Fasting, simply defined, is the withholding of food for a given period of time with an expressed purpose. In this definition, it should be noted that many elements of the fast are voluntary and a fast does not eliminate the possibility of water.
Let me begin by saying that we are not going to discuss the potential benefits or problems with fasting for the purpose of looking better. While it may be that losing a few pounds would be a wise decision, that is not the purpose of biblical fasting. Instead, fasting is a deeply spiritual idea. In fact, fasting in the Bible normally revolves around three occasions (it should be noted that the only commanded fast was on the day of atonement. Cf. Lev 16:29-31, 23:27-32; and Numbers 29:7).
Fasting Occasion #1: Grief
Many of us have experienced such grief in our lives that eating did not sound appealing. In the Bible, we find in 1 Sam 31:13 (cf. 1 Chron 10:12) that the people fasted in grief having learned of Saul’s and his sons’ deaths. At the moment, the nation was grieving and a fast seemed the most appropriate activity accompanying the grief. Nehemiah fasts after learning of the condition of Jerusalem (Neh. 1:4). We even find wicked and pagan kings fasting, such as Ahab (1 Kings 21:27) and Darius (Daniel 6:18).
Fasting Occasion #2: A Passionate Request from God
Three biblical fasts explain this point particularly well.
- David fasts (2 Sam 12:16-23) while begging God for the life of his son. God does not grant David’s wish, and after the baby dies, David returns to taking nourishment. The point however, is that David fasts while he is entreating God for his request.
- Ezra calls a fast for protection in a journey (Ezra 8:23) in part because Ezra had already explained to the king that God cares for those who seek him. In other words, Ezra and his companions were crying out to God and seeking God in the midst of the fast for his protection.
- In Acts 13 and 14 we find fasts associated with the calling of God’s servants and the sending them off for ministry (Acts 13:2-3, 14:23). Fourth, Jesus fasts at his temptation (Matt 4:2) and while the text does not explain the purpose of the fast, its location in the narrative suggests it has something to do with his upcoming public ministry.
In other words, sometimes people fasted in order to make a specific, impassioned request from God.
Fasting Occasion #3: Repentance and Confession
Fasting is also associated with repentance in several passages of Scripture. The nation fasts due to its foolishness in Judges 20:26. In 1 Sam 7:6 the people fast confessing their sin of idolatry to God. The post-exilic community fasts and confesses the sins of the nation in Nehemiah 9:1 (see also Psalm 35:13, Jonah 3:5, & Is 58:3).
Daniel 9:1-6 is also an important passage under this heading. Daniel is reading Jeremiah 29 and he makes the connection between the 70-year period of exile (which is coming to an end) and what it means to seek the Lord (see Jer. 29:11-14). In this text, Daniel equates seeking the Lord with a fast, with clothing changes, and prayers of confession (cf. Joel 2:12).
In each case, fasting is associated with something deeply personal and important.
Jesus’s Teachings on Fasting
We have seen that fasting occurred in both the OT and NT. What is one to do with the teachings of Jesus on fasting in Matthew 6:16-18 and 9:14-17?
Just so this article does not last forever, let me highlight three points from the text.
- First, fasting was assumed. Jesus assumed that fasting would occur, and in Matthew 9:14-17 Jesus excludes his disciples from fasting only while he is with them (the argument is that you cannot be in the presence of the groom and NOT eat!). However, it would appear (see v. 15) that Jesus expects that his disciples will fast. Thus, we need to be cautious about any view about fasting that suggests that Jesus forbids or even discourages fasting today.
- Second, fasting was not a means of demonstrating spirituality publically. In fact, the person fasting was to make every reasonable effort not to make his fasting public. As was often the case in Jesus’ teaching, if a person did the action to be recognized by men, then they received their reward in full. It should also be noted that Israel prescribed fasts (see Zech 7:5-6), but God rejects their fasts because they were meant to manipulate God (see also Jer 14:12).
- Third, fasting was a means to seek God in a focused way. Notice that what is important is not whether men see, but what the Father sees. It is the Father, then, that provides the appropriate reward.
Should I Fast?
How do we put all of this together?
Fasting is not a smoke-screen for spirituality, a means to manipulate God, or the way to perfect health. Fasting is about going to God personally and passionately, and asking for help and guidance.
Fasting is not forbidden, but rather, seems to be encouraged (although it is absent from specific reference after Acts). As a general rule, fasting is a personal matter, although we have seen on several occasions that a group fast was prescribed in certain circumstances (although even prescribed fasts probably should not be mandatory).
The real questions seem to be:
- Do you have a passion to seek God, allowing any hunger pains to drive you to him realizing that man never lives by bread alone?
- Are you fasting for one of the primary purposes found in Scripture (grief, desperate request, confession)?
- Have you worked to make this fast as private as possible, genuinely seeking God rather than the praise of men?
If yes, then it may be time to prescribe a personal fast.