Fasting and the Bible

tim-wildsmith-Xk8wUSX9ZiE-unsplashSpiritual disciplines.

The phrase provokes thoughts of Bible reading — and Bible study, meditation, and memorization — and prayer.  And some might think of corporate worship and biblical fellowship.  And evangelism.  But that is the extent of what most of us think about when the practices that lead us to fellowship and joy with Christ are mentioned.

Unlike older generations, we generally don’t think about fasting as a spiritual discipline.  And if we do, we think of it as an Old Testament practice that was set aside in New Testament times. One writer has suggested that “Fasting has fallen on hard times…”

So, what is fasting and is it an appropriate practice for believers today?

The biblical practice of fasting is simply an act of self-denial or self-discipline in which some regular activity is given up for the sake of a spiritual goal.  The goal most often associated fasting is prayer, often prayers of confession.  And typically, the abstinence is from food.  (In 1 Cor. 7:5-6 there is an example of sexual abstinence in marriage as a form of fasting; while the word “fasting” is not used in the passage, everything about the way that abstinence is practice indicates it is a kind of fasting.)

In contrast to how fasting is used culturally today, the Bible never speaks of its physical benefits. It is always done in the context of some spiritual purpose — to confess sin, to give particular attention to God in prayer, or to seek wisdom for a decision (e.g., Acts 13:1-3; 14:23; 1 Cor. 7:3ff).

Fasting in the Bible was very commonly an act of humility, often related to sorrow or grief over sin (Neh. 9:1-2).  Sometimes fasting accompanied a special prayer, sometimes out of anguish, danger, or desperation (Judg. 20:26; 2 Sam. 1:12; 2 Chron. 20:3; 4:16).  Similarly, it was sometimes a form of lament, as David and the Israelites demonstrated in their fast over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam. 1:12). 

Esther also asked her uncle Mordecai to have all the Jews in Susa fast and pray for three days, that she might have favor with King Ahasuerus and that the Israelite nation might be preserved from the evil plot of Haman (Esther 4:15-17).  Her request for the people to fast demonstrates that the practice of fasting is a demonstration of dependence on the Lord.  It is a humble practice expressing reliance, not a self-exalting practice.

Of course, there were abuses of the practice of fasting in ancient times.  In the Old Testament it was sometimes done hypocritically and on those occasions it was rejected by God (Is. 58:3-7; 14:10-12; Zech. 7:5ff)

In the New Testament, the Pharisees fasted twice weekly (Monday and Thursday) — evidently to commemorate Moses’ ascent and descent on Mt. Sinai (Lk. 18:12), but they are also condemned for unrighteous fasting (Mt. 6:16).  So not all fasting in the Bible was commendable fasting.

It is notable that there is only one biblical command for fasting — it was to be done on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29-34; 23:26-32).  Notably, even those passages do not use the word “fast,” and the command is an inference from the commands to rest and abstain from work.

Likewise, there are no New Testament commands to fast, though there are examples of fasting (2 Cor. 6:4-5) and permission of fasting and even an expectation of fasting (Mt. 6:16-18).  However, even when one is fasting, it not only should not be ostentatious, but others should be unaware of his fasting (Mt. 6:17-18).  Thus, we can say that fasting is to be done privately, not publicly. In a Biblical fast, no one else will know someone is fasting or has fasted.

So the Bible permits fasting and even assumes that there will be periods of fasting, but it is not mandated for the New Testament believer, which means that there will be a great many believers that never practice fasting.  And that lack of fasting does not mean that they are sinning; it is possible to honor the Lord and never practice fasting.

In summation, in Scripture, when followers of God fasted, it was a sign of the depth of their need and a demonstration of the significance of their need:  they will happily give up food and live for a day without the distraction of food so they might express their dependence on God in prayer: 

“…what fasting meant was that the individual was renouncing the natural demands of his body and the natural joys of eating, and registering a total dependence upon God.  He was trusting God to sustain him day by day as he ate food.  When he abstained from food, he was trusting God to sustain him in a supernatural way.…The fast, then, registered a total dependence upon God in a time of sorrow, distress, sympathy, confession of sin, or in a time of prayer.” [Pentecost, Design for Living, 146.]

Photo by Tim Wildsmith on Unsplash.

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