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To Fast or Not To Fast?

Posted by Pastor Greg Allen on January 14, 2017 under Ask the Pastor |

A member of our church writes:

“Lately, God has been walking with me on a new journey and I’m learning a lot, and fasting is something I’d like to know more about. … Do you fast?  Is it true that you can fast food but still drink liquid during the fast?  Can you fast things like TV and the Internet?”

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Dear friend:

Yes; I have fasted on a few occasions.  Although some Christians fast at regular times, I have not established such a pattern—except during brief periods of my life.  My times of fasting have most often been only occasional—and usually tied to a specific purpose (perhaps because something serious is going on in my life that I am appealing to God for; or as part of a community fast for prayer for our nation or our city).  I’ll admit that it’s not something I completely understand; but I have found that—like a lot of things in our walk with Christ that I may not fully understand—I understand it much better when I obey God’s call and do it.

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word most often used for ‘fasting’ is ṣûm, which, according to Strong’s Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary, means “to cover over (the mouth)”; and figuratively, this would mean “to abstain from food”.  The Greek word used in the New Testament is nēsteia; and it’s a word that is formed by putting a negation in front of the word “to eat” (esthio).  It means “a voluntary abstinence from eating”.

In the Bible, fasting is often associated with deep and intense prayers of petition and entreaty to God—and very often with weeping and mourning.  In reading through the Bible, you’ll sometimes find that ‘fasting’ became a sort of ritual that was done without genuine sincerity of heart; and this was very displeasing to God.  In Zechariah 7:5, for example, God rebuked the people of Israel for this; telling the prophet Zechariah, “Say to all the people of the land, and to the priests: ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months during those seventy years, did you really fast for Me—for Me?’”  Jesus also warned against such phony displays of fasting: “Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance.  For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting.  Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.  But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matthew 6:16-18).

But there are also examples of sincere fasting—usually associated with prayer for such things as God’s leading in important decisions (such as in Acts 13:1-3 and 14:23), or at important milestones of life (Daniel 9:1-3), or for petitions for important needs (Ezra 8:21-23).  Jesus, of course, is our greatest example.  He fasted at the beginning of His earthly ministry for forty days and forty nights (Matthew 4:1-12).

I can’t really speak too much to the idea of ‘fasting’ for health reasons.  The Bible doesn’t seem to address that.  But it seems to me that, for spiritual reasons, it’s a way of saying ‘no’ to the cravings of the body in order (1) to bring the body under discipline (see 1 Corinthians 9:27), and (2) to set one’s time and attention apart from other things and focus on God.  When I fast, I am not taking my time to make a meal; and I am thus able to give that time and attention to the Lord in prayer—either alone or with others.  Sometimes, the growling of the belly reminds me that I have something of more important spiritual value to do right then than eating; and it reminds me that the Lord is my Master–and not my belly.  (And I have heard from experienced ‘fasters’ that relieving the body for a time from the truly hard work of digestion actually helps clear the mind for the purposes of prayer and spiritual reflection.)

I believe, however, that it doesn’t have to just be food.  It can be some of the other things that you mentioned—unessential things that might take up our time when we really ought to concentrate on God’s purposes for us.  An interesting example—although I believe it ought to only be used very carefully—is found 1 Corinthians 7:5; where Paul writes to married couples in regard to marital intimacy and says, “Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”  In a very interesting Old Testament passage—in Isaiah 58—God rebuked the people of Israel for engaging in a fast of food while at the same time exploiting people.  He told them;

“Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;
When you see the naked, that you cover him,
And not hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then your light shall break forth like the morning,
Your healing shall spring forth speedily,
And your righteousness shall go before you;
The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
You shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am’” (Isaiah 58:6-9).

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If you choose to fast for spiritual reasons, I would suggest that you establish a reason for doing so first.  Come to God with a purpose for it; saying to Him, “Lord, I feel led before you to skip a meal tonight [or for however long], and bring some important things before you in prayer.”  (Of course, if you fast, you shouldn’t ever excuse yourself from the normal responsibilities of providing necessary care for others—unless that is mutually agreed.  And you shouldn’t advertise that you’re fasting, but rather keep it private and personal.)  I think the same would apply if you choose to ‘fast’ from something else other than food.  And I think you should set some kind of time limit to it.  Fasting for a specific purpose may—by necessity—naturally establish such a time limit.

I have also heard experienced ‘fasters’ of food say that drinking a little water or diluted fruit juice is a good idea.  (Dehydration is dangerous; and I don’t believe that would be God’s will in a fast.  You can go a long time without food, but not without water.)

I hope some of these thoughts help.  Blessings.
Pastor Greg

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