We experience a major spiritual benefit of fasting even if God answers no to what we’re praying and fasting for. Through fasting, God prepares us for what’s to come.
Fasting should be a journey. Perhaps the fasting journey starts out of obedience, or out of what “seems like a good idea,” or a mentor suggested it. Or maybe the journey simply starts because your church is fasting together. However the journey begins, fasting should mature into a practice that you eventually crave it (pun intended), much like Scripture reading.
My Invitation into the Spiritual Benefits of Fasting
I began my own fasting journey one summer thanks to a book about evangelism and disciple making happening on a far-off continent. I was personally struggling in ministry. So many marriages were falling apart, so many kids falling away, too many hurting people. These were becoming weights that I couldn’t bear, and the truth is, I was contemplating getting out of full-time ministry.
“These were becoming weights that I couldn’t bear, and the truth is, I was contemplating getting out of full-time ministry.”
Then Bobby Harrington, our lead pastor, suggested our leadership team read a pre-released copy of the book Kingdom Unleashed. I had never been introduced to fasting the way this book described it. They practiced it regularly, along with devoting themselves to a vibrant prayer life. Around the same time, we were asked by a returning missionary to fast for her. She and her young family had returned from several years in Sierra Leone only to be diagnosed with a very advanced cancer. How could I not fast for her healing? After completing that fast, I told myself, You know what? You didn’t end up dying just because you didn’t eat for a day.
The journey had begun. This was new territory, and soon the Holy Spirit nudged me to begin a weekly fast. A specific prayer focus became a weekly companion to the fast, as I handed over the troubles of others to God so that I didn’t feel the need to carry shoulder them alone.
Spiritual benefit of fasting: “I handed over the troubles of others to God so that I didn’t feel the need to carry shoulder them alone.”
I did this weekly for the next year and a half and had many answered prayers (although not all the way I envisioned they should be answered). I was also given guidance and a spiritual awakening that I can only describe as miraculous. Along the way, God showed me my arrogance. I had come to the table of fasting offering my sacrifice to God. I had not seen fasting as God’s gracious gift to me. I had not seen how eliminating the distraction of food and going to him in my need was strengthening my faith and my oneness with my Creator. He gently led me to the discovery that He didn’t need me to fast: I needed me to fast. This changed my whole perspective. Now it was not a sacrifice to be endured; it was a gift to be unveiled.
That year, our church participated in a church-wide fast and we have continued to make that a regular January practice. My fasts have become more and more bold, and I have found myself looking forward to them.
Spiritual benefit of fasting: “My fasts have become more and more bold, and I have found myself looking forward to them.”
I disciple many women and as our annual fast approaches we talk a lot about the physical and spiritual sides of a fast. Another thing that comes up is when God says no to the prayer focus we are fasting and praying about. One woman I’m discipling this year brought up the fast I mentioned for our missionary friend—who died about eight months after our fast. She brought up another close friend whom we, as a church body, had fasted for, but who also died.
In the past, people would ask me why God didn’t do such-and-such, and I would usually explain that God’s will was done and there were many miracles along the way, even though our big prayer wasn’t answered. But when my friend asked me that question this time, my mind started to put together some pieces I had never considered before.
Fasting prepares us for God’s will.
A Surprising Spiritual Benefit of Fasting: Preparation
The death of our missionary friend was heartbreaking. She left two elementary-aged kids and her husband. Then soon after the passing of the missionary, one of our beloved pastors was diagnosed with colon cancer at the age of 35. Many of us fasted individually, many times, for his complete healing. Then our entire church was called to a 3-day water fast, and we fasted, in community, for our much-loved pastor.
Yet, shortly after the 3-day fast, he went to be with Jesus. A young mother of three girls was left as a widow, our church was left without one of our teaching pastors, and many within our church community lost a dear friend, as evidenced by the 1,000+ people who attended his funeral. So, as our next church-wide fast approached, many felt hurt by these last two “fails” and were unwilling to risk fasting again. The sentiment I heard was, “Why bother? It doesn’t work anyway.” This response was heartbreaking, but I had to admit that it was hard to argue against what they believed their experience had shown them.
“It was hard to argue against what they believed their experience had shown them.”
I recently read the book Live No Lies by John Mark Comer. About midway through the book, there is a section about what the Bible calls “the flesh” and how we fight it. Comer’s premise is that fasting is how we practice fighting our disordered, fleshly desires. In fasting, we practice not getting what we want (food) in order to build spiritual resilience. This resilience enables us to have the spiritual chops to fight the other temptations that God says are not good for us and to maintain our peace when God answers our prayers in ways we didn’t want.
Comer also shared his view on the biblical text about Jesus being tempted by Satan (Matthew 4, Luke 4). The Bible says that Jesus was tempted after 40 days of fasting. I had been taught that Jesus was so weakened at that point that it made him vulnerable to Satan’s attack, but since he was Jesus, he overcame. Yet, in his book, Comer explains it this way: after 40 days of fasting, yes, Jesus’ body would have been weak, but his spirit was stronger than ever. Denying himself through fasting was preparation for a major spiritual battle to come.
Spiritual benefit of fasting: “Denying himself through fasting was preparation for a major spiritual battle to come.”
I had been digesting that for a month or so when my friend’s question about these two big unanswered prayers came back to mind.
What if God used our call to fast for our pastor to prepare us for the hurt of our loss?
During the days leading up to the loss of our pastor, we became a church body that was unified against this enemy called cancer. The pastor and his family felt loved and supported, and we felt like we had something we could actively do to fight. But, when we lost him, did that mean that our fast was all for nothing?
What shifted my thinking about this particular event was a memory that popped into my mind about what followed the three-day fast. At the end of our three-day water fast, our church staff decided to meet at Waffle House to break our fast. As we sat at Waffle House, I recalled what was an incredible time of fellowship and staff bonding. We ate a lot and prayed a bit, too.
Spiritual benefit of fasting: “Looking back, I realize that we needed to lock arms and be united to go through what came next: the trauma of losing a pastor.”
Looking back, I realize that we needed to lock arms and be united to go through what came next: the trauma of losing a pastor. We would have to work together to put on a massive funeral while we ourselves were grieving. We were going to need to love each other well in order to heal from such a loss. Our days of fasting as well as our breaking-the-fast meal together were pivotal moments for our staff, and it would not have happened had we not devoted ourselves to fasting in the first place.
Now, when I consider fasting, I am awed by this gift from God to enhance my prayer life. Yes, fasting is a time to hand over the struggles of others. Yes, it is a time to ask God to intercede for the burdens of my heart. But now I understand that it is also a time to strengthen me spiritually to handle what life is going to throw at me living in a broken and dark world. These are all parts of the journey we are on as we learn to add fasting to our prayer life and as we grow into a deeper understanding of this discipline.