Guidelines to Fasting and Prayer
Fasting is the act of willingly abstaining from food, drink, or other things. Fasting should not be ritualistic and should be directed toward a specific purpose. Jesus fasted, and as Christians, we can’t go wrong following His example.
Matthew 4:2 – “After He (Jesus) had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry.”
1 John 2:6 – “He that says he abides in Him ought himself also so to walk, even as He walked.”
Ephesians 5:1-2 – “Be ye therefore followers (imitators) of God, as dear children, and walk as Christ.”
Fasting is primarily the act of willingly abstaining from all food, drink, or both, for a period of time. An absolute fast is normally defined as abstinence from all food and liquid for a defined period, usually 24 hours or several days.
Other fasts may be only partially restrictive, limiting particular foods or substances. The fast may also be intermittent in nature. Fasting practices may preclude sexual intercourse (1 Corinthians 7:5) and other activities as well as food.
Fast Before God, Not Man
Matthew 6:16-18 – “Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.”
We must not flaunt what we are doing when we fast. Flaunting our fast can be spiritually egotistical and prideful which would be seeking man’s attention and approval instead of God’s. When we fast, we shouldn’t tell everyone what we are doing, put on a sad face, and appear as if we are making some great sacrifice. It should be something between us and God alone.
That does not mean we can’t let our spouse know what we are doing so they know why we are not eating. It also doesn’t mean we can’t let other people know why we are refusing to eat with them. The point is, it’s not something we should flaunt, so you are “not noticed by men, but by your Father.”
Have a Specific Purpose in Mind
David Livingston said, “Fastings and vigils without a special object in view are time run to waste. They are made to minister to a sort of self-gratification instead of being turned to good account.”
Fasting is not to be a religious ritual we go through. When we fast, we should have a specific purpose in mind, something we want to accomplish as a result of our fast. It can be for something simple or complex. So, why fast? Below are a few specific reasons to fast.
- Fasting humbles us before God. Jesus told a parable about two men who went to the temple to pray, a Pharisee and a tax collector. “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.”
The tax collector, who was considered a notorious sinner, prayed, “standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon (beat) his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:9-13). Jesus’ response to these two was, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased (humbled); and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:14).
Fasting, if done as Jesus describes in Matthew 6:16-18, is a way of humbling ourselves before God saying, “Lord, I need you, I am nothing without you, apart from you I can do nothing, I am in complete dependence upon you” (John 15:5). Peter said, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time” (1 Peter 5:6).
- Fasting is a means of mastering and subduing our flesh. Eating is something we must do for survival. If we can deny ourselves what is a necessity of life, then we will be able to master our flesh in other areas.
1 Corinthians 9:27 – “I keep under (discipline) my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway – disqualified.”
He said all those who are able to master the flesh would be granted an incorruptible crown as reward for their discipline. Fasting is a way of mastering our flesh. It is an exercise in self-denial. Jesus said, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23). If we can deny ourself food and/or drink for a period of time we should be able to deny our flesh of sinful desires and in various disciplines of the Christian life.
When the disciples were asked by Jesus to stand with Him in prayer, they fell asleep and Jesus said, ” What, could ye not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:40-41). If we can take control over the flesh in the area of eating, we can control it in every other area of life.
- Fasting can be used to seek help in times of trouble. The children of Israel were being defeated in battle and “Then all the children of Israel, and all the people, went up, and came unto the house of God, and wept, and sat there before the Lord, and fasted that day until evening” (Judges 20:26). They desperately needed divine intervention and they sought the Lord in fasting and prayer. After they had fasted they inquired of the Lord saying, “Shall I yet again go out to battle against the children of Benjamin my brother, or shall I cease? And the Lord said, Go up; for tomorrow I will deliver them into thine hand” (Judges 20:28).
The Psalmist said, “Call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me” (Psalms 50:15). Throughout scripture fasting was used to call on God in times of trouble. Are you facing a time of trouble and difficulty? My advice is to seek the Lord through a time of fasting and prayer for His deliverance.
- Fasting can be used to seek God for direction. God told Jeremiah, “Call unto Me, and I will answer thee, and show thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not” (Jeremiah 33:3). Daniel, while in captivity, saw that seventy years were appointed in the desolation of Jerusalem and he said, “I set my face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes” (Daniel 9:3). As a result, God sent the angel Gabriel to explain to Daniel the seventy weeks which clarifies much prophecy for us today.
- Fasting can be used to seek God for a breakthrough. Daniel was once again seeking answers from God and had been fasting for twenty-one days. An angel appeared to him saying, “Fear not, Daniel: for from the first day that thou didst set thine heart to understand, and to chasten thyself before thy God, thy words were heard, and I am come for (because of) thy words. But the prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me one and twenty days: but, lo, Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me; and I remained there with the kings of Persia” (Daniel 10:12-13).
When a spiritual battle is waging, fasting and prayer can be used to break spiritual strongholds allowing revelation to be released and victory wrought. If the answer and breakthrough we are seeking seems to be withheld from us, an extended time of fasting may be required (Acts 13:1-3).
- Fasting is an expression of mourning and grieving. Throughout scripture people often fasting as an expression of emotional sorrow over a tragedy. We see this in the case of David grieving over the approaching death of his child (2 Samuel 12:16, 2 Samuel 12:21). Jesus expressed this in answer to the question of John the Baptist’s disciples, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but thy disciples fast not? And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast” (Matthew 9:14-15).
We see in Jonah 3:5-7 that fasting was often used in mourning over sin and repentance thereof. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). This is a mourning over our spiritual bankruptcy. There are also times for us to mourn over particular sins that have befallen us.
There are times when fasting is required as mourning over defeat by the enemy to find out what is wrong and how to remedy it as seen in Israel’s defeat before Ai (Joshua 7:1-6). If facing a spiritual battle and defeat, fasting can be used in mourning over our defeat and in seeking out what is wrong so it can be dealt with and remedied. “Lord, why are we not victorious and prospering?”
- Fasting can be used to draw near to God. Jesus did this at the onset of His public ministry in Matthew 4:1-2. After this time of fasting and prayer Jesus “returned in the power of the Spirit” (Luke 4:13-15). This is a time when we set aside food and often water for the specific purpose of drawing near to God.
Moses set aside such a time on Mount Sinai. “And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water” (Exodus 34:28). Fasting is a time to lay hold of God with all that is humanly possible (Isaiah 64:7). “Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you” (James 4:8).
- Fasting is the cure for unbelief. A man brought his son to Jesus saying, “Lord, have mercy on my son: for he is lunatick, and sore vexed: for ofttimes he falleth into the fire, and often into the water. I brought him to Thy disciples, and they could not cure him” (Matthew 17:15-16).
Jesus of course cured the child. “Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast him out? And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you. Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:19-21).
Notice Jesus said they could not cast the demon out because of the littleness of their faith and “this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” Clearly there are times when fasting stimulates greater faith that may be needed for more intense spiritual conflict.
- Fasting taps into spiritual power. This same instance of fasting being a cure for unbelief also indicates it enables us to tap into additional spiritual power (Matthew 17:14-21). The child in this passage was possessed by an evil spirit and the disciples were unable to cast it out. Jesus said, “This kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:21).
I remember hearing Lester Sumrall telling the story of a person in Bilibid Prison in the Philippines who was tormented by evil spirits. Many people tried to help this person to no avail. He went to assess the situation, but before attempting to do anything he first left and spent time in fasting and prayer. When he returned, he cast the demons out and the person was completely set free. Many men of God like R. A. Torrey, Charles Finney, and D. L. Moody testified to having been fitted with power after long seasons of fasting.
Sadly, few today desire God’s power enough to pay the price of fasting and prayer. Jesus Himself was endued with power after He had fasted for an extended period.
Luke 4:13-15 – “Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit.”