I cannot recall my first fast. Like my first prayer, it’s lost to the archive. But I do remember the pain of that first fast, for it is the same pain I experience today. I feel I have gotten no better at it. Fasting is still a battle.
God prescribed many annual feasts for ancient Israel, but only one fast. God’s original rhythm for them focused more on eating than abstinence. The Christian who becomes excited about fasting must remember this. A remnant of that old “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” self-helpism survives within us. That foe must be vanquished. They slandered our Lord as a glutton and drunkard, only because He came eating and drinking. We are not above him. With joy, we eat and drink.
Still, our bridegroom is gone and we await His return, so we fast (see Matthew 9:15-17). Not like the ascetics who see evil in all that is physical. But like Moses and Elijah and David and Daniel, physical men who sought the God who is spirit.
I am writing about “Fasting For Beginners” because I am not experienced enough to teach “Advanced Fasting.” But it is also the beginner who needs the most help, for the journey is rough even with a guide, and brutal without one.
Before satisfying our curiosity with the “how” of fasting, let us get the “why” straightened out in our minds.
The short version is this: fasting is rewarding. Of giving, prayer, and also fasting Jesus said, “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18). What are the rewards?
Sometimes fasting is rewarding because it helps us grieve death. David fasted when he mourned Saul and Jonathan’s deaths, and the Bible includes other instances when fasts accompanied grieving.
Fasting can also operate in tandem with repentance of sin or pressures in life (see Ezra). It is sometimes an appropriate response to the direness of our sin or circumstance. In a stressed out society, fasting is a gift.
God’s guidance and aid can also be sought in the fast (see Psalm 69:10, Ezra 8:23). We, of course, pray for guidance and aid often, but fasting shifts us into a more earnest prayer mode. This humbling of our souls helps foster appropriate desperation.
There is another element to fasting: the pursuit of victory, for others or the self (Isaiah 58:6). Jesus set the captive free, and it may be good to seek Him with fasting to experience His victory more fully in your life. To feel your own weakness while fasting — to realize you cannot speak even a kind word without the Spirit’s aid — is helpful to the believer. To live with the spiritual realm ruling over the physical serves to awaken something in us.
But it seems a fool’s errand to list every benefit to fasting. Jesus used the word “reward,” and I can do no better. There may be a thousand and one ways a believer benefits from fasting (see Daniel 9, Jonah 3). As I have endured various fasts, none of them left me impressed with myself, but with my Lord. This is perhaps the greatest benefit.
How To Fast?
The normal fast found in the Bible is total abstinence from food. There are occasional total fasts from both food and water, but these are rare and brief. I am often asked about Daniel’s partial fast from specific foods. His fast is sometimes adaptable to our needs, but it is not the normal fast. The normal fast excludes all calories and includes water.
Plan your fast. Predetermine how long your fast will be. A wait-and-see attitude will get you through a meal or two, but planning must be in place for a longer fast. Speak with anyone who will notice your fast, such as a spouse who will see you skip meals.
Don’t set high expectations during. Fasting is a struggle. The body will crave food and experience weakness. If you expect spiritual ecstasy you may become discouraged by bodily misery. Let an attitude of endurance come over you. Endurance is much more helpful in everyday life than ecstasy, anyhow.
If you are seeking wisdom or strength from God, look for these things after the fast concludes. This is not a hunger strike; God will not hand His crown over to us. He is King, He does as He wills. I cannot push Him around with my fast. I regret times I insisted God answer me before my fast was complete. I only hurt myself and others with that perspective.
Start with a brief fast. Some suggest beginning with one meal, but a full day fast — even a sunrise to sunset fast — is a fitting starting point. From there try a two or three day fast. After that, pray and see if a longer fast might be fitting. Just remember that the first three days are often the most difficult.
For those who regularly exercise, wisdom says to adjust your expectations during a fast. Your body will be depleted. Rest. Walk. If you feel strong enough for some exercise, go at it half-speed, but be careful not to hurt yourself. Perhaps this is a good time to pause training, especially if you are prone to over emphasize it.
If you are a regular caffeine drinker, consider whether your fast will include tea or coffee. If so, it is wise to stop a few days before your fast. This will give your body a chance to focus on only its lack of food during the fast.
I believe it is good to remember dietary concerns. If you have a medical condition that would prohibit a total fast, consider a partial fast instead.
If you remember nothing else, remember to seek to know God more deeply during your fast. Attempt to seek Him above any direction or victory from Him. He is the giver of every good and perfect gift; love the giver more than the gift.
Go For It.
Remember, the Bible emphasizes prayer much more than fasting. Fasting is an occasional component to prayer. This is telling, and ought to remind us that fasting is not the ultimate priority or method of seeking God.
Yet, it is there. Perhaps you will feel compelled to fast. If you can enter it without pride or an imbalanced attitude, wonderful. Enjoy it. Endure it. Seek Him in it. In the complexity and hardship there is grace and revelation. Know that however imperfectly you pursue it, God perfectly pursues you.