Should Christians fast? And if so, how often should they fast? We hear about fasting in Church. We read about it in the Bible. Occasionally we may even hear some teaching on it. And we all know that Jesus fasted for forty days in the wilderness. Yet for a topic that appears throughout the Bible, very few Christians know much about it, and even fewer have actually practiced it. Thus, what can we learn from the Bible about fasting? Should we fast? Why should we fast? When should we fast? How should we fast? In answering these questions, one obvious place to begin is where Jesus provides some direct teaching on the subject in Matthew 6. There he says to his Jewish audience, “And when you fast,…” (v.16). Thus, the first point to pick up on from what Jesus says it that God’s people should fast. We are expected to fast. Notice Jesus does not say ‘if you fast’, but “when you fast”. He assumes fasting is something believers will practice. Then why do Christians not fast more often? Very likely most Christians have not been discipled or taught on the matter.
However, before delving into this topic, it should be noted there are few didactic passages on fasting in the Bible. Much of what we learn about fasting from the Bible comes from the many descriptive passages dealing with fasting in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament (OT) there are possibly only two prescriptive texts where fasting is commanded by God (Lev 16:29-34; 23:26-32). Both have God commanding the Israelites to “afflict themselves” in preparation for the Day of Atonement. Most scholars believe the phrase “afflict yourself” in those passages include the idea of fasting, but there are some who disagree. The Hebrew word for fasting is not actually used in those two passages.
Nevertheless, there are copious amounts of passages in the Bible where fasting is depicted in positive ways, where it is encouraged, where days of fasting are set aside by the nation of Israel, and in most of them God is pleased with the fasting taking place. The only exceptions are where fasting is taking place for impure motives. Matthew 6 is one. Isaiah 58 is another. There God rebukes the nation of Israel for fasting for wrong reasons. For example, in v.4 he says, “Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high.”
Over and against this, Jesus will clearly encourage fasting in Matthew 9 when the disciples of John ask Jesus why his disciples do not fast. If there was ever an opportunity for Jesus to set the record straight and explain that fasting is not necessary, that was it. Rather, what he says in v.15 is, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” In other words, they cannot fast while Jesus is present with them because fasting is a symbol of mourning (amongst other things). Jesus being present with them would be a time to celebrate. But when he departs, then they will mourn and fast. Thus, Jesus clearly expects believers at this moment to be fasting. So then, when, why, and how should we fast? The answer to these questions are found in the many examples we have in scripture. What we see are five different reasons God’s people fasted in the Bible.
First, as a sign of repentance. In 1 Kings 21, God, through the prophet Elijah, warns King Ahab that he will destroy his household because of his wickedness. There we read in vv.27-29 that “when Ahab heard those words, he tore his clothes and put sackcloth on his flesh and fasted and lay in sackcloth and went about dejectedly. And the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, ‘Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days; but in his son's days I will bring the disaster upon his house.’” Thus, fasting is a way of showing remorse for sins and repenting from those sins.
Second, fasting is appropriate during times of sorrow or mourning. In Esther 4, when Mordecai and the Jews find out that Haman has convinced the King to sign a decree allowing open season on all the Jews on a certain day, we are told that “in every province, wherever the king's command and his decree reached, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and many of them lay in sackcloth and ashes.” Another great example is in Nehemiah 1 when Nehemiah’s brother returns from Judah to the city of Susa in Babylon, where Nehemiah is living in exile, and he asks his brother how things are going back in Judah. Nehemiah’s brother replies, “The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire." To which Nehemiah says, “As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.”
A third time or reason to fast is as a means of worship. In Luke 2 when Joseph and Mary go to present the infant Jesus at the Temple, we are told there was at the Temple a prophetess named Anna who (v.37) “did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day.” And in Acts 13 we are told concerning the church in Antioch in v.2 that “while they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’” The church was simply worshipping and fasting, and then the Holy Spirit speaks to them. One wonders how often we fail to hear the voice of God because we pray but we do not fast.
Fourthly, fasting is a means of sacrifice to God and of spiritual strengthening. Again in Esther 4 when she agrees to help Mordecai and the Jews, she sends a message to Mordecai saying, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish." Esther apparently believed she would be spiritually strengthened through prayer and fasting. This also may be part of the reason Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness. He knew he was about to engage in spiritual warfare with the most powerful evil being on the planet. Thus, he prepared himself for that battle by fasting for 40 days. We would do well to follow Esther’s and Jesus’ example. When we know we are about to go through a serious spiritual undertaking or when we suddenly find ourselves in the midst of serious spiritual warfare, it would behoove us to spend as much time as we can in prayer and fasting. One must wonder how many times our plans fail, as individuals or as a church, because we do not engage in prayer and fasting.
A fifth time and good reason to fast is when making important decisions. In Acts 14 we are told that as Paul and Barnabas went through Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch appointing elders in all the churches they had planted, in Acts 14:23 we read: “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.”--with prayer and fasting. You wonder how often we have made poor decisions because we did not precede them with prayer and fasting.
Why does it work? What is it about fasting that helps or makes the difference? As best as we can surmise from all the passages in the Bible, it would seem that fasting is a way of sacrificing for God what is of most value to us--food—and it is a way of showing God that we truly believe that he is our sustenance and source of life, that we are utterly dependent on him, and that we are completely focused upon him; especially when we combine fasting with prayer.
Then how? Here I want to offer some advice that does not come from the Bible but is based on experience and common sense. First, if you are going to undertake a fast, start slow. Begin with just fasting one meal for God. Thus, instead of eating lunch, go someplace private and quiet and pray and read God’s word. Then slowly work your way up to fasting for a day, then maybe two days, then maybe a week. Second, drink lots of water. Never go without water for any length of time. Third, there are some people who cannot go without food for medical reasons (e.g., diabetes, medicines that must be taken with food, etc.). If that’s the case for you, consider fasting something that is extremely important to you. Consider going without TV for a week or going without social media for a week.
Additionally, when we fast, we should do our best to keep it between ourselves and God. Jesus goes on to say in vv.16-18, “when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” How they “disfigured” their faces in not entirely clear. Some think they may have actually smeared ash on their faces or maybe they just walked around grimacing from hunger pains. But Jesus makes clear that we should not allow others to know we are fasting, otherwise we have received our reward in full. In the end, fasting is about pleasing God and drawing closer to God, not about pleasing people and making ourselves look good. Nevertheless, Jesus expects his people to be praying and fasting. Now would be a good time to start.
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