Guidelines to Fasting and Prayer
Fasting is an example set for us by Jesus. As Christians, we can’t go wrong following His example. The Bible says, “He that says he abides in Him ought himself also so to walk, even as He walked” (1 John 2:6). “Be ye therefore followers (imitators) of God, as dear children, and walk as Christ” (Ephesians 5:1-2). “After He (Jesus) had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry.” (Matthew 4:2).
“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.”
Motive – Fast Before God, Not People
Jesus said, “Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18). He was saying we shouldn’t 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 as well as for something complex. So, why fast?
Below are some specific purposes of fasting:
1. Fasting Allows us to Humble Ourselves Before God
Jesus told a parable about two men who went to the temple to pray, a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisee prayed to himself, “God, I thank you that I’m not like other men—extortioners; unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.”
The tax collector, who was considered a notorious sinner, prayed, “Standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but 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 everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).
Fasting, if done the proper way 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 under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time” (1 Peter 5:6).
2. 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. Paul said, “I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). 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, “Could you not watch with Me one hour? Watch and pray, lest you enter 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.
3. Fasting can be Used in Seeking Help in Times of Trouble
The children of Israel were being defeated in battle and “All the people, went up and came to the house of God and wept. They 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 my brother Benjamin, or shall I cease? And the Lord said, Go up, for tomorrow I will deliver them into your hand” (Judges 20:28).
The Psalmist said, “Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you, and you will honor 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.
4. Fasting can be Used to Seek God for Direction
God told Jeremiah, “Call to Me, and I will answer you, and show you great and mighty things, which you do not know” (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 toward the Lord God to make request by prayer and supplications, with fasting, 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.
5. Fasting can be Used in Seeking God for a Much Needed Breakthrough
Daniel was once again seeking answers from God and had been fasting for twenty-one days. Gabriel appeared to him saying, “Do not fear, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand, and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard; and I have come because of your words. But the prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days” (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).
6. Fasting is an Expression of Mourning or 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 Your disciples do not fast? And Jesus said to them, Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will 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?”
7. 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 4:14). This is a time when we set aside food and often drink for the specific purpose of drawing near to God.
Moses set aside such a time on Mount Sinai. “Moses was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking 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).
8. Fasting – The Cure for Unbelief
A man brought his son to Jesus saying, “I brought him to Your disciples, and they could not cure him” (Matthew 17:16). Jesus of course cured the child. “Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, Why could we not drive it out? And He said to them, Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, Move from here to there, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you. But this kind does not go out except 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.
9. 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 does not go out except by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:21).
I remember hearing Lester Sumrall telling the story of a person in prison in Manila, 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. Jesus Himself was endued with power after He had fasted for an extended period. “Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit” (Luke 4:14).