What is fasting? Fasting is doing without food for spiritual purposes, either individually or as a group. In the early Church, regular fasting was seen as normal. Wednesdays and Fridays were designated fast days, in memory of the betrayal and death of the Lord (Didache 8). Many movements in history have recognised the importance of fasting. St Francis, whose influence on the Church is inestimable, fasted. Indeed John Wesley would not ordain any Methodist minister who would not fast on Wednesdays and Fridays until 4:00 p.m. Our Lady at Medjugorje has called us to return to this ancient practice. The testimony of many is that prayer with fasting transforms lives and ministries. Might this be a clue as to why today we seem to lack the power of the early Church? Jesus makes it clear that some spirits are only cast out by prayer and fasting (Matt 17:21). There are some who stand in the breach and pray but few who pray and fast.
Why does going without food release divine power? The key lies in self-denial. Indeed self-denial is essential to following Christ, “If anyone would be a follower of mine let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” (Matt 16:24) In self-denial we allow the Spirit to confront the weakness and self-indulgence of the flesh. St Paul reminds us that. “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Gal 5:24). As the Catechism puts it, fasting and abstinence “help us to acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart. (CCC 2043)”. Fasting enables the Spirit to empower us to overcome temptations and sin, particularly whatever happens to be our besetting sin. Like us, the rich young man in the Gospel wanted more but he missed out because he was ruled by self-indulgence rather than self-denial.
The apostles didn’t fast when they went about with Jesus, because Jesus was with them “but when the Bridegroom is gone then you will fast” (Matt 9:15) and “When you fast do not look dismal…” (Matt 6:16) Note that it is a question of when, not if. St Paul reminds us that “the weapons of our warfare are not merely human but they have divine power to destroy strongholds.” (2 Cor. 10:4)
Types of Fasting
Perhaps the easiest Scriptural fast is that of Daniel (He “ate no rich food or meat, drank no wine and used no fragrant oils.” (Dan 10:3) This is the most common form used in Lent, and well adapted to our circumstances – cutting out treats and snacks, alcohol, or anything sweet, or seasoning, etc. and just having plain food. It is particularly suitable for those on special diets. Daniel challenges us to take this a little further. We can renew this fast knowing how powerful it is. Fasting hits us where we feel vulnerable. The point, though, is not to make ourselves frustrated or unhappy, but to pray with our bodies so as to feel in our own flesh our dependence on God, and to do this with thanksgiving.
Start perhaps with making every Friday a Lenten day. The Orthodox fast from all animal products and cooking oils as well as alcohol. The idea is simple, plain, bland food and water, fasting from the indulgence of tasty food and drink. Some people simply adopt a plain vegetarian or even vegan diet, for example. Portions of meals should also be reduced or replaced with just bread. The bread and water fast of the early Church, which has been renewed through Medjugorje, may be a challenge, but it is worth getting closer to it. It certainly challenges our self-indulgence! There is also the practical self-denial in all situations that St Thérèse practiced with such great fruit for the Church. However while the meaning of fasting can very beneficially be extended to other pleasures like TV, games, etc, these should never replace proper fasting from food.
This fasting consists in abandoning all types of food for a period of time, with water or some fruit juice as the only liquids absorbed. This can be allowed for a short period of time (two or three days at the most), but only if one is in good health. Anything more should only be done under medical supervision.
Perhaps at this stage we should mention that no-one should abstain from drinking water during a fast: water is essential and should not be cut out from our diet, in fact our intake should be somewhat increased to allow for the elimination of toxins as the body cleans itself out.
The prospect of fasting can be somewhat daunting, but do pray, asking for strength and perseverance, and take things one step at a time. Guard against spiritual attack. The Devil doesn’t like what you are doing and he will try to undermine you. You may feel doubts, fear, loneliness or temptations. Stand firm knowing that God loves you and rewards those who diligently seek him (Heb 11:6). Like Daniel, set your face to fast. Fast quietly and discreetly (Matt 6:16). Carry on normal activities as much as possible.
There are health benefits to fasting. To benefit the most, take plenty of rest, exercise and fresh air. Eat fruit, salad and cereal before a fast. Drink plenty of fluids, since these flush out the kidneys.
At the end, break the fast with a light meal, salad, fruit but nothing heavy or greasy. Gradually restore eating to normal. It is also a good opportunity to review our diet.
Link to Prayer and Intercession
Whenever the people of Israel were in danger or needed the power of God to be released in a particular situation, they prayed and fasted, often with dramatic results. The Old Testament mentions several instances of this, for example, when King Jehosaphat was threatened by 3 large armies (2 Chon 20), or Esther by the extermination of her people, the Jews (Esther 4: 15- 16), or when the prophet Daniel pleaded with God to end the Exile (Daniel in chapters 9 & 10), and when Jonah proclaimed a fast to the people of Nineveh, so that they would repent of their evil ways (Jonah 3).
God cannot be manipulated, but he does want us to respond to his calls to repentance. If we pull these Scriptural examples together, we find that they show us a way of prayer that is pleasing to God and through which God, in His mercy, released His power: a way of fasting which gathers the whole community together, in a movement of persevering and humble repentance, turning to God’s Word and offering earnest petition.
Fasting empowers our prayer. It enables us to meet God more intimately in prayer, since our whole being is participating in this effort of turning towards him. Fasting also sharpens up our senses because they are not burdened with the energy needed to digest. Intercession is freer when it is not burdened with digestion.
So, during a fast, take the time saved in not eating to intercede with faith and power. Keep a list of requests made with fasting – it will provide plenty of reasons to praise God! It is important to take time also to read the Bible and pray and seek the Lord daily during a fast. During Lent, for example, it is a good idea attentively to read the Mass readings for each day, and base our daily prayer on these. Meet with others some time during the fast to seek the Lord, and pray together: for the Lord then gives particular blessings that are not given in individual prayer.
St Peter Chrysologus sums up the New Testament teaching on fasting:
Fasting is the soul of prayer; mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them; they cannot be separated. If you have only one of them or not all together, you have nothing. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others.
The Bible, the early Church and countless Christians since then bear witness to the incredible power of prayer with fasting.
What are we waiting for?
Books: The rewards of Fasting – Mike Bickle & Dana Candler
The Hidden Power of Prayer and Fasting – Mahesh Chavda
H/T Discover Happiness