Chapter OneThe Fasts God
From the beginning, people have pursued God. They wrongly
built the Ziggurat (tower) of Babel to reach Him (see Gen. 11:1-9). They
rebelliously carved images to please God. They arrogantly conceived
and lived by legalistic laws to impress God. They constructed monasteries
and isolated themselves to please God. As we shall see, they even
fasted wrongly in an attempt to divert His attention from other things
they should have been doing, but were neglecting.
It's important to note that religious practices such as fasting are less
important than doing God's will. As Micah 6:8 points out, what the Lord
truly requires of us is devotion to Himself: "To do justly, to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God." Fasting is not an end in itself; it is
a means by which we can worship the Lord and submit ourselves in
humility to Him. We don't make God love us any more than He already
does if we fast, or if we fast longer. As Galatians states, "Stand fast therefore
in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled
again with a yoke of bondage" (5:1). The goal of any discipline is
freedom. If the result is not greater freedom, something is wrong.
Even if we wanted to, we could not manipulate God. We fast and pray
for results, but the results are in God's hands. One of the greatest spiritual
benefits of fasting is becoming more attentive to God-becoming more
aware of our own inadequacies and His adequacy, our own contingencies
and His self-sufficiency-and listening to what He wants us to be and do.
Christian fasting, therefore, is totally antithetical to, say, Hindu fasting.
Both seek results; however, Hindu fasting focuses on the self and
tries to get something for a perceived sacrifice. Christian fasting focuses
on God. The results are spiritual results that glorify God-both in the
person who fasts and others for whom we fast and pray.
God's Purpose for Fasting
In this book I have focused on the well-known and often quoted passage
of Scripture in Isaiah 58:6-8, which gives a veritable laundry list of warnings
as well as positive results that can occur when we submit ourselves
to the discipline of fasting.
It is as important to learn from this passage the kinds of fasts that donot please God as it is to understand those fasts He desires. God's people
in Isaiah's day had been fasting, but without results. The reason, God
says, is that they ignored the way fasting should change their lives, treating it
as an empty ritual:
On the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit
all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast
as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high
(Isa. 58:3,4, NIV).
Like so many Christians today, God's people considered worship to
be merely a private, inward act. All of the focus on fasting was on the
personal dimension. Listen to God's rebuke of this concept:
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to
humble himself? Is it only for bowing one's head like a reed
and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a
fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? (v. 5, NIV).
The purpose of all worship, including fasting, is to change the worshiper
in ways that have social and interpersonal impact. We worship
not just to gratify ourselves, but also to become empowered to change
the world! God goes on to specify the kind of fast He chooses:
Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of
wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the
oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to
deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor
that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that
thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine
own flesh? Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness
shall go before thee; the glory of the Lord shall be
thy rereward (vv. 6-8, KJV).
We must not interpret the earlier verses in this passage as a call to a
"social gospel" in the sense that would deny the importance of personal,
heartfelt worship. God was not asking His people to stop fasting so they
might instead bring in the Kingdom through social change. Far from it-He
wanted the people to continue fasting, but to expand fasting through
their actions into their everyday lives. Through the prophet Joel, God
called His people to "Turn to Me with all your heart, with fasting" (Joel
2:12, emphasis mine). We may assume that Isaiah is communicating
God's desire that fasting be continued, and that its effects be evidenced
beyond the mere private and personal.
I find in Isaiah 58, therefore, a model for the fruits God expects to see
from genuine faith and devotion. Rightly used, fasting can help us present
Him with those fruits. Thus, the passage prompted me to find in
other places in Scripture nine kinds of fasting I think Christians should
rediscover today-not just for their own benefit, but for the benefit of
others as well. Let's look at the passage again, listing the aspects that will
be the basis for the rest of this book.
In Isaiah 58, God says He has chosen fasts that (1) loosen the bonds of
wickedness, (2) undo heavy burdens, (3) let the oppressed go free,
(4) break every yoke, (5) give bread to the hungry and provide the poor
with housing, (6) allow the people's light to break forth like the morning,
(7) cause their health to spring forth speedily, (8) cause their righteousness
to go before them and (9) cause the glory of the Lord to be their
reward (or "rear guard").
Rightly practiced, we see in Isaiah's day a privileged son of Judah
bowing before God and pleading with his people to turn from their sin,
abandon their idolatry and worship the Lord through fasting and service
to the poor and afflicted.
There are indications that Israelites even pressed fellow Jews into
slavery, perhaps in response to their failure to pay debts (see Neh. 5:8).
Even though debt-servitude was allowed in some cases, those pressed
into this kind of service were not to be treated as mere slaves (see Lev.
25:39-42). This law was apparently being widely violated in Isaiah's day.
We must admit that we will not find all of these social conditions present
in our own situations. But if we read the passage with biblical imaginations,
we can see a modern and often personal application of each
aspect of the kind of fast that pleases God.
For example, even if literal slavery is not a widespread problem in our
own society, what of the servitude of the soul? Just as an Israelite might
fast in protest of the literal enslavement of others, so we might fast in
resistance against selling ourselves to Satan. In each of these social sins a
personal parallel can be seen. So in the description of the nine fasts, I
invite you as a serious disciple of Christ to find a contemporary application
of the original intention of this great passage on fasting.
Nine Fasts God Can Use
To better illustrate and reveal the significance of these nine reasons for
fasting, I have chosen nine biblical characters whose lives personified the
literal or figurative theme of each of the nine aspects highlighted in
Isaiah 58:6-8. Each fast has a different name, accomplishes a different
purpose and follows a different prescription.
I do not want to suggest that the nine fasts we are about to explore are
the only kinds of fasts available to the believer, or that they are totally
separate from each other. Nor do I want to suggest that there is only one
type of fast for a particular problem. These suggested fasts are models to
use and adjust to your own particular needs and desires as you seek to
grow closer to God. What follows is a brief overview of the nine fasts that
will comprise the rest of this book:
1. The Disciple's Fast
Purpose: "To loose the bands of wickedness" (Isa. 58:6)-freeing ourselves
and others from addictions to sin.
Key Verse: "This kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting" (Matt.
Background: Jesus cast out a demon from a boy whom the disciples had
failed to help. Apparently they had not taken seriously enough the way
Satan had his claws set in the youth. The implication is that Jesus' disciples
could have performed this exorcism had they been willing to undergo the
discipline of fasting. Modern disciples also often make light of "besetting
sins" that could be cast out if we were serious enough to take part in such
a self-denying practice as fasting-hence the term "Disciple's Fast."
2. The Ezra Fast
Purpose: To "undo the heavy burdens" (Isa. 58:6)-to solve problems,
inviting the Holy Spirit's aid in lifting loads and overcoming barriers that
keep ourselves and our loved ones from walking joyfully with the Lord.
Key Verse: "So we fasted and entreated our God for this, and He
answered our prayer" (Ezra 8:23).
Background: Ezra the priest was charged with restoring the Law of
Moses among the Jews as they rebuilt the city of Jerusalem by permission
of Artaxerxes, king of Persia, where God's people had been held captive.
Despite this permission, Israel's enemies opposed them. Burdened with
embarrassment about having to ask the Persian king for an army to protect
them, Ezra fasted and prayed for an answer.
3. The Samuel Fast
Purpose: "To let the oppressed (physically and spiritually) go free" (Isa.
58:6)-for revival and soul winning, to identify with people everywhere
enslaved literally or by sin and to pray to be used of God to bring people
out of the kingdom of darkness and into God's marvelous light.
Key Verse: "So they gathered together at Mizpah, drew water, and
poured it out before the Lord. And they fasted that day, and said there,
`We have sinned against the Lord'" (1 Sam. 7:6).
Background: Samuel led God's people in a fast to celebrate the return
of the Ark of the Covenant from its captivity by the Philistines, and to
pray that Israel might be delivered from the sin that allowed the Ark to
be captured in the first place.
4. The Elijah Fast
Purpose: "To break every yoke" (Isa. 58:6)-conquering the mental and
emotional problems that would control our lives, and returning the control
to the Lord.
Key Verse: "He himself went a day's journey into the wilderness He
arose and ate and drank; and he went in the strength of that food forty
days and forty nights" (1 Kings 19:4,8).
Background: Although Scripture does not call this a formal "fast,"
Elijah deliberately went without food when he fled from Queen Jezebel's
threat to kill him. After this self-imposed deprivation, God sent an angel
to minister to Elijah in the wilderness.
5. The Widow's Fast
Purpose: "To share [our] bread with the hungry" and to care for the poor
(Isa. 58:7)-to meet the humanitarian needs of others.
Key Verse: "The jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not
run dry, in keeping with the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah" (1 Kings
Background: God sent the prophet Elijah to a poor, starving widow-ironically,
so the widow could provide food for Elijah. Just as Elijah's
presence resulted in food for the widow of Zarephath, so presenting ourselves
before God in prayer and fasting can relieve hunger today.
6. The Saint Paul Fast
Purpose: To allow God's "light [to] break forth like the morning" (Isa.
58:8), bringing clearer perspective and insight as we make crucial decisions.
Key Verse: "And he [Saul, or Paul] was three days without sight, and
neither ate nor drank" (Acts 9:9).
Background: Saul of Tarsus, who became known as Paul after his conversion
to Christ, was struck blind by the Lord in the act of persecuting
Christians. He not only was without literal sight, but he also had no clue
about what direction his life was to take. After going without food and
praying for three days, Paul was visited by the Christian Ananias, and
both his eyesight and his vision of the future were restored,
7. The Daniel Fast
Purpose: So "thine health shall spring forth" (Isa. 58:8, KJV)-to gain a
healthier life or for healing.
Key Verse: "Daniel purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself
with the portion of the king's delicacies, nor with the wine which he
drank" (Dan. 1:8).
Background: Daniel and his three fellow Hebrew captives demonstrated
in Babylonian captivity that keeping themselves from pagan foods
God had guided them not to eat made them more healthful than others
in the king's court.
8. The John the Baptist Fast
Purpose: That "your righteousness shall go before you" (Isa. 58:8)-that
our testimonies and influence for Jesus will be enhanced before others.
Key Verse: "He shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink
neither wine nor strong drink" (Luke 1:15, KJV).
Background: Because John the Baptist was the forerunner of Jesus, he
took the "Nazirite" vow that required him to "fast" from or avoid wine
and strong drink. This was part of John's purposefully adopted lifestyle
that designated him as one set apart for a special mission.
9. The Esther Fast
Purpose: That "the glory of the Lord" will protect us from the evil one
(see Isa. 58:8).
Key Verses: "Fast for me . [and] my maids and I will fast . [and] I will
go to the king . [and] she found favor in his sight" (Esther 4:16; 5:2).
Background: Queen Esther, a Jewess in a pagan court, risked her life to
save her people from threatened destruction by Ahasuerus (Xerxes),
king of Persia. Prior to appearing before the king to petition him to save
the Jews, Esther, her attendants and her cousin Mordecai all fasted to
appeal to God for His protection.
Four Kinds of Fasting
The nine fasts described in this book are merely suggestive of a variety
of ways to practice this helpful discipline. There are probably as many
ways to fast as there are ways to pray-obviously, there is no set number
in either case. The following four kinds of fasts, however, taken from
Dr. Rex Russell's book What the Bible Says About Healthy Living (Regal
Books, 1996; see Appendix 1), are good guidelines for you to follow or
modify as God directs.
1. The normal fast is going without food for a definite period during
which you ingest only liquids (water and/or juice). The duration can be
1 day, 3 days, 1 week, 1 month or 40 days.