Can fasting enhance prayer? Derek Prince's (1973) statement about the relationship between prayer and fasting is simple and profound. He explains that fasting intensifies prayer and that certain spiritual objectives can only be attained through prayer and fasting. God's most precious blessings are often found in this category. Fasting is a complementary practice to prayer, requiring us to make additional sacrifices as we engage in spiritual warfare to reach new heights in our relationship with Him. In this blog, I will explore fasting as a discipline found in the Bible, which is essential to achieving powerful and effective prayer and living a victorious life as a Christian.
Fasting is a spiritual practice that involves abstaining from food. Although it may sometimes include abstaining from drinking, in most cases, people in the Bible drank but did not eat while fasting. Moses and Esther are two examples from the Old Testament who abstained from drinking during their fasts. Moses fasted for forty days and forty nights twice, without eating or drinking, while in the presence of God (Deuteronomy 9: 9-18). Esther and her maidens fasted for three days without water (Esther 4:16). Interestingly, medical science also sets a limit of three days for the body to go without water. This connection confirms that fasting does not conflict with medical science. The fact that fasting for long periods does not imply abstaining from drink supports Matthew's account of Jesus' forty-day fast, where he was hungry but not thirsty (Matthew 4:2).
Although it is not explicitly stated in the Synoptic Gospels whether Jesus drank during his forty days and forty nights fast, it is important to note that this does not apply to our current situation. Even if Jesus abstained from drinking like Moses, it was under exceptional circumstances. Therefore when fasting for long periods, it is recommended to follow the approach recommended by medical science, which is not to abstain from drinking for more than seventy-two hours.
In the Bible, important examples of fasting provide valuable insights into the discipline of fasting. We will now focus on a few of these examples.
David Practiced Fasting
David, a Jew, followed Jewish law that required people to afflict their souls through fasting (Leviticus 16:29-31). In Psalm 35:13, he mentioned that he humbled his soul through fasting, while in Psalm 69:10, he wrote that he chastened his soul with fasting and wept. David fasted for extended periods, as evident in Psalm 109:24, where he said that his knees were weak due to fasting and his flesh had lost its fatness. These examples from the Psalms highlight that fasting requires sacrifice, which is vital for a humble walk before God, forgiveness, and spiritual refreshing for the soul. David denied himself bodily gratification, an essential aspect of fasting that is significant, especially for intercession, which will be discussed later.
The Power of The Collective Fast
Case One: King Jehoshaphat and the Nation of Judah Fasted (2 Chronicles 20).
In the book of 2 Chronicles 20, we see how Judah relied on God during times of crisis by using fasting as a powerful spiritual tool. The story recounts how the nation of Judah was faced with an attack by the Moabites, Ammonites, and their allies. In response, King Jehoshaphat led the nation in a collective fast and prayer, reminding God of His covenant with Abraham and His promises of mercy.
Their plea was answered as God miraculously defeated their enemies, leaving no survivors. The spoils were collected, and Judah praised God for His victory. This triumph significantly impacted neighboring nations; no other nation dared to attack Judah. By relying on God through fasting and prayer, they unleashed His power in their lives during times of crisis, turning them into experiences of triumph.
Case Two: Esther Transforms Disaster into Triumph (Esther 4)
This chapter described one of the greatest crises that ever confronted the Jewish people in their entire history. The entire nation faced extermination in the Persian Empire. Satan had stirred up one of his advocates, 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 by casting 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 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 verses 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 of 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 instructs His disciples on three related duties: giving alms, praying, and fasting. In this passage, it is 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 roundabout.” Jesus fasted to receive supernatural empowerment to fulfill His ministry as Messiah. This incident 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 fasting regularly as a result. During one of these fasting times, Paul and Barnabas received their apostolic commission to the Gentiles (Acts 13:1-3). Having made remarkable success in 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 fasting helps the Christian is to humble himself or herself before God. This aspect of fasting was discussed earlier about 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 believer's godly sorrow with the unbeliever's hopeless sorrow: “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 how 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 refers to his physical passions and desires, which are always necessary to keep under subjection.
Each time 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 can 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 allows 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 several 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 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 careful you will have to be about breaking it.
As a spiritual resource, fasting and prayer have proven to be immensely beneficial for those seeking to grow closer to God. Through this practice, believers can overcome spiritual challenges and reach new heights in their faith. However, it is important to approach fasting with the right motives and attitudes. Fasting should not be used to test God's righteous standards, as He responds to us based solely on His will. Additionally, it is crucial to exercise caution during a fast, as we may become more sensitive to spiritual influences. It is important to discern any experiences or messages we receive during this time in the light of Scripture. If you experience anything unusual during a fast, consider speaking with your pastor or seeking further guidance. May you be blessed in your journey of faith.
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).