Christian fasting is the practice of abstaining from food for a set time to devote your time and attention to God more deeply.
Christians fast in a variety of ways: a few hours on a given day, from sunup to sundown, twenty-four continuous hours, or multiple days at a time. Some fasts set aside food altogether, certain types of foods, or some combination of both. The time frame and specifics might vary, but the purpose of fasting (connecting more deeply with God) does not. Christian fasting is not about losing weight or resetting one’s physical health. Although that might certainly happen, it is not the purpose of Christian fasting.
Resistance to FastingAs you might expect, giving up food to connect with God often comes with a number of questions and forms of resistance for those who have not yet experienced the goodness of God through fasting. Even if you believe Christian fasting is a good discipline, you probably still experience some level of internal hesitance or resistance. I know I do. So if the idea of fasting seems intimidating, let me be the first to say congrats: You are normal. Surrendering comforts we enjoy is never easy. We have been conditioned for ease and comfort, and fasting is certainly not easy. Many Christians also believe fasting is a discipline reserved only for super Christians, so they don’t push through the areas of resistance to experience the greater reward. Maybe this is your story. That was my story for a number of years.
Read Dave Clayton’s story about fasting in his book Revival Starts Here, where he shares also about the purpose of fasting for revival.
One of the biggest hurdles I overcame in personal resistance to fasting was the hurdle of faulty expectations. When Sydney and I first began leading our church family into seasons of prayer and fasting, we had faulty expectations that we would see tremendous results in a short period of time. In other words, we expected all the breakthroughs to come in the seasons of prayer and fasting. To be clear, we often experience great breakthroughs in our seasons of prayer and fasting. But we now know firsthand, more often than not, the true breakthroughs from seasons of prayer and fasting often come in the days, weeks, months, and years that follow.
Fasting relates more closely to planting seeds than harvesting crops.
If a farmer plants a seed in the ground, and then lives with the faulty expectation that he will have an abundant harvest before dinner that evening—he will be quite disappointed. This faulty expectation will probably cause him to throw in the towel and find a new profession. The same is true for so many Christians when it comes to fasting. Too often Christians have faulty expectations of the spiritual dynamics that are at work, and they throw in the towel far too easily when they face the natural resistance and disappointment that can accompany seasons of fasting.
The Purpose of Fasting in ScriptureRecently a close friend asked me, “What is the purpose of fasting for modern Christians?” On one level, the answer is simple. Jesus modeled it and taught it. If we are going to live as Jesus’ disciples, then anything Jesus modeled is something we should seek to imitate. If you are familiar with Jesus’ life, as recorded in the Gospels, then you know the Holy Spirit led Jesus in a season of fasting at the beginning of his ministry. But Jesus didn’t simply model fasting. He also taught it. In his most famous sermon, Jesus dedicated an entire section to fasting and spoke in terms of “when” his disciples would fast, not “if” they would fast. But the biblical mandate for fasting didn’t begin or end with Jesus. In the Bible, a wide variety of men and women of faith set aside food for a season to connect more deeply with God. Moses, David, Esther, Daniel, Nehemiah, and the believers in Antioch are just some who sought God through prayer and fasting. Although the witness of the Scriptures is more than enough reason for any serious disciple of Jesus to prioritize seasons of prayer and fasting, understanding how the Holy Spirit empowers us through fasting can be extremely helpful. For instance, I find it amazing that Luke describes Jesus as being filled with the power of the Holy Spirit after his forty days of fasting in the wilderness. That simple description sent me on a journey of discovery regarding how the Holy Spirit empowers us as we seek the Father as Jesus did through prayer and fasting. So let’s explore five key ways the Holy Spirit empowers us through fasting.
1. AbstainingOne of the most obvious ways the Spirit empowers us through fasting comes as we learn to abstain. A powerful principle is at play when we choose to let go of something so God can take hold of our hearts once again. We live in a world that constantly says we can have whatever we want, whenever we want it, however we want it. Further, many Christians have been discipled by the “buy it now” button, and they fail to see how this way of living has subtly transformed how they think about God. In Mark 8:34–38, Jesus declared that to be his disciples we must deny ourselves. Thus, we find clarity for our hearts in this chaotic world through self-denial (abstaining), not self-fulfillment.
Fasting is one of the ways the Holy Spirit teaches us to deny ourselves in a world obsessed with self-fulfillment.
As we learn to consider what we put into our mouths during a period of prayer and fasting, the Holy Spirit will often give us clarity about the things we have been putting into our souls. Abstaining from food for a season in order to seek God often serves as the initial catalyst for the Holy Spirit to recalibrate the taste buds of our hearts for eternal realities once again.
2. AbidingAnother way the Holy Spirit empowers us through fasting is the gift of abiding. If abstaining is about what we let go of, abiding is about whom we lean in to. When it comes to fasting, many Christians never get beyond the reality of abstaining. Fasting becomes nothing more than a difficult game of “doing something hard for God.” But that is not the purpose of fasting.
Fasting is about creating space for God to permeate our lives more fully.
This happens in the place of abiding. Abiding occurs as we create more room in our schedule to enjoy God in an unhurried way. Abiding often begins in the Word, through prayer, in places of solitude—but it is not limited to those realities. In my early experiences with fasting, I often filled my schedule more than usual to distract myself from being hungry. I scheduled meetings or tasks during meal hours to keep the thoughts of eating at bay. This was a miserable way to fast, and it rarely worked. Not until I took the time that was typically devoted to eating and repurposed that time for fellowship with God did I begin to experience the blessings and breakthroughs that come with fasting.
3. AlignmentA third way the Holy Spirit empowers us through fasting is through alignment. God will often use seasons of prayer and fasting to realign our heart, mind, and life with his plans and purposes. I love David’s aligning prayer at the end of Psalm 139. David boldly asked God to search him, know him, test him, and lead him. This is how the Holy Spirit often deals with me in seasons of prayer and fasting. Through the journey of abstaining and abiding, the Holy Spirit often begins the work of aligning.
In our fast-paced, overly committed lives, we often cruise along without ever discerning if we are in step with God’s plans for our lives.
Most of us have grown quite accustomed to living lives that are out of alignment with God. Yet fasting creates room for God to proactively address the areas of our lives that are out of alignment so we can experience the abundant life with Jesus once again.
4. AskingSeasons of prayer and fasting also create powerful opportunities to ask God for key breakthroughs for you, your family, your community, or your nation. In Matthew 7:7–12, Jesus invited us to ask, seek, and knock. In Luke 11:5–8, he told us to petition God in the same way a desperate neighbor would beg his friend for help in the middle of the night.
As the Spirit aligns our hearts with the Father’s heart, we find ourselves able to ask the Father for the longings of our hearts.
We do this while staying submissive to the Father’s wisdom and will, much like Jesus did in the garden of Gethsemane. Over the years, my wife and I have witnessed many believers pour their hearts out before God in seasons of prayer and fasting. I explain some of these experiences in my book Revival Starts Here. Read it to learn more about our experiences with fasting to see God move in our church. We have witnessed the audacious Luke 11 prayers. We have listened to the persistent Matthew 7 requests. God answered many of these prayers in astounding ways. We have also marveled as our brothers and sisters have asked God for something close to their hearts, and then faithfully submitted to his loving “no” or “not quite yet.” Either way, seasons of prayer and fasting play a critical role in how the Spirit works in us, for us, and through us as we learn to ask God for things that matter.
5. ActivatingFinally, the Holy Spirit often uses times of prayer and fasting to activate us for new spiritual assignments and opportunities. You might recall that during Paul’s conversion in Acts 9, Jesus planted the seeds of Paul’s future calling. Amid that radical conversion, Jesus revealed that Paul was God’s chosen instrument for the Gentiles. But that calling did not immediately break through the surface of Paul’s life.
The book of Galatians shares how the seed of Paul’s calling remained largely hidden for more than a decade.
Then Acts 13:1–3 describes how God used a season of prayer and fasting in the church at Antioch to activate God’s calling on Paul from years earlier. Amazing! Over the past decade, my wife and I have marveled at how God delights in using seasons of communal prayer and fasting to activate the seeds of God’s kingdom that have lain largely hidden in our midst. We have witnessed God commission people into new assignments and opportunities, and we have watched him recommission people into assignments and opportunities that had yet to be fully realized. Fasting is often the match the Holy Spirit uses to ignite a new season of calling and purpose in a person’s life.
Are You Hungry for More?So my question for you is simple: Are you hungry for more? Do you want to experience more of God’s love and power flowing through your life? Do you want to live in step with his will more easily? Let me be clear: There is no silver bullet.
Fasting is not the golden ticket to the life that you have always wanted.
I do, however, believe the Holy Spirit empowers us in unique ways as we learn to seek God faithfully through prayer and fasting. So what are you waiting for? Start small and stick with it. Set aside a mealtime this week for the purpose of meeting God. Watch what happens as you learn to abstain, abide, and ask. Marvel at how God aligns your heart and activates his purposes in your life. Or maybe you are ready to take a bigger step. Perhaps you are ready to set aside a day each month, a week each year, or something altogether different. God has more for you than you could possibly ask or imagine. Lean all the way in. What do you have to lose?
Read Dave Clayton’s Revival Starts Here to learn more about the need for fasting in your spiritual formation. This post was adapted from an audio transcript of a sermon on fasting by Dave Clayton. Used with permission.