We sometimes ran into each other when picking up our children after school. We had kids in the same class in elementary school. One morning she looked particularly uncomfortable. I asked her how she was doing. She knew I was a pastor. She told me that she was having a particularly difficult day. She had struggled with intestinal issues for 12 years and had found no resolution. She had seen doctors and specialists. She had all the tests run that made sense to pursue. But she lived with a stomach that could cramp up and tie in knots. She kept working through the pain–usually. She tended to her son’s needs. She had learned over the course of 12 years that she couldn’t just stop living her life. So she pushed her way through the unpredictability of how each day might play out. She voiced your disappointment that a doctor’s visit that past week with a specialist at Mayo had not revealed any issues. She had been so hopeful about a possible new diagnosis that would make sense of her suffering. But the doctor said he was sorry he couldn’t find anything wrong with her.
I knew she was a strong Christian. She was part of Bible study group at her church and the members in that small group prayed for her regularly. She told me she was beginning to think it might be a Spiritual issue. She wasn’t sure why she felt that way but was beginning to wonder if there wasn’t something that couldn’t be diagnosed medically.
That next week she found me at in the parking lot and told me that a crazy thing had happened at her Bible Study. A woman joined the group who hadn’t been a part of it before. She knew this woman from a previous connection and knew that she was a true prayer warrior. It seemed odd that this woman would join their group mid-way into the study. As women were wrapping up the class session with light-hearted conversation, the woman asked my friend about her health. She was surprised to be asked. When she told her what was going on, the woman stated matter-of-factly, “I think it’s spiritual in nature.” My friend said her jaw dropped. How could this woman know that this was her very thought as well? The woman asked her if she had considered fasting for healing. She said she had not. But that week, she began to fast. She called her father, who lived out of state, and he mentioned that he had felt led to pray for her and was fasting for her healing. Again, her jaw dropped. Something, she told me, was at work. God was doing something great and she didn’t know where it would lead. But she had hope—for the first time, in a new way!
One week later, on my day off, we connected at the school again. She approached me briskly. Her eyes were lit up and she had this broad smile on her face. She whispered to me that she thought she was healed. “In fact, I don’t want to say “I think.” That introduces doubt. I am healed. This week I have had no stomach issues whatsoever. My father has found the things in his life have gone better . There have been so many amazing spiritual moments this week. I wish we had two hours so we could sit down and I would tell you about the amazing things I’m seeing around me.“
While I believe God‘s sovereignty over all earthly trials, there’s a bit of skepticism I had about whether this healing would be lasting. After all, she had been battling this for 12 years. I told her that her situation reminded me of the woman who sought out Jesus because she had hemorrhaged for 12 years. She had spent her money and time pursuing medical care that had accomplished nothing. In the end, she just touched the hem of Jesus’ garment as he talked to others and found immediate healing. Why would I doubt that this woman, 2000 years later, found healing after fasting, prayer, and active involvement in the faith community. Over the next weeks, every now and then she would mention her wellness and her gratitude for that. I stood in awe of the healing power of Jesus and the role that fasting plays in our faith journey.
In this final pause before Easter we have the opportunity to more fully commit ourselves to that relationship with Jesus. It could easily be put on the back burner as we rush through each day. Sometimes it is only when we are brought to our knees in a time of despair or agony that we begin to deepen our spiritual roots out of desperation. Lent invites us to engage in spiritual discipline when we’re not necessarily desperate. Fasting is one of those disciplines that has been valued and practiced for thousands of years.
When you look in the Scriptures, there are countless examples of people fasting for specific purposes. In the wilderness and when moving into their own land, the Israelites were urged to fast. David fasted before battles, inviting God to give the Hebrew people the victory. In the time of rebuilding the temple, Priest Ezra and Governor Nehemiah urged the people to fast for the successful completion of this sanctuary. Daniel fasted regularly to maintain a spiritual acuity. Jonah called upon the Ninevites to fast and repent and God forgave them—much to Jonah’s disgust! John the Baptist invited his followers to deepen their faith commitment by fasting. Anna, the elderly woman who took baby Jesus in her arms when he was dedicated in the temple, was known for her fasting and prayers. Believers in the Early Church fasted with regularity to heighten their awareness of God. More than 75 times, fasting is mentioned in the Bible.
Why are we invited to fast? Jentezen Franklin describes fasting as “body talk.” We do something sacrificial that we feel in our bodies. It let’s God know that we are serious about our faith. The prophet Isaiah assures us that withholding food from our bodies with spiritual intention will loose the things that hold us back in our faith. Fasting will undo heavy burdens. The bad habits that hinder our health and destroy our ability to serve God can be broken when we fast for God. Often those who are seeking clarity of vision for the next step of their faith pilgrimage will combine fasting with scripture reading, meditation and prayer. Franklin describes how he did a 21-day fast when he was 19 years old. He heard God affirming, “Because you have sought me out, I am going to advance your ministry.” For ten years, his ministry was clearly directed by the God he sought to please.
When we fast, it adds extra power to our prayers. I think back to the early video game, Super Mario. He had the ability to jump up to stars over his head and he would have a brief surge of power and energy. That is what fasting does to our prayers: it shows the sincerity of our conviction, our willingness to submit to God’s purposes for our lives. Jesus began His ministry with 40 days of fasting in the wilderness. He had the strength to resist temptation and He emerged from that setting empowered for His redemptive ministry.
When we fast we stand alongside of those who live with hunger on a daily basis. 811 million people are estimated to go to bed hungry each night. 14 million children under age five worldwide suffer from severe malnutrition. We watch the images of mass displacement of families in Ukraine and mobs of people taking refuge in subway tunnels. We can’t help but wonder where food will come from and how long they can last in these dire circumstances. Intentional efforts by many organizations have sought to eradicate hunger and they were making good progress on that goal. In 2019, 8.9% of the world’s population was undernourished. In 2020 there was global conflict, a global pandemic, and a world recession that set us back in trying to make sure that people have enough food to survive. When we choose to fast and we do it quietly for God, we feel a physical solidarity with these folks that we may not know but who are part of our human family.
When fasting, I always commit to a particular cause that I offer to God. I fast for a person or situation. It’s a no-strings-attached offer on my part that seeks to bring to God’s attention someone or some situation that needs extra attention. I may never know the impact of that sacrifice but there may be times when I hear how someone’s life has changed while I’ve prayed for them. Like my friend outside the school, there are wonderfully rewarding times when we hear from someone that our fasting has led to their healing. What a powerful testimony this is for us to continue to seek out ways to practice spiritual disciplines.
We need to fast for the right reasons. There are Biblical examples where folks’ acts of piety are to advance their own agendas. Jezebel fasts and prays that Naboth will die so that her husband, the king, can take over his lush vineyard. In the story of the tax collector and the Pharisee, we read that the Pharisee fasts two times per week. He boasted of this whereas the humble man simply came before God quietly. The man who came to God with humility was forgiven. Inauthentic fasting did not buy God’s favor. Our spiritual discipline can’t be used to manipulate God for our own purposes.
There are health benefits to fasting as well. Animals often use fasting to overcome illness. A man in California lived to be 123 years old. His secret? He stated that he didn’t drink or smoke. He said he fasted one meal per day. Muslims fast for the month of Ramadan, eating nothing from sunrise to sunset, so as to deepen their commitment to God. In the past I have fasted one day a week and found that to be a useful reboot to my physical well-being. On a spiritual level, it allowed me to choose a particular prayer cause each week and feel like I was contributing to the healing of that person or situation.
Some of you are not able to fast—from food. Your blood sugar doesn’t allow for it or there are other health concerns. Pregnant women should not commit to a rigorous fast. So we can choose other ways to fast. We can limit time on our phones or sitting in front of screens. We fast from spending unnecessarily. We fast from arguments with someone who seems to make our lives difficult. We can add on to each day meaningful ways to connect with God: scripture reading, a prayer group or Bible study, being physically active and using that time to commune with God. We can fast from Starbucks coffee or other luxury items and commit the money saved to a worthy cause. We find a fitting way to deliberately withhold from ourselves the things that we enjoy doing so that God sees, through our Body Talk, that we are hungry for that relationship.
My friend’s miraculous healing after twelve years of ineffective treatments has stood out to me over the years about how we underutilize the spiritual discipline of fasting. We expect little from God and are not disappointed when it seems like God didn’t show up as we hoped. When we are facing physical danger, like Queen Esther, we would do well to fast. When we feel besieged by forces that work against God’s will for us, we should consider fasting. When we want our family members to know and love God, we can fast for present and future generations. When we are daring to embark on a new endeavor, we should invite God into the process through our Body Talk. Since our church is facing a transition, we should certainly consider fasting.
Through the prophet, Joel, God entreats the Israelites to show their desire to be holy. These words call out to us today as we face changes ahead: “…return to me with all your heart, with fasting, and weeping, and with mourning: and rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” Hallelujah!