Recently, God led me to pray and fast for forty days.
I feel a little funny writing that because fasting is something that should often be done in secret (Matt. 6:16-18). However, not all fasts must be done in secret (Acts 13:1-3). And some fasts cannot be done in secret. When you pass up one meal it’s possible that no one will ask questions. But when you pass up 120 meals people notice. When you lose 30 pounds people start to ask questions. Fasting for 40 days can be done Godwardly, but it would be hard to do secretly.
Because it is no secret that I have been fasting, I want to share some thoughts with you on fasting. I hope my experience will stir up a revival of seeking the Lord through prayer and fasting in you. To that end, here are some thoughts after forty days of fasting.
DISCLAIMER: Before you choose to fast it’d be wise to seek sufficient counsel from the Bible, fellow Christians, pastors and perhaps even from a medical doctor.
1. Not everyone should fast for forty days. Forty-day fasts are rare in the Bible. Moses fasted for forty days and forty nights during the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai (Ex. 34:28, Deut. 9:9). And he did it again after he found Israel breaking the Law by worshipping the golden calf (Deut. 9:18). Elijah fasted forty days as well (1 Kings 19:7-8). And Jesus began his earthly ministry by fasting for forty days (Matt. 4:2). Moses, Elijah, Jesus. Three people in the Bible. That’s it. Not everyone should fast for forty days and forty nights.
2. Everyone should fast. During his teaching ministry Jesus did not say “if you fast,” but “when you fast.” He assumes we will fast and tells us how (Matt. 6:16-17). No one who wants to grow in Christ should neglect the gift of going with less so you can seek God more.
3. Not all fasting is the same. Moses did not eat or drink (Deut. 9). (Don’t try this at home. This is deadly unless God is miraculously sustaining you.) Jesus did not eat (Matt. 4). Daniel did not eat delicacies for a season. He gave up meat and wine for three weeks so that he could give himself to seeking the Lord (Dan. 10:3). Fasting can be for different durations and it can give up different things. A good friend of mine told me yesterday that he is not eating dessert for three months so that he can seek God’s power for a church he is hoping to plant. That’s fasting. You don’t have to go to the most radical extreme of fasting to make your fasting “real fasting.”
4. Not all fasting is good. In Isaiah 58 the people of God were seeking God with fasting. However, we’re told their fasting was not good because they were living in wickedness when they should have been showing mercy with their lives. God told them, “Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high” (Isa. 58:4 ESV). Then he instructed them, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to 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, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” (Isa. 58:6–7). Fasting that is not accompanied by repentance and obedience is rejected by God. We can pray and fast all night but if we do not move to obey, God warns us, “If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination” (Prov. 28:9).
5. Not all fasting is good because food is very good. About two weeks into my fast I casually overheard my daughter say, “I’m going to have a toasted cheese bagel with butter.” I thought to myself, “Man, what amazing gifts I often overlook!” Toasted cheese bagel with butter! Nothing about fasting should be a rejection of the goodness of food. God created all food good (Gen. 1) and only demons teach otherwise. “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4:1–4). Fasting that runs away from the good gift of food is really running away from God.
6. Fasting is an intensifier. Fasting is a way of intensifying our ordinary pursuit of God. In the words of John Piper, fasting says,
“This much, O God, I want you.”
(See John Piper, A Hunger for God: Desiring God Through Fasting and Prayer [Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1997, 2013]. Foreword by David Platt and Francis Chan. A free downloadable PDF of the 208-page book is available at http://www.DesiringGod.org/books/a-hunger-for-god)
7. Fasting can intensify our seeking of God. In Daniel, we read, “Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes” (Dan. 9:3). Notice he was seeking God “by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.” He intensified his prayer with pleas. He provoked his hunger by fasting and channeled that hunger towards God. He provoked his discomfort with sackcloth and directed that discomfort towards God. Fasting helps us intensify our seeking of God by redirecting the energies and passions we normally fix on food to the Living God.
8. Fasting can intensify our repentance. In the book of Joel, God tells his people, “’Yet even now’, declares the LORD, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning’” (Joel 2:12). Fasting accompanies repentance. It belongs in the company of intense actions like weeping and mourning. Fasting reminds us that repentance is nothing glib or light. Real repentance is like an “earthquake upheaval” in our souls. Isaiah describes real repentance as a seismic upheaval where, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain” (Isa. 40:4). If your soul needs the upheaval of repentance then fasting is a great intensifier.
9. Fasting is a fitting response to an intense situation. Sometimes the situation we are in is already intense. In such cases fasting is the right way to say to God, “I get it!” Wayne Grudem (who has influenced my last three points) writes, “[When] the Jews learned of the decree of Ahasuerus that they would all be killed, ‘there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and many of them lay in sackcloth and ashes’ [Esther 4:3]” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan 1994, for Logos Bible Software 2004], 390). In response to the intense threat of genocide they responded with intense prayer and fasting.
10. Fasting is often mightily used of God. After Moses’ second fast God relented from his wrath. After Jesus’ fast he was anointed by the Holy Spirit for His redemption ministry. When the leaders of the church at Antioch fasted the Holy Spirit spoke and sent out two of the most powerful apostolic missionaries the world has ever seen (Acts 13:1-5). Before God does a mighty work he often moves in His people to seek His face with prayer and fasting.
11. I needed to fast. For a number of months and years I have been feeling what Octavius Winslow (1808-1878) called “personal declension” in my soul. I did not seem to be making progress in my walk with God and my victory over sin. I have felt my time for prayer crowded out. I have felt my conscience grow duller. I have felt my hunger for God grow faint. I looked at the people I pastor and–although I see great marks of grace in them–see a great need for more of God’s Spirit upon them. I needed to fast.
12. I was moved to fast for revival. I believe wherever there are true Christians the Spirit of God is at work. Even when Christians are at their lowest–like when the Corinthians were visiting prostitutes–they are still the people of the Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). Having said that, how can we ever be satisfied with such a sad state of affairs. If you can be satisfied with such a sad state of affairs you are probably not a Christian. Christians were made to be filled with the Spirit, to walk by the Spirit and to repeatedly experience fresh baptisms of the empowering Holy Spirit of God (Eph. 5:18; Gal. 5:16; Acts 1:8, 2:4, 4:31). Christians were meant to drink of the living waters of the Lord Jesus Christ. When they do they are promised that out of their hearts “will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38). I was not experiencing that so I set myself to fasting and prayer for a revival of religion in my soul and in God’s people.
13. I was moved to fast for repentance. My wife Christy and I have seen that there is too much anger in our home. Our home is not a raging volcano of rage. We have a lot of love for one another and our kids. But far too often it is a place of anger, irritability and frustration. Despite the plain teaching of the Bible, we seem to believe the lie that the anger of man can produce the righteousness of God (James 1:20). We felt compelled to deal with that more severely. We long to commend the gospel to one another and to our children so we fasted, asking the Lord to forgive us and to change us.
14. I was moved to fast for self-control. I like food. I like it a lot. I don’t just like seconds, I like thirds. I like ice cream. No, I love ice cream. I like ice cream too much. Now earlier I wrote that food is good. I still believe that’s true. (For instance, there’s a piece of Dairy Queen cake in my freezer right now and I plan to eat it to the glory of God). Nevertheless, 1 Peter 4:7 tells us, “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers” (1 Pet. 4:7). When you lose self-control you lose prayer. In my case, too much food made me too sluggish to pray. Food became my comfort instead of seeking God’s consolations in prayer. I needed to gouge out an eye and cut off a hand in my battle against sin (Matt. 5:29-30), so I fasted.
15. I was moved to fast for a building. For over two years our church has been praying for a building. During that time we have seen remarkable answers to prayer. God has surprised us with how much money He has directed our way. It’s been marvelous but it hasn’t gotten us a building. Every time we get close to getting a building our Sovereign God moves the building to slip through our hands. I felt compelled to keep praying. Words like these from Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) have moved me to persist in prayer. In Old English prose, the American Puritan wrote,
It is very apparent from the word of God, that he is wont often to try the faith and patience of his people, when crying to him for some great and important mercy, by withholding the mercy sought, for a season; and not only so, but at first to cause an increase of dark appearances. And yet he, without fail, at last succeeds those who continue instant in prayer, with all perseverance, and ‘will not let him go except that he blesses.'”
Quoted in J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1994, rep. 2010), 297.
God blesses those who will not let Him go (Gen. 32:26), so I fasted and prayed for a building.
16. I was moved to fast for prayer. For a long time I have felt like my prayer life needed deepening. I know we will always want to grow in prayer but I felt especially burdened to grow at this time. God has been giving me so many opportunities. Opportunities to lead my wife, to lead my kids, to teach, to write, to lead other pastors and to lead our growing congregation. All of these opportunities were coming to me and I was afraid that there was no way I could deal with them faithfully without more prayer. Years ago I read the autobiography of the Scottish missionary Daniel Smith (1907-1988). In Pilgrim of the Heavenly Way: The Autobiography of Daniel Smith, Christian Missionary to Asia (Hannibal, Mo.: Granted Ministries Press, 2010), he told the story of what happened after he arrived in China. The leader of the China Inland Mission invited him to his room and there proceeded to pray over all the missionaries he was responsible. This lasted for four hours. I have never hit four hours. I currently can’t imagine praying for four hours daily, but I want to get a lot closer so that everything I do is bathed in prayer and anointed by the Holy Spirit of God.
17. I was moved to fast and pray by Moses. The idea to fast and pray came to me as I was studying to preach from Deuteronomy 9. In this chapter Moses fasts and prays for forty days–twice. What struck me was that when the people were in sin the leader prayed. In thinking about my sin and the sins of the people I pastor, it seemed as if the Lord was laying it on my heart to follow this example.
18. I chose to do a juice fast. I am the kind of guy that has to remind himself that the most radical is not always the best. I am glad I did in this case. I am not sure I could have survived on just water. I needed some energy. I had a lighter load this summer but I was still working and still needing energy to do the tasks God gave me to do. For forty days I drank lots of water and had 2-4 fruit juices every day. God was kind to bless me with a clear mind and lots of energy. I tried to use that energy wisely by not doing anything physically strenuous during my time of fasting. I took fairly long walks and that’s about it.
19. I let God decide what He would do through my fasting. As I planned to fast for forty days I was careful to allow the Lord to determine the results of my fast. I wanted to avoid a sense of entitlement. I wanted to avoid the kind of thinking that says, “I fasted forty days. Surely I should have at least one shower of your love.” Or, “I fasted forty days. Surely we should have a building by now.” When we fast we are not forcing God’s hand nor earning God’s favor. We are using God’s appointed channel of grace to ask Him for the things he has graciously promised.
20. The Lord has been the Shepherd of my fast. Around 30 days in I did get frustrated. I had a sense I would not get the answers I longed for. Psalm 23 was a great comfort for me at that time: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1). God has promised to give me everything I need. He doesn’t always give it to us right away (see the other 149 psalms) but he does meet our needs in His good time. As I struggled He helped me to rely on that. I felt a sweetness in knowing that He is my Shepherd.
21. I was not the hero of my fast. About three days into fasting I turned to Christy and said something like, “If I make it through this fast, I will not be the hero. Jesus Christ will be the hero.” I knew I wouldn’t be the hero because on my first day of fasting I needed a three-hour nap. No coffee + no sugar = no energy. I was done. After that I kept fasting but it was still hard to pray. I don’t have the passion to achieve a heroic fast. But God gave me grace to just keep seeking Him.
22. Fasting has helped me stay current. Before my fast I felt overwhelmed. I felt like I had a thousand really important things to pray about but I did not have the time I needed to pray for them. Fasting helped me to lay out all of my concerns before the Lord repeatedly. I believe I was able to lay out all of my sins, all of my troubles and all of my desires before the Lord multiple times. It has been great to walk with God in this way.
23. Fasting has not solved all my problems. I have been angry in the last forty days. I have battled discouragement. I have not seen a mighty revival. I have wasted time on my fast (I think I need a total social media fast). Another building we were pursuing slipped through our fingers and into the hands of another owner during my fast. I may be a fasting saint but I’m still a saint who struggles with sin and stands in constant need of the Mediator’s grace and mercy (1 Tim. 2:5).
24. Fasting has been a wonderful blessing to me. I’ve seen victory over anger in the last forty days. Not full victory, but real and sweet victory. I have not seen a mighty revival, but I have felt reenergized by the Spirit. We haven’t received a building yet, but a new and remarkable possibility has opened up and we are pursuing it right now.
25. Fasting will be a wonderful blessing to me. I have not seen all the answers to prayer that I desire. But just because I’m done with this season of intense asking does not mean God is done with His season of answering. I trust He will answer all my prayers. I even trust He will answer most of them with a resounding “yes.” A few He may have to decline. But I have prayed according to His word–many times while fasting I’d try to give a specific verse to back up every request I made–so He will answer my prayers in His due time. In the future (near or far) I will see more of the work of God because I sought the Lord with fasting.
Christian fasting, at its root, is the hunger of a homesickness for God.” John Piper, A Hunger for God: Desiring God Through Fasting and Prayer