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"Go and teach all nations to observe whatsoever things I have taught you..." Matthew 28:19-20
Fasting is a subject which arouses a lot of contention amongst Christians. Some say it is not something Christians should do at all, that it is just an Old Testament practice belonging to the law of Moses. Why, they say, should we have to do such a legalistic thing as fasting if we are under grace? But here are the clear words of Jesus: “When you fast ...”. It’s not “If you fast ...”. We are not given a choice in the matter. It is as imperative and basic as praying and giving. Fasting is for all disciples of Jesus. It’s not just for “spiritual” or “mature” Christians.
I want to look at the principles of fasting, and I hope that by the time you have read this article you will be fully convinced that fasting is a scriptural New Testament practice which serves many different purposes and ought to be a part of our lifestyle.
First of all I want to state three things that fasting is not for:
1. Fasting is not to obtain power with God. It is not a formula (“If we fast, God will work and do what we ask”). If that were the case, fasting would be effectively a way of controlling God. And it is God who controls us, not the other way around.
2. Fasting is not a way of forcing God to work for us. In Isaiah 58:3-5 God rebuked his people for fasting “for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness: ye shall not fast as ye do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high.” Fasting isn’t a way of somehow adding more power to your prayer so that God is more likely to listen, or even that he is forced to listen. Praying and fasting so that God’s “fist” of judgment will come down is twisting God’s arm and making him serve our purposes.
3. Fasting is not an exclusively Christian practice. Buddhists do it, witches do it, cults do it. And there is no reason why God should take notice of it. In itself it doesn’t move God at all. In Jeremiah 14:12 God said of his own people, “When they fast, I will not hear their cry”. Why? Because there was no real repentance of heart with their fasting; it was done with the wrong attitude, the wrong motive and the wrong purpose.
So what is fasting for? Very many things:
1. To entreat God.
Esther and her maidens fasted to plead with God on behalf of their nation in a time of great need (Esther 4:16). When King David’s child by Bathsheba was sick, David fasted seven days. But this was
not to force God’s hand, only to entreat him. Once the child died, David was content with God’s judgment. As he said to his servants, “I said, Who can tell whether God will be gracious to me, that the child may live?” (1 Sam 12:22). In Joel 1:14, during a time of famine, Israel are called to “sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly ... and cry unto the Lord”. Why? The answer comes later from God himself: “Therefore also now, saith the Lord, turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning: and rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and repenteth him of the evil. Who knoweth if he will return and repent, and leave a blessing behind him?” (Joel 2:12-14). This is not fasting to force God’s hand; it is entreating God, knowing his character, understanding that he can change his mind if he sees a right heart and a right attitude in his people.
2. To avert judgment.
In Jonah we see a remarkable thing: a heathen city, Nineveh “fasted and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them” (Jonah 3:5). Even though they didn’t know God, they understood his character, for they said exactly what God said of himself in Joel: “Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?” (Jonah 3:9). And what happened because the Ninevites fasted? “God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not” (Jonah 3:10).
3. To humble ourselves.
Psalm 35:13 says, “I humbled my soul with fasting”. Psalm 69:10 says “I wept, and chastened my soul with fasting”. This is very far from trying to twist God’s arm or get what we want. It springs from a deep recognition of our need and our insufficiency. It comes from conviction and poverty of spirit.
4. For God’s protection.
Ezra proclaimed a fast before he journeyed to Jerusalem. He was ashamed to request an armed guard from the king, because he had told the king that “the hand of our God is upon all them for good that seek him” (Ezra 8:22); and having said that, he didn’t want to then say that he needed human help. So he fasted “to seek of [God] a right way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance” (Ezra 8:21). Ezra had more courage of his convictions and integrity than many Christians today, who say they trust God and then look to the world for help!
Again, this is not a demand for protection; it is a recognition of need and insufficiency, a humble entreaty of God’s help, and a prayer that God will vindicate his own name and character.
5. To intercede for the land.
Daniel, in captivity in Babylon, “set his face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting”(Daniel 9:3). He humbled himself, identified with the sins of the people, and pleaded with God on behalf of Israel. He did this because he had read in Jeremiah how God would accomplish seventy years captivity, and that time was coming to an end. So Daniel prayed according to God’s promise — again, not forcing God’s hand or telling him that he had to keep his promises, but confessing and pleading with him in humility, recognising that we deserve nothing but judgment, and all of God’s promises are grace and mercy.
6. Expression of repentance.
Samuel called all Israel together to fast before the Lord, as a recognition that they had sinned and a sign of their repentance (1 Samuel 7:5-11). The Philistines heard about it and took occasion to come in battle against them; but God heard their repentance and spared them from attack, giving Israel a surprise victory.
7. Expression of mourning.
When King Saul was killed in battle, it was God’s judgment, but nevertheless David was grieved, and mourned for Saul and Jonathan, and the people of Israel buried them and fasted for seven days (1 Samuel 31:13).
8. For special needs.
Jesus told the disciples, who had been trying to cast a demon out of a boy, that certain kinds “goeth not out but by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:21). There are special cases in which fasting is necessary to bring deliverance and victory.
9. For guidance.
When the early church were seeking God for guidance and direction, as they met together and “ministered unto the Lord, and fasted”, God spoke to them and gave them direction (Acts 13:2). If churches today would do this instead of being confident in their own ideas and plans, the effects on both the church and the nation would be tremendous.
10. For ordaining elders.
“And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord” (Acts 14:23). There is a great responsibility placed upon the leadership of the church to do things as God would have them; and when it comes to putting people into the ministry and ordaining them, it is something which demands God’s guidance. Even the
apostles would not take the matter into their own hands but diligently sought God with prayer and fasting.
11. In family life.
Paul encourages husbands and wives to enjoy sexual relations and not withhold themselves from each other, “except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not”(1 Corinthians 7:5) . There is a time when fasting from food can be supported by fasting from sex, and the whole family will surely reap spiritual benefit.
With all these examples from the Old and New Testament, it is difficult to see how Christians can say that fasting is not for today, or even that it is only an option. Certainly fasting is not a legal requirement; even in our Old Testament examples it is never a legal thing but a spontaneous response from the heart. That is the fasting that God sees, and there is no doubt that when it is genuine and real, it moves God. Wicked King Ahab, when he heard God’s words of judgment upon him, “he rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth, and went softly. And the word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying, ‘See how Ahab humbleth himself before me? because he humbleth himself before me, I will not bring the evil in his days’ ” (1 Kings 22:27-29).
Like the Ninevites, many people who do not fully know God nevertheless understand his character. Cornelius, whose prayer, fasting and almsgiving had “come up for a memorial before God” (see Acts 10:2,4,30), had never heard of Jesus or the Sermon on the Mount. Yet he practised almsgiving, prayer and fasting, and because he did so, God heard him and was mightily gracious to him and his household. We may talk ourselves out of fasting; but we don’t know how much blessing we’re missing — both for ourselves and others — as a result.
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