People Magazine (January 1981) Dolly Parton credits her family and faith for her force of character. The fourth of 12 children of poor farmer parents in Sevierville, Tennessee, Dolly was raised in a Christian home. Now she says her relationship with the Lord is more “personal” that organized. “But I quote the Bible real good,” she boasts proudly. And instead of psychiatry, Parton turns to fasting, not to diet but for spiritual reasons. “I don’t drink nothing but water and I don’t ever say when I’m on a fast — Scripture says you’re not supposed to.” Dolly insists she has never made a major decision without fasting and praying first.
Benjamin Franklin said, “The best of all medicines are resting and fasting.” Fasting and prayer sensitize the spirit, feasting and revelry dull the soul. A man went into a pizza parlor and ordered a medium sized pizza. When it was ready, the cook asked him if he wanted it cut into four pieces or six. The man thought a moment, then said, “Better make it four – I don’t think I could eat six pieces.”
Pastor Stephen Bly, of Winchester, Idaho, is fortunate to have witnessed the beauty of discipleship in one of his church members. August Jensen is an 84 year old widower who sits toward the back in church. Many perceive him as one who no longer has much to offer. His pastor learned otherwise. On a visit to Gus’ house, Pastor Bly saw the old man’s daily regimen. He spent two and a half hours in Bible study and prayer followed by a three mile walk where he conversed with God. Lately he had been fasting two meals a day and praying for the salvation of Anthony, a neighborhood teen who was good for little more than mischief. The pastor asked, “How long have you been fasting and praying for him like that?’ Gus replied, “Forty days.” “How much longer will you continue?” wondered his pastor. With a smile, Gus said, “As long as it takes.” On day 51 Anthony committed his life to Christ.
The word fasting is not found in the Pentateuch but often occurs in the historical books and the prophets of the Old Testament. The expression used in the Pentateuch is “humble your souls,” implying the sacrifice of the personal will, which gives fasting all its value. The Jewish fasts were observed with various degrees of strictness. When the fast lasted only a single day it was the practice to abstain from food of every kind from evening to evening. Whereas in the case of private fasts of a more prolonged character it was merely the ordinary food that was abstained from. To manifest a still profounder humbling of the soul before God is repentance and mortification on account of one’s sin and the punishment with which it had been visited. It was not unusual to put on sackcloth, rend the garments, and scatter ashes over the head. In 1 Sam 7:6 it is said that Israel “drew water and poured it out before the Lord, and fasted on that day.” To “pour out your heart like water” (Lam 2:19) seems to denote inward dissolution through pain and misery. In connection with the fast it would be a practical confession of misery and an act of deepest humiliation before the Lord.
The Mosaic law prescribed only one public occasion of strict fasting, namely, once a year on the great Day of Atonement. This observance seems always to have retained some prominence as “the fast” (Acts 27:9). Moses did not eat bread or drink water during the 40 days and 40 nights he was on Mount Sinai receiving the law (Ex 34:28).
Going without food or water was not automatically effective in accomplishing the desires of those who fasted. In the prophet Isaiah’s time, people complained that they had fasted and that God had not responded favorably (Isa 58:3-4). The prophet declared that the external show was futile. The fast that the Lord requires is to loose the bonds of wickedness, undo the heavy burdens, feed the hungry, shelter the poor, and clothe the naked (Isa 58:5-7).
Fasting also occurs in the New Testament. Anna at the Temple “served God with fasting and prayers night and day” (Luke 2:37). John the Baptist led his disciples to fast (Mark 2:18). Jesus fasted 40 days and 40 nights before His temptation (Matt 4:2). Cornelius was fasting at the time of his vision (Acts 10:30). The church in Antioch fasted (Acts 13:2) and sent Paul and Barnabas off on the first missionary journey with fasting and prayer (Acts 13:3). Paul and Barnabas prayed with fasting at the appointment of elders in the churches (Acts 14:23).
Our Lord sternly rebuked the Pharisees for their hypocritical pretenses in the fasts that they observed (Matt 6:16-18). He abstained from appointing any fast as part of His own religion (9:14-15; 11:18-19). Prayer and fasting are mentioned as means for promoting faith and as good works. In the last passage the apostle probably refers to voluntary fasting, as in 2 Cor 11:27 he makes a distinction between fasting and “hunger and thirst”.
What does fasting do for us? A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.” Bring the boy to me.” When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?” “From childhood,” he answered. …if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” “`If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for him who believes.” He rebuked the evil spirit. “You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”
Fasting does three things for the believer. Fasting helps us learn discipline. Fasting is a time when we learn the power of evil. Fasting helps us to focus our attention to God. Fasting becomes an act of worship. Fasting communicates how important this issue is to you. …if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land. (2 Chron. 7:14)