By Timothy P. Hadley
We often hear of people fasting in protest over something, refusing to eat while demanding that a perceived wrong be corrected. But what does the Bible say about fasting? Is fasting something for Christians to do today?
Fasting is mentioned many times in both testaments of the Bible. Moses fasted on Mount Sinai (Ex. 34:28). Hannah fasted when she wanted a son from God (1 Sam. 1:7). David did so on several occasions (2 Sam. 1:12, 12:22). The entire nation of Israel fasted on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 23:27). The Lord Jesus fasted in the wilderness (Mt. 4:2). John the Baptist taught his disciples to fast often (Mk. 2:18; Lk. 5:33), but the Lord Jesus was criticized because His disciples did not fast as frequently as others thought they should (Mt. 9:14; Mk. 2:18-19; Lk. 5:33-35).
Anna served God in the temple by fasting (Lk. 2:37). Paul fasted following his conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:9). Cornelius fasted before receiving a vision from God (10:30). The church at Antioch fasted when Barnabas and Saul were sent out on their first missionary journey (13:3). On his way to Rome, Paul abstained from food for 14 days (27:33).
There were also calls to fast such as those of Esther (Est. 4:16), Jehoshaphat (2 Chr. 20:3) and Ezra (Ezra 8:21). These took place in relation to a specific burden. The fasts were linked to much prayer before the LORD (see Ps. 35:13; Mt. 6:5-18; 1 Cor. 7:5).
What Is Fasting?
Fasting is to put God first, wanting Him and His desires, will and mind more than food, social activities, sleep or day-to-day business. It involves not gratifying physical appetites while being persistent in fervent prayer. The widow of Luke 18:3 probably set aside many things while she pleaded repeatedly before the judge.
Fasting is the planned clearing of the way for prayer by laying aside all weights and hindrances (Heb. 12:1-2), and it is proof of our earnest fervor and faith. Faith is required, for “without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Heb. 11:6 NKJV). When we fast, it ought to be a spiritual exercise between us and the Lord.
Does The Bible Command Us To Fast?
Scripture does not command Christians to fast; God does not require or demand it of them. At the same time the Bible presents fasting as something that is good, profitable and beneficial – and what could be better than to take our eyes off the things of this world to focus completely on God?
Anyone can fast, but some, such as diabetics, may not be able to abstain from food. So even though fasting in Scripture is almost always a fasting from food, there are other ways to fast. Anything given up temporarily in order to focus our attention on the Lord can be considered a fast (Ex. 19:14-15; 1 Cor. 7:1-5).
Fasting should be limited to a set time, especially when fasting from food. Extended periods of time without eating can be harmful to the body. Scriptural fasting is not intended to punish the flesh, and it should not be considered a dieting method. The purpose of a biblical fast is not to lose weight but to gain deeper fellowship with the Lord.
Exercises And Benefits
Help in a time of trouble often comes from fasting and prayer. God said, “Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you and you will glorify Me” (Ps. 50:15). Joshua experienced this when prostrate, having fallen “to the earth on his face before the ark of the LORD until evening” after the nation was defeated by the men of Ai (Josh. 7:6). It was a time of distress and defeat, of shame and fear! But when he and the elders of Israel fasted and prayed to discern why they were in that situation, the LORD revealed to them the sin that kept the nation from victory.
Fasting is a natural expression of grief. When faced with a civil war against the Benjamites, the nation of Israel fasted (Jud. 20:26). Israel fasted again before a fierce battle with the Philistines at Mizpah (1 Sam. 7:6). David demonstrated grief and sorrow through fasting (2 Sam. 3:35; Ps. 35:13).
Genuine repentance often involves fasting and prayer. It is possible to confess sins without repenting of them, but fasting sometimes helps to break up the fallow ground of our hearts, which leads to victory over sin.
Fasting and prayer help strengthen us spiritually. This is what the disciples learned from their experience in Matthew 17 when the Lord had returned from the Mount of Transfiguration. A father approached Him about his son, whom the disciples had tried to heal but could not. After the Lord Jesus rebuked the demon and healed the boy, His disciples asked Him, “Why could we not cast it out?” Jesus answered, “Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting” (vv.19-21).
Daniel fasted and prayed when faced with spiritual hindrances (Dan. 10:2-3). Because he laid hold of the promise of God and continued in prayer, the Lord answered (v.12). Fasting and prayer discipline the body and make it a useful instrument for Him. Paul said, “But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:27). When we fast we determine that our belly, or appetite, is not our god (Phil. 3:19). Fasting and prayer lead to victory over fleshly desires.
Fasting can also help us when we need wisdom from above. In Acts 13:1-3, a passage to which we already referred, we read of how men who fasted and prayed received direction from the Holy Spirit. It was “as they ministered to the Lord and fasted” that the Holy Spirit told them to separate Paul and Barnabas and then they fasted and prayed and laid hands on them and they sent them away. Twice in this short passage we are told that they fasted as they prayed for wisdom and power to be upon these missionaries whom the Holy Spirit was sending out. Prayer and fasting can help secure guidance from above so decisions can be made in full confidence of His leading.
In addition, it is good to take time without the distraction of other things to pray for others – interceding for them – on a regular basis.
Types Of Fasts
Let’s look at the different kinds of fasting in the Bible, of which there are at least three:
- TYPICAL FAST. This fast involved refraining from solid food but not abstaining from liquids. When the Lord Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, we read, “afterward He was hungry” (Mt. 4:2); we do not read that He was thirsty.
- COMPLETE FAST or ABSOLUTE FAST. Involving no food or water (Jon. 3:7; Est. 4:16; Acts 9:9). This severe fast can be dangerous, as extended periods of time without eating or drinking can be harmful to the body.
- PARTIAL FAST. This kind of fast involves abstaining from certain foods, like Daniel and his friends did. When asked to eat from the Babylonian king’s table, they refused because they did not want to defile themselves. Instead of eating the king’s meat, for ten days they, with permission, ate nothing but vegetables and water. They abstained from meat and wine because they purposed in their hearts not to defile themselves, and the Lord honored this partial fast (Dan. 1:8-20).
In the Bible we see that most fasts lasted only one day. Many would begin at sunset and go until sunset the following day (Jud. 20:26; 1 Sam. 14:24; 2 Sam. 1:12, 3:35). In Daniel 6:18, when Daniel was in the lions’ den, the fast by Darius lasted only one night, perhaps because Daniel was out of danger by morning. Esther called for a three day fast (Est. 4:16). Only three times in the Bible do we read of a 40-day fast – individually by Moses, Elijah and the Lord Jesus.
The Lord revealed a special message to His people on each of those occasions. Today God uses His Word to speak to us. He may prepare our hearts through fasting, but only as a person follows the Word of God can He fast within the will of God.
Dangers Connected To Fasting
We have already alluded to the physical dangers, but there is the danger of spiritual hypocrisy that the Lord Jesus warned against, “Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward” (Mt. 6:16). In Luke 18:12 He spoke of the pride of the Pharisee who stood in the temple boasting that he fasted twice a week. True fasting is done in secret, giving no outward appearance of it. Fasting has no merit as far as salvation is concerned. It does not give a person a special standing before God. Isaiah 58:1-7 describes a right way and a wrong way to fast. Fasting to impress others is the wrong way; fasting with a purpose, before God and with His glory in mind is the right way!
There is also the danger of being legal. Sometimes abstaining from food or certain kinds of food can be found along a path toward legalism, which is clearly addressed in Romans 14. This can wrongly lead to trying to equate spirituality with fasting.
Biblical Principles In Fasting
Fasting involves prayer, along with repentance and the searching of our heart. It is, as Isaiah describes, “afflicting one’s soul” (58:3). Fasting shows the sincerity of our prayers – not to get our will done in heaven but God’s will done on earth!
The Bible does not give specific regulations on fasting or how often one should fast, because like many other things in the Christian life fasting is a spiritual exercise rather than a mechanical procedure. This does not mean that we should ignore or neglect fasting! When a person feels the need in their Christian life, it is good to fast.
There are biblical principles that should guide us as we fast, such as in relation to food. We should begin like David by repenting: “When I wept and chastened my soul with fasting that became my reproach” (Ps. 69:10). We must start with the right attitude of heart or our fasting will be useless before God! This is what God warned Jeremiah about as He said, “When they fast, I will not hear their cry; and when they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I will not accept them” (Jer. 14:12). Fasting should begin with confessing and repenting of my sin and asking, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my anxieties; and see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting,” and “cleanse me from secret faults” (Ps. 139:23-24, 19:12).
Prayer, specific and continual, should always accompany fasting. Our prayers are to be of faith (Mk. 11:24), in the will of God (1 Jn. 5:14-15) and without wavering or doubting (Jas. 1:6). Fasting should also be accompanied by the Word of God, since “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). While fasting, it is good to memorize key passages of Scripture.
Lastly, fasting ought to lead us to give thanks and praise to the Lord. One example is Anna, who “served God with fastings and prayers night and day. And coming in that instant she gave thanks to the Lord and spoke of Him to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem (Lk. 2:37-38).
How To End A Fast
As we have already seen from Scripture we should determine the length of our fast, but when the end of that period comes, how should we end a fast? This might seem like a strange question. Some might say, “Just go eat and stuff yourself!” But that is a good way to get sick! The human body cannot take such a shock, we need to break the fast slowly, not abruptly. In fact “break the fast” is an interesting phrase, for the word “breakfast” actually comes from it.
The disciples were discouraged (Mk. 16:14) and went back to their old occupation of fishing, but the Lord, as He always does, met them where they were and called them to Himself. They had been doing things alone and their own way! But the Lord appeared to them on the shore as they fished unsuccessfully. They did not recognize Him. He instructed them to cast their nets on the right side of their boat – following Christ is always the right choice – and the result of their obedience was that they had more fish than they could handle. The Lord Jesus then invited them to breakfast, or to “break the fast.” They ended their fast with Jesus Christ! No longer spiritually blinded, they knew the Lord (Jn. 21:12).
From the story in John 21, we learn that when we end our fast we should be in fellowship with the Lord and capable of spiritual insight. While fasting, there should be repenting, confessing and cleansing. Finishing the fast, there is service to be done! After they had finished breakfast the Lord spoke directly to Peter, asking him three times, “Do you love Me?” Twice he answered I have affection for You, but the third time he could only say, “Lord You know all things.” The Lord replied to Peter, “Feed My lambs,” “Tend My sheep” and “Feed My sheep.” The Lord uses the fast for His glory, drawing our hearts to Him, to His desires for us in seeing His people the way He sees them, and to serve Him by serving them!
Fasting should also lead us to praise, even at a future time as in the case of Hannah (1 Sam. 1:7-2:11). This woman of faith was very burdened during and after her fast. In due time the LORD gave her a son. Immediately after her son’s birth we read of her in the temple praising God. Fasting leads us to give glory to the Lord for who He is and what He has done!
We need real exercise of heart as we live in these difficult days! The enemy is very busy and wants to cause havoc to the faith of the people of God. We see the effects of the enemy all around, much like Jehoshaphat did in 2 Chronicles 20. Looking at his path to victory, we see that he recognized the problem (2 Chr. 20:3,10-11), rejected the flesh (v.12) and resolved to seek the LORD (vv.3,12-13). During all this Jehoshaphat proclaimed a fast (v.3), shutting out all other distractions. The people of God were together in one mind and complete dependence on the Lord; they had nowhere else to turn! While fasting they claimed the promises of God (vv.14-19), confronted the problem and obtained victory (vv.20-30). They could not go out to fight this enemy alone so they gave themselves to prayer and fasting.
In these closing days, before the Lord returns, the enemy is mighty, and we have no power against him, but greater is He that is in us than he that is against us. There are times when the only way to gain the victory is by prayer and fasting. Together, they open the door of praise. May the Lord help us to realize that “the night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light … Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts” (Rom. 13:12,14).