Fasting is an often-neglected key to drawing closer to God. Here's how you can effectively use fasting as a powerful spiritual tool.
Since ancient times, fasting has been an integral part of worshiping God! Humanity, however, has been misled and confused about the true meaning and purpose of fasting. Pagans associated fasting with penance and self-denial. First-century Judaism turned it toward ritual and public display. Modern Christianity, for the most part, has discarded it as unnecessary. The Church of God, however, recognizes that fasting continues to be important, not just on the Day of Atonement, but throughout the year. Just what is fasting? According to the Bible, to fast means to abstain from all food and water for a certain period of time (Jonah 3:5-7). Juice fasts, health fasts and the like may offer physical benefits, but they are not appropriate for the Day of Atonement or other times set aside for a spiritual fast. Notice that everyone is commanded to fast on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:29). Our Creator knows that it is possible for us to live without food and water for at least one day.
God, in both the Old and the New Testaments, commanded His people to fast (Leviticus 23:29, Matthew 6:16-18). He, as our Creator, says that fasting is good for us. He should know! He intends us to learn valuable spiritual lessons from fasting. "What spiritual good could missing three or more meals possibly do anyone?" you may be asking. Intellectually, we may confess to God that we are weak, sinful and desperately in need of His strength, guidance and correction. But saying something in prayer and actually understanding it to the depths of our being are two different things. Job testified after his long trial: "I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You. Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:5-6). We may kneel and pray daily for the strength to live God's way. We may pray for the faith to depend on God to work out our problems, and for help in conducting ourselves in total harmony with His law. Yet we rise from prayer, go our way and tackle the day in a manner not quite that ideal. Why do we fall short? Our minds are constantly struggling against God's guidance (Romans 8:7). Even after the Spirit of God enters to enlighten us and allow understanding to flood into our minds, a battle still rages within us, as Paul so eloquently explained in Romans 7:16-18. Jeremiah understood the human capacity for self-justification and self-deception when God inspired him to write, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?" (Jeremiah 17:9). God understands us. And, if we will draw closer to Him through fasting, as He directs, He can help us to understand ourselves more fully. When we fast, our hunger is a sharp reminder that we are just human — desperately dependent on God's good earth, with its soil and rain, to sustain our existence. Denied these necessities, we would soon die and degenerate into mere dust. How unimpressive we are, feeling light-headed and suffering from bad breath and fatigue after just one day of fasting! How humbling to realize that without nourishment from the soil beneath our feet, our minds quickly become disoriented. Deprived of nourishment for any substantial length of time, our minds would become incapable of rational thought. Yes, we may admit to God in prayer that we're not really very impressive, but when we fast, we feel it.
Getting the right perspective
Just how may we keep a godly perspective on life? How can we avoid the pitfalls of self-reliance, self-confidence and self-righteousness? David said, "I humbled myself with fasting" (Psalm 35:13). Could you profit by following the example of a man whom God said was "after His own heart" (I Samuel 13:14)? The situation is urgent! James warns and exhorts that "'God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.' Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you" (James 4:6-8). How do we draw near to God? James continues: "Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up" (verses 9-10). James prescribes fasting. Compare the use of the words afflict (Leviticus 23:27), mourn (Matthew 9:14-15), weep (Zechariah 7:1-5) and humbled (Psalm 35:13). They all indicate fasting. Read the fourth chapter of James and note how James links the process of drawing closer to God with the need to fast.
The right attitude in fasting
Although people have fasted for many reasons, there is only one purpose God accepts. That is to "rend your heart, and not your garments; return to the Lord your God" (Joel 2:13). Our motive in fasting must be to humble and submit ourselves more fully to God. God respects those who set their hearts to seek His will and direction in their lives. He respects those who want to bring themselves more fully in line with His way of thinking and living (Isaiah 66:2). However, fasting to get God to side with us or take our part in an argument just won't work. Fasting just to get His attention is also futile (Isaiah 58:3-4). Jesus explained the great purpose for fasting. We read in Matthew 9:14-15: "Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, '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.'" While He was on earth, Jesus' disciples enjoyed close daily communication with Him. His teaching, inspiration and encouragement were readily at hand. But once He returned to heaven, it became more difficult for them to be in harmony with His thinking and clearly understand His will for their daily lives. That is why Jesus foretold their need for diligent fasting. Fasting provided the closeness and understanding they had achieved when He had been with them in person. We should be fasting for that same reason. It is appropriate that we are directed to fast on the Day of Atonement, which pictures the time when Jesus and all His disciples will finally be brought together in complete harmony (at-one-ment).
God responds when we fast
Make no mistake — fasting is something God notices and takes seriously. He does respond! God hears all our prayers, but He takes particular notice of our fastings. Daniel fasted for 21 days before he received an answer, but God assured him that his petition had been considered from the very beginning of his fast (Daniel 9:23). Ours can be, too, because our fasting shows God we are sincere about seeking Him. Consider the story of Ahab. The prophet Elijah spent many years witnessing to Ahab and the kingdom of Israel. Ahab didn't respond. In fact: "There was no one like Ahab who sold himself to do Wickedness in the sight of the Lord" (I Kings 21:25). Elijah's final warning about what was to happen to Ahab's household, though, did produce some results. Ahab "tore his clothes and put sackcloth on his body, and fasted and lay in sackcloth, and went about mourning" (verse 27). When he began fasting, God saw that Ahab was sincerely repentant. The promised punishment was postponed until after Ahab's death. If God had mercy on Ahab, He will certainly respond to our coming before Him in heartfelt, contrite fasting and prayer. Ahab's contemporary in the southern kingdom of Judah was King Jehoshaphat. When faced with an invasion, Jehoshaphat tried something unique in the annals of military strategy: "And Jehoshaphat feared, and set himself to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. So Judah gathered together to ask help from the Lord; and from all the cities of Judah they came to seek the Lord" (II Chronicles 20:3-4). Men, women, children everyone fasted. God's answer came quickly. They were told to go out to meet the invaders, trusting in God to settle the matter for them (verses 16-17). When Jehoshaphat led his people out the next day, they came upon a strange sight. The invaders had turned against each other, and the entire army lay dead before them. The citizens of Judah gathered up the spoils and returned home. What a spectacular answer to their fast! Fasting shows God that we, like Jehoshaphat, are willing to rely on His strength and not our own physical resources, because we understand that our own resources will quickly fail us.
Dedicated to God
Fasting is a powerful testimony to God that we want to turn from our own sinful, vain ways and give our lives to Him for His use (Romans 12:1). Fasting shows that we urgently want to be dedicated to God, and not to the things of this world. Paul speaks of a fast as a time to "give yourselves to fasting and prayer," even breaking off normal marital relations (I Corinthians 7:5), thereby showing our intent to turn from everything physical to all that is spiritual. God responds to attitudes like this! Notice God's promise of spiritual blessings: "Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you.... The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your soul in drought, and strengthen your bones; you shall be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail" (Isaiah 58:8, 11).
Guidelines for Effective Fasting
• Fast often. When using any tool, physical or spiritual, practice makes perfect. The apostle Paul fasted often (II Corinthians 11:27), and we should, too. That doesn't mean we should become pharisaical and set a rigid schedule for ourselves (Luke 18:9- 14). Our attitude as we fast, and not the number of times or when we fast, is what is important. When we fast often, our bodies get more accustomed to going without food for a period of time. • Avoid "desperation" fasting. Fasting is certainly important in times of trial and distress, but if we only resort to fasting in times of emergency, we are telling God that we are more interested in getting what we want than in drawing closer to Him. • Fast a day at a time. One day is an acceptable length for a spiritual fast, although more time, such as two or three days, may be appropriate on occasion. Some equate the length of a fast with spirituality. They cite the examples of Moses, Elijah and Jesus Christ, all of whom fasted 40 days. But these were exceptional individuals in exceptional circumstances. You should not attempt extremely long fasts such as these men did, and you should seek competent advice about anything longer than a three-day fast. God is interested in our attitudes — he is not impressed by feats of physical endurance. It is a good idea to fast from evening to evening, if possible, as this is the manner prescribed for keeping the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:32), but fasts may begin and end at other times, depending on the situation. • Keep the time in focus. The time we choose for a fast could be set apart solely for fasting, but more often will be combined with daily duties. Sometimes it will be necessary to work during a fast, but we should try to keep the time as free as possible. A Sabbath should not be the primary time for a fast; the Sabbath is technically a feast day and is to be considered a delight (verse 13). However, the Sabbath may occasionally be the only day available or have to be included in a two- or three-day fast. • Use the time profitably. Don't just fill the time with everything else but study, meditation and prayer. Remember why you decided to set the time aside — for God to use in teaching you and for you to use in drawing closer to Him. A fast is not a form of penance or an endurance test. It is a time for spiritual renewal. Pastor General Herbert W. Armstrong writes in his autobiography of dividing time spent fasting into three segments — study, meditation and prayer. Following this pattern — of first letting God talk to us through His Word, then thinking about how what we have read applies in our lives, then talking to God in prayer about the circumstances of the fast — will help us draw closer to God and open up our spiritual insight and understanding (verse 8). • Expect physical discomfort. Hunger you might expect, but the body also uses a time of fasting to eliminate poisons and wastes. This can cause bad breath, light-headedness and even a headache. Severe headaches during a fast can come from withdrawal from the stimulants we all too often overuse on a daily basis — coffee, tea, soft drinks and the like. The day before a fast, cut out all such beverages. Drinking adequate quantities of liquids the day before will help in cleansing the body during a fast. Do not eat heavily immediately before or after a fast. • Appearance is important. Jesus commanded that we not make it known publicly when we fast (Matthew 6:16-18). Because of the physical effects of fasting, it is a good idea to brush the teeth. To rinse the mouth after brushing is within the law of fasting.