If you want to know about fasting, just ask Alise Barrymore. She grew up in a church that fasted every Tuesday and Friday. "My grandmother believed that if you're following Jesus, your age didn't matter," says Rev. Dr. Barrymore, one of the founding pastors of The Emmaus Community in Chicago Heights, Illinois. "So even as a kid, fasting was a core discipline for me. Although I have different rhythms now, fasting is still part of my life."
Kyria spoke with Alise to find out why fasting is so important and how we can practice it for the best spiritual results.
Why is fasting important?
Disciplining our bodies and stilling our minds through fasting cause something mysterious and beyond description to take place. It brings mental clarity and reminds me how vulnerable and dependent I am on God, as I listen closely to him. When I fast, I'm reminded that Jesus said, "People do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God."
Because fasting boosts my prayer life, it gives me spiritual power and authority in ways that some other disciplines don't. When I deprive myself of food, I feel I'm more in tune with the Holy Spirit, because I've given up something of this world and chosen to depend on God.
So how should we approach fasting?
As an essential spiritual discipline that spurs us toward maturity in Christ.
We should orient our thinking about it by seriously studying biblical texts. But also, I believe it's important to learn about fasting by doing it—I'm a big believer in the power of the experience.
In Matthew 6:16, Jesus used the phrase "When you fast," rather than "If you fast." But the way we fast can change with different seasons in our lives.
What are some occasions when Christians should fast?
In the Scriptures, people often fasted purposefully, with a specific reason in mind. For example, people would fast when someone was experiencing private affliction, such as David who fasted when his child was ill (2 Samuel 12:15-17), and when danger was approaching, such as when Esther fasted as she prepared for her dangerous meeting with King Xerxes (Esther 4:15-16).
Other reasons people fasted were:
- The ordination of ministers (Acts 13:2-3)
- Confession of sin (1 Samuel 7:6; Nehemiah 9:1-2)
- Seeking humility (Psalms 35:13)
- To discern God's will and direction (Ezra 8:21-23)
- To seek healing (Isaiah 58:8)
- To request God's intervention (2 Chronicles 20)
- Following the direction of a leader (Jonah 3:6-10)
What kind of fasts are there?
I typically break fasts into four categories:
An absolute or complete fast: no food or drink. I don't recommend this for someone who's fasting for the first time, or for someone who's fasting more than three days.
A partial fast: no food. But you can have water and 100 percent juice. Many people are familiar with this kind of fast. It can vary from skipping a meal to fasting entire days. I don't recommend going over 40 days with this one.
A specialized fast: cut out certain food groups (desserts, red meat, coffee, etc.) while still eating. This is a good fast for pregnant women or those with a medical condition.
And a rotational fast: eliminating certain food groups each day or week.
How do we keep from seeing a fast as a way to lose weight?
Dieting is for a physical benefit, while fasting is for a spiritual benefit, coupled with prayer, Bible study, quiet, and rest.
How do we balance the knowledge that fasting can bring about spiritual power or answers to prayer with the understanding that we can't manipulate God to give a particular outcome?
When I fast and bring my needs and concerns to God, I come to a place of humility and vulnerability where God enables me to say, "My heart is open to you. Help me to begin to want what you want." Fasting reminds me I'm not God.
Can we misuse fasting?
It's important not to make fasting another task on my to-do list. When I find myself thinking of it in a works-driven or pharisaic way, I take a break from the practice. That reorients me to the joy of fasting, versus the burden of fasting.
So what are some of the benefits?
Isaiah mentions several benefits of fasting for God's glory, including improved health, answered prayer, righteousness, guidance, and spiritual refreshment and restoration (Isaiah 58:6-11).
How should someone who's never fasted before begin?
Slowly. Don't start with a 40-day, water-only fast! That would be defeating and painful.
Commit to a specific fast and honor that commitment. Don't get up one morning and say, "I think I'm going to fast," and see how it goes. Start by consistently skipping one meal a day. Then fast half a day (6-12 hours). Drink water and natural juice so that you keep your energy at a normal pace—and to avoid being irritable with your family or co-workers.
Pray a lot. Don't do it by yourself. And if you mess up, give yourself grace, and try it again another day.
Your church recently fasted together.
Yes. Ephesians 4:15 says we should "grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ" (NIV). Embracing spiritual disciplines is part of growing up. So I invited the community to do a Daniel fast (vegetables and water as Daniel used when fasting from Babylon's non-kosher foods). Some of us observed 10 days and others 21 days, avoiding dairy, meats, and processed foods. We also read biblical texts about fasting together so that we had the right perspective.
It was special, sacred, and powerful to focus on the same thing for the same period of time. It created an energy in the community, an openness, a sense of wonder. We struggled together, shared recipes, and ate at one another's homes.
How has fasting deepened your walk with God?
If I didn't fast, I'd be less disciplined. Fasting helps me make thoughtful, God-honoring decisions, because it slows me down and increases my mental and spiritual clarity. It makes me aware of and helps me avoid sin. And it gives me a little more energy and power to live for God.