What is fasting?
According to Webster’s Dictionary, a “Fast” is:
“To abstain from or do without food, food and drink… wholly or partly.”
Some people fast for physical reasons (fitness dieting) and some political reasons (hunger strike) but a biblical fast always centers on spiritual purposes. In Scripture, the typical means of fasting involved abstaining from food.
Is fasting Biblical?
Yes! Here are just a few of the individuals from Scripture who practiced fasting: Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Anna, Paul, and Jesus. I’d say that’s a group worth imitating!
Moses and Elijah fasted for forty days (Deut. 9:9; I King 9:18).
Esther, when she heard of the execution that awaited her people, told all of the Jews to neither eat nor drink for three days (Esther 4:16).
After Paul encountered Christ on the Damascus road, he had an absolute fast for three days (Acts 9:9) and stated in II Corinthians 11:27 that he was engaged in “fasting often.”
The Mosaic law required a public fast once a year on the day of atonement (Lev. 23:27). By the time of Zechariah, four regular fasts were held (Zech. 8:19).
And our greatest example, Jesus Christ, fasted for forty days before He began His public ministry.
It is important to remember, however, that even though fasting is practiced and talked about in Scripture, nowhere in the New Testament is fasting clearly commanded.
However, there are two important New Testament passages that address the issue:
The first one is Jesus’ teaching about fasting in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is talking about the importance of motives when people give, pray, and fast. He makes the statement, “when you fast…” (Matt. 6:16, emphasis added). Jesus seems to be making the assumption that people will fast, and was teaching them how to do it properly.
The second example is Jesus’ response when John the Baptist’s disciples ask Jesus why He and His disciples don’t fast as they do. Jesus replied, “Can the wedding guest 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” (Matt. 9:15). The Bridegroom (Jesus) was with them so it was a time of feasting not fasting! However, there would be a time for Jesus’ disciples (and us) to fast. And that time was after Christ was “taken away” to the right hand of the Father. The passage means that from that time until the Bridegroom comes back for us (at His return), his people are to fast. That is the same conclusion His apostles came to, for it wasn’t until after His ascension to the Father that we read of them fasting (Acts 13:2–3). It seems clear that Jesus expected his followers to fast!
What is the purpose of fasting?
First and foremost, fasting is focusing on God! It is a way to show our dependency is on Him not on self or the things of this world. John Wesley said, “First, let it (fasting) be done unto the Lord with our eye singly fixed on Him. Let our intention herein be this, and this alone, to glorify our Father which is in heaven…”
Second, fasting reminds us that we are sustained “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” (Matt. 4:4). As Richard Foster puts it, “Food does not sustain us; God sustains us. Fasting is not so much abstaining from food as it is feasting on the word of God.” Fasting is feasting!
Third, fasting reveals the things which control us. Foster goes on to say, “We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface.” Things like pride, anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife-if they are in our hearts, will be revealed during times of fasting.
Fourth, fasting helps us keep our balance in life. It’s so easy to allow the not-so-important things to become priorities in our lives. Time with God is more important than eating, yet many spend more time with food and drink than with God. Fasting reminds us to keep our priorities straight!
Fifth, fasting is a time to focus on praying for specific areas. It is a time to prioritize certain prayer concerns above daily food and activities.
How do I fast?
If you are doing a food fast…
- Do not eat a large meal right before your fast. Also, the meal after your fast should be lighter with fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Make sure you are drinking plenty of water during the fast if you are very active during the day, unless you are choosing to fast of drink as well as food.
- Do not make a point of telling others about your fasting. If you call attention to your fasting, people will be impressed, and according to Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, that will be your only reward. We want far greater rewards than other people’s applause.
- Choose which fast you will do: (Here are just a couple of options)
- 24 hour fast one day a week- Abstain from food the night before until the following night. This ends up being two skipped meals (breakfast and lunch).
- 3 Meal fast one day a week- Abstain from food the entire day of the fast (breakfast, lunch, and supper), until the next morning.
- 1 Meal a day- Abstain from food for one specific meal (breakfast, lunch, or supper).
- Daniel fast- This is a partial fast (taken from Daniel 1 & 10) in which you abstain from sweets and meats. The primary food and drink is fruits, vegetables and water.
Consider praying in the following way:
- Pray during breakfast, lunch, and/or supper when you typically would have been eating.
- Throughout the day, whenever your stomach “growls” spend a few moments in prayer. It’s your prayer “alarm clock”!
- Have a plan. Leave room for the Spirit to “prompt” you what to pray for, but also have a specific list of items to pray for.
- Journal the day of prayer and fasting. Write your impressions, what God taught you, etc.
For those who want to do a non-food fast, here are some possible things to fast from… television, video games, cell phone (except for receiving calls), social media, secular music, shopping.
May we see in our fasting what Charles Spurgeon saw in his churches’ times of fasting and prayer:
“Our seasons of fasting and prayer at the Tabernacle have been high days indeed; never has Heaven’s gate stood wider; never have our hearts been nearer the central Glory.”
*Much of the information on fasting contained in this description came from Richard Foster’s, “Celebration of Discipline.” Another great resource for fasting & prayer is John Piper’s, “A Hunger For God.”