The Great Commission of Matthew 28 tells us to go and make disciples. After we baptize them, we are to teach them to obey everything that Jesus commanded. The question then arises: How do we teach spiritual formation? And how do we teach the discipline of fasting for a Christian’s spiritual growth?
“Fasting is the voluntary denial of a normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity.” — Richard Foster, The Celebration of DisciplineFasting is foreign to many, although lately it has picked up popularity for the health-conscious crowd. But it is not frequently practiced today for spiritual renewal. Fasting seems to be a lost discipline. It requires us to sacrifice an instinctual need for food. We will gladly get up early to spend time in God’s Word and practice silence or solitude…
But go hungry?
That’s not possible or even probable. Recently, I was in a group of believers and we were lamenting over the lost, particularly over the lost children of those in the group. The hurt of these committed believers who had raised their children in Christ-centered homes was palpable. I asked if they had fasted for their kids’ hearts in order that their hearts might become soft and receptive to God. They admitted they hadn’t, but that they would think about it. My prayer for them, as well as for all of us that call Jesus our Savior, is that we will start our deep petitions to God with prayer and fasting. Fasting is the fuel that ignites our prayers to the Father about our deepest wounds and our greatest desires. We can listen to sermons, read books, or listen to lectures on fasting all we want, and these serve a great purpose. They can convict us that fasting is a really good idea. Effective teaching can even show us how to practice it, but those media modalities will rarely move us to lasting action in the spiritual disciplines—especially in the area of fasting and prayer.
If we’re going to truly learn fasting well, we must learn it from someone else through relationship.
We often think that fasting is our sacrifice to God, when in reality it is his gift to us. From beginning to end, it’s about him, not us. We worship him through this practice, and we glorify him as we hunger for him and put food in its appropriate place. God is our true nourishment. We feel entitled to have full bellies all the time, so we are not used to denying ourselves, especially when food is readily available. It is uncomfortable, and the world has told us that we cannot and should not deny ourselves a few meals or that fasting is unhealthy.
God can’t possibly want us to be uncomfortable, much less unhealthy, can he?
This is where discipling others comes in. We must walk people through the biblical examples of fasting and practice fasting with those we’re discipling in order for them to learn this practice. It often takes encouragement to be willing to get uncomfortable in this way. Challenge people to read examples of Esther and Daniel. Tell them that we aren’t given a lot of information in Scripture about the mechanics of fasting because it was such common place for ancient Jewish people, among others. It would have been odd for them not to understand and practice fasting. In our culture, though, the suggestion of depriving ourselves of food in the name of spiritual formation and awakening is a foreign concept. That’s why I think…
We must teach people how to fast.
And I propose we go at it from a different angle, one that Matthew 28 describes: let’s disciple people in fasting. We can come alongside those that God has put us in relationship with and personally guide them in the area of biblical fasting. You might think, But I don’t regularly fast myself, so how am I going to help someone else to fast? Consider the fact that very few disciple-makers will say the same thing about Bible reading and prayer, saying to themselves, I’m rarely in the Bible or I hardly ever pray, so I can’t help someone else. No, we don’t say that! We are comfortable teaching people how to start regularly reading and engaging in Scripture, even while we’re still learning. We may even have a go-to prayer guide or reading plan we love to share with others, or evangelistic tools we use to teach others. Have you thought about using the same principle in the spiritual discipline of fasting?
Let me offer you a parallel scenario…My daughter ran cross-country for a small Christian school. Her coach had to miss several practices and asked parents to step in and help out. A few of us said sure, and we began coaching the practices. It became obvious to the kids whose parents just watched their children run and those of the parents had experience with running for themselves. While I hadn’t run cross-country, I had participated in distance running as an adult and could relate to the sport and to the pitfalls of training. My experience became obvious to the kids. As such, I gained their respect as their fill-in coach. Is fasting something that you are comfortable both teaching and practicing with someone else? There is a difference between coaching a game that you love, having played it, versus coaching a sport that you’ve read about and watched from the stands. The important thing is your experience, not your expertise. So, the first task is to experience fasting for yourself! This is part of step one of six steps that I’ve listed below.
Discipling Someone in Fasting: Six StepsIn this post, I share with you six steps to help you disciple someone in fasting.
Step 1: Humble YourselfIf you have not regularly participated in fasting, humble yourself and find a person who is experienced and ask them to teach you. Then, and only then, can you give to another what you now have personal experience in. We need to raise the bar for leaders. I require fasting for the spiritually mature who have asked me to coach them in disciple-making. Obviously, there are medical reasons that prohibits some from participation, but those instances are rare and we can definitely work through them. Most do not have experience in fasting. I am upfront with this requirement, and while some have expressed hesitation, once we have walked through the whys and the how-tos, they grasp it quickly and see the blessings of it in their lives and ministries. One woman that I was coaching with regard to creating a discipleship culture in her women’s ministry was in her late 60s. She said that she was very hesitant to begin to fast but because I had insisted that this was necessary as a regular part of her spiritual life as a disciple and a leader, she did it faithfully. We fasted and prayed together for her journey as a disciple-maker. We specifically asked God to reveal women that she should recruit into a new group she was forming. She said that the fruit she saw in her disciple-making could only be explained by adding the practice of fasting to her life.
She had been leading bible studies for forty years but had never seen results like she was now seeing.
She is now committed to this practice and discipling others in it, too.
Step 2: Share Resources about FastingPrior to my church’s fast with Awaken Nashville in 2020 starting our first fast, we read Dave Clayton’s book, Revival Starts Here. This book is an easy on-ramp to fasting. In it, Dave describes the reasons we fast and the how to’s in simple, easy-to-understand and easy-to-put-into-practice ways. This is now a go-to resource for me and our church. Another book I recommend is Michael Eagle’s workbook, Prayer and Fasting: Group Discussion Guide. I recommend sharing resources like this with those you’re discipling. I also go through Scripture with people I’m discipling and look at specific times God has answered prayers through the fasts of his people, like with Esther or the descriptions in the New Testament of Jesus fasting. Some people I’ve discipled have challenged me here by saying that there isn’t much specifically about fasting in the New Testament. That reasoning is why they don’t believe we need to do it anymore. So, I point them to Jesus talking to the Pharisees about his disciples and why they weren’t fasting at the time: he was still with them. But the assumption was that they would fast when he was gone (see Mark 2:18–20). Many people also are not aware that fasting was a very regular habit of the ancient Jewish people, so the original audiences would not have needed an explanation of how to fast because fasting practices were engrained into their culture and they had extensive experience in it. Jesus does, however, explain in Matthew 6:18 the appropriate posture of heart with which we should go into fasting, instead of fasting like the Pharisees.
That is an important point to tease out for people.
If you are in a position to recommend a deeper dive into the spiritual disciplines, including fasting, I’d suggest The Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth by Richard J. Foster. I have read and studied this book with many women, and my husband has done the same with his men’s group, too. It is a great launching pad into the core disciplines, including fasting. After taking people through fasting resources, go ahead and fast together.
Step 3: Fast TogetherIt is a misconception that we must fast alone or that it has to be done in secret. There are many instances in Scripture when large groups fasting together. We may be quick to reach out to another person for prayer. But let me ask you this…
Have you ever asked someone to fast with you about a burden?
When the women I disciple admit a sinful stronghold, share a heavy burden, or have a major decision to make, they sometimes come to me for prayer. When they ask, my response is, “Will you join me in fasting for that tomorrow?” This happened recently with a woman in our church. Her husband had been ill and was going in for some diagnostic testing. She was anxious and asking me to pray for her husband’s health. I texted back, “I would be honored to fast for him, would you join me in that?” Her response was hesitant, since it wasn’t her regular practice to fast, so we talked on the phone and I described God’s heart in allowing us to draw even closer to him and petition him through the discipline of fasting. She agreed, and I suggested that we skip breakfast. I also offered to pray over the situation with her during the time we would have been making and eating breakfast. So fast together as a way to disciple others in fasting. And hopefully my example shows you an example of the next step, too…
Step 4: Meet Them Where They AreMeet people in the burdens of their heart. That is the best way to begin someone in the discipline of fasting. Every instance of fasting in the bible was for deep burdens, and God is honored when we bring those to him. I have found that the easiest on-ramp for people to begin fasting is when they become aware that they have a deep hurt or need that only God can fill. These burdens can be deeply personal, such as an area of sin in their life or the loss of a child, but it could also be a deep longing about the state of one’s country. Whatever their burden, I join them in it. I do this because I’ve learned this: do not expect the person you’re discipling to join you in a generic burden or one that you propose to them. People need to feel like they are not alone as they carry their concerns to the cross. As you disciple them, you are showing them what bearing burdens can look like in a very personal way. You are also setting the example for how they will disciple others. As you start where someone is at, make sure that the details of the fast are doable. Set an agreed upon goal. If you are experienced in fasting do not expect someone to fast the way you do. You may regularly fast for twenty-four or seventy-two hours, but that may not be their starting point. Many people will ask me about my fasting schedule.
I never tell them where I am now without first telling them how I got started—and the challenges that I have faced and overcome.
When I have not done this, people get discouraged and give up before they even get started. You would never suggest that someone memorize the entire book of Psalms when starting the practice of memorizing Scripture. The same principal applies to fasting. Ask them to skip breakfast or even just postpone a meal by a few hours. Touch base regularly during the fasting time. Share your struggles. Don’t allow them to think that this is really easy for you or that you aren’t hungry. Also, give them simple tips that you’ve learned and now take for granted, such as increasing their water intake or adding minerals to the water to avoid a headache, or another important one: don’t eliminate coffee if you regularly drink more than two cups a day. Practical strategies like this will help them navigate new territory. As you disciple people in fasting, the next step is vital!
Step 5: Don’t Skip the Prayer TimeWhen people first begin to fast, it’s natural for most people to pray a lot during it. If nothing else, their rumbling stomach reminds them to pray. But as you incorporate fasting into your spiritual routine, you may forget to really pray. So, ask the people you are discipling what they are fasting for and make it a point to pray with them. I use prayer walks during my fasts to give myself focused time to devote to prayer. I like to use the ACTS prayer model (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication) as it is easy to remember, easy to teach to others, and most importantly, puts my heart in the right place during my prayer time. I have experienced fasting on busy days when I have forgotten to devote significant time to prayer. It felt like a wasted fast day. I was excited that the day went by quickly, but…
It wasn’t as meaningful as those days when I have struggled in my fast and prayed frequently.
While I don’t believe any day is wasted when I am involved in a spiritual discipline, without connecting fasting to prayer, you will not receive from God the great benefit of connecting with him as a way to unburden yourself or hear his great counsel. Also, if the person you’re discipling is actively praying for someone else, tell them to share that with the one for whom they are fasting. Recently, I fasted with a group about one another’s children. When we had prayed for each child by name, we posted that in a group chat. It was so heart-warming and powerful to know that there were other people willing to fast and pray for my children. A woman that I discipled in this practice said that she reached out to a co-worker to let her know that she was fasting and praying for her son. The co-worker found her at school and said that she had been going to church for twenty years and no one had ever been willing to fast and pray for her children. She said that that willingness meant the world to her because she had felt alone in her prayers for her son. She talked about how God had answered a prayer by showing her—that morning—that she wasn’t alone and that others were willing to sacrifice and petition God on her son’s behalf. So, plan for your prayer time and teach others to do the same. And finally…
Step 6: Celebrate!Along the way, congratulate and encourage those you’re discipling during your fast, even if the person doesn’t fast the entire length of time they’d hoped for. As you celebrate, share your struggles, too. Let them know you about your hunger and ask them to pray for you to be able to push through it. Ask them questions that will prompt them to consider what the Holy Spirit might be doing during their fast. Were they convicted of anything during their fasting and prayer time? Did they receive a word or answer to a specific prayer? Share what you experience, even if you don’t feel any great sense of the Holy Spirit that day. People need to know that this feeling doesn’t mean they shouldn’t ever fast again. Part of the discipline of fasting is learning perseverance. It is reasonable to empathize by telling them that you too are disappointed that you didn’t receive the answer to prayer for which you’d hoped. But also say that you are confident that God heard your petition and that he is working in the situation. You might want to say your plan is to continue taking your prayers to the Lord. Cite Anna’s perseverance, the temple widow in Luke 2:36–38, who fasted and prayed for many years and then spoke to Joseph and Mary in the temple when they presented baby Jesus. In our world of immediate news and internet answers at our fingertips, people need to be reminded that God is not of this world and that his timing is perfect—and we may not understand it.
The discipline of fasting is richer in its rewards than it is difficult in its sacrifice.
When we embark upon this discipline, though, it may not feel that way. As we fast and pray, we draw closer to the Lord and can hear his direction more clearly. The disciples of Jesus that we are guiding need to be practiced in fasting to better experience the beauty of God’s presence and blessings, which are amplified through this discipline. It is a privilege to share this area of spiritual formation with those that God has entrusted to us as we make disciples who make disciples like we are called to do in the Great Commission. What an honor!
Note from HIM Publications: Learn more about fasting and other spiritual disciplines by taking our Spiritual Formation Video Course here.
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Post by Michelle Eagle, Discipleship and Women’s Minister at Harpeth Christian Church and Director of Women’s Learning Communities at Renew.org.