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Monday, September 03, 2007

Fasting

"When you fast ..." (Matt 6:16)

Does Anyone Fast Today?
I don't know when I last heard any teaching on fasting. This leaves me with the uncomfortable feeling that for many believers, despite the words of Jesus, fasting is not seen as a vital part of a Christian's prayer life. Of course, if we take the Matt 6 passage seriously, no-one will know when we fast and this can add to the impression that nobody's doing it. I may be completely wrong about whether or not people are fasting but I want to use this week's blog to bring the subject to your attention. There is not space here to do the subject justice so I would thoroughly recommend Arthur Wallis' classic book, God's Chosen Fast (sadly it is out of print but second-hand copies are available through Amazon). It has been my manual and guide since I began fasting in the early days of my walk with the Lord and I have found this book to be both scriptural and practical.

Reason For Fasting
One of the big mistakes we can make is to think that fasting is somehow a way of twisting God's arm to persuade Him to do what we want. On the contrary, the fundamental reason for fasting should be to give glory to God. Last week I mentioned that worship is a discipline. We do it because God is worthy to be worshipped. We see an example of this in Acts 13:2. Fasting is an act of worship and needs to be undertaken with discipline and primarily because the Lord is worthy to receive our fast.

Types of Fast
Our first thought at the mention of fasting may be the idea of going without food for a period of time. This is usually described as the normal fast. Often this is undertaken for a 24 hour period but simply missing a single meal would be a fast. I have found it possible to make a 3 day fast without any significant adverse consequences, but a longer fast might require some forward planning. You cannot expect to carry on your normal routine when you are not supplying your body with its usual fuel. In any case, I am inclined to think that you probably need clear direction from the Lord to undertake anything more than a one day fast and in doing so you will probably be asked to spend significant times in prayer which would inhibit your normal life-style. It is vitally important to mention here that if you have any kind of medical condition you should seek a doctor's advice before undertaking a fast, but for most people any health issues should not affect the ability to fast.

Simply going without food is not the only kind of fast. There are many different types mentioned in Scripture. We see Daniel and his friends refraining from eating certain types of food and this is sometimes described as a partial fast (Daniel 1:6-16). This type of fast could well be suitable for those for whom a normal fast is medically problematic. A favourite for some people is to give up something for Lent and this is a legitimate fast if it requires a genuine sacrifice and self-discipline.

There are instances of people going without food or water for a period which we might call a total or absolute fast (Acts 9:9, Est 4:16). I have never undertaken such a fast and I am absolutely convinced you need a very clear call from the Lord to a total fast. The human body can survive a long time without food but deteriorates very rapidly without water. No-one, however healthy, should make a total fast without medical advice.

Fasting from food is not the only kind of fasting described in Scripture. For example, Paul indicates in 1 Cor 7:3-5 that sexual abstinence for the purpose of devoting ourselves to prayer is a form of fasting. Forsaking any kind of activity can fulfil the function of a fast. Fasting from TV to have more time to pray is something I have found beneficial.

Results of Fasting
Arthur Wallis lists a number of possible benefits of fasting but this is Prayer College so I want to focus on the impact fasting can have on prayer rather than on aspects of personal sanctification or self-discipline.

The first and most practical thing is that fasting frees up time you would have spent eating. This means there is additional time for prayer.

Fasting can help to clarify our own prayer requests. The psalmist says that if we delight in the Lord He will give us the desire of our hearts (Ps 37:4). Fasting can be both evidence that we delight in the Lord and proof that what we are seeking God for is truly our heart's desire. If I want to see a particular answer to prayer, is it important enough for me to fast over it?

Fasting can sharpen the spiritual senses. In fasting we humble ourselves before God and whilst our stomach may growl loudly our spirit often becomes more sensitive to the voice of God, making prayer easier.

Practical Suggestions
If you have never fasted begin by making a partial fast or simply miss one meal. Over a period of months you can build up to a 24 hour fast. You may feel that you can begin with a day long fast but you should not attempt anything longer than that until you have gained some experience.

If you consume caffeine (coffee, tea, chocolate, energy drinks) or high levels of sugar on a daily basis your body is going to suffer withdrawal symptoms from these addictive substances when you fast, the most common problem being headaches. You have a number of options: allow yourself to consume these things during the fast; live with the effects of withdrawal; or prepare yourself in advance by weaning yourself off them a few days before you fast.

Some people find difficulty in consuming only water during a normal fast. But you should try to drink plenty of water. If this is a problem try adding some unsweetened fruit juice to your water.

Prayer College Assignment
The Islamic fasting month of Ramadan begins on 13th September. During this time devout Muslims will not let anything, food or drink, pass their lips during the hours of daylight. You might want to think about using this time to undertake a partial fast and pray for your Muslim neighbours to come to know the one true God personally.

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