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Spring 2015: Fasting for Spiritual and Physical Health
Publish date: Jun 1, 2015
Summary: Throughout history and even today, fasting, the abstinence from food and sometimes water, has been practiced in a religious context and there are many references to fasting in the Bible.
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Fasting and Spiritual Health
Throughout history and even today, fasting, the abstinence from food and sometimes water, has been practiced in a religious context and there are many references to fasting in the Bible. Some fasts in the Bible were total abstinence from food and water, for example when Esther required all Jews in Shushan to neither eat nor drink for three days. But there are also examples of partial fasts, as in the case of Daniel when he “ate no pleasant bread…neither flesh nor wine” (Daniel 10:3). In addition, the Bible provides examples of a range of motivating factors for fasting, such as grief or defeat in war or to show repentance.
Fasting in the Bible
Why did people fast during Bible times? Perhaps you’re wondering whether Christians should fast today. Does it make any difference to God whether we fast or not? Does fasting change us in any significant way? The Bible can provide insight and answers about Christian fasting.
Forty Day Fasts
Perhaps the earliest reference to fasting involved Moses while he was in the presence of God on Mount Sinai “forty days and forty nights” (Exodus 24:18), during which time, we’re told, “he did neither eat bread, nor drink water” (Exodus 34:28). Moses had been called on an errand by God. God had told him, “Come up to me into the mount, and be there: and I will give thee tables of stone, and a law, and commandments which I have written; that thou mayest teach them” (Exodus 24:12). God miraculously sustained Moses while they met together. When God calls a person to some special job, we can be sure that God will sustain them, even in a miraculous way.
Often, we see in the Bible people fasting as a sign of remorse and repentance. For example, Samuel called a corporate fast when “all the house of Israel lamented after the LORD” and returned to Him following the time of their idolatry (1 Samuel 7:2). After ridding the land of their idols, they gathered to Samuel at Mizpeh “and fasted on that day, and said there, We have sinned against the LORD” (vs. 6). Ahab (1 Kings 21:27-29), the people of Israel (Nehemiah 9:1) and even Israel’s enemies at the preaching of Jonah (Jonah 3:5) fasted to show their sorrow for sin and deep repentance. Christians may do the same today. When we become aware of the awfulness of our sins and humble our hearts in repentance, fasting may increase our sense of our need and dependence upon Christ for all our righteousness, though fasting can never add to the free gift of salvation that Christ has bought for us.
Fasting on the Day of Atonement
God Himself appointed a fast for the Day of Atonement, in which He required soul-searching and repentance while atonement was being made for the people.
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Also on the tenth day of this seventh month there shall be a day of atonement: it shall be an holy convocation unto you; and ye shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire unto the LORD. And ye shall do no work in that same day: for it is a day of atonement, to make an atonement for you before the LORD your God (Leviticus 23: 26-28).
Here, we see that the people were called together to
1. Fast or “be afflicted,”
2. Make a sacrifice by fire, and
3. Rest from their labors or keep a sabbath.
In Israel, the fast on the Day of Atonement was a time set aside from worldly cares to examine the heart for lurking sin, making full repentance to God and contemplating the work of redemption that He would complete on behalf of believers. Matthew Henry commented that:
The humbling of our souls for sin, and the making of our peace with God, is work that requires the whole man, and the closest application of mind imaginable, and all little enough. He that would do the work of a day of atonement in its day, as it should be done, had need lay aside the thoughts of every thing else (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on Leviticus 23: 26-28).
Laying aside food preparation along with eating and digesting food can free the mind to concentrate upon repentance and reformation.
Unfortunately, too often fasting during the Day of Atonement was done without deep soul-searching and repentance. The act of fasting, like so many other religious rituals, became an end in itself, replacing true repentance. God rejects that kind of spiritually-barren fasting. When the people of Isaiah’s day accused God of paying no attention to their fasting, God rebuked them for their hypocrisy, their pride instead of humility and their lack of repentance. He said,
Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact all your labours. Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness: ye shall not fast as ye do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high.
Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD?
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? (Isaiah 58:3-7).
Ellen White commented,
A legal religion can never lead souls to Christ; for it is a loveless, Christless religion. Fasting or prayer that is actuated by a self-justifying spirit is an abomination in the sight of God. The solemn assembly for worship, the round of religious ceremonies, the external humiliation, the imposing sacrifice, proclaim that the doer of these things regards himself as righteous, and as entitled to heaven; but it is all a deception. Our own works can never purchase salvation (DA, 280).
The Bible, both in the Old Testament and the New, has many examples of fasting combined with earnest prayer. Further, there are examples of individuals fasting for personal reasons, for example when Hannah fasted and prayed that God would give her a son (1 Samuel 1:7-8), when David fasted and prayed for the healing of his infant son (2 Samuel 12:16), or when Darius fasted and prayed for Daniel’s survival in the lions’ den (Daniel 9:3).
There are also incidents of corporate fasting, as when, in 2 Chronicles 20:3, King Jehoshaphat proclaimed a fast as the nation prayed for deliverance from their enemies, when Esther proclaimed a fast as she and her people pleaded for deliverance from Haman’s evil plot of destruction, or when Ezra called for fasting and prayers as they sought direction and protection from God concerning their return to Jerusalem from Babylon (Ezra 8:21-23).
Because proper fasting, not abstemiousness to the point of weakening the body, tends to clear the mind, it can prepare us to better receive God’s guidance through the Holy Spirit’s communication with our minds. Combined with a humble attitude of submission to God’s will, fasting and prayer can prepare us to “receive more of the Spirit of God,” as we can see in the following quote:
Instruction was given me in the night season that I must bear a decided message to this people. You greatly need to experience a deeper heart work. It is your privilege to receive more of the Spirit of God, as you engage in fasting and earnest prayer. (Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, 13 January 1910, 22.
David and his people fasted and mourned when they heard that Saul and Jonathon were killed in battle (2 Samuel 1:12), the people of Israel mourned and fasted over their defeat by the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 20:26) and Nehemiah fasted and mourned when he heard that the Jews remaining in Jerusalem were “in great affliction” and the city lay in ruins. It is appropriate to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). Even more, it is appropriate to “sigh and…cry for all the abominations that be done” in the Christian church (see Ezekiel 9:4) and fasting can be a part of this as we humbly submit our wills to God.
Jesus Himself set an example for us through fasting. We’re told in Matthew 4:2 that Jesus “fasted forty days and forty nights” and then faced His tempter. Ellen White, in Desire of Ages, explained that Jesus fasted to strengthen Himself for the difficulties that lay ahead. “By fasting and prayer He was to brace Himself for the bloodstained path He must travel” (DA, 114).
Ellen White also wrote that Christ began His work of redemption by overcoming at the very point where Satan gained his first victory – with appetite. We’re told that “For our sake He exercised a self-control stronger than hunger or death. And in this first victory were involved other issues that enter into all our conflicts with the powers of darkness” (DA, 117). Can fasting strengthen us against Satan’s temptations, then?
What Jesus Said About Fasting
Jesus Himself had something to say about fasting and seemed to suppose that fasting was an ordinary part of the devotional life for believers. Jesus spoke the words of Matthew 6: 16-18 during His Sermon on the Mount when “the multitudes” had gathered to hear Him and “his disciples came unto him” (Matthew 5:1). Look carefully at the following verses:
Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly (Matthew 6:16-18).
Consider Jesus’ comments and instructions about fasting.
• Fasting is a normal part of spiritual practice for believers. First of all, notice that Jesus said, “when” you fast. He expected believers to fast. So obviously there are times which are appropriate for believers to fast.
• Fasting is primarily an inward attitude, not an external sign. Jesus taught that fasting for selfish reasons is useless. He used the proud Pharisees as an example of how not to fast. If you fast so that others will think you’re very spiritual, that’s of no value, He said. But if you fast “in secret” then God will reward you.
Interestingly, Jesus talked about fasting right after teaching His disciples the Lord’s Prayer. This perfect example of prayer comes from a peaceful submission to the will of God and a humble acceptance of His sovereignty over the believer’s life. This kind of true inward humility is a requirement for meaningful fasting.
Consider also an incident that led Jesus to recommend fasting to His disciples. Jesus had chosen three disciples to be with Him at His transfiguration. Meanwhile, the remaining nine were facing a crisis. A man who had a demon-possessed son came to them and asked them to cast out the demon. They couldn’t. Later when they asked Jesus why they couldn’t cast the demon out, He told them,
Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you (Matthew 17:20).
Apparently, it was the disciples’ lack of faith that cast up a roadblock against their ability to oust the demon. Then Jesus added these often misunderstood words: “Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting” (vs. 21). What did Jesus mean?
First, Jesus said their unbelief prevented them from casting out the demon. Then, He told them the demon could only be cast out by prayer and fasting. Did Jesus mean that certain demons are too strong to be cast out without prayer and fasting?
Since Jesus once said that it was by “the finger of God” that He cast out devils (Luke 11:20), it must have been by the same “finger of God” that the disciples cast out devils. Obviously, God’s “finger” is not strengthened by our fasting, but something happens within us through fasting.
Prior to this, Jesus had foretold His death and the nine disciples were sorrowing over His words; so they were discouraged. On top of that, the nine were jealous of the three that had been chosen to accompany Jesus to the mount. Their hearts weren’t right with God, “For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work” (James 3:16). In that context, they unwisely engaged Satan in battle. Ellen White sheds additional light upon this incident.
In order to succeed in such a conflict they must come to the work in a different spirit. Their faith must be strengthened by fervent prayer and fasting, and humiliation of heart. They must be emptied of self, and be filled with the Spirit and power of God (DA, 431).
Shortly after this event, in the very next chapter of Matthew, we read, “At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1). Obviously, they missed the point about the need for humility and Jesus reiterates, “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (vs. 3). So when He said, “Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting,” He was pointing out the disciples’ own personal need for spiritual renewal and real humility.
Fasting as a Symbol
As a symbol of the humble position of the heart, Christians kneel in prayer to God. In a similar way, fasting should be a physical demonstration of the believer’s humble submission to God’s will and his or her utter dependence upon Him. Fasting is as appropriate now as it was in Jesus’ day.
According to Ellen White, fasting is actually even more important now than ever. Writing about the earth’s last days, she said,
We are living in the most solemn period of this world's history. The destiny of earth's teeming multitudes is about to be decided. Our own future well-being and also the salvation of other souls depend upon the course which we now pursue. We need to be guided by the Spirit of truth. Every follower of Christ should earnestly inquire: "Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?" We need to humble ourselves before the Lord, with fasting and prayer, and to meditate much upon His word, especially upon the scenes of the judgment. We should now seek a deep and living experience in the things of God (GC, 601; emphasis added).
Furthermore, Ellen White comments that, when done in the right spirit and for the right reasons, fasting and prayer are tools God can use to accomplish His work in us. “In the hand of God they are a means of cleansing the heart and promoting a receptive frame of mind. We obtain answers to our prayers because we humble our souls before God” (CD, 188).
In summary, believers fast for a number of different reasons, but to reap spiritual benefits from fasting it should be accompanied by true repentance and humility. In addition, fasting can bring spiritual revival and can put us in a proper mind frame to better receive the things of God.
Fasting and Physical Health
Throughout the ages, people have also used fasting to strengthen or regain physical health. Fasting is truly an ancient cure, although the practice may be considered extreme in contrast to this age of fast food and overindulgence.
The rationale behind fasting is that by withholding food from the body, energy normally spent digesting food can be invested instead in repairing the body’s cells, organs and tissues. The result is rejuvenation and an overall sense of well-being, which is why some people incorporate regular fasting as a part of a healthy lifestyle. Keep in mind that fasting should always be monitored by a health professional and that fasting is not recommended for people with certain medical conditions.
Some health clinics offer supervised fasting programs in which patients drink only water for 2 – 3 weeks or longer. Remarkable cures have been documented on this type of fasting program including Type II diabetes, high blood pressure, sinusitis and even deafness. During a lengthy water fast, the body quickly burns up its stores of sugar then switches to fat-burning for energy. By God’s design, toxins are kept safely out of circulation by storing them in fat cells, so as fat is broken down and metabolized during a fast, toxins are released and removed from the body. This fat-burning during fasting has a significant detoxifying effect. As more and more toxins are released and removed, symptoms that may have been present for years begin to be eliminated. Typically, water fasting follows this pattern:
• Days 1 – 2: Blood sugar and sugar stored in muscle tissue is burned.
• Day 3 and beyond: Fat is burned, ketones are released and feelings of hunger disappear; signs of inflammation (pain and swelling) are gradually eliminated.
Water fasting is not the only type of fast that brings physical benefits. Freshly made vegetable and fruit juices along with cleansing herbal teas can assist the body in its rejuvenating process during a fast. There are many books available on juice fasting that may be helpful in planning a juice fast. Preferably, use organic fresh, raw fruits or vegetables for juicing. You can add spirulina to increase nutrient content and fiber such as ground psyllium to aid bowel movement which supports the detoxification process. Juices made from leafy, green vegetables are excellent for detoxifying the body.
Length of the Fast
Metabolic detoxification doesn’t really begin until the second or third day of fasting, but even fasting for one day can be beneficial in that it allows the digestive organs to rest and recuperate. You may want to go on a one day juice fast from time to time simply to rest the digestive organs while still supplying vital nutrients with freshly made juices.
Dr. James and Phyllis Balch, in Prescription for Nutritional Healing state:
A three-day fast helps the body get rid of toxins. A five-day fast starts the healing process. A ten-day fast should take care of most problems before they arise – a fast this long is good twice a year. Do not fast on water alone! Fasting over three days should be supervised by a qualified health professional.i
If you are planning to fast, you should work with your health-care provider to determine the length of your fast. Regarding the length of a fast, Dr. James and Phyllis Balch make these recommendations:ii
1. The tongue is cleared of its coating,
2. The breath is sweet,
3. You are very hungry.
Conditions Improved by Fasting
Fasting enables the body to return to normal functioning and regain its vitality. A number of positive benefits from fasting include: iii
• Weight loss: this becomes especially apparent after the third day of fasting.
• Risk factors decrease: high blood pressure, excess weight and metabolic disorders improve.
• General health improves.
When Not to Fast
Severe cardiac disorders or severe organ diseases rule out fasting and can actually be harmful. Check with your health practitioner before undertaking a fast. However, you can still benefit from the detoxifying principles employed in fasting by incorporating in your diet an abundance of fresh, unprocessed raw vegetables and vegetable juices.
Fasting has both spiritual and physical benefits which can lead us to a greater realization of our dependence upon God. He alone is our only source of health and salvation.
Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits: Who forgiveth all thine iniquities; who healeth all thy diseases; Who redeemeth thy life from destruction; who crowneth thee with lovingkindness and tender mercies; Who satisfieth thy mouth with good things; so that thy youth is renewed like the eagle's (Psalm 103: 2-5).
i. James Balch and Phyllis Balch, Prescription for Nutritional Healing (Garden City Park, New York: Avery Publishing Group Inc., 1990), 324-325.
ii. Ibid., 325.
iii. Ernst Schneider, Healthy by Nature: The Healing Power of Natural Agents (Madrid, Spain: Editorial Safeliz, 2008), 309-310.
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