Is God Calling Us to Fast? (part 1)
A few years later, when the American colonists began their revolution against British rule, one of the first rulings of the Continental Congress was that the revolutionists ought to do the same. A national “day of public humiliation, fasting and prayer” on 20th July 1775 helped the ramshackle Continental Army to defeat a global superpower. Another similar day of prayer and fasting, called by Abraham Lincoln on 30th April 1863, helped to preserve the Union and to sound the death-knell for slavery.
So here’s my question. In our own moment of coronavirus crisis, is God calling us to fast? Few of us would doubt that God is calling us to pray, but is he also calling us to salt those prayers with fasting? I am not expecting Queen Elizabeth or Boris Johnson or Donald Trump to call a national day of prayer and fasting any time soon, but should we be taking the initiative ourselves? What is the biblical practice of fasting all about anyway, and what role ought it to play in our response to what is perhaps the greatest global crisis of our generation?
I know that talk of fasting is unfashionable these days. I know that it tends to be viewed among evangelicals as archaic, ascetic, outdated and unnecessary. But I also know that Jesus fasted, that the Apostles fasted, and that many of the people who have seen the greatest Gospel breakthroughs throughout Church history have been men and women who fasted too. I therefore want to reflect on this challenge seriously and over the next few days I want to help you to do the same. In this mini-series of four blogs, I am going to summarise what the Bible teaches about fasting and about its crucial importance for the reversal of disaster and for the revival of nations.
In these four blogs, I will outline the four great biblical motives for our fasting before God:
Motive 1: Fasting expresses our delight in the Lord
Motive 2: Fasting expresses our humility and repentance
Motive 3: Fasting pushes back the Devil and his demons
Motive 4: Fasting helps our prayers to be heard in heaven
Motive 1: Fasting expresses our delight in the Lord
This has been the biggest eye-opener to me as I have studied what the Scriptures say about fasting before the Lord in times of crisis. If I am honest, I have tended to approach the subject with an attitude of self-centredness. I have tended to ask, ‘What good would fasting do to me?’, and I wonder if that’s the very reason why I need to fast. When the Bible talks about fasting, it confronts the Christian consumerism that leaves many Christians consumed with themselves. It warns us not to fast primarily for our own benefit and pleasure (Isaiah 58:3). It calls us, instead, to fast with the kind of fasting God has chosen – as an act of worship and of ministry to God (Isaiah 58:5-6). Motives matter massively, so the personal benefits of fasting need to take a firm second place to the benefits to God. He will ask us, as he asked in Zechariah 7:5: “When you fasted … was it really for me that you fasted?”
Luke 2:37 tells us literally that Anna “worshipped night and day with fasting and prayer.” Acts 13:2 echoes this when it tells us literally that the leaders of the church in Antioch “ministered to the Lord, and fasted.” Fasting is therefore first and foremost an act of worship, the forgoing of food for a season as an expression of our delight in the Lord’s presence and a proclamation that we prize his love more than bread, wine and the other tasty comforts of our tables (Psalm 63:3, Song of Songs 1:2, John 4:32).
Fasting is an expression of our renewed consecration to the Lord. It echoes the fasting of the ancient Nazirites (Numbers 6:2-3) and it responds to God’s call in Joel 1:14 and 2:15 for us to “Sanctify a fast” or “Set apart a fast” as a crossroads moment in our well-fed lives during which we can turn our backs on the path of living for self and set our feet firmly on the path of living for him alone. I understand the dangers of asceticism, and we will examine them in the other blogs in this mini-series, but I wonder if the reason for our neglect of fasting is rather more basic. We are more attached to the things of this earth than we like to admit. We are too wedded to this world to deny ourselves the things of earth as a way of expressing our devotion to the things of heaven.
Jesus began his three years of public ministry with forty days of prayer and fasting (Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13). During those forty days, he overcame the temptation to fuel his soul with this world’s food, to fuel his ego with this world’s praise and to fuel his ministry with this world’s strategies. As a result, he returned from his days of fasting “in the power of the Spirit”, equipped to partner with his Father against the world for its redemption (Luke 4:14).
Paul and Barnabas also began their missionary journeys with a season of fasting (Acts 13:3). They renounced their attachment to the things of this world in order that they might prove worthy servants of God as they went on mission to the world. After seeing phenomenal fruit on their first journey, they appointed elders for each of their church plants by leading those new leaders in similar seasons of fasting (Acts 14:23). You might have read those Scriptures many times without noticing the importance that they place on fasting, so go back and read them a bit more slowly. Jesus taught his followers about “when you fast” – not if you fast – and he clearly expected it to be something that they would do often as they partnered with his Spirit during the period between his ascension to heaven and his triumphant return (Matthew 6:16-17 & 9:15).
Fasting has often been associated with receiving renewed revelation from the Lord. Scripture tells us that when “I, Daniel … turned my face to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting”, the angel Gabriel appeared and told the prophet, “Daniel, I have now come to give you insight and understanding” (Daniel 9:2-3&21-22). In the same way, the Apostle Paul talks about his frequent periods of fasting just a few verses before recounting his “visions and revelations from the Lord” (2 Corinthians 11:27 & 12:1). In this present global crisis, we dare not reduce the gift of prophecy to mere personal encouragement. We need to rediscover it as the unveiling of what God is doing through world events all around us. We must press against the doors of heaven, through fasting, until the Holy Spirit ushers us inside and reveals to us what is happening in the control-room of history.
In the next blog in this mini-series, we will examine some of the personal benefits of fasting. But let’s linger for a moment on the primary benefits of our fasting to the Lord. Let’s acknowledge that one of the biggest reasons why we need to rediscover the biblical practice of fasting is to help us surrender to God, to help us worship God, to help us reconsecrate our lives to God, and to help us seek fresh revelation of God and of God’s work in the world.
Let’s rediscover what previous generations of believers have understood about fasting: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen … Then you will call, and the Lord will answer … Then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land … Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins.” (Isaiah 58:6-12)