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Preparing for Our 21 Days of Prayer and Fasting

This coming Sunday, we begin our 21 Days of Prayer and Fasting. This past week, we covered Matthew 6:16-18 where Jesus discusses fasting in his Sermon on the Mount. You can listen to the sermon here. The content of this post is a summary of the sermon.

Matthew 6:16–18 “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. [17] But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, [18] that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (ESV)

The context of the entire Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matthew 5-7 is to help us see how we are to live as citizens of God’s Kingdom. Chapter 6 begins with Jesus looking at three very important spiritual practices in Jewish life: almsgiving, prayer, and now fasting. Jesus’ intention in this teaching is to help his listeners understand that proper practice of these disciplines comes from a humble heart that seeks to honor God, not man. He shows us the contrast between the humble heart and the hypocritical heart. One focuses on God while the other focuses on self.

While probably the most neglected and most misunderstood of the Habits of Grace, Fasting is a helpful gift of grace to help us live in God’s Kingdom.

Toward a Definition of Christian Fasting

In short, according to how the listeners and readers in Jesus’ day would have understood the word, Fasting is abstaining from food. But if we leave it at that definition, then we may be in danger of misapplying what fasting is, much like the hypocrites did in Jesus’ day and how many continue to do so today. 

Let me give you a few definitions of fasting that help us understand what Scripture is saying.

Christian fasting is a believer’s voluntary abstinence from food for spiritual purposes. It is for believers in Christ, for the discipline must be rooted in a relationship with Christ and practiced with the desire to become more like Christ”. – Donald S. Whitney

“Fasting is an exceptional measure, designed to channel and express our desire for God and our holy discontent in a fallen world. It is for those not satisfied with the status quo. For those who want more of God’s grace. For those who feel truly desperate for God.” – David Mathis

“Fasting is an appetite for the things of God.” – Martin Luther

Martin Luther also stated, “I do not live for my appetites—my physical appetites, my sexual appetites, my material appetites.  Therefore, with self-control, which is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, I’m going to stop all this incessant ‘nibbling at the table of the world.’ I do not live for my appetites. But much more than that, I live for God and for his blessing.” 

Religious and Cultural Views of Fasting

Fasting is not a distinctly Christian practice. Most non-Christian religions, like Islam, and Catholicism practice fasting. Fasting can also be non-religious. Technically, we fast every night, and why the first meal of the day is “breakfast”. A common dieting practice is intermittent fasting. Fasting is also required for blood work and surgery.  That’s why Christian fasting doesn’t focus on the act of fasting as much as it does the heart of fasting.

In the Old Testament, there was only one time per year when God’s people were called to fast—the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29-34) All other fasting was voluntary, as far as the law was concerned. But something changes in the New Testament. And it all centers around Jesus. Let me read a text of Scripture later on in Matthew 9.

Matthew 9:14–17 Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” [15] And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. [16] No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. [17] Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” (ESV)

Now, the disciples appear to not be following the Pharisee’s way of fasting. Remember, the Pharisees would often create rules and laws and call them gospel. If you don’t keep their man-made rules then you are not truly following God. And remember also, fasting was only required on only one day a year. John the Baptizer’s disciples come to Jesus with questions. If Jesus was truly the Messiah whom John was preparing the way for, then why were Jesus’ teachings so different from John’s on the matter of fasting? 

Jesus answers these questions by saying, there is no need for His disciples to fast because Jesus is with them. They can and will fast when Jesus is no longer physically with them. Jesus helps them see that he is not destroying old practices with something new, he’s ushering something new in. Fasting will now be centered around a dependence on Jesus and Jesus alone. 

What is interesting about fasting is that nowhere in the New Testament is it commanded. It’s expected, but not commanded. Prayer is commanded. Gathering with the church is commanded. Generous giving is commanded. Loving your enemies is commanded. Fasting is not commanded by Jesus, but Jesus expects his followers to fast.

Jesus begins His section on fasting with “when you fast” and like the other examples given concerning Almsgiving and Prayer, he includes teachings on improper fasting and proper fasting.

Improper fasting is self-centered and others-focused. Christian fasting is not about us but is a hunger for God and God alone.

Improper fasting seeks personal gain as the end goal and not God. There will be a temptation to think about the weight you are losing or the time you have redeemed during your fast. Listen at times it is good to lose weight and it is good to repurpose your time, but if that becomes the focus of the Christian fasting, then we are missing the mark.  Jesus’ brief instructions to his disciples come down to this: “When you fast, just be normal”. Take a shower, wash your hair, wash your face. In other words, no one should know you’re fasting. The only person that matters when it comes to fasting is God. 

While the potential purposes are many, Donald Whitney captures it like this: 

“Fasting can be an expression of finding your greatest pleasure and enjoyment in life from God.” – Whitney

The purpose of fasting is to strengthen our hunger for God and to see how dependent we are on Him. The purpose of fasting is really the reward of fasting.

As a reminder, fasting is not commanded. It is a helpful tool in our pursuit of Christ. We must also understand that fasting is always connected to prayer and Scripture. It is not something we do alone and disconnected from the other habits of grace.

You can pray without fasting, but you cannot fast biblically without praying. Fasting is an affirmation of intense prayer, a corollary of deep spiritual struggle before God. It is never an isolated act or a ceremony or ritual that has some inherent efficacy or merit. It has no value at all-in fact becomes a spiritual hindrance and a sin when done for any reason apart from knowing and following the Lord’s will.

As we head into our 21 Days of Prayer and Fasting, let me answer three questions for us.

What should I fast from?

Obviously, fasting is an abstinence from food. It’s a tangible reminder of how much we depend on God. Every time your stomach growls, it’s a reminder we need Jesus more than food. But I do believe there is freedom to fast from certain things that do not belong to Christ but that have filled and consumed our hearts. Martyn Lloyd-Jones states, 

“Fasting should really be made to include abstinence from anything which is legitimate in and of itself for the sake of some special spiritual purpose.” 

So maybe your family goes without electronics for a week because you use devices to numb you, maybe it’s coffee or soda or sweets because you feel as if you can’t function without them. Maybe it’s social media, or exercise, or sports, or shopping, or maybe it’s food in general. Whatever it is you fast from, take the time to look toward Christ.

When should I fast?

Really, it’s up to you. Morning, afternoon, evening, half the day, the whole, a week, 21 days, or 40. I don’t believe it matters. But I do believe the longer the fast, the more we see the dependence.

How should I fast?

When you decide when you will fast, here are five helpful tips from David Mathis in his book, “Habits of Grace”, recorded here in this article:

1. Start small.

Don’t go from no fasting to attempting a weeklong. Start with one meal; maybe fast one meal a week for several weeks. Then try two meals, and work your way up to a daylong fast. Perhaps eventually try a two-day juice fast.

A juice fast means abstaining from all food and beverage, except for juice and water. Allowing yourself juice provides nutrients and sugar for the body to keep you operating, while also still feeling the effects from going without solid food. It’s not recommended that you abstain from water during a fast of any length.

2. Plan what you’ll do instead of eating.

Fasting isn’t merely an act of self-deprivation, but a spiritual discipline for seeking more of God’s fullness. This means we should have a plan for what positive pursuit to undertake in the time it normally takes to eat. We spend a good portion of our day with food in front of us. One significant part of fasting is the time it creates for prayer and meditation on God’s word or some act of love for others.

Before diving headlong into a fast, craft a simple plan. Connect it to your purpose for the fast. Each fast should have a specific spiritual purpose. Identify what that is and design a focus to replace the time you would have spent eating. Without a purpose and plan, it’s not Christian fasting; it’s just going hungry.

3. Consider how it will affect others.

Fasting is no license to be unloving. It would be sad to lack concern and care for others around us because of this expression of heightened focus on God. Love for God and for neighbor go together. Good fasting mingles horizontal concern with the vertical. If anything, others should even feel more loved and cared for when we’re fasting.

So as you plan your fast, consider how it will affect others. If you have regular lunches with colleagues or dinners with family or roommates, assess how your abstaining will affect them, and let them know ahead of time, instead of just being a no-show, or springing it on them in the moment that you will not be eating.

Also, consider this backdoor inspiration for fasting: If you make a daily or weekly practice of eating with a particular group of friends or family, and those plans are interrupted by someone’s travel or vacation or atypical circumstances, consider that as an opportunity to fast, rather than eating alone.

4. Try different kinds of fasting.

The typical form of fasting is personal, private, and partial, but we find a variety of forms in the Bible: personal and communal, private and public, congregational and national, regular and occasional, absolute and partial.

In particular, consider fasting together with your family, small group, or church. Do you share together in some special need for God’s wisdom and guidance? Is there an unusual difficulty in the church, or society, for which you need God’s intervention? Do you want to keep the second coming of Christ in view? Plead with special earnestness for God’s help by linking arms with other believers to fast together.

5. Fast from something other than food.

Fasting from food is not necessarily for everyone. Some health conditions keep even the most devout from the traditional course. However, fasting is not limited to abstaining from food.

If the better part of wisdom for you, in your health condition, is not to go without food, consider fasting from television, computer, social media, or some other regular enjoyment that would bend your heart toward greater enjoyment of Jesus. Paul even talks about married couples fasting from sex “for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer” (1 Corinthians 7:5).


Grace Life, here is why we are taking this intentional time to pray and fast. And it stems from Peter’s moment with the empty tomb.

Luke 24:12 But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves, and he went home marveling at what had happened. (ESV)

My prayer is that through intentional time with the Lord, we will grow in our awe and wonder of who He is and what He has done. Fasting teaches us to see the glorious splendor of our God.

We fast before the Lord in humility knowing that our only hope in life and death is that we are not our own but belong to God.

If you have any questions concerning your prayer and fasting, please do not hesitate to reach out to either Pastor Ben or myself.

By His Grace,

Pastor Matt

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