My past experiences with fasting are the same as setting a New Year’s resolution. It starts well, and I am thriving for a full day. Then day two arrives, and I question why this is even a thing. The temptation to give up is overwhelming, and, in most cases, I succumb. Over the last month, I have researched and considered fasting, using scripture as the leading guide. Conviction has set in, along with an overwhelming reassurance that our hearts and minds need this spiritual discipline to redirect our nature of self-dependence back to dependence on God. We can find many references to fasting in the Old and New Testaments; it is mentioned upwards of seventy times in scripture.
Matthew 6:16-18 says fasting is an expectation, not an option. This wording may sound familiar because a few verses before, it says that prayer is an expectation, not an option. And when we put Matthew 6:5-6 and 16-18 side by side, we read that prayer AND fasting go hand in hand as the verses are nearly the same - word for word.
"And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you."
"And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you."
The passages do not say we are to pray and fast when we feel like it or get the chance. We are to be obedient to the disciplines of prayer and fasting, as both passages begin by saying “when you pray” and “when you fast.”
So what is fasting? Fasting is a spiritual discipline that requires us to sacrifice physical or material comfort. While this can be food, it is not the singular way to fast. We can fast from anything we take comfort in that may pull us away from sole dependence on the Lord. Forgoing comfort for a specific time can reveal the posture of our heart and mind. Participating in a fast helps retune our hearts toward humility, repentance, and dependence on God amid the pains of longing for what we have given up.
The time spent fasting will purposefully make us uncomfortable. Our natural tendency will lead us to find something that will make us comfortable again. Because of this, fasting should involve planning. The purpose of a food fast, for example, is not merely to go hungry in the name of Jesus but to allocate the time we would typically spend eating to commune with God. Our success is weakened without planning and prayer. We will be tempted to seek distractions and other comforts to satisfy the hunger pangs instead of seeking God to sustain us. We must then be prepared for those temptation triggers.
Ultimately, our focus during a fast is to use the time we previously allocated to that comfort to meet with God. In preparation for this devotional, I participated in a short-term food fast, and I write this not to boast so that“fasting may be seen by men” (Matthew 6:16). Instead, to tell what was learned and offer helpful tips to spur on and encourage other believers in this spiritual discipline (Hebrews 10:24).
1. Prepare through Prayer
Leading up to the fast, prayerfully consider the motivation. Is there a struggle, an important decision, an area of life that needs release, or are you seeking to deepen your relationship with God?
Suppose you have never fasted before; you may consider starting small and going short term. Determine what comfort you will be giving up and a time frame. For example, for food fast, start with one meal a day for 3-5 days but do not forgo hydrating with water or even small amounts of fruit juice. Also, consider any health concerns a food fast may cause. You do not want to cause further complications. In this case, look for other comforts you hold tightly to and consider how to fast from them.
2. Have a Plan
The purpose is to put God first and exchange the time we would spend on that comfort for dedicated time with God. Here is an example of the schedule I followed:
- Begin with worship through music
- Scripture reading
- Prayer of thanksgiving and supplication
- Close with worship through the music
I also found it helpful to have specific scriptures to read and refocus your mind when hunger or yearning begins to creep in. Lastly, I shared the plan with my family so they would understand why I would not be eating with them, and they knew I was not to be disturbed.
We serve a God who desires the full attention of our soul, heart, and mind. Our souls long for the presence and refuge of our Creator. God has given us ways to experience His nearness through prayer and fasting. As believers, we cannot skip over this spiritual discipline – it is crucial. Each time we humble ourselves to lay down a personal comfort and seek sole dependence on God, it will change us.
“By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.” Psalm 42:8