Biblical fasting is one of those subjects often confused with the world’s take on fasting, but is an essential spiritual discipline for us as Christians. To better equip us for fasting together, and to address common misconceptions and provide answers to frequently asked questions about fasting, Michael d’Offay and Ruan Slabbert take a closer look at this important topic. In particular, they discuss the answers to three questions:
- ‘What is Biblical Fasting?’
- ‘Where in the Bible does it describe corporate fasting (why do people fast together)?’ and
- ‘Why the need to fast?’.
For a more in-depth article unpacking fasting in greater detail, read on for Fasting 101:
True fasting is a deeply spiritual act of depending on God and denying ourselves
What is Biblical Fasting?
Fasting for our health is a trendy habit today – the idea of going without food for a time for physical and emotional benefits. Fasting from a Biblical standpoint, however, is decidedly different from this self-centred approach. True fasting is a deeply spiritual act of depending on God and denying ourselves but with a practical outworking of leaving out food entirely or partly in order to pray.
When Jesus fasted in the wilderness, He quoted from Deuteronomy declaring, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4, NIV) Jesus, as a man, through fasting, knew that His sustenance and nourishment was in God first. In His earthly life and ministry, He needed His Heavenly Father above any basic physical need and desire. How much more don’t we need God first? So our fasting is really a form of feasting on God and affirming that we need Him first, above all other desires and needs. The pleasures of food and the stuff of this world can dull us and make us forget our highest need: God. Fasting and prayer is a means to strip away the dullness and bring God into sharper focus.
…fasting is really a form of feasting on God and affirming that we need Him first, above all other desires and needs.
Are We Commanded to Fast?
In the Old Testament, God, through His leaders, commanded the Israelites to fast in times of great need or crisis (see 2 Chronicles 20:3, Ezra 8:21, Esther 4:16). It is then reasonable today for God to speak through our leaders to corporately direct God’s people to fast, and this would be part of our obedience to them (Hebrews 13:17) as they lead us faithfully.
In the New Testament, we don’t find a direct command for Christians to fast, but Jesus assumes that His people would fast from time to time. Jesus tells us, “And when you fast …” (Matthew 6:16, ESV), rather than if you fast. In Matthew 6, Jesus is teaching about the spiritual disciplines of giving (6:1-4), prayer (6:5-15) and fasting (6:16-18) and He addresses the self-righteous way the Jews would practice these disciplines. Jesus never tells them to stop giving, praying and fasting, but instead shows them how to practice it rightly.
In the same way, today, just as Christians pray and give faithfully, so we can fast as a means to grow in God. Sometimes our leaders would call us to fast corporately, while at other times we fast individually as the Lord leads.
Some Biblical and Early Church Examples of Fasting
Who: Sometimes, the whole nation fasted together to repent of sin or seek God for protection from their enemies. Other times, we see examples of individuals doing so:
• During a time of mourning (2 Samuel 1:12)
• As a sign of repentance from sin (Joel 1:13-14; Jonah 3:5-8)
• To seek protection from God (Ezra 8:21)
• To seek guidance from God (2 Chronicles 20:2-4)
• For leaders to be released (Acts 13:2-3; 14:23)
Duration: Along with this, fasting in the Bible can be seen to last for one day (Judges 20:26), three days (Esther), seven days and even 40 days (Moses, Elijah and Jesus). We also see partial fasts (Daniel 10:3) and full fasts. The point of these Scriptures is to show that there is no limit to what you can fast for or how you have to practice it. Fasting is a powerful means to dependence on God.
“…there is no limit to what you can fast for or how you have to practice it. Fasting is a powerful means to dependence on God.”
Early Christian writings reveal how fasting was part of their lives:
• The Didache: Christians used to fast and pray on Wednesdays and Fridays.
• Epiphanus (Bishop of Salamis) wrote in the 4th century, “Who does not know that Christians all over the world fast and pray on the fourth and sixth day.”
• The Reformers: Martin Luther regularly sought God’s face in fasting and prayer. John Calvin fasted and prayed until the majority of Geneva was converted to the Lord Jesus Christ. John Knox fasted and prayed. Mary, Queen of Scotland, a godless woman, said she did not fear any armies in the world to John Knox’s prayers. He prayed and fasted for Scotland with the words, “Lord, give me Scotland or I die!” In Knox’s lifetime, he saw much of Scotland turning to God.
• The Methodists: John Wesley and the Methodist leaders fasted weekly.
Two Attitudes to Avoid When Fasting
To Impress God (or Manipulate Him). This is essentially pride and the sin of self-righteousness (Luke 18:10-14). Fasting is not for God’s benefit but for ours. We always fast from a place of humble faith in Jesus, knowing that through His work on the cross we have access into His presence. Fasting doesn’t give you greater access into His presence – only His blood does!
To Impress Others. This is what Jesus addresses in Matthew 6:16-18. We are called to please God, not to find our approval from our spiritual friends.
God is concerned with the attitude of our hearts and not just the outward act of fasting.
We do well to remember that God is concerned with the attitude of our hearts and not just the outward act of fasting. He loves obedience from the heart where we can deeply love Him, depend on Him and learn to hate our sin.
The Benefits of Biblical Fasting
Fasting has many benefits and practically helps us in various ways:
• You have more time to pray – during mealtimes
• You have less distraction – food makes you sleepy
• You become more aware of God’s presence – heightened senses
• You learn to exercise self-control over your natural desires – habits
• You become more aware of others’ needs – less self-centred
• It keeps you dependent on God
Practical Pointers When Fasting
Going without food entirely or partially is the most straightforward way to fast, but some cannot do this for health reasons. In this case, ask the Lord how He would want you to fast. He could ask you to possibly ‘fast’ something else that would be a significant part of your life, such as a tool, habit or type of food that you rely on. Remember, the point with fasting is that it is a practical way to deny yourself to seek the Lord. Going without food, however, is what we would encourage for most of us.
• Determine what God said and stick with it. We are confronted with a range of feelings when fasting and need His Word as the lamp to our feet.
• If you want to lessen the detox “pains”, eat healthily some days before stopping with coffee, sugars etc.
• Use common sense: If you have certain biological deficiencies or are taking prescribed medication, consult your doctor. If you are pregnant, it would not be wise to do a full fast.
• If you are married, consult your spouse (1 Corinthians 7:3-6)
• Get some form of breath freshener!
Fasting is one of the most difficult yet most rewarding of the spiritual disciplines. Paul wrote that some would make their bellies their god (Philippians 3:19). By God’s grace may this not be true of us. He will have His rightful position in our lives as our hearts are awakened to Christ and His purposes in our generation. He is the only One who truly satisfies us.