Planning regular intentional times of prayer and fasting is something that all disciples of Jesus should do. These times can be challenging to be sure, but they can also be a rich experience, helping us to focus on God and rely on him as we seek his will for us as individuals and as his church.
What Fasting Is
At its most basic, fasting is simply not eating. For the Christian, fasting is a spiritual discipline used to worship, serve, and focus us on God.
So how does not eating serve God? Good question. The basic idea is to take the time you would normally spend preparing and eating food, and use that time to focus on God instead. For example, you might read your Bible and pray for the half hour it would usually take you to chop up your spinach, or hit the drive-through, or heat up and eat those leftovers, etc. This is the basic picture of fasting.
When you’re fasting, you’re likely to feel hunger pangs. These can serve as little alerts to remind you why you’re fasting and to keep your focus on God. This will probably involve a lot of prayer throughout the day. Ask the Holy Spirit to deepen your understanding and experience of Jesus in everyday life during your fast, and use your prayer time to acknowledge that God is your daily bread, your comforter, your redeemer, and that your life is sustained far more by Christ than by food (Col. 1:16–17; Ps. 75:3; Dan. 5:23; Acts 17:28; Heb. 1:3). The big idea here is to pray to God, think about him, and saturate yourself with God during those times you’d usually be eating, preparing to eat, and any time you feel hungry throughout your time of fasting. Sometimes when you fast, you might also choose to focus on one particular idea, theme, attribute of God, personal or church need/petition, throughout the course of your fast.
Making your Fasting Plan
Now that we know what fasting basically looks like, let’s get more detailed. You have a lot of options when it comes to fasting. Let’s start with three types of fasts we find right there in Scripture.
1. The Normal Fast
This kind of fast involves abstaining from any sort of food. During a normal fast, you would be free to drink water, juice, even coffee. It’s up to you to decide, but you should make the decision prayerfully.
2. The Partial Fast
Limited food fasts of a particular diet or certain foods are commonly referred to as partial fasts. You may also hear this type of fast referred to as a ‘Daniel fast,’ a nod to the prophet Daniel in the Old Testament, where he and his friends abstained from eating meat and consumed only vegetables and water when they were taken into Babylon (see Daniel 1:12).
3. The Absolute Fast
This is a fast from all forms of food and liquid, including water. Nothing at all passes your lips during an absolute fast. Jesus fasted like this for 40 days before starting his public ministry (Matt. 4:1–4), but usually absolute fasts are much shorter in scripture. Paul fasted absolutely for three days when he met Jesus (Acts 9:9). The nation of Israel undertook an absolute fast, again for three days, at the request of Queen Esther (Esther 4:16).
These fasts can last for one meal, one day, multiple days, or even weeks. Fasting may begin at sunrise and end at sunset or extend 24 hours per day. In other words, you have options. The purpose of fasting is to serve God, not to see how far you can go before serious medical complications set in. So make your plan prayerfully, and keep your focus on him.
In this case, as we start 2016, we’ll be fasting as a church from Monday, January 4—Friday, January 8 at 6:30pm, when we’ll gather together at the church for a time of prayer, celebration, and the breaking of our fast over a potluck meal.
What Fasting Isn’t (Food vs. Facebook)
In recent years, technology fasts have made their mark around the Christian community. Christians are often encouraged to replace the time they would usually spend watching TV, listening to music, playing video games, or going online with Bible reading, prayer, and worship. In this “fast” people abstain from checking Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites that typically take up a substantial amount of their time throughout the day/week.
Obviously, we don’t see people fasting from Facebook in ancient Israel. However, we also don’t see examples of fasting from an enjoyable, time-consuming activity in lieu of fasting from food. So technically speaking, while abstaining from something you enjoy doing in order to focus on God may be a good thing, it just isn’t the same thing as a biblical fast. Motive is another thing to consider when thinking about such non-food “fasts”. If we’re honest, most of us are tempted towards a non-food fast because it would be easier than a fast from food. Be honest with yourself, and prayerfully consider if that is at the heart of your temptation toward a non-food fast, and remember that it’s better for you to plan a partial fast, limiting yourself to one or two very small meals a day than it is to call taking a break from Facebook or Twitter a fast.
The beauty of the upcoming five days of fasting is the guarantee that you won’t be fasting alone. This can be a huge encouragement. Staying in touch with a person or several people who are fasting alongside of you can help carry you through the hunger pangs. You can remind one another of why you’re fasting and help keep each other focused. Sharing our experiences while fasting can be a way of encouraging one another as well. Biblically speaking, there are many examples of such corporate fasting where entire nations fasted together (e.g. Esther 4; Ezra 8).
Preparing for Our Church-Wide Fast
Using the guidelines above, you can begin to pray now about how God would have you fast during our church fast together Monday, January 4 – Friday, January 8. This post is only one part in our fasting series, so make sure to read the other posts as we continue to prepare for this year’s church fast together.