Editor's Note: Pastor Roger Barrier's "Ask Roger" column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople, or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at email@example.com.
Recently I was having my morning devotionals when I came across Matthew 6:16-18 and noticed that Jesus twice said to His disciples, "When you fast." He didn't say, "If you fast." He just assumed that they would fast. I have attended church since I was a child never once heard a sermon on fasting. So, I went to BibleGateway.com and looked up the word, "fast." Just three chapters later John the Baptist's disciples asked Jesus why His disciples weren't fasting and Jesus answered in Matthew 9:14-16: "How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast."
My question is: Why isn't fasting emphasized in the church today? What does not eating have to do with spirituality? Why should I fast? What does a fast look like?
Nowhere in the New Testament are we commanded to fast. On the other hand, Jesus assumes that there will be times when His followers will practice fasting.
One of my pastor friends, Jeff Jones, gave the best definition for fasting that I have ever heard: "Fasting is a voluntary choice not to eat for a period of time in order to focus one’s attention on prayer during a significant moment in life."
I like to define fasting like this: "Fasting is to abstain from food and/or drink for spiritual purposes."
The word, "fast", literally means, "to go without food."
Fasting is not so much abstaining from food as it is choosing to feast on spiritual things.
I believe strongly in fasting as a God given tool for further enhancing our spiritual lives as well as to get some things done on earth that would never gotten done apart from fasting.
In the Bible fasting and prayer often go together.
Let me illustrate from one of my fasting experiences:
Pain etched Sally’s face. Nerves damaged by radiation treatments left her in constant agony. "The doctors say they can do nothing more,” she said. “God is my only hope. I noticed a passage on healing in James 5 yesterday that might help.”
As she opened her Bible I saw two verses underlined in red: “Is anyone of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up.”
“Would you please gather the elders and pray for me?" she asked. Unfortunately, it was not that simple.
I grew up in a denomination that ill-prepared me for her request. The unwritten, but strongly implied rule of our denominational culture stated that pastors who ministered in the area of healing were "charismatic" at best, and deluded at worst. Also, our churches were organized around deacons; we had no elders. Furthermore, I was not sure what a "prayer of faith" was. Finally, I had never anointed anyone with oil and was not certain how to do it. Obviously, we never discussed James 5:14-15 in seminary.
So, I chose my words carefully: "Sally, you are the first person to ask me to pray for healing according to James five. I am not certain what to do.” I explained my pastoral dilemma and then proposed a solution: “I suggest that we both pray and fast for five days. I'll meet you in my office next Friday afternoon, and if God tells us to proceed, we will." Sally was no novice. She had walked with God for many years. She agreed to the proposal.
Five days later we both wrote on paper what we thought God told us and then exchanged papers. The conclusions were identical. We made plans for a healing service on Sunday afternoon. Since we had no elders at the time, I invited our deacons.
During the thirty minutes before Sally arrived, I explained to the deacons her request, the background to her pain, and what I knew of James 5:14-15. I asked if anyone had participated in a healing service before. No hands rose.
When Sally arrived, we asked her to confess any known sin because James mentioned this in verse 16. When she finished, I took the bottle from Lucky's Supermarket and prepared to pour olive oil over her head. One of the deacons averted a mess when he shook his head and whispered that a drop on a finger applied lightly to her forehead might work better. We took turns passing the bottle, anointing her with oil, and praying for her.
I wondered if perhaps Sally would now leap up like on television and shout, "Glory to God! I'm healed!" But nothing happened. As she quietly exited the room, she thanked us for our prayers and left a room filled with disappointed confusion, mixed with some measure of hope.
Unbeknown to us, the healing service just moved to another time and place. In the early morning hours, Sally was awakened by a strange sensation and knew instantly that she was healed. By the time she was out of bed, the pain was gone—never to return. Later Sally related to me an intriguing aside: "I think that the reason God did not heal me in front of the deacons was because they might get proud. I think God waited until I was alone so He would get all the glory." She never had the same pain as long as she lived.
One purpose of fasting is to discern God's will and then to have the spiritual power to act in accordance with His will. Fasting when accompanied by prayer seems to communicate to God a deeper seriousness and earnestness that gets his attention.
Lacy, you ask why should you fast? Let me mention some of the reasons and/or purposes for fasting.
1. When we need to know God's will
I mentioned this reason above.
The Israelites fasted to determine direction in battle (Judges 20:24-28).
2. WHEN WE NEED TO CHANGE GOD'S MIND
Jonah, the prophet of God, was sent to Nineveh to prophesy destruction. When the King of Nineveh heard Jonah's message, he immediately fasted and called for a fast among his people (Jonah 3:5-6).
This time of fasting did change the mind of God, much to the disappointment of Jonah, you will remember, because God withheld His hand of judgment.
If you are thinking a bit you may remember that one of God's characteristics is immutability. He never changes (James 1:16-17). You may remember that other passages describe Him as One with whom there is "no change, no turning, no shadow of turning, no variableness.
It is important to keep in mind that God has established a principle concerning His right to repent, and whenever we are talking about the repentance of God it is necessary for us to keep in mind the principle.
Jeremiah 18:7-10: "If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it. "
God is saying, "If I decide that a nation, or an individual, needs to be chastened, if that individual or nation repents, I reserve to myself the right to nullify my intended action if I so choose." He does not always choose, but He can.
Changing the mind of God through fasting is not a contradiction of the Scripture.
3. When we need to Intensify the Power of our Prayers
I mentioned this purpose above; but, I wanted to make it stand out because of its significance. God promised in Isaiah 58:3-5, 9: "I won't hear with your fasting, but if you'll do a true fast... then I will hear."
How often we have made earnest prayer to God for some specific need, yet, there was no answer from heaven.
Why? It could well be that God is saying to us Jeremiah 29:13: "When you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you..."
When we are in turmoil, it is time to fast. When we are out of work, struggling with poor personal relationships, suffering with sickness, worried about wayward children, etc. it is time to fast.
4. When we need Freedom From Various Bondages
When you think about it, we have the opportunity to be in bondage to more things than any other culture in history. We can be enslaved and/or addicted to so many things: consumerism, jobs, cars, sports, TV, lust, porn, alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, sex, video games, gambling, the occult, black magic, bitterness, resentment, jealousy, etc. You name it and we can find someone addicted to it.
Prayer with earnest fasting is designed to help us free ourselves from these bonds. God promised in Isaiah 58:6: “Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?”
5. When we need help forgivING ourselves for past sins
I never cease to be amazed by the Christians who have trouble accepting God's forgiveness for some of the sins in their pasts. Surprise! That includes most all of us.
John the beloved Disciple spoke for God in 1 John 1:9: "If we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." This promise, when properly accepted and appropriated, can help us forgive ourselves, put our past mistakes in perspective and move on to the future.
If you are guilty of sin, and have confessed and repented, and are still feeling accused, then fast.
6. When are in danger and need Protection.
The Jews fasted and prayed after hearing of King Xerxes’ plan to kill them all. Mordecai instructed Esther: “You must go and confront the King about this matter even if it is against the law for you to approach him uninvited.”
Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai as recorded in Esther 4:16 “Go, gather together the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”
Read Esther and see how God rescued all the Jews in Persia just in time.
Julie and I have travelled and taught in over thirty countries. Our children used to tell us that they had to stop and think to remember whether we were in the country or out. We've been in some remote and dangerous places. The kids didn't really like for us to travel abroad. They often said, “We were afraid you were not going to come back.”
We have travelled a great deal in the Middle East ministering to Jordanian, Iranian, Iraqi, Tajikistani, Libyan, Armenian, Turkish, Armenian, and Azerbaijani pastors and Christians either in country or in pastors' conferences throughout Turkey. We prayed many a prayer for protection. We've been cursed in Azerbaijan, mocked in England, snowed in for a week in Armenia, frozen in Mongolia and just after the Iron Curtain fell, afraid of communist persecution in the Ukraine.
I own two bullet-proof vests because my life has been threatened four times. Julie has had to wear a vest because of threats on her life.
God protected us in every situation. Prayer and fasting are important when we are in danger and need protection.
7. when our relationship with him is intimate and we desire to Enhance Our Worship And Devotion to God
Eighty-four-year-old widowed Anna worshipped God through prayers and fastings daily in the temple as she waited for the Son of God to make His first trip to the Temple. When He finally arrived, she fell to knees and worshipped (Luke 2:36-38).
The early church fasted often as they worshipped God (Acts 13:2-3).
Remember, in worship we want to move spiritually into the throne room in Heaven. Fasting helps to facilitate our moving into God's presence.
Let's examine the two basic types of Fasts: NORMAL AND ABSOLUTE
1. A Normal Fast Is Abstaining From All Foods But Not From Water.
During the Temptation as recorded in Matthew 4:2-3 Jesus was hungry, not thirsty. Satan tempted Him to turn stones into bread. He didn't tempt Him to turn plants into water.
Usually a normal fast includes drinking water. I think that there are times when drinking juice or coffee is appropriate. However, the normal fast is usually undertaken with only water.
2. An Absolute Fast Is Abstaining From Both Drinking And Eating.
After Paul's Damascus Road experience, when he met the risen Lord, Acts 9:9 records: "For three days Paul neither ate nor drank."
Moses twice undertook absolute fasts of supernatural proportions. For forty days he fasted, no food or water, after he received the ten commandments and again for forty days when he saw the golden calf. Is it any wonder that God spared Israel.
How can WE begin FASTING?
If you have never fasted before, don't start off with forty-day fast. Our bodies grow accustomed to fasting by degrees. God doesn't call us to run until we have learned to walk.
Consider beginning with a partial fast. Fast one or two meals and soon extend your fast to one full day--three meals in a row. Perhaps you fast breakfast, lunch and dinner on the same day.
I have found it a litter easier to begin after lunch on one day, have dinner that evening and miss breakfast and lunch on the next day. Then, conclude the fast by eating dinner.
You may discover that on the first day you experience a headache and/or some depression. This is normal. The headache is only caffeine withdrawal from drinks like coffee, tea and coke, etc. These feelings will not kill you!
When do you conclude a fast? When you sense God saying that it is time to stop/
By the way, and this is really important, certain medical conditions may need doctoral approval and/or may be incompatible with fasting.
If you are unable to fast because of medical reasons do not despair. When God forbid David from building the Temple because of his many battles and killings, God said to him: "You did well to have it in your heart. I will give you credit for it anyway." The same may be said about fasting.
Let me address your initial question as to why we see so little emphasis on fasting today. This is my opinion, but, I think it has to do with the sorry state of Christianity in America. Fasting is one of the spiritual disciplines, all of which are designed to enhance our spiritual maturity. There is a cost to growing spiritually and in my opinion, many (most) American Christians are not willing to pay the price.
Well, Lacy, I hope that my answer is helpful. May God bless you as you engage in the spiritual discipline of fasting.
Dr. Roger Barrier retired as senior teaching pastor from Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being an author and sought-after conference speaker, Roger has mentored or taught thousands of pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders worldwide. Casas Church, where Roger served throughout his thirty-five-year career, is a megachurch known for a well-integrated, multi-generational ministry. The value of including new generations is deeply ingrained throughout Casas to help the church move strongly right through the twenty-first century and beyond. Dr. Barrier holds degrees from Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Seminary in Greek, religion, theology, and pastoral care. His popular book, Listening to the Voice of God, published by Bethany House, is in its second printing and is available in Thai and Portuguese. His latest work is, Got Guts? Get Godly! Pray the Prayer God Guarantees to Answer, from Xulon Press. Roger can be found blogging at Preach It, Teach It, the pastoral teaching site founded with his wife, Dr. Julie Barrier.