for the fast by praying ahead of time and thinking about your purpose for the fast. And remember to communicate well with those who will be impacted by your fast.
Plan for Regular FastingRegular fasting. As you grow in this discipline, you will likely experience a desire for more regular fasting by a growing sense of desperation before God.
Through fasting, we become more sensitive to what breaks God’s heart.
Plus, we grow in our knowledge of God and of ourselves through this discipline. So, as your sense of general desperation for God grows, regular fasting becomes the planned way for making space to express your desperation to God. Most people who regularly fast, pick a day once or twice a week to fast. You may have heard that the Pharisees fasted on Mondays and Thursdays, but did you know that some of the earliest Christians fasted twice a week as well, on Wednesdays and Fridays? They did this not because they were legalists but because they so valued this practice that they made regular plans for it. There’s no general legislation with regard to fasting, though, so receive the freedom to practice this as you see fit.
And remember to be flexible!
Knowing when to flex your plans due to an unexpected change of plans is an art. It’s okay, even good, to be flexible, especially as you’re getting your feet wet in the practice of fasting. In summary, as you begin to make plans, start with spontaneous fasting, then begin adding structure to your habits with regular fasting. This post is an excerpt from Your Spiritual Formation Plan: A Devotional Workbook to Guide Your Next Steps with God. The chapter used for this excerpt guides you to put your plans on paper for spontaneous, regular, and group fasting. Use that workbook for guidance on forming your spiritual formation plan for fasting and nine other core disciplines.
Supplemental ReadingDave Clayton’s book Revival Starts Here: A Short Conversation on Prayer, Fasting, and Revival for Beginners Like Me (Nashville: HIM Publications, 2018) provides a simple and inspiring introduction to prayer and fasting for revival. It’s been used by hundreds of churches and tens of thousands of Christians to pray for awakening. It’s practical, relatable, and challenging. Read an excerpt from this book, “Why We Need Revival Today.” Listen to a podcast interview with Dave Clayton about Awaken Nashville.
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