Fasting for Spiritual & Physical Benefits
Should we fast for spiritual benefits, or for physical benefits? I say yes. If you fast for spiritual benefits, you will also reap some physical benefits. If you fast for physical benefits, you will also reap some spiritual benefits, if you are a disciple of the Lord and have the Holy Spirit.
I am not a medical doctor, but I have read that fasting cleanses the body by eliminating toxins. That makes sense, because if a person goes four or five days without eating anything and then has a bowel movement, what is being eliminated from the body? Real, true waste matter. Excess fat, undigested stuff, and old crud that has been stuck on the walls of the intestine. I don’t want to sound too crude here, but it’s similar to using drain cleaner to clean out your drainpipes. Just as drain cleaner flushes out the pipes and improves the drainage system, so fasting flushes out the digestive system and improves the health of the body. Fasting can lower blood pressure. And of course, it reduces weight. I normally lose approximately two pounds a day when I fast.
Some years ago I took off about 30 pounds by fasting (22 of those pounds in a 10-day period), and I have managed to keep most of that weight off by regularly fasting.
My wife, who loses weight by dieting and counting calories and carbs, sometimes gets annoyed at me when I do long fasts. “You gotta be Mister All-or-Nothing, don’t you?” she says. “Why don’t you just diet, like I did?”
I explained to her that if I’m going to eat, I want two things. First, I want to eat food that tastes good to me. Second, I want to eat until I feel full. I can’t do either of those things if I’m dieting. What’s the point of eating foods I don’t like, and what’s the point of eating if I still feel hungry at the end of the meal? If I have to suffer to lose weight, I prefer to get the suffering over with as soon as possible, and not drag it out over a long period of time. If I had to get my head cut off, I’d prefer it be done quickly with a sharp sword, not slowly with a dull knife. So my philosophy is that it’s best to get the suffering over with quickly. That’s why I prefer to fast rather than diet.
Some people object to fasting. “It can be dangerous,” they say.
If you have certain medical problems such as diabetes, fasting can be dangerous. But if you are healthy and use common sense, fasting can make you even healthier. If you are unsure about fasting, check with your doctor before embarking on a long fast.
Some other objections to fasting are possible side effects: loss of strength and energy, headaches, and bad breath. Yes, these are possible side effects, but there are ways to deal with them. If fasting weakens you and prevents you from doing your regular work, then fast when you have some time off work, or do shorter fasts that will not interfere with your work. I think some people view the loss of strength and energy as a bigger problem than it really is. Years ago I had a job mixing and pouring concrete into molds to make patio blocks, and I managed to do a five-day fast and still do my work. Of course I was younger and stronger then. I doubt I could do that now. When I was in Israel, a group of us did a long fast together, and we climbed to the top of Jebel Musa, the traditional Mount Sinai, on the last day of our eight-day liquids-only fast. But again, I was younger and stronger then, and I doubt I could do that now.
What about headaches? For coffee drinkers, the problem of headaches is often due to withdrawal from caffeine. The way to deal with this side effect is to tell yourself gam zeh yavo, “This too shall pass.” Paul said “Endure hardness as a good soldier of Messiah.” So endure headaches as a good soldier, and break your addiction to caffeine.
If you get bad breath when fasting, drink more water. If that doesn’t help, use some mouthwash or suck on a clove.
Arthur Wallis, in his book God’s Chosen Fast, defines different types of fasts. The Normal Fast is water only. The Absolute Fast is nothing, not even water. In the Bible, this lasted a maximum of three days and was used in extreme circumstances (Esther, Ezra, Saul of Tarsus). The Partial Fast is just limiting what sorts of food are eaten. The Prophet Daniel and his three companions had only “pulse to eat, and water to drink” for ten days (Dan. 1:12). Later Daniel went three full weeks with no pleasant bread, no flesh, and no wine (Dan. 10:2f).
Whichever type of fasting a person is doing, fasting should involve abstinence from something that is a genuine sacrifice. Some Christians who observe the forty days of Lent abstain from meat during that time, but they feast on expensive seafood the whole time. I know. I used to work at a big fish market, and Lent was a super-busy season. Abstaining from Hamburger Helper while feasting on expensive seafood is not much of a sacrifice. I call that feasting, not fasting.
Have you ever wondered where the idea of fasting came from? Who first realized, and how did they realize, that voluntarily abstaining from food for a season will bring some sort of spiritual benefit? Where did that idea come from?
The Bible does not say where the idea of fasting came from. Like animal sacrifices, fasting just seems to be a given, something that is universally practiced, even in non-Biblical religions. The Bible does not say where the idea of fasting came from. It just mentions various people who fasted, as individuals or with a community. Moses, Elijah, and Yeshua all fasted forty days. Hannah, David, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther all fasted. King Jehoshapat called for a national fast when Judah was invaded. King Darius fasted while Daniel was in the lions’ den.
In the New Testament, the prophetess Anna “served God with fastings and prayers night and day” (Luke 2:37). John the Baptist and his disciples and the Pharisees were said to “fast oft” (Matt. 9:14), and Paul said he was “in fastings often” (2 Cor. 11:27). The assembly in Antioch “ministered to the Lord, and fasted” (Acts 13:2).
I think the two most amazing examples of the effects of fasting in the Bible are in the stories of Jonah and of King Ahab.
After Jonah proclaimed God’s judgment on Nineveh (“Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown”), the king of Nineveh called for a national fast:
“Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything: let them not feed, nor drink water. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God” (Jonah 3:7f). This king even had the livestock wearing sackcloth, fasting, and crying out to God! And apparently God was impressed not only by the fasting, sackcloth, and crying out of the people of Nineveh, but also by the fasting, sackcloth, and crying out of the livestock, because the final three words in the Book of Jonah express God’s concern for not only the people of Nineveh, but for “also much cattle” (Jonah 4:11).
The BIble says that “God saw their works” - not their faith, but their works, which were the outward proof that “the people of Nineveh believed God” (Jonah 3:5) - “and God repented of the evil that He had said that He would do unto them, and He did it not” (Jonah 3:10).
Imagine that! A heathen king’s call to his nation to repent with extreme fasting actually caused Yahweh to reverse a decree of judgment which He had pronounced through the mouth of His holy prophet against this horrible heathen nation! Yet this is exactly what Yahweh told Jeremiah He would do:
“At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it, if that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them” (Jer. 17:7f).
Another amazing example of the effects of fasting can be seen in the story of wicked King Ahab, of whom the Bible says “there was none like unto Ahab, which did sell himself to work wickedness in the sight of Yahweh, whom Jezebel his wife stirred up” (1 Kings 21:25). Through His holy prophet Elijah, Yahweh pronounced His judgment on Ahab. Yahweh said He was going to “cut off from Ahab him that pisseth against the wall” - in more polite but less literal English, all of Ahab’s sons would die - and Jezebel would be eaten by the dogs, and Ahab’s family members who died in the city would be eaten by the dogs, and those who died in the field would be eaten by the fowls of the air.
Here is Ahab’s response to this awful news: “And it came to pass, when Ahab heard those words, that he rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth, and went softly” (1 Kings 21:27).
Here is Yahweh’s response to Ahab’s fasting in sackcloth: “And the word of Yahweh came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, Seest thou how Ahab humbleth himself before Me? Because he humbleth himself before Me, I will not bring the evil in his days: but in his son’s day will I bring the evil upon his house” (1 Kings 21:28f).
The judgment still fell on Ahab’s house, but because of his fasting in sackcloth, he was spared from having to witness it.
Why does the Lord respond to fasting? How is it that fasting affects the outcome of events? The Bible does not explain the how and the why, but there are some clues. It seems that God honors fasting because it shows that you are really serious about attaining your spiritual goals. You are serious enough to willingly deprive yourself of some lawful temporal physical pleasure - eating - in order to obtain some valuable spiritual treasure of eternal value. You are showing that your priorities are in the proper order.
Another clue to the reason God responds to fasting is in Isaiah 57:15, which says that the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity dwells “with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.” The indwelling presence of God brings blessings when we humble ourselves. One way to humble ourselves is by fasting. The Ninevites did it. King Ahab did it. King David said, “I humbled my soul with fasting” (Ps. 35:13). Fasting is a voluntary humbling of oneself.
Why does the Bible connect humility with fasting? Perhaps the answer to that question has something to do with the opposite of fasting, which is eating. Consider the positive and negative aspects of eating. On the positive side, eating is enjoyable and lawful in the eyes of God. It’s not a sin to enjoy good food, provided we are not disobeying God’s dietary laws and not practicing gluttony like the Romans did, gorging themselves and then going to the vomitorium to throw up so they could go back for more food.
On the negative side, food is often the first instrument the Enemy uses to tempt people and to stir up strife. The very first temptation in Eden was to eat the forbidden fruit. The very first temptation Yeshua faced was to use His miraculous powers to command stones to become bread. Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of lentils. In the wilderness, the children of Israel yearned for the fleshpots of Egypt and for the garlic, leeks, onions, cucumbers, melons, and fish they had enjoyed in Egypt. They complained about the heaven-sent manna and cried out, “Give us flesh to eat!” They “lusted exceedingly in the wilderness, and tempted God in the desert. And He gave them their request, but sent leanness into their soul” (Ps. 106:14f). One of the sins of Sodom was enjoying “fullness of bread” while ignoring the needy (Ezk. 16:49).
In the New Testament, the very first strife among the members of the fledgling Messianic Community in Acts was about food. Some felt that they were not getting their fair share of the food. (See Acts 6:1.)
Eating food is often one of the very first areas of carnality and selfishness to surface, as we see in the wilderness in Exodus and in the Messianic Community in Acts. And it is often one of the last carnal appetites that some people overcome. The reason it is often one of the last carnal appetites to overcome is because we do not totally and permanently stop eating food after we get saved. If we are addicted to sinful things like sexual immorality, drunkenness, pornography, illegal drugs, etc., we know we must totally break these addictions and not do these things at all after we are saved. But our addiction to food is never permanently broken until we are dead. As long as we live, we are life-long food addicts.
Because eating is so closely tied to temptation and the carnal appetite, and because it’s such a challenge to control our appetite for food, fasting temporarily breaks our addiction to food. For some reason, God honors that, and He acts on our behalf. Paul said, “I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection” (1 Cor. 9:27). One way to bring the flesh into subjection is by denying it the food it craves. Fasting shows the fleshly old man who is going to be the boss. It’s a way of saying to your flesh, “Flesh, you are not going to rule me. You are going to be ruled by my spirit. You are going to be in subjection.” It puts the flesh in its proper place.
I’m not sure how fasting affects others on a personal level, but here are some ways it affects me. After two or three days, I usually begin feeling somewhat detached from physical sensations. My spiritual discernment and spiritual senses seem sharper. I feel more alert and attuned to the Spirit. Potentially dangerous situations which would normally concern me or even scare me do not worry me, because I sense the peace of God. I know He is in control.
Fasting can help sexual temptations lose their drawing power. Jeremiah shows that there is a connection between fullness of bread and sexual immorality: “When I had fed them to the full, they then assembled themselves by troops in the harlots’ houses. They were as fed horses in the morning: every one neighed after his neighbor’s wife” (Jer. 5:7f).
When coupled with prayer, fasting can bring fresh revelation. At the end of Daniel’s three-week fast, he “saw this great vision” which let him know what had been happening in the spiritual realm with the angel Michael warring against the prince of the kingdom of Persia (Dan. 10). Along with prayer, fasting can drive out certain kinds of demons which otherwise “goeth not out but by prayer and fasting” (Matt. 17:21). Fasting can attune our spiritual ears to hear the voice of the Spirit, as it did in Antioch, where it says “As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Ghost said...” (Acts 13:2).
Isaiah 58 lists several positive results connected to fasting: loosing bands of wickedness, undoing heavy burdens, freeing the oppressed, breaking the yoke, having the Lord answer you and guide you and satisfy you and make your bones fat and use you to build the old waste places and repair the breach and restore the ancient paths. And the rest of the chapter lists even more benefits if you combine your fasting with faithful Sabbath keeping.
There are additional temporal benefits from fasting. One is that “thine health shall spring forth speedily” (Isa. 58:8). Another is that you will save money on your grocery bill. You will also save time that you normally use for shopping for food, preparing and eating food, and cleaning up after meals. Your kitchen will stay clean and you won’t have to take out the garbage as often.
How often and how long should a person fast? The Bible prescribes only one day a year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Some traditional fast days are mentioned in Zechariah 7, but these were not commanded by God and were (and are) therefore optional. It was optional fast days like these to which Paul was referring when he wrote “One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it. He that eateth, eateth to the Lord,for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks” (Rom. 14:5f). (The false notion that Paul was talking about Sabbath keeping in these verses is based on the false assumption that the only possible way to esteem one day above another is by keeping that day as a Sabbath. But you can esteem a traditional fast day by fasting that day. The context of “eating” (i.e., not fasting on certain days) versus “eating not” (i.e., fasting on those days) clearly shows that Paul was talking about fast days, not the Sabbath. The word Sabbath does not even appear anywhere in the entire Book of Romans.)
Even though the only commanded fast day is Yom Kippur, we are encouraged to fast by our Master in the Sermon in the Mount. And notice He said “When ye fast,” not “If ye fast”:
“Moreover when ye fast, be not as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face, that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly” (Matt. 6:16-18).
A brother once asked me about Yeshua’s instructions to “anoint thine head” when fasting. “I’ve never heard of Christians doing that,” he said. “Why don’t Christians get anointed to fast?”
I think what this brother had in mind was anointing the head as some sort of religious ritual or ceremony, perhaps accompanied by chanting words like: “With oil of myrrh anoint we thy brow, yea, verily, yea,” or something to that effect. If someone wants to make a fancy ceremony out of anointing their head, that’s okay with me. But I believe Yeshua was just talking about maintaining your normal grooming habits when fasting. It was customary for men in Bible times to rub some olive oil on their hair and beard to keep it healthy. The reason Yeshua gave to “anoint thine head” was so “that thou appear not unto men to fast.” In other words, don’t make yourself look unkempt and messy while fasting. Don’t attempt to draw people’s attention to yourself by being un-groomed. Just maintain your normal grooming habits.
When this brother asked me why Christians don’t anoint their heads when fasting, I replied, “Well, I do it. I anoint my hair and beard with Alberto V05 silver hair dressing every day, even when I’m fasting. It soothes split ends, smooths flyaways, and adds shine like no regular conditioner can. At least that what it says on the box.”
Because there are no commandments in the Bible regarding the frequency, the length, or the type of fasts (with the exception of Yom Kippur), these details are left up to each individual. How often and how long you fast is between you and the Lord.
If you are going to fast, use wisdom and common sense. Many years ago I heard on the news about a man in Minnesota who died after fasting fourteen days. But he did not die of starvation; he died of thirst. He was not drinking any water. A healthy person can easily survive without food for fourteen days, but fourteen days without water will kill you.
If you are not used to fasting, I don’t recommend trying to do a forty-day fast. Set realistic goals. I also suggest you not make a vow to the Lord that you are going to fast a certain number of days, because something might come up that would make fasting difficult or inconvenient. If something unexpected comes up and you need to postpone your fast, you won’t feel guilty if you have not made a vow.
When deciding which type of fast to do, consider things like your age, health, physical abilities, and the type of work you have to do while fasting. If you can’t do a long fast, do a shorter fast, a one-day fast, or a partial fast.
If you are not used to fasting, start with short, easy fasts and gradually work your way up to longer fasts.
Many years ago I saw a documentary film about a “Fat Farm,” a locked-in, controlled facility where overweight people could commit themselves to lose weight. The film makers were interviewing a woman who had committed herself to the facility. She told the interviewer that they started the weight-loss program by forcing every inmate to fast for five whole days. “And it was absolute HELL!” the woman exclaimed.
A five-day fast is difficult, but compared to hell, it’s a breeze. When I was a bachelor, my bachelor buddies and I occasionally fasted together, sometimes for five or more days. On about the fourth day of one such fast, one of the brothers said, “Man, I’m so hungry that I could eat canned creamed corn!” Another replied, “I’m so hungry I could eat SPAM!”
Being married makes fasting a little more difficult, especially if your wife is a good cook, like mine is. Nonetheless, I continued to occasionally fast after I was married.
The longest I ever fasted was a 23-day fast with nothing but water in the late 1980s. Near the end of this fast, I had a vision that quickly and unexpectedly flashed through my mind. I saw myself sitting on the ground between two apple trees with an empty plate in front of me. I was looking at one of the trees, which had twelve very large apples on it. I wanted those big apples, but a picket fence blocked my way to that tree. Behind me was another tree with seventy smaller apples. Because the vision lasted only an instant, I did not have time to count the apples, but I intuitively knew there were seventy. There was a picket fence in front of that tree, too, but it had an open gate.
I understood what the Lord was showing me. One of the reasons I was doing this long fast was in conjunction with my prayers for the Lord to make a way for me to move my family to Israel. My wife and I had lived there for two years, and I missed Israel terribly. The twelve big apples were the twelve tribes of Israel. Now the Lord was showing me with that picket fence that there was currently no open door for me to move my family to Israel. However, there was another open door. That open door would take me to labor among the nations, which according to Jewish reckoning are seventy in number.
Shortly thereafter, I started teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) to students from nations all over the world. But I did more than just teach them English. I also spoke openly to them about the Lord, gave them Bibles in their native languages, and invited them to my home and to Bible studies and to meetings at our Messianic congregation. I taught ESL for seven years, then moved my family back to Illinois in 1995. That’s when I started publishing the Gates of Eden bimonthly and started our local congregation. I’d still love to move my family to Israel, but as long as that door is closed, I am committed to laboring among the nations.
I don’t think I could do another 23-day fast now that I’m older. It seems the older I get, the more difficult long fasts are for me. In 2008 I decided to do a ten-day water-only fast during the yamim ha-nora’im, the “days of awe” between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. That might sound real spiritual (“The Lord requires one day of fasting during the Fall Festivals, but I will do ten-fold and fast ten days!”), but to be honest, I was motivated by less noble reasons. I did it mainly so I could do a lot of guilt-free feasting during the eight-day Feast of Tabernacles, which begins just five days after Yom Kippur. In previous years I had noticed that I always felt fat after the end of the Feast of Tabernacles. So in 2008 I decided to prevent that by ten days of fasting before my eight days of feasting.
Since 2008 that was my custom for several years. I made a modification in 2012, because I was in Israel during the Fall Feasts. I didn’t want to be fasting in Jerusalem. “Can the children of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them?” (Mark 2:19). So that year I fasted for ten days in advance, before my trip. But all the other years, I have fasted the ten days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. However, I don’t do this anymore, because it became increasingly more difficult. The last time I did this, there were days I was so weak and dizzy that I felt like I was actually going to pass out and fall down. I had to be very careful when I got up or walked. Near the end of the fast, I was slowly shuffling through the house one day, and my wife told me I was walking like an old man.
It’s also difficult to resist eating food for that many days when you see and smell the food cooking around you. A guy feels hungry after four, or five, or six, or seven, or eight, or nine, or ten days without any food. So I think I’ll stick with shorter fasts from now on, unless I believe the Lord wants me to do a long fast.
One other word of practical advice: Be careful when you break a long fast. The longer the fast, the more caution and discipline you need to exercise when breaking it. It is best to break long fasts with small portions of easy-to-digest foods, chewed thoroughly before swallowing. An extremely long fast followed by gorging on the wrong foods can make you sick. When the starving survivors of the Nazi concentration camps were liberated and given food, some of them died from eating too much too fast. Of course these were people who were literally almost starved to death.
How often and how long you fast is between you and the Lord. If you only fast one day a year, on Yom Kippur, you have fulfilled your duty. If you choose to go above and beyond the call of duty, your heavenly Father will reward you for it. Yeshua said so: “thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly” (Matt. 6:18). So if you want your heavenly Father to openly reward you, fasting can bring rewards.
Finally, fasting is an exercise, a weapon if you will, that is available to any healthy person. It does not require any theological training or any money to fast. On the contrary, it will save you money.
Fasting is not easy, but it is simple. All you have to do is quit eating for a set period of time. Then at the end of the fast, you can give thanks and enjoy a good meal. You will find that you have a brand-new appreciation for food and for the taste buds God gave you and for the wide variety of delicious foods, flavors, herbs and spices He created. B’te’avon!