Fasting and prayer – a biblical discipline

The early church fasted twice a week. They didn’t eat breakfast or lunch

and continued the fast till late afternoon.

Many Christians today find the idea of fasting and praying quite foreign, simply because they may be unfamiliar with the concept, or it is not often spoken about in church. Fasting, however, was nothing unfamiliar in either the Old or New Testament. Neither in any century afterwards. We read of amazing things that happened when Moses, Elijah, Ezekiel and Daniel fasted and prayed. Jesus fasted for forty days before embarking His earthly ministry, which turned out unlike anything ever seen or heard previously! The lives of the disciples, Paul and many early Christians, are saturated with instances of prayer and fasting.

In more modern times, Martin Luther was often criticised for fasting too much. John Calvin fasted and prayed until the greater part of Geneva turned to God. John Knox fasted and prayed, and the wicked Mary, Queen of Scotland (Bloody Mary), said she feared no armed force as she feared the prayers of John Knox. Jonathan Edwards, who was God’s instrument in the revival in New England, fasted and prayed. John Wesley fasted twice a week. Charles Finney, one of the greatest spiritual leaders in history, was a man who fasted and prayed. The evangelist D. L. Moody was a man who was not unfamiliar with fasting and praying. Many more names of faithful Christians can be quoted who fasted and prayed, and they lived extraordinary lives in God’s Kingdom.


What is fasting about?
  • Fasting means to put God first. There are times when we are in desperate situations, when we need to seek God’s face through fasting and praying. Fasting in essence is an attitude of the heart where we interrupt the normal course of our lives to pray focused for a specific matter or cause.
  • To fast also means perseverance in prayer. It means to take God seriously; to pray until you have an answer, no matter if the answer is yes or no, or to wait a while longer. Fasting maintains our awareness in keeping our focus on the matter we are praying about.
  • Fasting is an effective way of getting all the cares and obstacles out of the way, to pray with purpose and with undivided attention. The time and effort normally spent in preparing and eating a meal can now be used in prayer.
  • In the Old Testament people often fasted as a sign of humbling themselves (Lev.23:27). At its deepest level, fasting means that we deeply render our hearts before God, confess our sins and turn to Him with renewed zeal and love. (Joel 2:12-13).
  • But the Lord also intended fasting to contain an element of joy and happiness! (Zech.8:19).
  • In Isaiah 58:6-7 we are told what to do when we fast and pray. When we adhere to these principles there are several promised blessings in Isaiah 58:8-14.
  • We can also fast simply to bring God thanks as an offering (Ps. 50:14, 23).

The Lord Jesus only suggested one condition for fasting: sincerity. In the New Testament, Jesus never forbids fasting. Neither does He give the impression that fasting is outdated as a spiritual discipline. On the contrary, in Matthew 6:16-18 Jesus gave specific guidelines for fasting. Prayer when combined with fasting, is a more intense form of prayer that often brings long awaited breakthroughs. It also cultivates greater personal holiness and God delights in prayer from a pure heart. It shows your heart is very serious. Sometimes difficult situations in a church, or city, or nation requires for intercessors to fast and pray. Throughout history prayer and fasting has resulted in much spiritual fruit and breakthrough.


Why and when to fast and pray
  • We get help in times of need (Josh. 7:6; Judg. 20:26; Ezra 8:21-23). In the past, fasting and praying brought great deliverance, especially in times of crises and on specific occasions.
  • We find out what is wrong. In this case, we sometimes have to fast and pray like Joshua and the elders after their defeat at Ai to know what was wrong. (Josh. 7:6).
  • It helps us gain victory over sin.
  • We receive heavenly wisdom and revelations through prayer and fasting (Jer. 33:3; Dan. 9:2-3, 21-22; 10:2-3).
  • Often others are blessed when we fast and pray for them (for example the unsaved or people experiencing a crisis).
  • In history, revival was often given in answer to prayer and fasting.
  • In Esther 4 a nation was saved because of prayer and fasting.
  • God spared the city of Nineveh when the people fasted, prayed and repented (Jonah 2-3).
  • Read Isaiah 58:8-14 to see the blessings that follow sincere praying and fasting.
  • Fasting cultivates inward humility (Ps. 69:11).
  • Fasting chastises the body and helps us to rule over the desires of our bodies (1 Cor. 6:13-20; 9:27).
  • We should fast when the Holy Spirit lays it in our hearts to fast (Luke 4:1-2).
  • A church or a whole congregation may be called upon to fast and pray (Joel 1:14; 2:15-16).
  • We should fast when an individual has a specific need:
    • if someone needs to know the Lord’s will in a particular matter;
    • for your own spiritual preparation for a specific task;
    • in times of heavy temptations and onslaughts of the Evil One;
    • when the individual feels that he or she must spend more time with God to replenish his/her spiritual strength.


Basic forms of fasting
  • An ordinary fast: To take no solid food for a period e.g. 24 hours, and drink only water.
  • A complete fast: To take no water or any form of food for a certain period, preferably not longer than 24 hours without consulting a medical doctor or when taking prescription medication.
  • A partial fast: Not taking certain foods for a period (for example sweets) and/or cutting down on drinking and eating. For example, during partial fasting someone can decide to eat only bread and drink water.


The don’ts of fasting
  • Don’t fast to earn God’s blessings.
  • Don’t fast as a substitute for obedience.
  • Don’t fast to impress others.
  • Don’t allow fasting to become a physical action
  • Don’t allow fasting to become a new law in your life.
  • Don’t arrange fasting times so that they inconvenience your family, like during holidays and festive times (except where the Lord guides you very clearly to do so).
  • Remember you don’t fast just for the sake of fasting, but to pray and seek God’s face.


Practical guidelines
  • If you have never fasted, you can fast for 24-36 hours the first time. Stop taking fluids that contain caffeine the previous day. Withdrawal of caffeine normally causes headaches. People who are used to taking a lot of sugar usually find fasting very difficult. Go on fasting, however, and when your fast is over, you can try to use less sugar. Don’t fast for longer than three days without taking fluids. When you break your fast, start by eating something light. Slowly go back to normal. This is usually also a good time to break the habit of overeating if you have a problem with this.
  • The body rids itself of toxins during the first three days. Shower or bathe regularly and brush your teeth more often because you may suffer from bad breath, especially during the first three days.
  • Try to make as much time for prayer as possible. You don’t have to put all your other activities on hold. You can fast even if you work full day. You may even carry on with light exercise. Then you can use lunchtimes for prayer and set aside as much time as possible for fellowship with God.
  • When you fast and pray, it is best to break with your normal routine and go aside to a quiet place.
  • The normal items you would need during prayer and fasting are a Bible, a pen, a notebook and perhaps a spiritual book you are busy reading. Make notes on what the Lord puts in your heart. Write down new thoughts.
  • It is good to get other believers to fast and pray with you because you can motivate each other. It is encouraging to know others are praying with you for the same cause.
  • If there are medical reasons why you can’t fast, don’t feel guilty and don’t be headstrong. Especially people with diabetes, people who suffer from a spastic colon or have heart problems should preferably not fast. Consult your doctor if you have any doubts.
  • If you are fasting for guidance from the Lord and feel that you have received guidance, do not rush things. Wait until the fast is over, especially if you are fasting for a long time. It will give you a better perspective on the matter.
  • Don’t imitate others; fasting is a matter between you and the Lord.
  • Drink plenty of water while you fast.
  • When you have fasted for more than three days, it is good to keep the following in mind when breaking your fast: Start with small helpings of food, eat slowly and chew your food very well, stop eating if you experience any signs of discomfort, don’t try to eat too much too soon.

Many people are afraid to fast, but if there is no medical reason why you cannot fast, there is no danger in fasting; in fact, it can be good for the body. The second and third days of fasting are usually a bit uncomfortable because of the changes the body has to adapt to and the toxic substances your body excretes, but then it usually improves. It won’t be a good idea to fast for longer than 36 hours if you’ve never fasted and prayed before. You can fast for longer when you have become more accustomed to it.

Fasting is a very intimate and personal matter between you and the Lord (Matt. 6:16-18). Let the Holy Spirit also guide you as to the number of days you should fast and pray. A person on an ordinary fast can do it without any danger for quite a long time (up to 21 days). There are thousands of people in our time who have fasted for 40 days. However, you should attempt this only when the Lord has directly instructed you to do so. Also, allow the Holy Spirit to guide you as to how long you should fast and pray.

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