Fasting and prayer
In a nutshell, fasting is defined as voluntarily going without food in order to focus on prayer and fellowship with God. But… you can pray without fasting, and fast without prayer. Yet when these two activities are combined and dedicated to God’s glory they reach a fuller effectiveness.
One thing to make clear at the outset; prayer and fasting is not a time of manipulating God into doing what you desire. No, it is simply forcing yourself to focus and rely on God for the strength, provision, and wisdom you need, by being open to His prompting, guiding, and His voice.
History is filled with stories of those who have fasted. Martin Luther, John Wesley and Charles Finney all saw the Lord impact their generations and they were all men of fasting and prayer. It was Smith Wigglesworth who said, “If the Spirit of God is not moving, I will move the Spirit of God.”
So fasting and praying is about losing “the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free…” (Isaiah 58:6).
Fasting and prayer: what the Bible says…
The Old Testament law specifically required prayer and fasting for only one occasion, the Day of Atonement, known as “the day of fasting” (Jeremiah 36:6) or “the Fast” (Acts 27:9). Moses fasted during the 40 days and 40 nights he was on Mount Sinai receiving the law from God (Exodus 34:28). King Jehoshaphat called for a fast in all Israel when they were about to be attacked by the Moabites and Ammonites (2 Chronicles 20:3). In response to Jonah’s preaching, the men of Nineveh fasted and put on sackcloth (Jonah 3:5). Prayer and fasting were responses in times of distress or trouble, as we heard in our first reading from Joel (Joel 2:1-2 & 12-17).
There are also other occasions recorded in Scripture. For instance: David fasted when he learned that Saul and Jonathan had been killed (2 Samuel 1:12). Nehemiah had a time of prayer and fasting upon learning that Jerusalem was still in ruins (Nehemiah 1:4). Darius, the king of Persia, fasted all night after he was forced to put Daniel in the den of lions (Daniel 6:18).
Prayer and fasting also occurs in the New Testament. Anna “worshipped night and day, fasting and praying” at the Temple (Luke 2:37). John the Baptist taught his disciples to fast (Mark 2:18). Jesus fasted for 40 days and 40 nights before His temptation by Satan (Matthew 4:2). The church of Antioch fasted (Acts 13:2) and sent Paul and Barnabas off on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:3). Paul and Barnabas spent time in prayer and fasting for the appointment of elders in the churches (Acts 14:23).
Fasting and prayer: Required or Recommended?
As you read the Word of God you’ll find that it does not specifically command believers to spend time in prayer and fasting. Yet, at the same time, prayer and fasting is definitely something we should be doing, because Scripture shows us that when we take our eyes off the things of this world through prayer and fasting and focus our thoughts on God things begin to change miraculously.
Fasting should always be limited to a set time because: not eating for extended periods will be damaging to the body. Scripture also shows us that fasting is not a method of punishing our bodies and it is not be used as a “dieting method” either, for we are to spend time in prayer and fasting to gain a deeper fellowship and discipleship with God. Simply put, by taking our eyes off the things of this world through prayer and biblical fasting, we can focus better on Christ.
As we heard in or Gospel reading (Matthew 6:16-18) Jesus declares:
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
Did you notice that Jesus said twice “When you fast”, not “If you fast”! This implies that there is an expectation for followers of Jesus to fast.
Prayer and Fasting – What Does It Accomplish?
I need to be clear here that spending time in prayer and fasting is not automatically effective in accomplishing the desires of those who fast. Fasting or no fasting, God only promises to answer our prayers when we ask according to His will. 1 John 5:14-15 tells us,
“This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us – whatever we ask – we know that we have what we asked of him.”
In the prophet Isaiah’s time, the people grumbled that they had fasted, yet God did not answer in the way they wanted (Isaiah 58:3-4). Isaiah responded by proclaiming that the external show of fasting and prayer, without the proper heart attitude, was futile (Isaiah 58:5-9).
So I believe that fasting and prayer are key components for turning the tide of anything we face, because it helps to bring us back into line with God’s plumb line truth, for when we walk in His truth we are going to be asking in accordance with His will.
Think what happened to Jesus in the wilderness after His baptism. After 40 days He was tempted. We may be surprised at this, after all Jesus had just spent 40 days focusing on God, His heavenly Father. Why was He tempted then?
I think this shows us that temptation may come as a surprise but sin is not an accident. The devil was coming to tempt Jesus, but He was ready for Him. He was prepared with the Word of God, His sword and with 40 days of fasting and prayer (Matthew 4).
Is there a temptation you are facing right now?
- Feeling sorry for yourself, and self-pity?
- feeling anxious and worrying?
- The lust of the eyes?
- Being offended and holding grudges?
- The pride of life?
Most temptation falls into these categories. But whatever it is, there is a pathway to victory through fasting and prayer.
We cannot stop temptation from coming, but when it does come, we can walk in God’s supernatural power to overcome it through a lifestyle of fasting and prayer.
To me an important thing about praying and fasting is that we are to only do it to bring honour and glory to God. If we are asking for something that is not honouring to God or not God’s will for our lives, God will not give what we ask for, whether we fast or not. You see, we learn God’s will for us when we grow in His wisdom, and God promises to give us wisdom when we ask. James 1:5 tells us, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.”
As we journey through Lent together may we use the Lent sessions to help us grow in understanding and wisdom about the spiritual discipline of prayer and fasting, so that we all grow in God’s wisdom and all the benefits that will bring us.
Ash Wednesday, 6th March 2019
Readings: Joel 2:1-2 & 12-17 and Matthew 6:1-6 & 16-21