I have done extensive teaching on the topic of fasting over the last few years. It is not uncommon for people to reach out to me, asking for more information after hearing me speak about this particular spiritual discipline. In many church cultures, it seems fasting is seldom discussed or even practiced, which leads to confusion. Here are some of the main questions that I have received over the years along with answers based on my understanding and experience.
Question 1: Is fasting always food? Can’t I just fast TV, social media or something like that?
Answer: Certainly, there are spiritual benefits to separating yourself from the things of this world. Setting aside media like Facebook for a designated time to seek the Lord can be a very powerful practice, especially if that happens to be a source of wasted time in your life. However, true biblical fasting always involved going without food and/or liquids for a period of time.
Daniel’s fast in Daniel 10 is one of the only examples in the Bible of a fast involving abstaining only from certain foods. John the Baptist lived a fasted life, with a diet of honey and locusts. (Matthew 3:4) Also, the Nazarite vow involved complete abstinence from alcohol and anything that came from the grapevine (Numbers 6:1-4). But almost every other instance of fasting involved complete abstinence from food, with a couple of isolated instances in which water was fasted as well (such as Moses’ fast in Exodus 34:28 or Nineveh in Jonah 3:7).
The primary difference between a food fast and fasting something such as television, is that abstaining from food is sacrificing something that is necessary for survival. While going without certain entertainment has its own benefits, it does not involve giving up something that you actually need in order to live. Those who have fasted food can testify that something unique takes place that is different from simply giving up a pleasure for a season.
Question 2: I have a physical condition that requires that I eat. Can I still fast?
Answer: When we approach the practice of fasting, we need to make sure we do not ignore the physical component that comes with abstaining from food. Over the years, I have found it necessary to research the physical changes that take place in the human body when only liquids are consumed. Ignoring what is happening to your body can be hazardous to your health. This is especially important when it comes time to break the fast. This is the area people get themselves into the most trouble. So, regardless of whether or not you have a medical condition, I still recommend that everyone take the time to learn at least the basics of what fasting does to the human body. This is especially important when it comes to extended fasts. There are many sources, both in the Christian and medical communities, that can provide useful information about the digestive system and the benefits and risks of fasting.
To those who do have physical conditions, that can make fasting dangerous (such as diabetes), I would strongly suggest that they discuss this with a medical professional before embarking on a fast. It could be that a short fast, such as one meal, could be done without any complications. But I would not advise going on a fast without first getting some medical input to avoid any physical harm.
Question 3: Isn’t fasting only for times when I need something specific from God?
Answer: Based on some of the specific events that caused people to fast in the Scriptures, this is a valid question. Taking time to fast in order to petition the Lord or spend time in focused prayer for a specific need is definitely one aspect of fasting. We see this on many occasions in Scripture, such as Esther’s fast in Esther 4:15-17 or when Nehemiah fasts and intercedes for Israel in Nehemiah 1. However, this is not the only function of fasting.
What I have come to believe through my own fasting journey, is that the most important element of fasting is simply connecting in intimacy with the Lord. Because this is my primary goal in fasting, I do not fast only when I have a specific need. That being said, when I do have a specific situation that requires focused prayer, fasting is one of the tools I implement in order to petition the Lord for that request.
Question 4: I tried fasting before and it didn’t work. Why should I bother?
Answer: This type of thinking stems from unmet expectations. Perhaps someone really had a need and they spent time fasting, and yet nothing seemed to change. They might walk away from that experience and say, “Been there, tried that.” Sometimes our expectations of what will happen when we fast are unrealistic or misplaced, which leads to disappointment and discouragement. And many simply give up on the spiritual discipline completely.
Rather than going into a fast with a rigid expectation of what the Lord will do, it would be better to fast in faith, and leave the results up to the Lord. I tend to think of fasting in the light of increased time spent with the Lord, sacrifice, and sowing spiritual seed. When I have situations I feel led to fast for, I simply leave the situation in God’s hands and trust Him to use the prayers and fasting in the way He chooses. Because I am not expecting or demanding that He act in a certain way, I am not determining the effectiveness of the fast based on the results I see. This is a great safeguard for avoiding disappointment.
Question 5: I’ve heard fasting is just a way to manipulate God. Is that true?
Going along with the previous question, there are those who simply view fasting as a way to twist God’s arm and get Him to do what they want. First off, the idea in itself is ludicrous because He is sovereign and cannot be manipulated by anyone. None of the spiritual disciplines act as manipulative tools. If manipulation is a person’s motive in praying, reading the Bible, fasting or any other spiritual activity, there is a deeper heart issue that needs to be resolved.
That does not mean that the Lord will not respond to what we are fasting and praying about. In Ezra 8, we see how the Lord did respond specifically to their fasting and praying. Ezra records, “So we fasted and sought our God concerning this matter, and He listened to our entreaty.” (vs. 23) But it is not that their fasting somehow forced God to listen and respond. Rather, the Lord honored their prayers and obedience by moving in the way He felt was best.
Question 6: How often should I pray when I’m fasting?
Answer: The partnership of prayer and fasting is often stressed, and rightfully so. Simply going without food for a period of time, and ignoring the spiritual element of fasting, becomes more of a diet than a spiritual exercise. Finding time to pray and read the Bible during a fast is crucial. But the question that often arises is, “How much time do I pray?”
The answer depends on the length of the fast. If you are fasting a lunch, for example, the best practice is to take the time you would normally spend eating, and spend it with the Lord in prayer and Scripture study instead. If you are fasting an entire day, try to spend extra time seeking after the Lord throughout the day. The longer you fast, you will find that you naturally commune with the Lord more throughout the day because your body is constantly reminding you of its need for food, so you stay in a place of dependence on God. Extended fasts require that you still continue to carry on some of your family, work and other responsibilities, so spending multiple days in your prayer closet is just not feasible.
On extended fasts, due to the excessive fatigue, weakness, and sometimes sickness that I experience, sometimes I simply do not have the strength to pray. I may take extra naps, or just have to rest for a while. I once heard the advice that, at these times, you simply allow yourself to become the fast. I do not know how to articulate what that means, but it has been such a source of encouragement to me over the years. Basically, when I am too tired or sick to pray, I feel at those times like I am setting myself on the altar and saying, “Lord, I am the sacrifice. Let me be a pleasing aroma.” This advice has really helped alleviate the guilt I used to feel for not praying “enough” during extended fasts. Instead, I am able to just present myself to the Lord (Romans 12:2) and know that He is pleased even when I do not have the energy to press in.
Question 7: Do I need to drink only water when I fast? What about juice?
Answer: More important than the actual mechanics of the fast is the heart and motive behind it. I try to keep myself from getting too legalistic with rules in my fasting. Each person needs to pray and decide what they will do, and what works for them and their conscience, as well as their physical makeup. For me, the longest I usually go with only water is one to three days. My body has a tendency to get sick during fasts, so I will often incorporate 100% juice, especially if I am fasting multiple days. When I do only use water, I have a bottle of lemon juice drops. This helps me drink a lot of liquids, because for some reason, the taste of plain water makes me nauseous when I fast. If I am really struggling on a long fast, I have drank some chicken broth just to help curb the sickness. I learned this from Jentezen Franklin’s book on fasting, and it will give me the strength to finish well. You need to just find out what works for you, and realize the whole goal is not to say, “I went with only water for X amount of days,” but rather, “I spend time really seeking the Lord and grew more intimate with Him.” The rest is just details.
I hope these questions and answered have helped to give a new perspective on fasting. If you have other questions or comments, please leave them in the comments section!
DUSTIN RENZ is the President of Make Way Ministries, a non-profit organization that exists to see the world changed one Christian at a time. He has a passion to see the Body of Christ find rich intimacy in their relationship with Jesus and step out in faith to share the Gospel with the world around them. He is the author of Pile of Masks: Exposing Christian Hypocrisy and Something Better. He resides in Dayton, Ohio with his wife and three daughters.