Fasting is a spiritual discipline involving voluntary abstinence from certain foods, and is generally associated with prayer.
Fasting has been around for a long time. The ancient pagans believed demons entered into their bodies through the eating of food. If they were worried about demon possession, then they would stop eating for several days until all the excess food passed through their bodies, so that no demons could enter. We know that Eastern mystics (the yoga practitioners) often fast for long periods of time—looking for a mystical experience, for new insight into the meaning of life, or to have some dream that will lead them to new truths. Medically speaking, if you fast for a long enough period of time, you can hallucinate or have unusual dreams. Nearly all people (mostly young women) who have the personality disorder called anorexia nervosa, and who don’t eat for long periods of time, or purge themselves after eating, have strange dreams.
In Western society, fasting is rather popular. Fasting is used sometimes for physical and certainly for cosmetic purposes. In our day, many people will go on a fast for the purpose of keeping slim and trim. Sometimes fasting is used as a form of protest. Those who study history know that Mohandas Gandhi, the noted leader in India, fasted for several days at a time. Jack Kevorkian (known as the death doctor) fasted while in jail, and said he was going to fast himself to death. But in the Bible there is no teaching on fasting for practical reasons such as losing weight or protesting a cause.
Some who read this message may never have tried the discipline of fasting. Fasting is not a clear biblical command. The Bible does not directly command fasting, but it gives many examples of fasting. The only “fast” that Jesus himself observed (that is recorded in the Gospels) was in the wilderness, at the time of His temptation, when He fasted forty days and forty nights (Matthew 4:2).
Jesus said that when we fast, we are to fast in secret, and not let others know about it. Fasting is given such favorable treatment in Scripture in both the Old and New Testaments that we can assume that it is expected in the Christian life. We learn in Matthew 6:16-18 that Jesus assumed those to whom He spoke were fasting. He said “When you fast”—not “If you fast.” Fasting is one of the disciplines which can be incorporated into the spiritual life, and will make our lives much richer. Yet, it is important to know that fasting by itself has no value. There is no prestige which fasting supports, and unless fasting is combined with prayer, fasting for its own sake can be hypocritical.
1. The True Nature of Fasting
Biblical fasting always is to have a spiritual purpose. If you make a careful study of fasting, you will be surprised to learn how many Bible characters fasted. In Old Testament times, Moses, Samson, Samuel, Hannah, David, Elijah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, and Daniel all are said to have fasted. In the New Testament, Anna, John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Apostle Paul fasted. Many early church leaders fasted—Luther, Calvin, John Wesley, and George Whitefield. Yet in all the Scriptures there is only one commandment which calls for fasting—and that is the command in Leviticus for fasting in connection with the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29). Fasting is not one of the New Testament ordinances.
Jesus said, “If I then your Lord and Master have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14). We take that as a biblical command. In 1 Corinthians 11:24-26, we are commanded to observe the communion of the bread and cup. Jesus says, “This do in remembrance of me.” The communion of the bread and cup is a command, and an ordinance of the church. We believe that baptism is commanded for believers, but at no place in the New Testament will you find a verse that says, “And you shall fast,” or “Blessed are those who fast, for they shall lose weight or become more spiritual.” Nevertheless, fasting is given such favorable treatment in the Bible that I believe it is a Christlike, biblical act which we should follow. Fasting is always voluntary, always noncompulsory, and always has to be done at an individual’s discretion in response to God’s leading. Fasting is not to be done on a regular basis.
We are going to use the three verses in Matthew 6:16-18 as a basis for the message in this article. “Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.”
In this passage, Jesus talks about improper attitudes and motives when fasting. Fasting means “to not eat.” There can be a total fast or a partial fast. There can be a fast in which only water or fluids are taken. By Jesus’ time, fasting had become so ritualistic that the Pharisees did it for the attention of men, and with the hope that they would gain favor with God. The Pharisees fasted two times a week (Luke 18:12), and they usually chose to fast on the market days in the city. The marketplace was filled with people—and the Pharisees, to get the attention of people, would put on sackcloth and ashes, and sometimes put powder on their faces and look sickly, so they could show others how religious and pious they really were. When we fast, we must be careful to have the proper attitude. Jesus said that we should not do it for a show, but that it should be a quiet act between the individual and God.
Fasting is mentioned more than thirty times in the New Testament. There is no direct command and there are no specific instructions related to the time and place for fasting. If Jesus assumed that His followers are fasting, why is it that His own disciples didn’t fast? Jesus was asked that question in Matthew 9:14. The disciples of John the Baptist came asking, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast oft, but thy disciples fast not?” Jesus responded by saying that fasting was not necessary at the time that He was with the disciples, but when He was taken away, that then they would fast. One of the reasons for fasting is for mourning, and His disciples would participate then. Jesus Christ is not physically present now, and so fasting will be appropriate for this age. But fasting should only be observed as a response to special times of testing, trial, and struggle.
2. Some Reasons for Fasting
What are some biblical examples of fasting? They are numerous. We point first to David, king of Israel, who fasted on many occasions. Second Samuel 12:16 says that when the son of Bathsheba and David was sick, David fasted for the child “and lay all night upon the earth.” The Bible tells us in 2 Samuel 3:35 that when David’s friend and general (a man named Abner) died, that “all the people came to cause David to eat meat while it was yet day,” but David refused to eat bread until the sun went down. David fasted all day.
David even fasted at times for his enemies. Psalm 35:13 says that David was praying, condemning his enemies, but he remembered former times, and said, “But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth; I humbled my soul with fasting.” Why is it that when people are mourning, we want to take food for them? They really don’t feel like eating. I know that taking food is part of hospitality, but fasting is just a natural response to the emotional turmoil within them, and so we should not be offended if they refuse to eat.
Fasting is used in the Old Testament especially during times of danger. King Jehoshaphat fasted when he was faced with the Ammorites on one side and the Moabites on the other side in 2 Chronicles 20:3. One of our favorite stories in the Old Testament is the story of Esther. Esther had the task of coming before the king when she wasn’t invited, and so she said to her Uncle Mordecai, “Go gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me; and neither eat nor drink [for] three days, night or day. I also, and my maidens, will fast likewise” (Esther 4:16). She was asking for God’s protection and requested her friends to fast and pray on her behalf.
When Ezra was getting ready to lead some of the exiles away from Babylon, he knew their journey would be treacherous, and that they would go through enemy territory; the Bible says that Ezra gathered the people together at the River Ahava (Ezra 8:21) to “afflict ourselves” (which is another term for fasting). And the reason Ezra was seeking and asking for God’s protection through prayer and fasting was “I was ashamed” (Ezra 8:22). In other words, he wanted to show the king of Babylon that it was only because of God’s protection that they were going to be set free, and he didn’t need an army to lead them through enemy territory. “So we fasted and besought God” (Ezra 8:23).
Ezra also fasted for penitence. After the Jews had come back from Babylon into the land of Palestine and had set up their homes, Ezra looked around and saw that many of the Jews had brought foreign wives with them, and he was sad. So he prayed and fasted. “Then Ezra rose up from before the house of God and went into the chamber of Johanan . . . and when he came thither he did eat no bread nor drink water; for he mourned because of the transgression of them that had been carried away” (Ezra 10:6).
Daniel fasted for penitence. In Daniel chapter nine, after he had reckoned the years by the books from the prophet Jeremiah, he said, “I set my face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting . . . and I prayed unto the Lord my God, and made my confession” (Daniel 9:3-4). And we know that after that experience, Daniel’s prayer was answered in a miraculous way. When he had confessed the sins of the people, and mourned, the angel Gabriel came to him and reckoned with him the outcome of what was to happen. Daniel had another vision after fasting. This time he observed a partial fast, for we read in Daniel 10:3 that he did not eat a certain kind of bread, and he did not eat meat, and he did not drink any wine. And again God gave him a vision and showed him that there was deliverance for His people.
Fasting is found throughout the Old and New Testaments. Fasting is never done by itself, but is always accompanied by prayer. In Acts 13:2-3, the church at Antioch fasted when Paul and Barnabas were sent out preaching and establishing churches. When they wanted to ordain elders in the church, the Bible says that in every church they fasted, and with much praying, they commended them to the Lord in whom they believed (Acts 14:23). Fasting and praying go hand in hand.
3. Some Practical Applications
What are the practical applications for our lives? The New Testament does not give us specific instructions, but it speaks of fasting many times. So I would suggest that you try it for perhaps just one meal. Just take the time you would use to prepare, eat, and clean up after a meal, and spend that time in prayer, and see what God will do. I know there are people who have medical conditions, and they need to take their medication with food. Don’t be embarrassed if you find it difficult to try fasting. In such cases, as soon as lunch is over, you could say, “I’m going to dedicate this time to the Lord, and then not take any food or any drink until the supper hour.” Certainly God will honor that commitment.
Some may want to try fasting for a whole day, from the sun up one day to sun up the next day. Take no food, just water. Every time your stomach begins to growl, remember what it is that you are praying about. It is not that you have to interrupt everything and go pray for five or ten minutes or half an hour, but when your stomach starts to rumble and you remember the particular need or burden that is on your mind, go to God and name the concern. Maybe some of you would be able to fast for more than a day. Every time you get hungry again, you think of God, and when you wake up at night and you feel your belly growling—isn’t that a wonderful time to pray—when it is quiet?
What things should you be fasting for? I would suggest that we pray for revival in the church and for those who need salvation. Practice prayer and fasting when there is a difficult decision to make about a marriage partner, and when wondering about whether or not to go to college, or when trying to determine what kind of job you should take. When you are confused, and you don’t really know what God has in store for you, try fasting and prayer. Somehow it heightens your awareness of the presence of God. It helps you to concentrate. Fasting eliminates many distractions.
Those who may be sensing a call to special work for God, whether it be in the ministry, or to go into mission work; why don’t you commit your concern to God while fasting and praying? When you come to elect a minister or make a difficult decision in the church, the whole congregation should be fasting and praying. When you have a concern about someone—a particular individual who is lost and is caught up in sinful living—wouldn’t it be wonderful if a number of brothers or sisters would covenant together to fast and pray?
A few years ago we had a young man in our congregation who was unmarried, single, and dating a woman who had already been divorced three times. Our congregation tried to counsel him against marriage to this woman. We set a whole day aside for fasting and prayer. He married her anyway. We figured God didn’t answer our prayers, but after she got tired of him and divorced him, he humbly came back into the church and remained single, and was in our fellowship for many years. I believe this happened because God’s people were fasting and praying.
4. A Personal Testimony
I want to share a personal testimony related to fasting—only to bring glory to God and to encourage others to try fasting. At one point, my wife had been seriously ill and almost lost her life, except for the grace of God.
One morning when she was in the hospital, God awoke me very early, and clearly gave me a verse from Mark, telling about one of the miraculous healings that Jesus performed. Jesus concluded by saying, “This kind can come forth by nothing but by prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29). I began to meditate on the verse, and decided to pray and fast for a time. Later, I went to our local congregation and asked them to covenant with us in prayer and fasting, seeking God’s direction, and what we should do in relation to my wife’s serious illness.
Another day of prayer and fasting was designated. People from many additional congregations were invited to participate. Our own children prayed and fasted. One winter evening a group of us was praying and confessing and seeking the Lord’s will for a period of five hours. All in that small group will affirm that praying that night was the closest, most intimate experience that any of us ever had with God. As far as we could tell, God had granted our request. We have not publicized this very much because we didn’t know exactly in what areas God had healed. My wife had experienced healing. There were spiritual and emotional healings in the rest of our family, and in our congregation. There was an impact on the wider community. We took out a full-page advertisement in our hometown newspaper, just thanking God for all the people that prayed, and to praise God that He did answer prayer in a miraculous way.
I believe fasting is part of a concentrated, intense effort at prayer. Praying and fasting is coming to the Lord seeking His will and His way for our lives. Jesus said, “When thou fastest . . . unto thy Father which is in secret: thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly” (Matthew 6:17-18).
Brothers and sisters, I challenge you to consider fasting. If you sincerely desire that God would do great and mighty things, I challenge all of us to try it.