“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” ~ Romans 12:1
I’m not sure why it happened, but in college I began to practice the discipline of fasting. I saw that fasting was a frequent Old Testament practice, and that the Lord assumed his followers would practice it, and that the apostles did practice it. So I gave it the college try, and have run hot and cold with it ever since.
One of the greatest gifts God has given his people to teach them the life-skill of self-denial is the practice of fasting, where we go without food for a given time to seek God more intently in prayer and study. If you’ve never heard of fasting before, you’re probably choking at the suggestion that going without food is a gift. Let me explain why I see it this way. What I have to share is based on more than thirty years of having practiced this discipline with some degree of regularity.
A few quick observations.
- The church has by-in-large taught and observed fasting for most of its 2,000 year history.
- While a small percentage should not fast (anyone with blood-sugar issues would be ill-advised to attempt it without a physician’s oversight), most people are able to fast without ill effects. You won’t die; it will only feel like you are.
- Fasting has been shown to have a wide array of benefits beyond the spiritual. Those who practice it often find it physically cleansing, emotionally cathartic, and mentally stimulating.
However for our purposes, I want to zero in on the spiritual benefits of fasting, and explain why this discipline has great potency for helping your prayer life grow stronger.
Fasting says to God, I’m hungry…for more of you.
“Man does not live by bread alone,” Jesus said, “but by every word that comes from God.” (Matthew 4:4). Once when the disciples brought him some food to eat, he confused them by saying, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” (John 4:32).
Fasting is a way of demonstrating our agreement with this truth. The primary purpose of fasting is to therefore seek God in a longer, deeper, more intense way that ordinary. It’s a way of living out Psalm 63:1 where David prays, “O God, you are my God. Earnestly I seek you. My soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” When I fast with the right motives, my spiritual self is energized by spending extra time with God in mediation and prayer.
Fasting says to God, I’m sorry…please reveal and forgive my sin.
While getting close to God might sound well and good, don’t expect to hear angels singing while you fast. Fasting, by nature of what it is, will bring out all manners of ugliness in you. Though sent to its naughty chair, your sin nature will froth and scream. Like melted silver, fasting brings to the surface the dross in my life – the things which control me, the passions which drive me, the desires I can’t shake. (Psalm 19:12-13; 51:6)
Fasting in the Bible is often linked to confession and repentance. “Yet even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping and with mourning.’” (Joel 2:12-13)
Augustine said of the power of fasting for aiding purity, “Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence [i.e. strong sexual desire], quenches the fire of lust, and kindles the true light of chastity.”
I think I know why Augustine says this. It’s my experience that in learning how to say no to my craving for food, I am developing the power to say no to other cravings, and yes to the right things. The time will come after you’ve logged a few fasting days where your ‘no’ not only gets stronger, but gets transferable. If in the moment of temptation, you call on that same part of your mind, will, and emotions that you used telling that piece of chocolate cake what-for, there’s an increasing chance that you’ll send sinful cravings packing as well.
Fasting says to God, I’m available. Please use me to grow your kingdom of goodness and love on the earth.
Anyone who aspires to learn fasting must spend time meditating on all of Isaiah 58 where God rebukes his people for fasting for all the wrong reasons. Trust me, if you’re going to go through all the bother of fasting, you don’t want to later find out from God that you’ve wasted your time.
Why was Israel’s fasting rejected by the Lord? It’s because they did it solely for the sake of ritual, thinking that this alone would “earn them points” from God. Meanwhile, their fasting left them morally unchanged.
True fasting would change their hearts and cause them to yearn more for the righteousness and justice of God to be revealed. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness,…to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him?” (Is.58:6-7)
Fasting says to God, “I’m listening…please speak to me.”
Fasting has another powerful benefit – it helps us hear the voice of God more clearly. The missionary revival of the earth church was birthed in fasting. “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” (Acts 13:2).
One of the outcomes of proper fasting should be that your heart begins to beat more in sync with God’s heart, which should lead to a growing desire to share God’s truth and compassion with this broken world.
So look at those four benefits one more time. Then ask yourself: If you knew there was something you could do that would aid your prayer life, break the power of sin over you, help you grow into a more loving person, and enable you to hear God’s voice more clearly, wouldn’t you want to practice it?
Bear Clifton, writer and screenwriter, is the pastor of BridgeWay Community Church in California, Maryland. His blogs, screenplays and devotionals can be enjoyed at his ministry website: trainyourselfministry.com and his writing website: blclifton.com. Bear is also the author of “Train Yourself To Be Godly: A 40 Day Journey Toward Sexual Wholeness”, “Ben-Hur: The Odyssey”, “A Sparrow Could Fall”, and his latest – “Living Under The Cross”, a collection of essays on the Beatitudes – all available through Amazon.