Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Answering Questions Concerning Fasting

Did anybody really fast in the bible? How about Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Anna, Jesus, Paul, the apostles, various nations including the Israelites, and the New Testament church?

What about fasting in the Old Testament? There was actually a commanded day of nationwide fasting for the Jews. It was the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29-31: 23:26-32; Num. 29:7). The purpose was to remind the Jews of the sins they had committed, and God’s grace in spite of their lawless deeds. The removal of food was for the afflicting of the soul. It was a purification process. It forced God’s people to realize that they depended on Him for everything, both physical and spiritual. If one were to fully examine fasting in the Old Testament, they would find several instances in which individuals or groups did so and various reasons why: wartime, illness, enemies, death, forgiveness, uncertainty, and remembrance.

What about fasting in the New Testament? Jesus was questioned about fasting, and he taught about how to do it properly (Matt. 6:16-18, 9:14-17). He fasted for forty days before his trial in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-2). He assumed his disciples would also fast (Matt. 9:14-15). The primitive church engaged in fasting regularly (Acts 13:1-3; 14:21-23). Paul mentions it as something he engaged in often (2 Cor. 11:23-27). Reasons for fasting in the New Testament include: performing miracles, obtaining peace of mind, help in marriage relationships, missionary journeys, overcoming temptation, requests for boldness in preaching, and many more.

Why should I fast? This question seems to paramount for most people. What is the purpose? Is it commanded? If I do not fast, is it a sin of omission? The true purpose of fasting in the spiritual sense is to humble oneself. The Psalmist said, “…I humbled myself with fasting, and my prayer would return to my own heart” (Psa. 35:13). When we take away the physical, we force ourselves to depend on the spiritual. We remember that God alone can give us what we need. Fasting gives birth in the Christian to a spirit of contrition and humility which God promises to bless (Isa. 57:15). It is not a question of whether or not one must fast, but rather and understanding that one should.

For how long should I fast? There is no exact time-frame for the execution of purposeful and meaningful fasting. There are biblical accounts of one day, three day, seven day and even forty day fasts. A similar question frequently considered: How often should I pray? It seems that the one who asks for a time-table is in essence working to quit. Fasting becomes effective in the same manner as does prayer. It must be done to be fully discerned. The best way to do anything effectively is to do it often. Ultimately, the frequency and length of fasting is up to the individual. But limiting fasting will not help one to understand it.

What is fasting, really? The present culture misunderstands fasting on many fronts. People rarely take the time to practice spiritually what the bible demands. When people discuss taking something away to begin a spiritual revival of self, what do they offer up? There were no reasons in the days of Christ to fast for health’s sake. People did not fast to cleanse out their digestive tract or to remove toxins. The entire concept of dieting was not present in their society. Fasting, then, was taking their sustenance away. It was not saying no to Krispy Kream donuts for a month. The biblical doctrine of fasting, as with all doctrine, becomes meaningful when it is done according to the divine scheme. One must study and observe it in its original state, practice and evaluate and try again.

Is it okay to pronounce a fast? Christ reminded his followers that fasting is not for show (Matt. 6:16-18). On the individual level, it should be between the person and God alone. But there are numerous examples in which both nations and kingdoms fasted, requesting divine involvement. Visionary leaders will realize the continued need for the church to fast today and ask for God’s providential and intervening activity. We pray for such. Fasting adds to our prayer fervent dedication toward our goal. It raises the stakes. It demands that we prove our desire for that which we are praying. It helps us take an active part in God’s solution.

Whose responsibility is it, to fast? Fasting cannot be a ritual. It cannot be forced or demanded. It is not something done to be seen of men. It takes no effect without repentance as an attachment. It remains as a spiritual opportunity. While it is not an ordinance commanded by the church, it can be of great spiritual benefit to those who are willing to make the sacrifice. The spiritual giants of the past fasted. The Son of God fasted. The early church fasted. The word of God is quick and powerful, and the Holy Spirit continues to sound forth his living message from ages before our own. Are we listening?


  1. Good thoughts. I recently did a Q&A night on fasting. One suggestion I made was that, since fasting is not a command for us today, we can "fast" from something other than food.

    One example is given in 1 Corinthians 7, where a married couple is (basically) told to "fast" from the sexual union, but to do so for the purpose of prayer.

  2. What a great reminder of an important spiritual practice. This was not a part of my life at all growing up, but I want to make it a part of my life now.

  3. Thanks for a good article on fasting. I'll admit that this has been an interest of mine that I have never really acted on. One brother and fellow preacher I know once fasted while his brother lay in critical condition in the hospital. A pentecostal friend I once worked with in a secular job would quietly tell me when he was fasting so I could assist if their were some problem or so that I would understand if he was a bit short with me. He was really cheerful during the fast.
    Anyway, thanks for your post.