Twenty-one Days of Prayer and Fasting (January 1-21, 2023)
Christmas is a time of feasting and gaiety, worship and celebration with family and friends. There are so many things associated with Christmas, whether from the church’s history or my family’s particular traditions, that evoke wonderful memories and bring me great joy. I still think it’s the most wonderful time of the year (thank you, Andy Williams). But I also have come to appreciate a new tradition that has taken root in many churches today: beginning the new year with twenty-one days of prayer and fasting.
We’ve done this together for several years now. I’ve heard from various ones of you who have tried fasting for the first time, and found it to be helpful in your own personal spiritual growth. Others have found a renewed desire to grow deeper in their spiritual discipline as a result of committing to participate in fasting. This past year, the elders used the time to seek the Lord for clear direction for our church, and found it most helpful. I have every reason to believe that God will again honor our sincere efforts to humble ourselves before him with earnest prayer and fasting as he directs us. We can’t earn God’s favor through religious exercises but we can certainly position ourselves to hear from God so that we walk more faithfully with Jesus Christ.
Fasting is a discipline that God uses to build up our spiritual strength and discernment. Remember that Jesus told his disciples that he expected them to fast as a regular aspect of their discipleship (Matthew 6:16-18). Of course, to be spiritually effective, fasting needs to be joined with prayer and time in the Word of God. Otherwise, it’s just another way to diet—which is great, but God has higher and better ends in mind for us.
Let me offer the following reminders about fasting that can guide us through this season when we personally and corporately set our hearts to seek the Lord. Even if you’re a seasoned veteran in fasting, it can always help to review the collected wisdom from those who have walked before and around us.
1. Fasting refers to going without food.Abstaining from television, or forms of social media, or other kinds of entertainment may certainly be valuable. But they are not a substitute for actual fasting.
2. Fasting may take a number of different forms. There are many ways to fast, and all of them can be valuable, meaningful, and powerful.
• An absolute, or total fast would be going without food and any liquids, including water. This should never be done for more than a day or two, and only if you are in excellent health.
• A normal fast would be going without food (but not water) for some period of time–for a portion of a day, or for one or more days.
• A partial fast would be going without certain foods, such as meat or sweets, for a prescribed number of days.
So, what could fasting look like for us today? During our twenty-one days of prayer and fasting, for instance, you might fast for one meal, or for one meal for several days, or for one meal every day. You might fast during the daylight hours and have one meal after sundown for one day, or for several days, or for all twenty-one days. You might choose to fast by abstaining from certain foods that you normally enjoy for one day, or for one week, or for the entire three weeks. Or you might only eat certain foods during the three weeks. Perhaps you would fast for an entire day, or one day per week. Perhaps you would fast for three days in a row, or one day every fourth day, or every other day. Or you could fast the entire three weeks. There isn’t a wrong way to do it.
3. Follow the Holy Spirit’s leading, wisdom from trusted counselors (including your physician), and common sense when fasting.
• If you’ve never fasted before, start with something simple, like fasting a single meal, or a single day, or doing a partial fast from certain foods. Going without meat and sweets, for instance, can be both manageable and healthful.
• If you have medical issues (such as diabetes, hypoglycemia, anorexia, or low weight), consult your physician before attempting to fast, and follow his/her directions carefully if you are cleared to fast.
• If you choose to undertake a normal fast (abstaining from all foods), be sure to drink plenty of water during your fast to avoid dehydration. You might also consider including juices and/or bouillon as something to drink in addition to water, especially if you are fasting for more than three days. I recommend, however, that you avoid carbonated or caffeinated drinks and alcohol when fasting.
• If hunger is a problem, drink more water (or liquids). Also, you can use the hunger as a trigger to remind you to read your Bible or pray. The feelings will usually pass quickly.
•Recognize that it is winter–fasting will often leave you more sensitive to the cold. You may need to dress more warmly than usual.
• Fasting may also leave you more tired. Take whatever steps you need to get more rest.
• If you fast from all foods for more than a week, be very careful about how you break your fast. This is especially important for lengthy fasts (over ten days). When you resume eating, eat small portions beginning with soups or clear broths, and gradually add vegetables and fruits. Avoid meats, desserts, breads, and oily or greasy foods for several days (3-5 days minimum) to avoid severe digestive problems such as constipation, cramps, and intestinal blockages.
Let’s enjoy our Christmas feasting, while we celebrate the goodness of God and the gift of his Son. And let’s enjoy our fasting, while we draw close to the one who invites us to seek him with all of our heart.