RPM, Volume 15, Number 48, November 24 to November 30, 2013

Fasting: Answering Common Questions

By Guy M. Richard

Minister, First Presbyterian Church, Gulfport, Mississippi

What is fasting?

Fasting is a sacrificial, voluntary abstaining from food, and sometimes from drink (e.g., Esther 4.16), for a definite period of time. The Greek word for, fast, nesteuo, literally means, to not eat. But this should not imply that biblical fasting is simply not eating. Biblical fasting is a physical self-denial of food (and sometimes of drink) for a spiritual purpose. Fasting never occurs in the Bible by itself, as a stand alone endeavor; it always occurs together with prayer.

What fasting is not.

  1. Fasting is not dieting. Biblical fasting is not the same thing as dieting. Whereas dieting has a physical end in mind, biblical fasting always works towards a spiritual end.
  2. Fasting is not manipulating God. Fasting is not a way of manipulating God into answering our prayers; it is not a hunger strike to ensure that God will meet our list of demands. See Jeremiah 14.10-12.
  3. Fasting is not a rote or legalistic exercise. Simply engaging in fasting physically, as an habitual practice, is not what the Bible has in mind either. God is never interested in our rote performance. God wants obedience, to be sure; He wants our performance. But He wants it to come with and from a heart that loves Him and that longs to be in communion with Him and to please Him out of gratitude for an already accomplished salvation. Biblical fasting must flow from a heart that loves God and that wants to love Him more. Isaiah 58.1ff recounts God's own condemnation of Israel's legalistic practice of fasting while ignoring the divine commands to be holy (v. 6), to oppose oppression (v. 6), and to feed and care for the needy (v. 7).

Why is it important?

Perhaps the most important reason for us to practice fasting is because Jesus fasted (Matt. 4.1-4), and He assumes that we will also (Matt. 6.16). In Matthew 6.16, Jesus says: 'When, or, as often as [hotan, in the Greek], you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting.' The idea is not if you fast, but as often as you fast. Jesus assumes that Christians will fast, just as He assumes that Christians will give to the poor (Matt. 6.2) and pray (6.5-6).

Before moving on, it is important to note that fasting does not make an individual a Christian and neither does not fasting disqualify us from being one. The Pharisees were rigorously concerned with fasting, but they treated it as a legalistic exercise instead of one that was both heart-felt and faith-induced (Luke 18.12). And the thief on the cross never fasted and yet was assured by Jesus that he would be with Him in paradise that very day.

Why should I fast?

There are many reasons in the Bible for fasting. The following list provides the most common:

  1. To seek the Lord. Fasting helps us to express an earnestness in our seeking the Lord's help (2 Chron. 20.3; Esther 4.16; Acts 14.23). In denying ourselves food, we are telling the Lord that we mean business, putting our money where our mouth is, so to speak. Andrew Murray states: "Fasting helps to express, to deepen, and to confirm the resolution that we are ready to sacrifice anything, to sacrifice ourselves, to attain what we seek for the kingdom of God."
  2. To express a wholehearted faith. Oftentimes in the Bible, fasting is an expression of wholehearted response to God. It shows that He is more important to us than mere physical pleasures. See, e.g., Joel 2.12-13.
  3. To plead with the Lord. At other times, fasting is practiced as an expression of mourning, either over death (2 Sam. 12.16) or over sin (Jonah 3.5), and of a pleading with the Lord that He might hear the accompanying prayer and answer it from on high. A good example of this can be found in Jonah 3.5, where Nineveh repents before God with prayer and fasting and pleads with Him to show mercy upon them. See also Esther 9.31 and Joel 1.14.
  4. To seek wisdom and guidance. In 2 Chronicles 20.1-30, Jehoshaphat proclaimed a national fast in order that all the people might seek the Lord's wisdom and guidance in the face of an encroaching military multitude that was coming upon him from Edom. This suggests that fasting and praying in the face of daunting tasks and overwhelming circumstances is entirely appropriate for us.
  5. To express humble reliance upon God. In Ezra 8.21, 23, we have record of a fast being proclaimed as an expression of humility and dependence upon God for His provision. Here, fasting is not entered into lightly or flippantly. It shows an humble reliance and trust that God will hear and give what is best.
  6. To prepare ourselves against temptation. See Matthew 4.1ff, where Jesus fasts not in order that the Devil might be able to tempt Him, as many might think, but in order that He might be able to withstand the Devil's temptations. (Satan tempts Him three ways, not just in physical appetite.)
  7. To remind us to pray. Abstaining from food altogether or from certain foods that we would otherwise partake of can be a helpful motivation or reminder to pray. If we would normally eat lunch at noon, and we decide not to for one day a week, this ought to remind us and push us to pray during that time. If we would normally eat ice cream after dinner, and we decide not to for a given period of time, this ought to remind us to pray and to seek the Lord.
  8. How long should I fast?

    In the Bible there are many different lengths for fasts: for a night (Dan. 6.18), for a whole day until evening (Judg. 20.26), from sunset to sunset the following day (Lev. 16.29; 23.32), for three days and nights (Esth. 4.16), for forty days and nights (Matt. 4.2), and for eighty days (Deut. 9.9-29; 10.1-11). No one specific length is commanded in Scripture.

    How often should I fast?

    The Bible nowhere explicitly answers this question. We are told that we ought to fast as a natural part of the Christian life (e.g., Matt. 6.16-17), but we are not told how often that fasting should be done. Luke 18.12 refers to a practice among certain Pharisees of fasting twice a week. In mentioning this, however, Luke's point is to say that their fasting was a legalistic and rote practice; it was not induced by a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith (1 Tim. 1.5). Point to consider: If the Pharisees, who concentrated on an outward religion only, with no internal, forgiving, and renewing grace, fasted twice a week, what does this mean for us, who have been saved by divine grace and freed from the necessity of outward obedience (by necessity of means but not by necessity of precept) and forgiven of all our sin and iniquity through the atonement of Jesus Christ and, thus, released to live as becomes that grace?

    How should I go about fasting?

    Once again, the Bible nowhere explicitly answers this question. Some fasts in Scripture are complete abstentions, where both food and water are not partaken of (i.e., Esth. 4.16). Others appear to be only partial abstentions (Daniel 1.15; 10.3), in which certain aspects of a "normal" and permissible diet are refrained from for a given period of time. Examples of partial fasts might be abstaining from something that is particularly relished (i.e., sweets, ice cream, meat, alcohol, etc.) or, perhaps, abstaining from one or more meals that would normally be eaten. The idea is to deny yourself and, correspondingly, to devote yourself to prayer, focusing the time and energy that you would have used in eating to prayerfully seeking after God.

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