Fasting: A Spiritual Power Tool

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A Spiritual Power Tool

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Fasting: A Spiritual Power Tool

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“ ‘Now, therefore,’ says the Lord, ‘Turn to Me with all your heart, with fasting …” (Joel 2:12 Joel 2:12Therefore also now, said the LORD, turn you even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning:
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).

The only thing most people know about fasting is that it can be a way to lose weight. But there’s much more we need to understand about fasting than that.

The Bible has much to say about this very important but often-neglected spiritual key. God desires and expects His followers to fast. Jesus Christ was asked why His disciples did not fast like other religious people. He replied with a short parable explaining that it was because He was still present with His disciples. He stated that after He was no longer among them (referring to His impending return to heaven), “then they will fast” (Matthew 9:14-15 Matthew 9:14-15 14 Then came to him the disciples of John, saying, Why do we and the Pharisees fast oft, but your disciples fast not? 15 And Jesus said to them, Can the children of the bridal chamber 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.
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).

By that He meant that all of His future disciples would fast. Why? Because we need fasting with prayer to help us maintain a close relationship with God the Father and Jesus Christ. And there are other major spiritual benefits of fasting, as we shall see.

When Jesus spoke to His disciples about how to fast, He clearly was expecting that they would fast (Matthew 6:16-18 Matthew 6:16-18 16 Moreover when you fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear to men to fast. Truly I say to you, They have their reward. 17 But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face; 18 That you appear not to men to fast, but to your Father which is in secret: and your Father, which sees in secret, shall reward you openly.
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). He did not say “if you fast” but “when you fast.” And note that in this chapter, Jesus emphasizes fasting as much as praying and doing good works.

Fasting is mentioned prominently in the Old and New Testaments. The biblical record of who fasted is a virtual “who’s who” of the Bible and includes Moses, David, Elijah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Daniel, Anna and Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul engaged “in fastings often” (2 Corinthians 11:27 2 Corinthians 11:27In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.
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).

What is fasting?

In a sense, everyone fasts. When we are in bed asleep, we go without any food or drink. That is fasting. That is why the first meal of the day is called breakfast. However, when people speak of fasting, they usually mean a longer period of time of deliberately choosing not to eat and drink. It can be for a whole day, part of a day or more than a day.

A health fast is any temporary restricted diet that is supposed to have certain health benefits. But we are addressing fasting for one’s spiritual health, which involves abstaining from food and drink while spending a lot of extra time in prayer, meditation and Bible study (Exodus 34:28 Exodus 34:28And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote on the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.
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; Ezra 10:6 Ezra 10:6Then Ezra rose up from before the house of God, and went into the chamber of Johanan the son of Eliashib: and when he came thither, he did eat no bread, nor drink water: for he mourned because of the transgression of them that had been carried away.
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; Esther 4:16 Esther 4:16Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast you for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day: I also and my maidens will fast likewise; and so will I go in to the king, which is not according to the law: and if I perish, I perish.
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; Acts 9:9 Acts 9:9And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink.
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).

Ideally, we should spend most of the waking part of a fast period praying, studying and reflecting. If this is not possible, at the very least we can do that during the extra time when we ordinarily would be eating.

Misunderstandings about fasting

A healthy person who is not perspiring much can go without food and water for about three days before the body begins to be stressed. And a healthy person can go without food for several days if he is drinking water. Thus, the amazingly long 40-day fasts by Moses, Elijah and Jesus Christ (Deuteronomy 9:9 Deuteronomy 9:9When I was gone up into the mount to receive the tables of stone, even the tables of the covenant which the LORD made with you, then I stayed in the mount forty days and forty nights, I neither did eat bread nor drink water:
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; 1 Kings 19:8 1 Kings 19:8And he arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.
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; Luke 4:2 Luke 4:2Being forty days tempted of the devil. And in those days he did eat nothing: and when they were ended, he afterward hungry.
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) were possible only by God’s supernatural intervention.

How long we might safely fast depends on our individual health. If you are unsure about your health limitations, it would be wise to get a medical checkup, and we strongly advise it. Then start with skipping a meal or two before gradually increasing to a full day fast—being alert to the beginning of any adverse effects.

However, we shouldn’t consider mere discomforts—including feeling hungry, thirsty and less energetic—as “adverse effects.” For most people, a headache is simply a symptom of withdrawal from regular caffeine consumption. It’s wise to taper off from caffeinated beverages before beginning a fast.

Another option is a partial fast, such as that mentioned in Daniel 10:3 Daniel 10:3I ate no pleasant bread, neither came flesh nor wine in my mouth, neither did I anoint myself at all, till three whole weeks were fulfilled.
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. Here one takes in only as much food and/or water as necessary to be safe and spends extra time in prayer, Bible study and meditation. This, too, can be very profitable spiritually.

Fasting is unpopular in a culture of instant self-gratification. People tend to think that every day they need three large meals plus snacks. In a culture of continual feasting, it seems there is no place for fasting! From that standpoint alone, fasting is good for character building—developing self-discipline, commitment, moderation and better eating habits.

Important reasons for fasting

Fasting is an important part of building a right and strong relationship with God (Luke 2:36-37 Luke 2:36-37 36 And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity; 37 And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day.
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; Acts 13:2 Acts 13:2As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.
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).

Godly fasting is poles apart from hunger strikes used to gain political power or draw attention to a personal cause. Fasting is an exercise in self-discipline over our fleshly cravings while keeping God first in our thoughts. It liberates us from slavery to our appetites while we focus on the true “Bread of Life,” Jesus Christ (John 6:48-51 John 6:48-51 48 I am that bread of life. 49 Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. 50 This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die. 51 I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.
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, John 6:63 John 6:63It is the spirit that vivifies; the flesh profits nothing: the words that I speak to you, they are spirit, and they are life.
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). When fasting, we make a small self-sacrifice to focus on our Savior’s awesome sacrifice and plan for us.

By nature we are egocentric (self-centered), and must work at becoming God -centered. A major purpose of fasting is to learn humility—to better understand how great God is and how weak, sinful and needy we are. King David understood this when he wrote, “I humbled myself with fasting” (Psalms 35:13 Psalms 35:13But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth: I humbled my soul with fasting; and my prayer returned into my own bosom.
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).

God delights in humble hearts. He said in Isaiah 66:2 Isaiah 66:2For all those things has my hand made, and all those things have been, said the LORD: but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembles at my word.
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, “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word” (NIV). In Matthew 5:3 Matthew 5:3Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
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Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit [humble and dependent], for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus made it clear that if we fast to show off—to “appear to men to be fasting”—we are hypocrites and will have no reward from God (Matthew 6:16-18 Matthew 6:16-18 16 Moreover when you fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear to men to fast. Truly I say to you, They have their reward. 17 But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face; 18 That you appear not to men to fast, but to your Father which is in secret: and your Father, which sees in secret, shall reward you openly.
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). Jesus did not mean that it’s always wrong to tell someone you’re fasting. Often there’s a practical need to tell someone, like your spouse. Jesus was talking about the necessity of right motives and attitudes.

Jesus spoke a parable in which a proud Pharisee bragged to God, “I fast twice a week” (Luke 18:9 Luke 18:9And he spoke this parable to certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:
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Luke 18:12 Luke 18:12I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.
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). The man imagined himself to be humble and was proud of it! Fasting with such a conceited attitude is worthless.

God wants us to “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6 Matthew 5:6Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
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). When we fast, we increasingly feel hungry and physically weak. In addition to reinforcing the fact that God is the One who sustains us and supplies all our needs, an important lesson of this is that we rapidly become weaker spiritually when we neglect the nourishment of prayer, Bible study and all other efforts to be God’s spiritually transformed sons and daughters.

The Bible has only one command regarding when to fast. God’s people are commanded in Leviticus 23 to fast on the Day of Atonement for 24 hours—from sundown to sundown (Leviticus 23:27-32 Leviticus 23:27-32 27 Also on the tenth day of this seventh month there shall be a day of atonement: it shall be an holy convocation to you; and you shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire to the LORD. 28 And you shall do no work in that same day: for it is a day of atonement, to make an atonement for you before the LORD your God. 29 For whatever soul it be that shall not be afflicted in that same day, he shall be cut off from among his people. 30 And whatever soul it be that does any work in that same day, the same soul will I destroy from among his people. 31 You shall do no manner of work: it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. 32 It shall be to you a sabbath of rest, and you shall afflict your souls: in the ninth day of the month at even, from even to even, shall you celebrate your sabbath.
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). This fast day is listed here among God’s annual appointed times or spiritual feast days.

Besides the ordinary personal benefits of fasting, the Atonement fast has prophetic significance. To learn about the meaning of the Day of Atonement and its accompanying fasting, read the free Bible study aid God’s Holy Day Plan: The Promise of Hope for All Mankind .

Secondary purposes of fasting

Besides the primary purposes of worshipping God, drawing closer to Him, denying and humbling ourselves and growing spiritually, it is appropriate to have secondary purposes in fasting as well—beseeching God in prayer for His help with one or more serious needs for ourselves or for others.

When God has not answered prayers for a certain need, try fasting with prayer. In one instance when His disciples could not cast out a demon, Jesus told them that “this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:14-21 Matthew 17:14-21 14 And when they were come to the multitude, there came to him a certain man, kneeling down to him, and saying, 15 Lord, have mercy on my son: for he is lunatic, and sore vexed: for often he falls into the fire, and oft into the water. 16 And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not cure him. 17 Then Jesus answered and said, O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? bring him here to me. 18 And Jesus rebuked the devil; and he departed out of him: and the child was cured from that very hour. 19 Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast him out? 20 And Jesus said to them, Because of your unbelief: for truly I say to you, If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible to you. 21 However, this kind goes not out but by prayer and fasting.
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). Proper fasting often results in significant spiritual breakthroughs. While we rely on the spiritual tools of prayer, Bible study and meditation on a daily basis, we occasionally need the power tool of fasting.

There can be many reasons to fast, such as a personal problem, a difficult-to-overcome sin, facing a major decision, a Church crisis, a threat of danger, the need to change someone’s attitude, or expressing thanksgiving, among others. For a very enlightening study, use a Bible concordance and look up all the passages that contain the words fast, fasted and fasting. Read why people fasted, what they were praying about and what God did as a result of the fast.

However, we must never view fasting as pressuring God to get what we want (Isaiah 58:3 Isaiah 58:3Why have we fasted, say they, and you see not? why have we afflicted our soul, and you take no knowledge? Behold, in the day of your fast you find pleasure, and exact all your labors.
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). God wants us to pray about our problems, but not to try to dictate the solutions. Our attitudes should be like that of Jesus Christ when He prayed, “Not My will, but Yours, be done” (Luke 22:42 Luke 22:42Saying, Father, if you be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but yours, be done.
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).

It is fine for a group such as a church congregation or circle of friends to decide to fast together concerning an urgent matter. When his country was being invaded, King Jehoshaphat “proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah” (2 Chronicles 20:1-3 2 Chronicles 20:1-3 1 It came to pass after this also, that the children of Moab, and the children of Ammon, and with them other beside the Ammonites, came against Jehoshaphat to battle. 2 Then there came some that told Jehoshaphat, saying, There comes a great multitude against you from beyond the sea on this side Syria; and, behold, they be in Hazazontamar, which is Engedi. 3 And Jehoshaphat feared, and set himself to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah.
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). At the preaching of Jonah, “the people of Nineveh believed God [and] proclaimed a fast” (Jonah 3:5 Jonah 3:5So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them.
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).

To beseech God for His protection, Ezra proclaimed a fast for all the exiles returning to Judah (Ezra 8:21-23 Ezra 8:21-23 21 Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river of Ahava, that we might afflict ourselves before our God, to seek of him a right way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance. 22 For I was ashamed to require of the king a band of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy in the way: because we had spoken to the king, saying, The hand of our God is on all them for good that seek him; but his power and his wrath is against all them that forsake him. 23 So we fasted and sought our God for this: and he was entreated of us.
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). Esther requested that all the Jews in the Persian capital city fast so that they would be spared from genocide (Esther 4:16 Esther 4:16Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast you for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day: I also and my maidens will fast likewise; and so will I go in to the king, which is not according to the law: and if I perish, I perish.
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).

Isaiah 58:1-12 Isaiah 58:1-12 1 Cry aloud, spare not, lift up your voice like a trumpet, and show my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins. 2 Yet they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways, as a nation that did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinance of their God: they ask of me the ordinances of justice; they take delight in approaching to God. 3 Why have we fasted, say they, and you see not? why have we afflicted our soul, and you take no knowledge? Behold, in the day of your fast you find pleasure, and exact all your labors. 4 Behold, you fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness: you shall not fast as you do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high. 5 Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? will you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD? 6 Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? 7 Is it not to deal your bread to the hungry, and that you bring the poor that are cast out to your house? when you see the naked, that you cover him; and that you hide not yourself from your own flesh? 8 Then shall your light break forth as the morning, and your health shall spring forth speedily: and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. 9 Then shall you call, and the LORD shall answer; you shall cry, and he shall say, Here I am. If you take away from the middle of you the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity; 10 And if you draw out your soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall your light rise in obscurity, and your darkness be as the noon day: 11 And the LORD shall guide you continually, and satisfy your soul in drought, and make fat your bones: and you shall be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not. 12 And they that shall be of you shall build the old waste places: you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; and you shall be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in.
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is a profound passage that contrasts right and wrong attitudes in fasting. It clearly shows that fasting must not be a mere ritual. Fasting should teach us to be willing to sacrifice in many ways in the service of others. How much are we willing to sacrifice to “undo . . . heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free . . . to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him?” (Isaiah 58:6-7 Isaiah 58:6-7 6 Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? 7 Is it not to deal your bread to the hungry, and that you bring the poor that are cast out to your house? when you see the naked, that you cover him; and that you hide not yourself from your own flesh?
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).

God’s Word exhorts us to “stand fast in the Lord” (Philippians 4:1 Philippians 4:1Therefore, my brothers dearly beloved and longed for, my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord, my dearly beloved.
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; 1 Thessalonians 3:8 1 Thessalonians 3:8For now we live, if you stand fast in the Lord.
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). Here the English word “fast” means firmly fixed or steadfast. From what the Bible teaches us about fasting, we see that people who sincerely and regularly fast and pray to God will very likely “stand fast in the Lord”!

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