Fast and Be FedWe must find ways to deny ourselves if we are trying to follow Jesus. Fasting is a good way to do that.
Fasting is a puzzle. It’s a powerful spiritual discipline, as well as grace to be received. In Jesus’s landmark teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6), Jesus’s teaching includes some basic assumptions of those who follow Him, saying, “when you give,” “when you pray” and “when you fast” (Matthew 6: 2, 5, 16). Of course, as followers of Jesus, we understand the necessity of giving to the poor. To be in a relationship with Jesus, we understand the need to have two-way communication—and so we pray. But Jesus also assumes that His followers will fast! Why does Jesus include fasting in these foundational practices of those who follow Him?
Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves … and follow me” (Matthew 16:24, NIV). Do you want to follow Jesus? Are you a disciple of Jesus? Then you (and I) must find ways to deny ourselves. Fasting is one of those ways.
Jesus, Our Example
Jesus is truly and properly God. He is our Redeemer and our Savior. But He is also our role model of how to be human. Although He is truly and properly God, He is also truly and properly human. The signs and wonders He displayed, the purity He exhibited, the compassion and mercy He demonstrated—all of these are possible for us as well. “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent me,” Jesus said, “I also send you” (John 20:21, NASB). He is the example for us to imitate—and not only imitate, but surpass: “… He who believes in me, the works that I do, He will do also; and greater works than these He will do …” (John 14:12, NASB). How can this be? How can we do “greater” things than Christ did? And what does it mean to be sent by Jesus?
“We affirm that we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
In “The Hidden Power of Prayer and Fasting,” Mahesh Chavda likens our task to that of a gymnast. Just as gymnasts must master elementary moves before they can master more advanced ones, we must practice the first works of Jesus before we can accomplish the greater works He promised.
Before Jesus began His public ministry, He went into the wilderness to fast for 40 days (Luke 4:1-2). He returned from the wilderness “in the power of the Spirit” (Luke 4:14, NIV). It was after fasting that Jesus began ministering with “authority and power” (Luke 4:36, NIV). If fasting was a key to Jesus’s effectiveness, it must be so for His disciples. Fasting and prayer are the first works that we must perform if we want to do the greater works to which Christ calls us to.
Authority vs. Power
The Gospel of Matthew tells us of the disciples’ inability to free a boy from demonic torment. After driving out the demon Himself, Jesus rebuked His disciples for their ineffectiveness (Matthew 17:14-21). He expected them to perform miracles; after all, He was the one who had given them the authority to do so: “Jesus called His twelve disciples to Him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness” (Matthew 10:1, NIV). However, only those who have been spiritually and physically disciplined through prayer and fasting can exercise such authority. As believers, we too will face challenges and confront evils that can only be overcome by prayers and fasting. Including fasting in the rhythms of our routine can help us to have a readiness of spirit when meeting life’s challenges.
The Purpose of Fasting
Today, most societies in the west are prone to overeating and overindulgence. It might even be said of us what Paul said of the “enemies of the cross of Christ … their god is their stomach” (Philippians 3:18-19, NIV). In this context, fasting is a radical practice. Through fasting, we teach our bodies and our appetites patience. We affirm that we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. By fasting, we declare that our hunger for God is greater than our hunger for our next meal.
God does not change and will not be manipulated. Our fasting does not persuade God to do something, nor impress God as a display of piety. We are the ones changed through fasting, as we learn to dial down our appetites and listen more deeply to the groanings—the intercessions of the Holy Spirit—and join in those prayers so that the Kingdom of God will come, and God’s will is done on earth as it is in Heaven (Romans 8:26-27; Matthew 6:10).
When we are aware of someone in trouble, we can enter into fasting and pray for them, setting aside our appetites and our physical comfort for the sake of that person. Fasting helps us redirect our energies toward God, toward Scriptures and toward intercession. It is one way to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus (Matthew 16:24).
The Benefits of Fasting
In the Old Testament, fasting is often a prerequisite for revival. In the book of Joel, the people of God are challenged to “declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly” (Joel 2:15, NIV). God then promises: “And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people”(Joel 2:28, NIV). Is it possible that revival is delayed in our day, at least in part, as a result of our failure to fast? How often do we choose self-indulgence and satisfaction of the flesh over self-denial and spiritual vitality?
“Fasting is one of the best ways to re-establish—in your spirit and in your habits—God as the first and foremost passion in your life. ”
Through fasting, we humble ourselves. We know from the book of James that God gives grace and favor to the humble (James 4:10). At the same time, fasting gives us power over temptation. Just look at Jesus’s example in Luke 4.
In Acts, we read of Christians corporately fasting and praying for a clearer understanding of God’s will. What would happen if we fasted when approaching important decisions?
In the Bible, fasting usually means going without food or fluids for a definite period of time—anywhere from a day to several months. Some fasts are routine, others are extraordinary or “occasional.” God may call you to refrain from something harmless, simply in order to re-establish your priorities, or He may call you to abstain from harmful practices, such as gossip.
Queen Esther called her people to enter into a corporate fast for their deliverance. John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Christ, lived perhaps the ultimate fasted lifestyle (Mark 1:1-8). It was during a period of fasting that God spoke to Cornelius, a Roman centurion, about visiting Peter—an encounter that led to a pivotal new understanding of the Gospel’s universality (Acts 10:30-31). Paul fasted for protection during a fierce storm, Daniel fasted as a gesture of both personal and collective repentance (Daniel 9) and Jesus began His public ministry immediately after a fast (Luke 4:1-14).
Which type of fast does God desire for you? Fasting one meal a day each week and spending that time in prayer with other believers for a specific need? Or, a long-term season of partial fasting, such as the one many Christians undertake during the 40 days of Lent—denying yourself of something you’d normally eat or drink or a hobby or habit in order to seek God with greater intensity?
God may be calling you to abstain from something indefinitely. Perhaps He wants you to give up or reduce your consumption of certain unhealthy foods. Perhaps you have leisure activities that are not harmful in themselves, but rather sometimes take too high a priority in your life and so you may need to fast for a time. Fasting is one of the best ways to re-establish—in your spirit and in your habits—God as the first and foremost passion in your life. The Internet, TV, cellphones, sports, movies, other entertainments—no matter how innocuous, must be put in proper priority in relationship to Jesus as The Center of our lives.
“Jesus answered, ‘How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while He is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast’” (Matthew 9:15, NIV). May God inspire us to enter into the first works of Jesus, and may the result be a surge of greater works in our midst.
For Further Reflection
Consider the rich fool that Jesus describes in Luke 12:13-21. His plan was to store up wealth for a life of ease—to “take life easy; eat, drink and be merry” (Luke 12:19, NIV). God rebukes him as a “fool” for putting his appetites before everything else.
Our physical appetites are a source of strength, but they are harmful when allowed to stray outside of God’s will. Our appetite for food can give rise to greed and gluttony. Our appetite for sex can give rise to fornication, immorality and abuse.
- Would you consider fasting as a regular practice in your life?
- Fasting from food: your physical strength is diminished
- Prayer: allowing your available time to be diminished
- Giving: your material resources are diminished
- Silence: your reputation is diminished
- The Hidden Power of Prayer and Fasting by Mahesh Chavda
- Fasting for Spiritual Breakthrough by Elmer Towns
- *Army On Its Knees by Janet Munn and Stephen Court
*Some of this content is taken from Army On Its Knees by Janet Munn and Stephen Court (a Salvation Army International Headquarters publication).
Colonel Janet Munn has been a Salvation Army officer (pastor) for over 30 years and has served in leadership and local Salvation Army congregations, both urban and suburban—including as Principal of the College for Officer Training both in Australia and in New York. Married to Richard and the mother of beautiful and articulate young adults, she and Richard currently serve as Directors of the International Social Justice Commission in New York City.