Is God Calling Us to Fast? (part 3)
That’s why I’m writing this mini-series of blogs to help us reflect on what the Bible teaches about fasting and on its crucial importance during crisis periods in Church history. In the midst of perhaps the greatest crisis of our own lifetimes, I want to help you rediscover the role that fasting plays in rolling back the oppression of the Devil and in ringing the Gospel bell of freedom over our troubled world. In these four blogs, I am outlining 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 3: Fasting pushes back the Devil and his demons
In one of the most famous Old Testament chapters about fasting, God explains that the purpose of our fasting is to “loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke” (Isaiah 58:6). Jesus echoed this when he returned from forty days and nights of fasting in the wilderness to declare in the synagogues that now “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim the good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Luke 4:14-19).
What happened next was remarkable. Jesus made good on his promise by delivering people from demonic sickness and oppression with a simple word of command (Matthew 8:16, Luke 13:10-17). The evil spirits cowered before him and snivelled their abject confession that they were powerless to resist him (Matthew 8:29-31). Deliverance became such a major feature of his public ministry that when Peter sought to summarise what he had witnessed, he told people “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him” (Acts 10:38).
Not everyone who witnessed this spotted the link between the ease with which Jesus pushed back the Devil and his demons, and the forty days and nights of fasting that he had spent preparing himself for public ministry. On one occasion, even his closest disciples had to ask him to explain the obvious difference between his successful encounters with demons and their own frequent failures. His reply was disarmingly simple: “This kind [of demon] can only come out by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:21 and 9:21).
The Apostles evidently took this teaching to heart. They recognised that Jesus had called them to be with him so that they, too, could push back the work of the Devil in the world (Mark 3:13-15). They could achieve this by basking in his own anointing before the Day of Pentecost (Luke 9:1-2 and 10:17), but when he ascended back to heaven their own fasting began. Jesus had predicted this for them – and for us – when he asked in Matthew 9:15, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.” As a result, we discover, especially from the life of the Apostle Paul, that fasting became a frequent feature of apostolic ministry (Acts 9:9, 13:1-3, 14:23, 27:9). We mustn’t miss the link between the amazing ways in which they healed the sick, delivered people from demons and planted churches in pagan cities, and the way in which they fasted before the Lord.
It’s all about spiritual authority. We have been given complete authority by Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20), but the truth is, the way we live our lives is a bit like the story of the two men struggling with a massive sofa on the staircase of an apartment building. After sweating and struggling for a long time, one of the men exclaims: ‘It’s useless – we’re never going to manage to get this sofa down the stairs’, to which the other man replies, ‘Up the stairs? I thought we were trying to take it down the stairs!’ When we fast, we confront the civil war that rages within our hearts. Although we speak commands in the name of Jesus, there are aspects of our own lives which still refuse to submit to that name. When we fast, we declare war on our own sinful nature in the name of Jesus. We demonstrate that we have switched sides completely. We are ‘all in’ for Jesus, even if it means resisting our flesh, and as a result we find that we are much more able to operate with his authority. The Devil and his demons can smell hypocrisy a mile off, but they cannot resist the type of integrity that is expressed through fasting.
This is not dualism (the false belief that our soul is good and our flesh is bad). Nor is it asceticism (the flawed idea that we can bear spiritual fruit through the harsh treatment of our bodies). Those are two counterfeits of biblical fasting that the Devil has invented because he is so scared of the real thing. It is simply to recognise that our body wants to dominate our spirits, whereas Scripture commands us to bring our body into glad submission to the Holy Spirit in our spirits. The Puritans put it this way in The Church of England Book of Homilies in 1562: “[Fasting is] to chastise the flesh, that it be not too wanton, but tamed and brought in subjection to the spirit.”
The Bible warns repeatedly that our fleshly appetites seek to dominate us and to lead us into sin. We can see this very clearly in verses such as Genesis 3:6 and 9:20-21, Exodus 16:3, Numbers 11:4-5 and 21:5, 1 Samuel 2:29. Psalm 78:29-31 and 106:15 – the list goes on and on. The New Testament explains that the Holy Spirit wants to empower our spirits to bring our bodies to full submission to Jesus as their new Master (Romans 13:14, 1 Corinthians 6:12-13 and 9:27, 2 Peter 2:19). When we grow lazy in subduing our body’s constant desire for food and drink, we become weak in fighting off all other temptations too. When we learn to bring our most basic appetites into submission to the Lord Jesus, we find ourselves strengthened to resist all other forms of temptation too. When we submit the whole of our lives to Jesus as our new Master, we suddenly find that the Devil and his demons lose their power to resist our commands, which are now spoken with real integrity. We discover the link that is made in James 4:7 – “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”
I believe that we are living through a crisis period in Church history in which believers need to be able to pray with greater authority than they have experienced before. I believe that the forces of darkness – so evident at work behind the coronavirus – need to be pushed back by an army of believers who have learned to speak the commands of God with absolute integrity. I believe that we need to do more than admire Rees Howells and the small group of intercessors, whose powerful prayers famously helped turn the tide of the Second World War. We need to walk the same path that they did.
When Rees Howells started to fast, he was surprised by the civil war raging in his own soul. “I didn’t know such a lust was in me. My agitation was the proof of the grip it had on me.” But after defeating the enemy on the inside through the name of Jesus, Rees Howells found himself able to rout the enemy on the outside through his prayers in Jesus’ name. Our own generation stands in need of such believers, who, through fasting, have learned to push back the Devil and his demons.
1) Not all Greek manuscripts of Matthew 17:21 and Mark 9:29 contain the words ‘and fasting’. Debate still rages over whether ancient ascetics added those two words to bolster their own practices, or whether pleasure-seekers removed those two words for the same reason! Thankfully, there are enough other Bible verses about the link between fasting and spiritual warfare for our understanding not to rest on these two verses alone.
2) Quote taken from Norman Grubb’s short biography “Rees Howells: Intercessor” (1952).