“Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.”
~Acts 14:23 (NIV).
It was no informal thing that Paul and Barnabas did here. They “ordained” the elders or had them “elected,” in response to the rampant growth the early church was experiencing at that time. It was clear more spiritual leaders were needed to cope with the discipling process that was required for both new and existing converts to the Way.
And this is our clue when it comes to the analysis of prayer and fasting—used in unison. I have to say that this is not at any stretch an authoritative rendering of the ‘when’s’ and ‘how’s’ of prayer and fasting; my article merely seeks to open the issue up as one commended by the Spirit of God himself—as he leads us to do it.
The ‘When’ of Prayer and Fasting
It seems that prayer and fasting have been used since almost the earliest biblical times, and even for improper purposes (see, for instance, 1 Kings 21:9 when Jezebel and King Ahab collude over Naboth’s vineyard).
When it is used appropriately it always seems to be associated with the direst seeking of the Lord God—whether to commend hopes and plans to God and seek his blessing over them, like Paul and Barnabas above, or in seeking God in repentance—make a word search of “sackcloth” in the Bible and you’ll see what I mean.
There are times to fast in conjunction with our prayer and there are times not to (Luke 5:33-39). It comes back to the voice of God into our spirits, and finally to our motives for the activity itself.
Either way prayer and fasting together are entirely appropriate in desperate situations where we figuratively prostrate ourselves before the Sovereign Throne, beseeching the Lord and his fullest grace and mercy—according to his will, not ours.
The ‘How’ of Prayer and Fasting
There are many ways to the ‘how’ of fasting, but it is clearly not God’s will for us to risk our short-term or long-term health in the activity of fasting. Our fasts should also honour God and Jesus addresses this perfectly in Matthew 6:16-18. We should not draw attention to ourselves as heroes—or even as being set apart—in our fasting.
It is sometimes good to fast by missing one meal and use that non-eating time as an opportunity to seek silence and solitude, coming to God in a mood of spiritual desire and repentance—and even onto adoration as we worship him in our prayer.
I’ve done 24-hour and 48-hour fasts and these can be done without any health impacts provided we get plenty of water and rest and we eat wisely first meal back. If there are health concerns it’s best to consult an understanding physician. I’ve also done the ‘Daniel diet’ of vegetables and water for ten days. Unlike Daniel and his friends I found that a real challenge.
When we fast we certainly get to learn a lot about our bodies, their reactions and how these impact on us emotionally and spiritually. I used to find that fasting generally included many other tests too i.e. I’d be tested spiritually. This simply confirms somewhat that fasting and prayer do go together.
The Motive to Fast and Pray
The key is ensuring that the fasting aligns for the key purposes of prayer—the primary issue. Prayer comes before fasting in importance, not the other way around. Fasting merely helps us to communicate our fervour to God and how serious we are in seeking him at these times. It’s self understanding as we live some quite uncharacteristic sacrifice. Not many of us in Western culture—comparative to our population—are used to going hungry.
There are many reasons to combine fasting with prayer—these are very often individualised, compounding the very personal nature of our relationships with God.
As with everything, we should always let the Lord lead us.
For Paul and Barnabas, the issue of raising and appointing elders was so crucial it demanded their fullest spiritual focus. They would also have used this opportunity to fast and pray to model what the most earnest form of prayer could look like. Of course, prayer would also have been a necessary pre-requisite to selecting the leaders in the first place.
© 2010 S. J. Wickham.