A Practical Guide to Spiritual Fasting

 

“Fasting hoists the sails of the soul in hopes of experiencing the gracious wind of God’s Spirit.”[1]
Donald S. Whitney

There are times when I need a little extra wind in the sails of my prayer life. It seems somehow that my prayers hit a ceiling. I don’t see results, or feel a connection to God, or experience the peace that so often comes through prayer.

Have you felt that way too?

If you had a tool – already in your possession – that would help you strengthen your prayer life and, as Donald Whitney described, “hoist the sails of the soul” to experience the “gracious wind of God’s Spirit,” would you use it?

Be warned – this is a heavy tool. It’s not one that’s easy to use, but it can be one of our mightiest instruments, yielding some of the most immediately obvious results that you’ll ever see. Yes, I’m speaking of spiritual fasting.

The Right Tool for the Job

Some of us aren’t sailors, so allow me to provide another illustration.

We live in the house that my dad built with his own hands in 1969. It sits on 5 acres just outside of what used to be the small town of Brighton, Colorado. As with most Colorado cities, Brighton has experienced intense growth. We used to live “in the boonies,” as people who drove this far out would describe. Now, it seems we’re in the heart of the hustle and bustle of city life.

But we have our 5 acres of peace. We hear more traffic noise and fewer meadowlark songs than in the old days, but we love it here and we’ve somehow maintained our breathtaking view of the Colorado Rocky Mountains and God’s glorious sunsets.

When we moved in more than 15 years ago, the place was in obvious need of repair and renovation. For those of you who don’t know him, my husband Mike is a man of great vision. I fall into that same category and our vision for the home place was (is) grand. The basement was of 1960’s style construction with small (maybe 2’ x 3’) windows that let in precious little light.

Our first concept was to excavate and turn the basement into a walkout to let in more sunshine and access to some neglected living space. Those plans didn’t prove as feasible as we’d hoped, but we did excavate and add some larger windows. This required concrete saw cutting that we hired a contractor to complete.

The day the contractor came, he was one of the largest, most muscular men I’ve ever seen in person. Think Hulk Hogan and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Big. Dude. He hoisted up an enormous saw that penetrated 10” of poured concrete. Simply amazing. After the saw cuts were complete, the large blocks then had to be pounded out to create the windows.

Hoping for a little teamwork, big guy asked Mike, “Do you have a sledgehammer?”

Photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sledgehammers-1.jpg by Shakespeare

“Yes!” Mike replied and went to round up the tool to help. When he returned with his 10-pound sledgehammer, it looked minuscule in comparison to big guy’s hammer. Like a seabird that pairs with a blue whale in the ocean. If the hammer on the right were Mike’s hammer, big guy’s hammer was about twice as big as the red one on the left.

And the laughter started. Even big guy chuckled. To knock out thick concrete, a very large (maybe 30 pound) hammer was required – one I’m not sure I could lift to swing. The huge hammer needed huge muscles for efficient operation.

Fasting is like that. It’s the big hammer that we need sometimes for our work of prayer. While it often takes a little muscle and practice to use correctly, it’s often just the right tool for the job.

Benefits and Blessings of Fasting

In my last post, I walked you through blessings and benefits of fasting (read it here). Today I’ll narrow our focus to the practical aspect of fasting and provide Scriptural references. Most of my information comes from the book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald S. Whitney.

Sometimes for practical application, we need a little practical background. This will be a “rapid fire” type of post, but I hope you’ll take some time with it, examine the Scriptures, and seek the Lord on how He’ll have you proceed. I pray this post will spur you on to the unexpected rewards and blessings that await through fasting.

What is Fasting?

In its strictest sense, fasting is abstaining from food. Through a wider lens, however, we see that fasting can incorporate abstaining from any form of enjoyment, whether food, possession, activity or something else.  Biblically speaking, fasts always pertain to food but I’ll encourage you to pay close attention to your health and medical needs and consult a medical professional if necessary before you fast from food. If a food fast isn’t possible, then choose a non-food type of abstinence.

Types and Categories of Fasts

In the Bible, we see several varieties of fasts. They are not named in Scripture, only modeled, so take the type headings with a grain of salt.

Type Description Scriptural Examples
Typical Abstaining from food but drinking water throughout the fast. Luke 4:2
Partial Abstaining from certain types of food but not all food. Drinking water throughout the fast. Daniel 1:12

Matthew 3:4

Absolute Denying all food and drink for a short period of time. Esther 4:16

Acts 9:9

Supernatural Denying all food and drink for a long period. This takes obvious intervention and provision from the Lord. This is not repeatable without miraculous provision. Deuteronomy 9:9

 

Private or Public?

Fasting can take place

  • in private, as is most common (see Matthew 6:16-18),
  • as a congregational fast called by church or ministry leaders (Acts 13:2),
  • with a national focus (2 Chronicles 20:3)

It’s interesting to note that the United States participated in national fasts under three separate presidents: John Adams, James Madison and Abraham Lincoln who called for three national fasts during the Civil War.

Fasting Instructions from Jesus

In Matthew 16:16-18 we see several instructions from Jesus. Please note that

  • Fasting is expected. Jesus says, “whenever you fast.” setting an expectation as with praying and giving. The instruction does not say if you fast, but when.
  • It is to be private (“don’t show your fasting to people but to your Father…”)
  • It will be rewarded (“your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”)

It’s often necessary for others to know about your fast. Sometimes this is an act of courtesy, especially toward those with whom you normally eat or for those who may prepare your food. Other times fasts are made known because they are group activities. It’s not that we are forbidden to share our activity, but we need to be ever aware of our motivation for letting others know. Are we seeking attention or do we have a desire to appear more holy and righteous? If so, it’s best to hold our tongues and keep our fast to ourselves as much as possible. (See also Matthew 6:1)

How Long Should I Fast?

This is entirely a matter of spiritual discernment and even one of practice. There are many scriptural examples of fasts lasting for a partial day, a full day, one night, 3 days, 14 days, 40 days, and nearly everything in between. Longer fasts are obviously more difficult so if you’re starting your first fast, I advise a short duration – maybe just one meal.

The Purpose Behind a Fast

Having a clear purpose behind your fast will not only help you press through the challenges, it will help in resisting the enemy’s schemes to convince you to give up. It will also maintain the spiritual nature of your fast (as opposed to fasting for medical or weight-loss reasons). A Biblical purpose is important and can make all the difference in whether you complete your fast or give up.

When you’re fasting from food, it’s your hunger that spurs you to pray and to focus on the Lord. Imagine sitting at your desk listening to your tummy growl and thinking, “I’m hungry!” Your next thought is then, “Oh, yes. I’m hungry because I’m fasting today. And I’m fasting because _______.” Filling in that blank with something meaningful and motivating will help you fast with perseverance and steadfast commitment.

There are countless reasons to fast, innumerable ways to name the purpose of your fast. It’s the Lord Who inspires fasting and He will often bring to mind a reason for your fast. Below are a handful of reasons to help jumpstart your thought process.

Draw close to God Overcome temptation Minister to the needs of others Express repentance and return to God
For a specific person, need, cause, event To seek God’s clarity and direction To discern God’s will and embrace His guidance To experience a breakthrough in the area of sin
To humble yourself before the Lord As an act of dedication before a new endeavor To seek healing To experience transformation
To move toward reconciliation For help with forgiveness To express love and worship to God To express grief from sin or loss
To express urgency To prepare for your next Kingdom assignment For deliverance / protection To strengthen prayer

 

As you pray about incorporating a fast into your prayer life and consider what your Biblical purpose might be, I’ll leave you with two powerful quotes from Donald S. Whitney:

“Biblical fasting is God’s idea. When we sense the need to strengthen our prayers, God says in Scripture to apply the force of fasting. Biblical fasting is not derived from man’s imagination as a way to persuade God. … Our Lord is always pleased to hear the prayers of His people. But He is also pleased when we choose to enhance our prayers in a way He Himself has ordained.”[2]

“Fasting is one of the best friends we can introduce to our prayer lives.”[3]

Fasting is not to be considered a tool of manipulation but one that expresses your hunger for and commitment to God and His ways. Its worthy of your time and attention and strongly encourage you to give it some practice and effort. The benefits and blessings you receive will surpass what you ask or imagine.

Blessings,

 

 

 

[1] Whitney, Donald S. Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (p. 220). NavPress. Kindle Edition.
[2] Whitney, (p. 201).
[3] Whitney, (p.202).

 

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