Fasting for Guidance, for Help in Prayer and for Physical Healing
Under special difficulties, or when in great need of, or great longings after, any particular mercy, for yourself or others, set apart a day for secret prayer and fasting by yourself alone . . . [Jonathan Edwards, “The Young Professor”].
At any major crossroad, before a critical decision, when discernment, clear thinking and wise judgment are required, fasting is an indispensable companion.
Fasting is important, more important perhaps, than many of us have supposed . . . when exercised with a pure heart and a right motive, fasting may provide us with a key to unlock doors where other keys have failed; a window opening up new horizons in the unseen world; a spiritual weapon of God’s provision, mighty, to the pulling down of strongholds. [Arthur Wallis, God’s Chosen Fast, p. 9].
Avarice, envy and selfish ambitions are diluted, if not totally dispelled, by fasting. Fasting helps us find rational and intellectual solutions by filtering the material sediment clogging our thought process.
Then all the Israelites, the whole army, went up to Bethel, and there they sat weeping before the LORD. They fasted that day until evening and . . . the Israelites inquired of the LORD . . . They asked, “Shall we go up again to fight against the Benjamites, our fellow Israelites, or not?” [Judges 20:26-28 (NIV)].
When worldly involvement clouds our judgment and the daily stress of physical existence blurs our spiritual awareness, fasting clears a path to light and provides a change in perspective.
Beware that thou forget not the LORD thy God, in not keeping his commandments, and his judgments, and his statutes, which I command thee this day: Lest when thou hast eaten and art full, and hast built goodly houses, and dwelt therein; And when thy herds and thy flocks multiply, and thy silver and thy gold is multiplied, and all that thou hast is multiplied; Then thine heart be lifted up, and thou forget the LORD thy God, which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage . . . [Deuteronomy 8:11-14].
After the fast, we should feel ready to act, to engage in a better directed life. Life’s purpose should be clarified and our intentions to act righteously affirmed. We should feel ready to dive into the service of God with renewed vigor and strength, if God so wills.
In regard, then, to the discipline of which we now treat, whenever supplication is to be made to God on any important occasion, it is befitting to appoint a period for fasting and prayer. [John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion].
8. Help in Prayer
The Lord said to His Apostles about the evil spirits, This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting (Mk. 9:29). … Fasting is acceptable to God when it is preceded by the great virtue of mercy; fasting prepares a reward in heaven when it is foreign to hypocrisy and vainglory; fasting works when it is joined with another great virtue—prayer…. It not only tames the passions in the human body, but it enters into battle with the spirits of evil, and conquers them.
How can fasting, which is actually a bodily “podvig” [ascetical labor], work or cooperate with prayer in a war against spirits? …
The reason fasting works against the evil spirits lies in its powerful influence upon our own spirits. When the body is tamed by fasting, it brings freedom, strength, sobriety, purity, and refinement to the human soul. Our spirit can withstand its unseen enemies only when it is in such a state…. Fasting gives the mind sobriety, while prayer is the weapon the mind uses to drive away the invisible adversary. Fasting humbles the soul, and frees it from the callousness and inflatedness brought on by satiety; while the prayer of one who fasts becomes especially strong. Such prayer is not just external, but comes from the very soul, from the depths of the heart. Fasting directs and carries prayer to God. [St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov)].
Fasting reinforces our efforts to connect to the Ultimate Reality, and helps us focus on what is important in our life. It numbs our physical cravings and isolates our soul in a spiritual dimension. Thus, fasting prods the intellect toward reflection on existence without regard for material reality.
The purpose of fasting is to loosen to some degree the ties which bind us to the world of material things and our surroundings as a whole, in order that we may concentrate all our spiritual powers upon the unseen and eternal things. [Ole Kristian O. Hallesby, Prayer, p. 117].
During period of spiritual dryness, when secular concerns blemish our prayers, fasting enhances the solemnity and sacredness of our thoughts and imbues our prayers with piety and God-consciousness.
Today, especially in affluent societies, St. Augustine’s warning is more timely than ever: ‘Enter again into yourself.’ Yes, we must enter again into ourselves, if we want to find ourselves. Not only our spiritual life is at stake, but indeed, our personal, family and social equilibrium, itself. One of the meanings of penitential fasting is to help us recover an interior life. Moderation, recollection and prayer go hand in hand. [Pope John Paul II].
Clearly, prayer should be the constant companion of fasting. A spiritual fast is not fully utilized unless a significant portion of the time is spent in prayer and supplication.
Be not neglectful of obligatory prayer and fasting. He who faileth to observe them hath not been nor will ever be acceptable in the sight of God. Follow ye wisdom under all conditions. He, verily, hath bidden all to observe that which hath been and will be of profit to them. He, in truth, is the All-Sufficing, the Most High. [Bahá’u’lláh].
If we cannot control our passions, we will find it difficult to remain faithful to the worship our faith requires. Virtues demand determination in the face of temptations. When we are irresolute in our devotions and succumb to material influences, our piety weakens.
A fifth and more weighty reason for fasting is that it is a help to prayer; particularly when we set apart larger portions of time for private prayer. . . And it is chiefly as it is a help to prayer that it has so frequently been found a means in the hand of God of confirming and increasing . . . seriousness of spirit, earnestness, sensibility, and tenderness of conscience; deadness to the world and consequently the love of God and every holy and heavenly affection [John Wesley, Sermons on Several Occasions].
Fasting encourages a spiritual thought process that frees the mind from worldly distractions. We subdue our appetites and still both physical and intellectual amusements. Our passage through physical existence becomes clearer and our path toward Almighty God comes into focus.
What are the conditions under which the soul may experience the presence of God? In a word, purity. Consider Ephrem’s first hymn… “Fasting secretly purifies the soul / So it can gaze on God and grow by the vision of Him. / For the weight that is from the earth, bends it back to the earth. / Blessed is he who gave us fasts,/ The sheer wings by which we fly to Him.” [Ephrem the Syrian, quoted in Paradise and Paradigm: Key Symbols in Persian Christianity and the Baha’i Faith by Christopher Buck].
9. Physical Healing
We understand the importance of sleep and relaxation to our physical and psychological health. Unfortunately, many of us don’t appreciate the peace and contentment that come from spiritual rest.
In our own day, fasting seems to have lost something of its spiritual meaning, and has taken on, in a culture characterized by the search for material well-being, a therapeutic value for the care of one’s body. Fasting certainly bring benefits to physical well-being, but for believers, it is, in the first place, a “therapy” to heal all that prevents them from conformity to the will of God. [Pope Benedict XVI].
A spiritual fast can provide emotional recreation. Daily existence often finds us immersed in business, academic and social efforts that exhaust us. At times, we can find relief from such chaotic conditions by removing the source of much of our frenzy: food.
There is nothing more harmful to the believer’s heart than having too much food, for it brings about two things; hardness of heart and arousal of desires. Hunger is a condiment for believers, nourishment for the spirit, food for the heart, and health for the body. The Holy Prophet said, ‘The son of Adam fills no worse vessel than his belly.’ [Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq, Lantern of the Path, Section 34].
Therapeutic fasting complements the beneficial aspects of spiritual fasting. They are distinct, yet share common ground. Depending on the intention, a fast may be considered an act of worship, a cosmetic endeavor, or even a hypocritical pretense.
Therapeutic fasting is not a mystical or magical cure. It works because the body has within it the capacity to heal when the obstacles to healing are removed. Health is the normal state. Most chronic disease is the inevitable consequence of living a life-style that places disease-causing stressors on the human organism. Fasting gives the body an interlude without those stressors so that it can speedily repair or accomplish healing that could not otherwise occur in the feeding state. [Joel Fuhrman, MD, in Fasting and Eating for Health, p.14].
The body, mind and spirit cannot be isolated into separate components of the total person. They are inseparably integrated. The Creator has established a natural order allowing for all three to be simultaneously nourished by fasting.
Penitential fasting is obviously something very different from a therapeutic diet, but in its own way it can be considered therapy for the soul. In fact practiced as a sign of conversion, it helps one in the interior effort of listening to God. [Pope John Paul II ].