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Is there a relationship between fasting and prayer? Derek Prince (1973) provides one of the simplest and most profound statements that I have ever read in his explanation of the important relationship between prayer and fasting. He says, “fasting intensifies prayer. There are some spiritual objectives that we can achieve through prayer alone. There are others that can only be achieved by prayer and fasting. Many of God’s choicest provisions lie in the category of things which may only be achieved by prayer and fasting.” Fasting, in other words, complements prayer. It is the added sacrifice we are called upon to make as we wrestle in prayer in pursuit of those spiritual objectives or heights in Him where we have never been before. In this blog, I will examine the discipline of fasting in the Bible as a vital key not only to the powerful effective prayer but also to victorious Christian living.
In a general sense, to fast means to abstain from food for spiritual purposes. Although the practice may sometimes include abstaining from drink, in most cases in the Bible it seems that people drank but did not eat. Two cases from the Old Testament in which fasting involved abstention from drink relate to Moses and Esther. In the case of Moses, he twice fasted for forty days and forty nights without eating or drinking (Deuteronomy 9: 9-18). As Prince has pointed out, on both occasions Moses “was on a supernatural plane in the presence of God.” In the case of Esther, the limit she and her maidens set was three days (Esther 4:16).
There is an interesting connection between Esther’s three days fast without water and the three days limit that medical science set for the body to go without water. This connection serves to confirm that medical science does not necessarily conflict with the teachings of the Bible. The notion that fasting for long periods does not imply abstaining from drink, appears to find support in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ forty days fast. Matthew 4:2 states that Jesus was hungry after he had fasted for forty days and forty nights. Here in this text, there is no mention of him being thirsty.
While the notion that Jesus drank but did not eat during his forty days and forty night fast is open to speculation as this is not explicitly stated in the Synoptic Gospels, it is important to point out here, that even if Jesus, like Moses, had abstained from drink during his forty days and forty nights fast, these are exceptional circumstances, which do not apply here in our case. What then should be our approach when fasting for long periods?
The approach which is generally followed by those that practice fasting and which I strongly recommend to anyone considering fasting for long periods is not abstaining from drink for any period exceeding seventy-two hours. Let us now turn our attention to a few examples of fasting from the Bible, which provide some important truths about the discipline of fasting.
David Practiced Fasting
As a Jew, David fulfilled Jewish law, which required the Jewish people to afflict their souls through fasting (Leviticus 16:29 -31). Writing in Psalm 35:13, David declared that he humbled his soul through fasting. In Psalm 69:10 he wrote that he wept and chastened his soul with fasting. David also fasted for long periods. In Psalm 109:24, we read these words: “My knees are weak through fasting and my flesh faileth of fatness.”
These and other examples from the Psalms highlight one of the most important characteristics associated with fasting: sacrifice. Whether it was in pursuit of a humble walk before God or in his search for forgiveness and spiritual refreshing for his hungry soul, David made that crucial sacrifice which made all the difference in his spiritual walk. He denied himself of his bodily gratification. This aspect of fasting is of enormous importance especially to intercession, which will be considered later.
The Power of The Collective Fast
Case One: King Jehoshaphat and the Nation of Judah Fasted (2 Chronicles 20).
Here we have a remarkable testimony to the power of fasting. It deserves mention as it highlights another important characteristic of fasting: the attitude of total dependence on God, so often displayed in Israel ‘s history especially during times of crises. It is this attitude of total dependence on God that makes fasting such an awesome spiritual weapon during times of crises as is portrayed in 2 Chronicles 20. The nation of Judah came under attack from the combined forces of the Moabites and the Ammonites and their allies. Faced with this overwhelming enemy force King Jehoshaphat led the nation to seek God through collective fasting and united prayer reminding God of His covenant with Abraham and of His promises of mercy based on that covenant.
In response to the cry of His people God intervened supernaturally on Judah’s behalf; and in an awesome demonstration of supernatural power, the enemies of Judah were totally vanquished. The outcome is described in verses 22 through 30. The entire army of their enemies destroyed themselves, leaving not a single survivor. All that God’s people needed to do was to spend three days gathering the spoils and then to return in triumph to Jerusalem, with their voices raised in loud thanksgiving and praise to God.
Furthermore, the impact of this tremendous supernatural victory was felt by the surrounding nations. From then on, no other nation dared to contemplate hostilities against Jehoshaphat and his people. Jehovah, the Lord of hosts, had secured a mighty victory on behalf of His people in response to their dependence on Him, demonstrated through their collective fasting and united prayer. Fasting, when united with prayer, enables us to unleash the power of God in our situations in times of crises, transforming them into experiences of victory.
Case Two: Esther Transforms Disaster into Triumph (Esther 4)
This chapter described one of the greatest crisis that ever confronted the Jewish people in their entire history. The entire nation faced extermination in the Persian Empire. Satan had stirred up one his advocate, Haman, against the Jewish people to plot their extermination. Through Haman, Satan was actually challenging the power of God and had Haman succeeded in his plan against the Jews this would have been an everlasting reproach against God. This was spiritual warfare, evidenced by the fact that Haman actually sought guidance from occult powers through the casting of lots( a form of divination in those days) to determine the day the Jews were to be exterminated.
When the decree for the destruction of the Jews went out, Esther and her maidens accepted the challenge. They understood that they were dealing with Spiritual warfare and their response was on the same level – fasting. Esther and her maidens fasted for three days without eating or drinking. What was the result of their collective fast?
(i) The Persian empire was completely changed in favor of the Jews;
(ii) The enemies of the Jews throughout the Persian Empire suffered defeat;
(ii) The Jews experienced favor, peace, and prosperity;
This case of collective fasting recorded in the book of Esther again shows how fasting unleashes God’s power in situations of crises, transforming them into experiences of victory.
The Acceptable Fast: A Look at Isaiah 58, the Great Fasting Chapter
Isaiah 58 is regarded by most scholars as the great fasting chapter of the Old Testament. The chapter may be divided into two sections, 58: 3-5 and 58: 6-12. In 58:3-5 Isaiah describes the fast that is unacceptable to God. In 58:6-12 he then describes the fast that is pleasing to God.
A. The Unacceptable Fast
In 58:3-5 God considered the fast unacceptable because:
(i) the people described here by Isaiah were fasting merely in observance of a religious ritual; like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day there was no real self-humbling associated with their fasting;
(ii) They retained their evil attitudes of greed, selfishness, pride, and oppression.
B. The Acceptable Fast
The acceptable fast, which is well pleasing to God springs from motives and attitudes that are totally different from those associated with the unacceptable fast. Verse 6 defines the motives behind the acceptable fast as:
(i) to loosen the bands of wickedness;
(ii) to undo heavy burdens;
(iii) to let the oppressed go free;
(iv) to break every yoke
As Scripture and experience confirm many people experiencing these four conditions today will never go free until God’s people obey His call to fast.
C. Attitude Associated with the Acceptable Fast
Verse 7 describes the attitude associated with the acceptable fast. Here, God calls for the fasting of this type to be united with sincere and practical charity in our dealings with those around us – particularly the poor.
D Blessings Associated With the Acceptable Fast:
These blessings are listed in verse 8 through 12. They are:
(i) The blessing of health and righteousness (v 8)
(ii) The blessing of answered prayers (v 9)
(iii) The blessing of guidance and fruitfulness (vs. 10 -11)
(iv) The blessing of restoration (v 12).
As Isaiah demonstrated in chapter 58 of his prophecy fasting is the divinely appointed means chosen by God to achieve certain spiritual objectives that he has determined in His divine plan and purpose for us. But the decision we make to fast is a matter for personal choice. Will you make that decision today to pray and fast? Will you make the decision to join with others to fast in pursuit of those common dreams and visions God has placed in the hearts of His people? Let us do it today. Let us fast.
Other Great Old Testament Passages on Fasting for further study:
Ezra 8; Jonah 3; Daniel 9; Joel 2.
Fasting and The Christian Life
Jesus expects Christians to practice fasting. Matthew records His expectation in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 6:1-18 Christ gives instructions to His disciples on three related duties: giving alms, praying and fasting. In this passage, it is very clear that Jesus assumes that all His disciples will practice all three of these duties. This is indicated by the language he uses concerning all three.
In verse 2 He says, “When thou doest alms…” In verse 6 He says when thou(singular) prayest…” (individually) and in verse 7, “when ye (plural) pray…” (collectively). In verse 16 He says When ye (plural) fast…”(collective) and in verse 17 “When thou (singular) fastest….” (individually).
The passage is very clear. Jesus expects all disciples to practice all three of these duties regularly. If he expects His disciples to pray regularly and give alms regularly then by the same token He expects them to fast regularly. Why is fasting an important Christian discipline?
A. For Supernatural Empowerment
In Luke 4: 14, Luke records that following the period of His forty days fast “Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit. From there went out a fame of him throughout the entire region round about.” Jesus fasted in order to receive supernatural empowerment to fulfill His ministry as Messiah. This incidence in the life of Jesus highlights an important reason why Christians should practice fasting.
Fasting empowers us as believers to fulfill our calling as ministers of the Gospel of Christ. Paul and other leaders in the Church at Antioch apparently recognized this important benefit of fasting and fasted regularly as a result. It was during one of these times of fasting that Paul and Barnabas received their apostolic commission to the Gentiles (Acts 13:1-3). Having made a remarkable success of his ministry as an apostle, Paul would later recognize the power of fasting.
Writing to the Corinthians, he mentioned that he often practiced fasting (2 Cor. 11:24 ) and through his regular fasting he proved that he was a minister of God (2 Cor. 6:4-7). In making this statement the Apostle Paul attributed his successful ministry among the Gentiles to a life of fasting. This brings us to one important conclusion regarding the weak state of the church in America and many western nations today: the Church is weak and powerless because Christians are not fasting. If the Church in America is to survive, fasting cannot be an option; it must become the way of life of the Christian community.
B. For Humility
There are various ways in which fasting helps a Christian receive direction and power from the Holy Spirit. The first obvious way that fasting helps the Christian is to humble himself or herself before God. This aspect of fasting was discussed earlier in reference to David, where it was noted that David humbles his soul through fasting. In the Scriptures fasting in this regard is often associated with mourning. Mourning, here is neither the self-centered remorse nor the hopeless grief of unbelievers but a response of the believer to the prompting of the Holy Spirit to show remorse over sin.
There are blessings associated with such mourning. In Isaiah 61:3 the Lord promises special blessings to those who mourn in Zion. He promises them “beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness….” Mourning also has a place among the beatitudes. In Matthew 5:4 Jesus says, “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.” In 2 Cor. 7:10 Paul contrasts the godly sorrow of the believer with the hopeless sorrow of the unbeliever: “For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.” According to Derek Prince “godly sorrow of this kind is followed by the oil of joy and the garment of praise.”
C. For Power Over Sin and Our Carnal Nature
Fasting is also the means by which the believer brings his or her body into subjection. In 1 Cor. 9:27 Paul says: “But I keep under my body and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means when I have preached to others, I myself should a castaway.” Here Paul is referring to his physical passions and desires, which are always necessary to keep under subjection.
Each time a Christian practices fasting he is serving notice to these bodily appetites to become subject to the desires of the Spirit of God living in him or her. In Galatians 5:17 Paul refers to the direct opposition that exists between the Holy Spirit and the carnal nature of the believer: “For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other…” According to Derek Prince, “fasting deals with the two great barriers to the Holy Spirit that are erected by man’s carnal nature. These are the stubborn self-will of the soul and the insistent, self-gratifying appetites of the body.
Rightly practiced, fasting brings both soul and body into subjection to the Holy Spirit.” In other words, fasting breaks down the barriers in the believer’s carnal nature that stand in the way of the Holy Spirit’s omnipotence thereby clearing the way for the Holy Spirit to work unhindered in His fullness through prayer. This enables us to appreciate Paul’s insight on the inexhaustible potential of prayer, which he expresses in Ephesians 3:20: “Now unto him, that is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us …..” That power that works through our prayers is the Holy Spirit. By removing the carnal barriers fasting make a way for the Holy Spirit’s omnipotence to work the “exceeding abundantly above” of God’s promises.
Practical Guidelines for Individual Fasting
The following guidelines are recommended by Derek Prince (1973) and supported by a number of other scholars on the discipline of fasting:
• Begin your time of fasting with positive faith (Heb 11:6);
• Your decision to fast should be based upon the conviction that the Bible requires it of you as part of the Christian discipline;
• Select a period that best applies to your situation based on your spiritual need, experience, and maturity. In other words, do not set for yourself too long a period of fasting;
• Build your faith during the period of the fast through reading and meditating on the Scriptures;
• Make sure that you are fasting for the right reasons and avoid boastfulness;
• Set certain specific objectives for your fast and make a written list of these.
• Expect spiritual benefits to result from the fast. Remember that God rewards those who diligently seek Him (Heb 11:6).
• In the early period of the fast you may experience unpleasant physical symptoms, such as a dizziness, headache, and nausea;
• Guard against constipation. Drink fluids such as water and fruit juices; avoid stimulants such as tea or coffee;
• Break your time of fasting gradually. Begin with meals that are light and easy to digest. The longer you are fasting, the more carefully you will have to be about breaking it.
Fasting, when combined with prayer, has proven to be one of the greatest spiritual resources available to the child of God. Through this great resource, the child of God is able to face great spiritual challenges and to rise to new spiritual heights in God. Despite the wonderful blessings that fasting can bring to the Christian life, it has its limits. The successful fast generally depends on approaching God with right attitudes and motives. You should therefore not fast to challenge the righteous standards of God; God responds to us solely on the basis of His will. In closing let me leave you with a note of caution. Fasting can help Christians to become more sensitive to God and to the spiritual realm. In the case of Jehoshaphat and the people of Judah, they received a word from God. In the situation with Jesus, he heard the voice of the devil tempting him. This latter experience of Jesus teaches us that during a fast, we will need to judge what we hear or experience in the light of the Scriptures. The Lord will not tell us to do anything that is contrary to His word. Speak to your pastor or give us a call about any unusual experiences that you may have during a long fast. Best wishes.
Prince, Derek. Restoration through fasting (New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell, 1973).
Towns, Elmer. Fasting for Spiritual Breakthrough: A Guide to Nine Biblical Fasts (California: Regal Books, 1996).