Fasting is a secular fad, nowadays. In 2019, fasting seems to be the new “it” way to diet. Celebrities are doing it. Weight loss books are being written about it. “Intermittent fasting” is a term I see all over the place and hear people talking about from time to time. Let me assure you…
This is not the kind of fasting I want to talk to you about.
Fasting for faith reasons has an entirely different set of goals. I’ve thought and read a lot about fasting over the last 3 years, and I am just moved right now to write all of this down in one place and clarify what I’ve learned. The video linked below is the best pastor-led teaching on the practice of fasting I’ve ever been able to find. Give it a watch sometime.
Feasting & Fasting – A Lesson from Tim Mackie
Director of The Bible Project and Prof. of Old Testament at Western Seminary
Portland, Oregon, USA
I hope you enjoy this lesson on fasting and feasting as much as I did.
The following is my understanding, as a layperson, of fasting. It is my understanding of fasting’s usefulness and the the ways people used it in the Bible. This article is in no way a substitute for pastoral counsel or authoritative scholarship on the proper role of fasting in a Christian life. I’m just a lady who loves Jesus on the internet. Keep this stuff in its proper place, okay?
This got long, and I’m sorry about that. I deleted so many things to try and make it shorter, but we’re still sitting at 3,500 words. Hopefully, if long posts aren’t your thing, you’ll find a way to break it into pieces. I think fasting is something we need to talk about a lot more often than we do in the Body.
Let’s get into it:
I. Why Should We Fast?
The short answer to this question is that that the Bible seems to take it for granted that we will all be fasting from time to time. There are many examples of God’s people fasting throughout the Bible, and even Jesus fasted before starting his ministry. We should fast because the Bible makes it clear that fasting is a good and recommended practice for the entire body of believers.
II. When Should We Fast?
You can think about fasting as a response to turning points in our spiritual lives. Like Pastor Mackie mentions in the video I linked above, there seem to be three major categories of events in the Bible that trigger fasting. The idea here is not to make a list of rules or laws for fasting (there aren’t any). The idea is to illustrate the times in Scripture when people used fasting as an appropriate and natural response. We take these as a guide for our own behavior, not–I repeat, not–as something to serve as doctrine or law in our lives.
A.) We should fast when we are turning away from sin.
Fasting during a time of repentance happens a lot in Scripture. All through the Old Testament, we see various repentance rituals and customs playing out. When the Israelites mess up (which happens a lot), they always come around to understanding their failure at some point. Upon realizing what they’ve done, there is invariably a display of grief and a resolution to turn away from sin. Two things we often see along with fasting are rending (tearing) of garments and putting ashes on the hair, which were ancient habits of mourning (Neither of these should accompany our fasting today, Joel 2:12-13). Like the ashes and torn robes, fasting was a sign of grief during repentance.
In Ezra 9-10, we see Ezra and the people weeping and mourning over the sins of Israel. They have intermarried with pagans (as God commanded them not to do), and the fruits of this intermarriage have been generations of idolatry, separation from God, and exile. There are a lot of things worth talking about in chapters 9 and 10 of Ezra, but what I’m hoping you’ll see is Ezra’s example of fasting (10:5). He fasted, along with tearing his robes (9:5), as he laments and cries out to the Lord in grief over sin. Chapters 9 and 10 tell about a people resolving to turn away from generational sin that has separated them from God’s will.
My favorite example from Scripture of fasting in repentance is found in the book of Jonah. I just love Jonah. His hard-heartedness toward the Assyrians of Ninevah is something we moderns can relate to, and his recalcitrant attitude as he perfunctorily performs his prophetic assignment is actually pretty funny in several places. His weaknesses, fears, and sins are so relatable in our own day.
The people of Nineveh, however, take Jonah’s bare-minimum message and feel the conviction keenly (which disappointed Jonah no end, but pleased the Lord). In Jonah 3:5-6, we see the people of Nineveh, from the lowest to the very king put on sackcloth and ashes…and declaring a fast. These are people making a vow to turn away from their sin.
For Us: Any time we recognize a deep pattern of sin in our lives or a habitual sin we need to confess and turn away from, fasting will be an appropriate response. Remember that this is not about ashes and sackcloth over every sin we commit. We’d spend our entire lives hungry and in mourning if we did that. Constant mourning is not the picture that Scripture paints for us in the earthly life of a Christian. The kind of repentance that should trigger fasting comes out of big turning points. Here are two examples from my own life that I hope will illustrate the difference:
Recently, I stayed up very late studying (both of these stories are about my reading habits–ha ha). I didn’t go to sleep until well after 4:00 a.m. When I got up the next day, I was working on four hours of sleep. My grace slipped that day in my interactions with others. I had some sinfully unkind, uncharitable, and arrogant thoughts and feelings in response to several people that day. Seriously ugly ones. These were not just, “I wish she would hurry up and stop talking so I can go.” I’m talking about ugly, sinful thoughts that were beneath any child of God.
This kind of sin is something I rarely fall into. It is not a habit or a rut of sin that I struggle to keep away from. It is not a pattern in my life that keeps me separated from God or his people. I am generally able to see the best in people and love them. That comes fairly easily for me (Praise be to God!). So, in this case, confessing and repenting didn’t feel like a turning point. It made me sad that I had slipped into sin against people I care about, but it wasn’t a turning point.
This isn’t the kind of repentance that typically triggers fasting.
For years and years, I read trashy romance novels (and I don’t mean the ones you buy in Lifeway Christian stores). I never felt convicted about the content in those stories before I came to Christ. I probably read hundreds of them over the years. It never felt like I was doing something wrong or that the content of those books was harmful. Lots of my friends read them, too, and it all seemed very normal and acceptable.
After I met Jesus, and my heart started to change, I began to feel uncomfortable about the explicit language and descriptions in these books. I would skim and skip pages during the steamy parts, and I had never done that before. This thing I had done over and over as a habitual practice was being revealed to me as sinful. I struggled against that realization because I liked the books. The simple fact of the matter, however, is that those stories elevate a perspective on sex and relationships between men and woman that is opposed to God’s perspective. When I finally accepted that conviction, I experienced a combination of intense emotions. I felt the magnitude of turning away from a pattern of sin in this one.
This would have been a perfect time to fast.
Did you see the difference? If you commit a sin that is a one-off and not something you struggle with habitually, just confess it in prayer and repent and go forward with Jesus. If you are stuck in a rut of habitual sin, however, and it finally comes to a repentance point with you…that will feel very different. Consider fasting when that happens.
B.) We should fast when God is sending our lives in a new direction.
Another trigger for fasting that we see pretty often in the Bible is fasting in response to a change in spiritual direction. Whenever we realize that we are being led out of our current season of faith into something entirely new, we should consider fasting.
In Acts 13:2-3, we see the early church in Antioch fasting and praying before Paul and Barnabas are sent out into the mission field.
At the start of Jesus’ ministry, right after he was baptized, his 40-day fast in the wilderness began. He fasted at that crossroad point between his private life as a young man and the beginning of his travels as a rabbi ministering to the public.
(Luke 3 & 4)
For Us: If we find ourselves about to make a huge spiritual leap like entering a new ministry, answering a call to mission work, or even joining a new church after a move, we should consider fasting.
C.) We should fast when we don’t know how to respond to something that is catastrophically tragic, frightening, or unjust.
Sometimes, this corrupted world can throw things at us that we don’t know how to process. Famine, war, cruelty, and injustice are literally everywhere. It can overwhelm us and leave us teetering on hopelessness. This is a time to go to God with our lament and our questions, and this is a time when fasting is both appropriate…and comforting.
I think the example of Esther’s fasting is a perfect illustration of this. In chapter 4, Esther is made aware of the law that will annihilate every Jew in the kingdom of Persia, and I can only imagine that fear, disbelief, panic…all kinds of really heavy emotions would have come over her in that moment. When Mordecai helps her see and accept the reality of what is happening in 4:13-14, Esther proclaims a three-day fast. She entreats all of her servants and every Jew in the city of Susa to join her in this fast. They go to God in this moment of stress in the face of great danger and evil…by fasting (Esther 4:15). She used to the time to gather herself and prepare to speak with the king about the situation. It was a way of seeking counsel and wisdom in the face of a tragedy, and she asked others in her community to join in the fasting with her. When facing down something big, we should gather a godly community around us and be united in prayer and purpose. This is a huge part of it.
For Us: When we feel the approach of despair over something horrible that life presents to us, it can threaten our faith. That is always a time to draw nearer to God, and fasting can help us to do that. When something in the news leaves you feeling like all of the air got knocked out of you, consider fasting. When natural disasters strike and kill so many people that you can’t even fathom the size of that loss, consider fasting. When confronted with a picture of evil so menacing that you can’t find comfort, consider fasting.
III. How Should We Fast?
Fasting can be effectively practiced in more than one way. It is not limited to abstaining from food, but that is certainly the most common form it takes–both in the Bible and in practice today. Most of the fasts in the Bible last for one day. Quite a few last for three days. Three very special fasts in Scripture lasted 40 days (but those were accompanied by miraculous circumstances in the presence of God).
Most of the time, fasting is done by simply eating no food at all or refraining from eating certain foods for a specific amount of time. We’re familiar with this kind of fasting, but there are other forms it can take.
Food and Water
Sometimes, the fasting we see in Scripture is a total abstention from both food and water. We see this in Jesus’ 40-day fast in the wilderness. He ate no food and drank no water. That is an extreme that I never would have considered, but then I had an involuntary experience that broadened my view on that a bit.
Last year, I suffered from abdominal pain that grew worse and worse, eventually landing me in the hospital. I had a perforated bowel, and it caused a terrible infection.
My doctors labeled me an “NPO,” which stands for nulla per os, or “nothing through the mouth.” It meant that I could not eat food, drink water, or even suck on ice chips. For five days. It was done for my medical good, and it prevented the need for a serious surgery. It wasn’t much fun, but those days without food and water were different. My time spent with God was deeper and closer, and I couldn’t go more than a few minutes without my thoughts returning to him.
I don’t ever want to go through that again, but I’m glad I experienced it.
Obviously, my five days as an NPO, with intravenous saline and electrolytes being administered the entire time, were not the same as Jesus’ 40-day fast. Something miraculous had to be happening in those biblical 40-day fasts because human beings will die within 3-5 days without water. I wouldn’t recommend a fast without fluids for anyone unless–like me–you find yourself under 24/7 hospital care as an NPO. Giving up food in your fasting is enough. If you feel strongly about taking on a total fast, consult with your doctor beforehand. No exceptions! Any temptation to fast to the point of self-endangerment should be vigorously resisted because self-punishment isn’t healthy, and it isn’t what fasting is for.
Abstaining from sex for short periods of time is a valid form of fasting for married couples. The Apostle Paul actually recommends it.
In 1 Corinthians 7:1-5, Paul outlines how sex in marriage should used. In verse 5, he says, “Do not deprive one another–except when you agree, for a time, to devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again; otherwise Satan may tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
Read all five verses. Make sure you understand the context of sexuality he is trying to teach in this passage. It’s important because fasting from sex is only healthy and productive if you have a right frame of mind toward marital sex to begin with.
There may come a time in your life when it seems appropriate to both you and your spouse to refrain from sex together to pray over some situation or concern. Paul clearly felt this was a useful enough practice to mention it in particular, so it is a valid way of fasting.
Just be very careful not abuse this idea or adopt it as a means to neglect the comfort of your spouse. I will say this to both wives and husbands: Fasting from sex with your spouse is a way of dedicating yourselves to a specified, short, and agreed-upon time of prayerful devotion. It is never to be used as a way to avoid intimacy in your marriage. You choose this kind of fast together or you don’t choose it at all.
Activities, Luxuries, & Indulgences
Think of the season of Lent, when we prepare for the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection on Easter. “What did you give up for Lent?” is a common question we ask each other during that time of year. Personal sacrifice during Lent is a universal practice in the whole Body of Christ…and it is a fast. Did you know that? Do you ever think of it in that way?
In the 40 days prior to the celebration (or “feast”) of Easter, we prepare our hearts by remembering Christ’s death on the cross and observing a fast for the same number of days that Christ fasted. It’s a beautiful practice, and it doesn’t have to be one that we reserve only for Lent. Fasting of this kind can be adopted whenever fasting is appropriate.
This is also a good alternative for people who cannot safely fast from food because of medical concerns.
IV. And Finally…How NOT To Fast:
A. God Will Not Be Manipulated.
Fasting cannot twist God’s arm into giving you the response you want from prayer. If God isn’t responding to a prayer in the way we want Him to, the problem isn’t that God didn’t hear us. It isn’t that he didn’t understand what we were asking for. It isn’t that he doesn’t understand how dire the situation is. We shouldn’t use fasting as a method of praying “harder.” Fasting does not “earn more points” with God. It is not a method of building up currency in some kind of righteousness account in Heaven. These are all insidious forms of trying to manipulate God, even if you aren’t thinking of it that way at the time. Make sure your heart is in the right place when you embark upon a fast.
“I prayed and prayed, but got no answer. Maybe if I fast, he’ll answer me.”
(This thought process could spring from a desire to manipulate God. Pray about it and ask God to help you approach him in the right way.)
B. Fasting for Forgiveness is an Act of Unbelief
Your sins were covered–all of your sins (yes, even that one)–by the blood of Christ on the cross. This is the most foundational piece of Christian belief. Fasting is a time of drawing closer to God, expressing the grief you feel, and embracing the freedom you’ve gained after turning away from a pattern of sin. There is no “extra work” needed to receive forgiveness for “really big sins.” That isn’t what fasting is for.
“My sin is so horrible that I need to punish myself by fasting.”
(What this really means is that–deep down–you don’t believe Christ’s work on the cross was sufficient to cover you. It was. Jesus took your sin…so let go of it.)
Okay…phew! That was another long one, right? If you made it this far, I thank you for being here and reading through all of these thoughts on the practice of fasting. I hope it was helpful. I hope it made you think about what fasting should represent and how it might be useful to you in the daily practice of your faith.
When I Fast, I generally do it for three days, and my typical habit is to eat nothing at all during the day, consuming only liquids (water, coffee, tea, etc…no juice or shakes). I break my fast with my family at the evening meal and resume fasting the next morning. When you fast, it might look quite different. There aren’t any rules or laws. You have total freedom in this.
I always keep my fasting private. I don’t lie about it if someone asks me why I’m not eating, but I don’t otherwise tell anyone I’m doing it (usually not even my husband). It is a private thing between me and God.
It is rare that anyone notices, and, for me, there’s just no good reason that anyone else needs to know. This way of fasting works for me, and I have found fasting very powerful. Every time I think of food or eating (which is often during my fasts), it immediately draws me to God in thought or in prayer. I have received tremendous comfort and peace through fasting.
We don’t often talk about fasting in the Western church, and that is something I believe our generation should try to change. Fasting, in the Christian life, isn’t about weight loss or fitting in at the gym. It’s about faith and relationship and reflection. It’s about acknowledging God’s hand in the transitions of our lives, and it’s about processing our sorrows in a healthy way. It’s about inviting God into our deepest wounds and our biggest questions. It’s about giving him solemn gratitude for his tremendous grace. All of that…from not eating food for a few days. It’s weird, right?
But it works.
“Whenever you fast, don’t be gloomy like the hypocrites. For they make their faces unattractive so that their fasting is obvious to people. Truly I tell you, they have their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting isn’t obvious to others but to your Father, who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
~Matthew 6:16-18, CSB