Since fasting is a time of not eating or drinking anything but water, is it really appropriate to be teaching our kids to fast? Actually, yes, but there’s a little more to it than that. And we can’t define “fasting” too narrowly.
In the Old Testament, fasting is established as a time of refraining from food (or sometimes drink) for a period of time while the faster prays and seeks the Lord. Sometimes, the faster is seeking the Lord’s direction, and sometimes the faster is seeking the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness.
The point is to clear away earthly distractions and any trace of pride in pursuit of practically begging at the Lord’s feet. It’s being downright real about who you are in relation to God in a time of dire need.
Let’s check in with a prophet, a reluctant queen, and a shepherd king.
The prophet Daniel prayed on behalf of his people:
So I gave my attention to the Lord God to seek Him by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes. Daniel 9:3
Remember the story of Esther? Super bad guy Mordecai set his sights on utterly destroying the Jews and managed to get the king to send out a decree out to do just that. Here’s the response:
In each and every province where the command and decree of the king came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping and wailing; and many lay on sackcloth and ashes. Esther 4:3
Our man David emphasized humility as the heart of fasting:
But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth; I humbled my soul with fasting, And my prayer kept returning to my bosom. Psalm 35:13
So, what’s the takeaway so far? Fasting is refraining from food for a time as an outward behavior reflecting an inward sorrow, humility, and deep, deep need to hear from the Lord. The point is to clear away earthly distractions and any trace of pride in pursuit of practically begging at the Lord’s feet. It’s being downright real about who you are in relation to God in a time of dire need.
How about the New Testament? Anything going on there, besides Jesus’ time of fasting before He was tempted in the wilderness? Yep.
Jesus gave instructions in Matthew about when (not if) you fast. See if you can put your finger on the main theme.
Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. Matthew 6:16-18
Did you catch it? Humility. Fasting is for God, not to impress men with how deeply spiritual and sacrificial you are.
One more. See if you can identify the purpose of fasting in the new church in Acts.
When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed. Acts 14:23
Ah! They fasted before appointing elders in every church. They were seeking the Lord’s wisdom in setting up leadership.
What Does All That Mean for Me?
Alrighty then, we have fasting as a means of saying “no” to the flesh as we humbly seek the Lord. What accompanies fasting throughout the Old and New Testament? Praying. You don’t just fast and wait for a bolt of wisdom to strike you between the eyes. You deny the flesh and sharpen the spirit. And pray, pray, pray.
One advantage of fasting is that when you are depriving yourself of something, your hunger/craving/desire/discomfort is a reminder to stop and pray. If you are fasting from food for even one day, your hunger pangs are a reminder to say no to food and yes to the Lord. So, pray.
How Is This A Good Idea for Kids?
Now you have a baseline of the what and why of fasting. Is this something that is really appropriate to be teaching kids? I mean, they’re just kids and they need food, right? I agree with that, but let’s go bigger picture.
Fasting does not necessarily have to be fasting from food (or drink). Remember, the point is denying the flesh while you humbly seek the Lord. There are lots of things we can fast from. It could be sugar, caffeine, meat, technology, social media (but remember, don’t announce it!), elevators, hot showers, and so on.
This will depend a LOT on your lifestyle, so be sure you’re choosing something that will affect you every day, preferably throughout the day. It should be something that really feels sacrificial, and it should not be something that you need to be giving up anyway (like gossip).
In that context, can you see how appropriate it would be to teach kids to do this? I’m telling you, for most kids, if you teach them to fast from technology, they will get it. That’s something most kids rely on heavily all day long, so removing that distraction will make a big impact. (Heads up-You won’t really be able to monitor their fast while they’re at school, a friend’s house, etc.)
And hey, Mom, don’t have your kiddo fasting from technology while you stare at your phone updating your Facebook status and get Paleo recipes on Pinterest! Fast with them. You’re discipling, which means you’re teaching and modeling at the same time. You’re D6’ing here, walking along the way together.
With fasting, we’re saying, “I don’t need ____. I just need You, Lord.”
A Note on Age Appropriateness
Fasting should be with kids who are old enough to understand what you’re doing here. A toddler can technically fast from their favorite TV show and pray instead, but they aren’t going to understand self-denial at this point. If you want to lay some groundwork, occasionally say, “Hey, instead of watching Thomas right now, let’s go out on the patio and pray for Grandma.” If you do this once a week or so, you’re teaching that connecting with God instead of with what we want all the time is the better way.
But… I’ve Never Actually Fasted
If you’ve never fasted, I’ve got news for you. You’re still qualified to teach this to your kiddo! You may even want to be upfront about that when you’re doing this together.
Playbook for Teaching Kids to Fast
Here’s a step-by-step for how you can teach a kid to fast:
- Look for something to come up in his life that means something to him. Something you would pray about.
- Tell a little about fasting, using this post if it helps. If you have a personal story about fasting, definitely share it.
- Ask him what he thinks you two should fast from, offering a few ideas to give an idea of the level of sacrifice you’re looking for. (Ideally, you want him to come up with an idea that is spot-on. There’s ownership.)
- If he can’t think of anything, let him off the hook the first time or two and make a decision. By about the third time or so, he should be able to pick something. It’s okay if it’s always the same thing, as long as it’s sacrificial.
- Take about a day to prepare, and pray at least twice to ask the Lord to prepare your hearts and minds for the time of fasting. Don’t skip the preparation!
- You know your kid, so you decide how long you’re going to fast the first time, second, tenth, and so on. It’s also going to be up to you how many times you’ll pray together, and how many times you’ll prompt your child to pray alone. This will change as your child matures and gets used to fasting. Don’t lose sight of this: When you’re teaching your child to fast, you’re praying through TWO things: whatever it is you two are fasting about, and seeking the Lord’s guidance in teaching the discipline of fasting.
- At the end of the fast, talk about how it went. Ask lots of questions: So, how did you think that went? Did you feel closer to God? Were there times when you felt the Lord leading you to come pray to Him? How did giving up ____ help? Do you have an answer to your prayers yet?
You’re not necessarily fasting until you get answers. You may be fasting for a short time leading up to an event (like a job interview or difficult conversation), or you may be fasting while you’re waiting on a word or movement from the Lord. A lot of this is teaching patience in waiting on the Lord’s timing. It’s perfectly fine to fast again for the same thing. For a time, I fasted and prayed every Thursday for something really close to my heart in my family. It’s not always ongoing like that, though.
Next-Level Fasting with Kids
If you’ve taught the discipline of fasting for long enough, and your child has the spiritual maturity for it, there are a few ways you can go next-level with it.
One way is to encourage him to do it after he’s really messed something up and knows it. Maybe it was a really nasty fight with a sibling, or cheating on a test, or getting a ticket for doing something irresponsible with the car. It could be something even more serious. If you see him struggling with guilt or shame, you should definitely suggest fasting. Remember the Old Testament examples? People fasted as a means of repairing their relationship with God. As usual, offer to do it with him, although your role will be different because you’re praying for his sensitivity to the Lord as he fasts.
Something else you can do is to even invite your child to fast with you about serious things that come up in your life. How great would that be? That’s taking the teaching of fasting up a level to understanding its use in relationships with other believers.
Okay, you know everything you need to know to take the reins, so be on the lookout for something to come up in your kid’s life so you can fast together. As long as you know what the next step is after that, you’re golden. Just refer back to this post as you go through the whole thing, and by all means, come back and tell me how it went! In fact, if you’re heading into a time of fasting with your child, I’d love to pray for you as you do that.