Fasting tends to be a neglected area of discipleship today, yet fasting was common in the early church. When the Bible speaks of fasting, it assumes that it is something believers will do. Jesus began His instructions on fasting in Matthew 6:16 with “when you fast”, not “if you fast”.
What is fasting?
Fasting in the Bible almost always refers to going without food (and sometimes water) for a length of time. The greek word for fasting, nesteia , means “not to eat”.
Types of fasts mentioned in the Bible:
- Normal fast: Abstain from food but not water. Much of the time the fast would be only during the daylight hours.
- Partial fast: Abstain from certain foods (Passover – no leavened bread; Daniel 1:15 – eating only vegetables, 10:3)
- Absolute (total) fast: No food or water. (Ezra 10:6, Esther 4:16)
Fasting was quite common in Bible times. Most fasts lasted between one to three days. Only a few went longer. The Jews went on a total fast (no food or water) for 3 days at Esther’s request (Esther 4:16). Moses, Elijah, and Jesus fasted for 40 days. These were fasts where God supernaturally sustained life.
So he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And He wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.
– Exodus 34:28 (ESV)
And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry.
– Matthew 4:2
In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees fasted twice a week (Luke 18:12).
Fasting is a way to humble oneself before God (Ezra 8:21). It was sometimes called “afflicting one’s soul”, focusing not just on the physical effects but on the entire person (“soul”). Sometimes fasting was accompanied with sitting in sackcloth and ashes (Esther 4:3, Psalm 35:13, Daniel 9:3, Jonah 3:5). Fasting sets spiritual goals ahead of personal desires and needs.
In Shansi I found Chinese Christians who were accustomed to spend time in fasting and prayer. They recognized that this fasting, which so many dislike, which requires faith in God, since it makes one feel weak and poorly, is really a Divinely appointed means of grace. Perhaps the greatest hindrance to our work is our own imagined strength; and in fasting we learn what poor, weak creatures we are-dependent on a meal of meat for the little strength which we are so apt to lean upon.
– J. Hudson Taylor
For what reasons did people fast in the Bible?
People in the Bible fasted for many reasons, and some of these examples provide guidelines for why you and I should fast today:
So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them.
– Jonah 3:5
So they gathered together at Mizpah, drew water, and poured it out before the LORD. And they fasted that day, and said there, “We have sinned against the LORD.” And Samuel judged the children of Israel at Mizpah.
– 1 Samuel 7:6
Then Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes were opened he saw no one. But they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
– Acts 9:9 (RKJNT)
Much fasting was to show repentance for sin. The people of Nineveh fasted in repentance for their sin. In 1 Samuel 7, the Philistines were oppressing the Israelites because of their idolatry. Samuel instructed them what to do. They were to fast and confess their sin to God. (It is interesting to note that much of the repentance fasting in the old testament was on a national level.) Saul, upon suddenly realizing that he had been violently opposing God, fasted for three days.
Then the children of Israel arose and went up to the house of God to inquire of God. They said, “Which of us shall go up first to battle against the children of Benjamin?” The LORD said, “Judah first!” So the children of Israel rose in the morning and encamped against Gibeah. And the men of Israel went out to battle against Benjamin, and the men of Israel put themselves in battle array to fight against them at Gibeah. Then the children of Benjamin came out of Gibeah, and on that day cut down to the ground twenty-two thousand men of the Israelites. And the people, that is, the men of Israel, encouraged themselves and again formed the battle line at the place where they had put themselves in array on the first day. Then the children of Israel went up and wept before the LORD until evening, and asked counsel of the LORD, saying, “Shall I again draw near for battle against the children of my brother Benjamin?” And the LORD said, “Go up against him.” So the children of Israel approached the children of Benjamin on the second day. And Benjamin went out against them from Gibeah on the second day, and cut down to the ground eighteen thousand more of the children of Israel; all these drew the sword. Then all the children of Israel, that is, all the people, went up and came to the house of God and wept. They sat there before the LORD and fasted that day until evening; and they offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the LORD.
– Judges 20:18-26
In this example, the fast was to seek God’s favor. The tribe of Benjamin had sinned and God told the Israelites to do battle, but they were defeated until they humbled themselves before the Lord in fasting.
It happened after this that the people of Moab with the people of Ammon, and others with them besides the Ammonites, came to battle against Jehoshaphat. Then some came and told Jehoshaphat, saying, “A great multitude is coming against you from beyond the sea, from Syria; and they are in Hazazon Tamar” (which is En Gedi). And Jehoshaphat feared, and set himself to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah.
– 2 Chronicles 20:1-3
When Jehoshaphat heard that an army was gathering against Jerusalem, he became afraid. This led to his seeking God’s favor through fasting, which God granted.
David therefore pleaded with God for the child, and David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground. … Then his servants said to him, “What is this that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while he was alive, but when the child died, you arose and ate food.” And he said, “While the child was alive, I fasted and wept; for I said,’Who can tell whether the LORD will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.”
– 2 Samuel 12:16,21-23
David fasted to seek God’s favor. He tried to change God’s mind, but it didn’t work. It is not good to seek to change God’s will when you already know it.
Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from Him the right way for us and our little ones and all our possessions. … So we fasted and entreated our God for this, and He answered our prayer.
– Ezra 8:21,23
Because of enemies, Ezra proclaimed a fast to seek God’s favor, protection and direction (will) for the journey to Jerusalem.
“Go, gather all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me; neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will fast likewise. And so I will go to the king, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish!”
– Esther 4:16
Esther called on the Jews to fast for her before she went into the king. This fast was also for God’s favor. This became an traditional fast during the days of Purim (Esther 9:31).
But as for me, when they were sick, My clothing was sackcloth; I humbled myself with fasting; And my prayer would return to my own heart.
– Psalms 35:13
David even fasted to seek God’s favor for others, who later became his enemies.
Now the king went to his palace and spent the night fasting; and no musicians were brought before him. Also his sleep went from him.
– Daniel 6:18
King Darius fasted when Daniel was cast into the lion’s den. This was to seek God’s favor.
Then they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and fasted seven days.
– 1 Samuel 31:13
And they mourned and wept and fasted until evening for Saul and for Jonathan his son, for the people of the LORD and for the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword.
– 2 Samuel 1:12
Fasting in this case was for mourning the death of Saul and his sons. David also fasted when his son Abner died.
As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, “Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away.
– Acts 13:2-3
So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
– Acts 14:23
When Paul, Barnabas and others were ordained, the church fasted to seek God’s direction and favor.
In summary, the common reasons people fasted in the Bible are:
* Mourning someone’s death (which applied more to the Biblical culture than to today),
* A sign of repentance for sin,
* Seeking God’s favor, will, or direction.
They fasted during traumatic or uncertain times, and when starting a new work or ministry.
While fasting as a part of mourning is probably more of a cultural thing, fasting in conjunction with repentance or seeking God’s favor or will are still good reasons to fast today. When life becomes uncertain, fasting brings your attention back to the Rock. It is recognizing that it is God who sustains your life, not mere bread. It reprioritizes your relationship with God who is able to meet all of your needs.
Prayer is reaching out after the unseen; fasting is letting go of all that is seen and temporal. Fasting helps express, deepen, confirm the resolution that we are ready to sacrifice anything, even ourselves to attain what we seek for the kingdom of God.
– Andrew Murray
Notice that fasting is for spiritual reasons, not for selfish purposes. Biblical fasting is not for self-discipline. Although it takes discipline, and regular fasting can increase your self-discipline, fasting’s purpose is not to learn discipline.
Biblical fasting is not a form of dieting. Although you can lose weight fasting, that is not its purpose. Fasting’s goal is spiritual, not physical.
Fasting is not for manipulating God. Don’t think of fasting as a hunger strike to twist God’s arm. In Acts 23, 40 Jews bound themselves not to eat until they had killed Paul, but God delivered him out of their hand.
And when it was day, some of the Jews banded together and bound themselves under an oath, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. Now there were more than forty who had formed this conspiracy. They came to the chief priests and elders, and said, “We have bound ourselves under a great oath that we will eat nothing until we have killed Paul.
– Acts 23:12-14
Fasting is also not a substitute for true repentance. When you have offended God, fasting without repentance will not help.
“When they fast, I will not hear their cry; and when they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I will not accept them. But I will consume them by the sword, by the famine, and by the pestilence.”
– Jeremiah 14:12
Fasting is not a means to appear self-righteous. Fasting should be between you and God. The Pharisees fasted twice a week (Luke 18:12), on Monday and Thursday according to the Talmud. These were the market days in Jerusalem when everyone from the country came to the city. With such a large audience, the Pharisees would walk through the streets in old clothes, with their hair disheveled, covered in dirt. They would use white chalk on their faces to make themselves look pale, and dump ashes on their head. Jesus called them hypocrites (greek: actors) for a good reason. They had their reward.
“Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.
– Matthew 6:16-18
When, for how long, and how often should I fast?
There are no specific instructions. The Jews had one annual fast on the day of atonement, but we have no fixed fasts.
How often you fast and for how long is up to you.
How should I fast?
Here’s a few guidelines:
* Fast only for important reasons. Looking at the Bible we see that fasting was always in connection with a very troubled spirit or a very anxious heart. Use scriptural examples as a guide.
* Don’t use fasting as a substitute for doing God’s will when you know what His will is. This is false fasting. True fasting involves doing the will of God, as it says in Isaiah 58:
“Cry aloud, spare not; Lift up your voice like a trumpet; Tell My people their transgression, And the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek Me daily, And delight to know My ways, As a nation that did righteousness, And did not forsake the ordinance of their God. They ask of Me the ordinances of justice; They take delight in approaching God. Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and You have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls, and You take no notice?’ “In fact, in the day of your fast you find pleasure, And exploit all your laborers. Indeed you fast for strife and debate, And to strike with the fist of wickedness. You will not fast as you do this day, To make your voice heard on high. Is it a fast that I have chosen, A day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, And to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, And an acceptable day to the LORD? Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness, To undo the heavy burdens, To let the oppressed go free, And that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; When you see the naked, that you cover him, And not hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light shall break forth like the morning, Your healing shall spring forth speedily, And your righteousness shall go before you; The glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; You shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’ “If you take away the yoke from your midst, The pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, If you extend your soul to the hungry And satisfy the afflicted soul, Then your light shall dawn in the darkness, And your darkness shall be as the noonday. The LORD will guide you continually, And satisfy your soul in drought, And strengthen your bones; You shall be like a watered garden, And like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. Those from among you Shall build the old waste places; You shall raise up the foundations of many generations; And you shall be called the Repairer of the Breach, The Restorer of Streets to Dwell In. If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath, From doing your pleasure on My holy day, And call the Sabbath a delight, The holy day of the LORD honorable, And shall honor Him, not doing your own ways, Nor finding your own pleasure, Nor speaking your own words, Then you shall delight yourself in the LORD; And I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth, And feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father. The mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
– Isaiah 58:1-14
* Use fasting time to seek God in prayer & Bible study/meditation.
Biblical fasting always occurs together with prayer in the Bible – ALWAYS. You can pray without fasting, but you cannot fast (Biblically speaking) without praying. Biblical fasting is deliberately abstaining from food for a spiritual reason, goal, or purpose.
I find it a good thing to fast. I do not lay down rules for anyone in this matter, but I know it has been a good thing for me to go without meals to get time for prayer. So many say they have not sufficient time to pray. We think nothing of spending an hour or two in taking our meals.
– D. E. Hoste
* Set a specific goal (i.e. an answer to prayer), but realize that God may not answer until after the fast.
* If you are new to fasting, start with short daytime fasts. You can even fast by skipping one meal. Also, set a specific length of time. This way you will know when your fast is complete.
“A word of caution: Before anyone attempts to go on a fast, please consult your family physician if you have health problems such as diabetes, kidney disorders, or other serious conditions. The normal spiritual fast is going without food for a period of time during which you ingest only liquids (water and/or juice). The duration can be one day or several days. Some Christians fast on juice or water up to a week. The absolute fast is abstaining from both food and water. The duration shouldn’t exceed one or two days unless you have discussed absolute fasting ahead of time with your doctor.”
* Try fasting from other things. Fasting is “afflicting one’s soul” (ala Psalm 69:10), so fasting can include fasting from entertainment, sex, etc.
When I wept and chastened my soul with fasting, That became my reproach.
– Psalms 69:10
Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
– 1 Corinthians 7:5
(Even though the words “fasting and” are not in all manuscripts, the very meaning of this verse shows a type of fasting.)
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Here are some other passages on fasting, including both good and bad reasons for fasting:
* GRIEF FOR SIN: REMORSE, REPENTANCE: 1 Kings 21:27, Ezra 9:5, 10:6, Nehemiah 1:4, 9:1, Daniel 9:3, 10:3, Acts 9:9
* GRIEF: ANGER: 1 Samuel 20:34
* FEAR: 1 Samuel 28:20
* MOURNING SOMEone’s DEATH: 2 Samuel 3:35
* GRIEF / FEAR: SEEKING God’s FAVOR: Esther 4:3
* SEEKING God’s FAVOR / HELP: Psalms 109:24, Matthew 17:21
* GRIEF FOR SIN: A CALL TO REPENTANCE: Joel 1:14, 2:12, 15
* TRADITIONAL FASTING: Jeremiah 35:5-11, 36:6, 36:9, Zechariah 8:19, Luke 18:12, Acts 27:9
* FALSE FASTING (ala ISAIAH 58): Zechariah 7:3, 5
* VARIOUS OTHER EXAMPLES: 1 Kings 21:9,12, Matthew 9:14-15, Mark 2:18-20, Luke 2:37, 4:1-2, 5:33-35, Acts 10:30, 27:33, 2 Corinthians 6:5, 11:27
* VARIOUS INSTRUCTIONS: Mark 9:28-29