Fasting: A Surprising Journey into Joy
Growing up, we were Christmas and Easter pew warmers and that was only if we didn’t have family in town. When I was in high school, my mom and I attended more regularly, but I never remember hearing anything about fasting, at church or at home. If someone had told me that they fasted for spiritual purposes, I would have thought they were a super-Christian. You know—the ones that could recite psalms and had an unwavering faith that God would take care of everything. They also didn’t watch TV or go to rated-R movies, and they had a glow about them that can only be heavenly. I was definitely not in their league.
Frankly, I wasn’t even playing on a team in that league, and I certainly didn’t have the right uniform.
As I started on my faith journey, many areas of my life became obedient to the ways of God. Yet fasting was still never really something I considered part of the everyday Christian’s life. It was still for the Christian that either had bigger mountains to move or had a much deeper connection to God and He was calling them to do really big things, much bigger than I would be called to do.
God used my inability to handle life to start my fasting journey.
My daughter was entering her senior year in high school and wasn’t sure what her next step was. The pastor I worked most directly with had cancer. Another recently returned missionary from our church was diagnosed with terminal cancer. And I was working full time for the church surrounded by ministries and women that I was supposed to lead and love well.
That’s a tall order and I found myself too depleted to be of any real use.
On the outside I was not failing miserably at any of these things; I was actually pretty successful. Inside, I was trying to make sense of it all on my own power. I was treading water and every now and then my head went under. I needed to surrender it all to God, but how?
I wish I could say that I did a biblical analysis of the times in the Bible where fasting was mentioned, checking its correlation to answered prayers, but I didn’t. I was simply desperate, and God answered my prayer for peace and direction by telling me to fast. He wanted to guide me, to quiet my heart, and to show me His will.
Fasting gave me an action plan to invite God into my burdens.
At the same time Bobby Harrington, our senior pastor, suggested our ministerial staff read an early version of the book Kingdom Unleashed. This movement was led by prayer and fasting, and as I read, I was captivated. Their sacrificial work for the Kingdom was over the top. The humility in their work—along with the total commitment to fasting and prayer as the only way they were seeing success—was mind blowing to me. I’m sure I have read other stories over the years of other movements and people God has used, but this hit me at exactly the right moment. They were totally open to the Holy Spirit and were not moving until they were told to. There was an obvious freedom and closeness to God in their stories even while under great persecution.
I understood that although my own heaviness of heart was causing me to become less effective for God’s kingdom, God was gracious to provide me these examples of the power gained through prayer and fasting. “Hard-headed,” “strong-willed,” and a “contrarian” have been used by more than one person to describe me, so God had to keep enlightening me. About that time, our missionary friend, who also happened to have served where the Kingdom Unleashed authors were from (I know, right?!) asked our church to fast and pray for her. She had had experiences with this in Sierra Leone and saw miracles happen. How could I say no to a 35-year-old mom, wife, and missionary, when asked to fast to pray for her health crisis? I couldn’t—at least not without feeling really bad.
So, I began fasting and—low and behold—I didn’t die. I didn’t even pass out or any other terrible thing that I assumed would happen if I didn’t eat every 4-5 hours. I do sometimes get hypoglycemic, you know! Code in my house for “hangry.” But my heart had been so burdened by her story that she got me out of my selfishness. I am forever grateful.
That first fast showed me what it looked like to petition God for someone else’s miracle and to feel the burden that I was carrying on her behalf handed over to God’s perfect will.
I did my part in asking God for her miracle. He didn’t answer our prayer for complete healing, but He did allow her to draw so close to Him through her illness, for those around her to see what it looked like to finish strong, no matter what age or circumstance. A peace that is beyond understanding: that was His miracle.
God knew what I needed to draw close to Him.
I began weekly fasting when I realized I could only handle about a week’s worth of life before I felt a heavy burden. This was God’s rhythm for me. It gave me a sense of peace and focus that I hadn’t had before. About a year and a half into a 24-hour fast each week, I had an epiphany.
One day, as I was fasting and praying, God impressed upon me that He didn’t really need my fast, but that I needed it. Yikes, I realized that I was fasting as my sacrifice to God more than as His gift to me. Even though I wasn’t boasting about it or completely somber during my fast, if I dug deep, I would have realized that I was proud of myself for the dedication and sacrifice I was making to God. Ouch, that kind of stings to type out loud.
I started reading more on fasting. As I read and prayed, it was revealed to me that fasting is a means to draw closer to Him in prayer, to walk in His will more readily. It is His way of focusing me, pulling me close. When I was hungry for food, I needed to be reminded to be hungry for God. This insight helped change my fasts into an act of worship, a time of praise.
I started from a humble place of needing to actively hand off my cares, my ministry conundrums, my family dysfunction, and everything else that I couldn’t carry anymore. I fasted for my own sanity. But God moved me to a place where fasting also became an active part of my worship. I now look forward to my fasts.
Fasting is my tool to love others well.
I’ve discovered that when I carry a load that is too heavy, and I don’t hand it over regularly to God, I cannot love others well. I get into protection mode. Maybe it looks like being too busy for coffee with a hurting friend or being short with my kids or husband. I find myself unfocused on what God wants me to do in each moment. I feel like I am putting out fires instead of being led by the Spirit.
Fasting became my tool to remove the load that I was carrying, both my junk and others’, and give it to God. He never intended me to hang on to it or to use my strength to get His work done. God promises freedom and peace to those walking close to Him.
To love others well, I must unburden my soul so He can refresh it.
Fasting is like lying down by calm waters. He refreshes me so that I can continue to carry out His command to love Him and love others. When my plate is full (over flowing at times) and my heart is hurting for the problems that I can’t solve and the people I can’t fix (which is everyone!), I must lean into God in a surrendered, steadfast prayer.
In Life without Lacking, Dallas Willard describes it this way: when we fast from food, we feast on God.
Jesus taught us that when we fast, we are not to look miserable (Matt 6:16-18). Do you suppose He was asking us to fake it? Was He saying, “Now, you’re going to be miserable, but don’t let it show”? No, Jesus understood that when we fast before God we are actually nourished directly by the word of God, whether spoken or written. Fasting is feasting upon God. This is something you learn only by experience, and He wanted us to fast with that expectation.
Recently, my husband and I embarked on a get-healthy journey, which really means we needed to lose weight. We did a plan that worked beautifully to get us into better eating habits but part of what I had to agree to in this plan was to abstain from fasting. I agreed, and within 4 weeks, I was noticing that ministry was getting harder. I was burdened and feeling like I couldn’t handle all the hurting people that kept coming across my path. I found myself internalizing hurts and not being as available to the women God was asking me to minister to and my family. After praying about it and really searching, I realized what had changed most dramatically was my weekly fast. I need it.
I need to feast on God in this tangible way every week to be able to lead, disciple, and love well.
Instead of it being an obligation to fast, it became a true blessing, a privilege that God led me to. It is obviously a biblical command, but personally it is also how my loving Father draws me to Him, where I get to sit in His lap and lay it all down. True, I can do this anytime in prayer but there is a closeness and surrender (even desperation) when I do it while fasting that strengthens my connection and allows me to be quiet enough to hear His voice louder.