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What is Fasting?

Fasting first and foremost is abstaining from food for a specific period of time to seek God through prayer and reading His Word. Fasting can also be abstaining from anything one deems necessary in order to pursue God without distractions (i.e. phones, entertainment, events, etc.). It is removing weights in one’s life in order to focus our attention, desire, and/or affections on Jesus Christ, before they become sins. As Hebrews 12:1-3 commands,  “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, laying aside every weight and the sin which so easily entangles us, let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,  fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith…” Fasting therefore, is a Christian practice to refocus ones heart, mind, soul, and strength on the Lord. 


            Some believe that fasting was an Old Testament practice only. If this were true, it doesn’t negate the discipline of fasting, but sets the example for us since Paul says in Romans 15:4, ““For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through the perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” However, fasting is indeed found in the New Testament as well, and should be part of every believer’s life. Fasting is found both in the Old and New Testament, it is important to look at both Testaments to give us a better understanding of how we, today, should practice this discipline. Paul Washer, a pastor, and missionary has encouraged,  


“The teaching and historical accounts of the Old Testament were written for the instruction of the New Testament church. Therefore, the Old Testament’s teaching on fasting, as well as its positive and negative examples of fasting, provide a sure foundation for the practice today. Many of the most devoted saints in the Old Testament practiced fasting. This is a great testimony to the benefit and enduring importance of the practice. Those who participate in fasting are in the choice company of great saints in Scripture and in church history.”[1]


            The following questions will be explained in this article: Why should you fast? When should you fast? How do you fast? My hope is this article will give freedom to any believer who wants to grow closer to God through a Biblical understanding of this Christians discipline. May the Lord be glorified as His people pursue Him in fullness and in truth through the Word of God. 



 

[1] Paul Washer, Understanding the Discipline of Fasting (Radford, VA: HeartCry Missionary Society, 2021),

 

Why Should You Fast?


            As a believer seeks to know what fasting is biblically, the next logical question to ask is why should we fast? What is the point? I must be clear; fasting is not a biblical command for believers. The only command to fast comes from Leviticus 16:29-31, 23:27-32, and Numbers 29:7, in reference to the Day of Atonement. Numbers 29:7 says, “Then on the tenth day of this seventh month you shall have a holy convocation, and you shall humble yourselves; you shall not do any work.”  However, the Hebrew word for “humble yourselves” literally means

“defile; to be bowed down or afflicted.” It is agreed that in these verses mentioned, it can mean

“humble, weaken, object oneself, by fasting.”[2] Regardless, if God commanded fasting on the Day of Atonement, it still doesn’t apply to believers today since we are saved by the new covenant through Jesus Christ. As Galatians 5:18 says, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law.” Let me make it clear again, the Bible does not command that believers in Christ have to fast. Therefore, fasting will not make you more spiritual or religious. It will not bring you visions, dreams, or a special revelation from God. It will not make you loved any more than you already are by God right now. However, it is something we do through our Christian liberty as opposed to Christian obedience. Why then should a believer fast? I would contend that fasting is another means, within our liberty, to be obedient to Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 2:15, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.” 


            If fasting is not a command, why do it? If it is important, why wouldn’t it be commanded? Let me share Jesus’ own words on the matter. In Matthew 9:14, it says, “Then the disciples of John came to Him, asking, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?” Remember, they have been practicing the OT law up to this point. Both the pharisees and John’s disciples have been fasting on a regular basis to obey the OT command. However, what Jesus says next completely transforms the meaning and reason for fasting. Look at what Jesus says in Matthew 9:15-17:


 “Can the attendants of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. But no one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and a worse tear results. Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.”


            At first glance, many have used this verse to prove that Jesus did away with fasting. However, a careful reading of this text will prove otherwise. In these verses, Jesus is not removing fasting completely, instead, He gives life and hope to fasting. Jesus answered John’s disciples by explaining why his disciples did not need to fast presently - the bridegroom is with them. As we mentioned earlier, if fasting is for the purpose of pursuing our Lord more fully, why would that be needed if the Lord was present with them? Jesus explains to them when they will indeed start fasting: “But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” Jesus is referring here to when he was crucified, died, buried, resurrected, and ascended. After Christ’s ascension began the church age, throughout which believers will indeed fast as they await His second coming. Today, we do not fast because it’s commanded in Scripture, but because of the blessings it brings in our lives as wait for the Lord, humble ourselves under God’s mighty hand, refocus our lives on Christ, and seek the Lord more fully through His Word in this present age of distraction. If believers should fast in their liberty, the next question is this, when do we fast biblically? 



 

[2] Strong’s Hebrew: 6031. עָָנָה (anah) -- defile, accessed March 19, 2024, https://biblehub.com/hebrew/6031.htm.


When Do We Fast?


            Now that we understand what fasting is and why it is important, the next question is naturally, when do we fast according to Scripture? We want Scripture to be the rhyme and reason for everything we do, even if it’s within our Christian liberty. Let us never make the mistake of using our human reason, will, or desires to justify anything we do by claiming it to be within our liberty. As Paul clearly teaches in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Where do we find what glorifies God? In

God’s inspired, inerrant, infallible, and sufficient Word. I have listed below different instances in Scripture that encourage us to fast; please study each one carefully. Again, fasting is not commanded by God; however, if the Spirit has laid it upon the heart of a believer, it can be beneficial. As Paul Washer continues, “The truth conveyed is this: the more we set aside time to draw near to God in worship and prayer and even fasting, the more discerning we will be with regard to His will and the more useful we will be with regard to His purposes.”[3] Let us briefly study Scripture to see what God says through His Word. I would add that because these verses are not commands, spiritual wisdom and discernment must be used when trying to implement fasting in these areas. I have divided them into the following sections: Fasting Spiritually, Fasting Privately, and Fasting Corporately.

 

Fasting Spiritually for the purpose of seeking, praying, discerning, and waiting on God:

  • King David seeks God’s restoration for his child. 

    • 2 Samuel 12:15-16, “Then Yahweh smote the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, so that he was very sick. David therefore sought God about the boy; and David fasted and went and spent the night lying on the ground.” 

  • The people humbled themselves before God’s Words. 

    • Jeremiah 36:9-10, “…all the people in Jerusalem and all the people who came from the cities of Judah to Jerusalem called for a fast before Yahweh. Then Baruch read from the book the words of Jeremiah in the house of Yahweh…” 

  • Daniel sought the Lord for direction. 

    • Daniel 9:3, “So I gave my face to the Lord God to seek Him by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes.” 

  • The Prophetess Anna was waiting for the Lord with hope and expectation.

    • Luke 2:37-38, “She never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers. And at that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.” 

  • The disciples were trying to discern the Lord’s will for missions. 

    • Acts 13:2, “And while they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”

  • The Apostles sought the Lord for important decisions affecting the Church.  

    • Acts 14:23, “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.”


Fasting Privately for the purpose of intercession, repentance, preparation, expectation, and strength.

  • Nehemiah interceded on behalf of Israel in response to coming judgment over Israel’s sin. 

    • Nehemiah 1:3-10, “4 Now it happened that when I heard these words, I sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven.” 

  • Ahab repented for his sin.  

    • 1 Kings 21:27-29, “27 Now it happened when Ahab heard these words, that he tore his clothes and put [a]on sackcloth and fasted, and he lay in sackcloth and went about [b]despondently. 28 Then the word of Yahweh came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, 29 “Do you see how Ahab has humbled himself before Me? Because he has humbled himself before Me, I will not bring the evil in his days, but I will bring the evil upon his house in his son’s days.”

  • Jesus prepared for temptation. 

    • Matthew 4:1-3, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry. And the tempter came…”

  • Jesus said his people will fast as they wait expectantly for Him to return.

    • Matthew 9:15, “But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”

  • Jesus said faith is strengthened by prayer and fasting. 

    • Matthew 17:20-21, “ And He *said to them, “Because of your little faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith [a]the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you. [But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.”] (Early manuscripts omit this last verse.)

Fasting Corporately to seek God in a time of crisis, for the direction of God’s people, and for repentance of sins to divert God’s judgement.

  • David and his men were sorrowful for the loss of God’s people.

    • 2 Samuel 1:11-12, “And they lamented and wept and fasted until evening for Saul and his son Jonathan and for the people of Yahweh and the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword.” 

  • King Jehoshaphat and the people sought the Lord in the face of an impending attack.

    • 2 Chronicles 20:3-4, “And Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek Yahweh, and called for a fast throughout all Judah. So Judah gathered together to seek help from Yahweh; they even came from all the cities of Judah to seek Yahweh.”

  • Ezra and the people humbled themselves to seek guidance from God.

    • Ezra 8:21,“Then I called for a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God to seek from Him a direct journey for us, our little ones, and all our possessions.  

  • The people sought direction on whether to engage in war or not.

    • Judges 20:26-28, “Then all the sons of Israel and all the people went up and came to Bethel and wept; thus they remained there before Yahweh and fasted that day until evening. And they offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before Yahweh.” 

  • Joel called the whole people to repent in a solemn assembly to find restoration. 

    • Joel 1:14-15, “Set apart a fast as holy, Call for a solemn assembly; Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of Yahweh your God, and cry out to Yahweh. Alas for the day! For the day of Yahweh is near, and it will come as destruction from the Almighty.

  • Joel goes even further to proclaim God’s Words on the matter of repentance and restoration.

    • Joel 2:12-13, “‘Yet even now,’ declares Yahweh, ‘Return to Me with all your heart and with fasting, weeping, and wailing; and tear your heart and not your garments.’ Now return to Yahweh your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness, And relenting concerning evil.”

  • Nehemiah also called the people for a fast to repent and seek Yahweh. 

    • Nehemiah 9:1-3, “Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the sons of Israel gathered with fasting, in sackcloth and with dirt upon them. The seed of Israel separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers. And they rose up in their place and read from the book of the law of Yahweh their God for a fourth of the day; and for another fourth they were confessing and worshiping Yahweh their God.”

  • The people of Ninevah called for a fast to repent and find favor with God. 

    • Jonah 3:4-10, “And the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them.”

This list is not exhaustive, and only includes where the English translation (LSB) uses the word “fast.” There are many others verses that implicitly relate to fasting, therefore, more study can always be done on this topic from Scripture. It must be stated that because this discipline is a Christian liberty, it must not be viewed as religious, legalistic, or commanded. Fasting is a discipline that can foster in your life obedience to God’s Word. Fasting itself is not worship, but it is the means by which worship can take place. As Thomas Boston concludes, “Fasting is not itself a part of worship; it is a means to prepare and equip us for extraordinary worship. It is therefore to be used only as a help or aid in worship.”[4] As the Spirit of God within you guides and illuminates the Word for you, be sensitive to whether the Spirit lays it on your heart to fast. and hopefully this previous list can help navigate when to take that step. As Paul commands in Galatians 5:16, “But I say, walk by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.” Let us, by the Spirit, discern both personally and corporately the benefit of when to fast.



 

[3] Washer, Understanding the Discipline of Fasting, 21.

[4] Washer, Understanding the Discipline of Fasting, 76.


How Do You Fast?


            If you know what fasting is, why it’s important, and when fasting is appropriate in Scripture, the next question is, “how do you fast?” The Bible only explicitly states how one fasts generally, so the believer must wisely discern how they go about actually fasting specifically.

There are two correct ways and two wrong ways of fasting that are general in concept but vitally important to understand in Scripture. First we will look at the two positive, and then the two negatives. 


 The first way fasting should be done is in secret according to Matthew 6:16-18:


 “Now whenever 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. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 17 But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face 18 so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” 


Jesus’ teaching here is during his Sermon on the Mount. Notice His choice of words. Christ doesn’t say, “if” you fast, but “when” you fast. Right there, even though it isn’t a command, it is Christ’s expectation that His believers will indeed fast. The first answer to how a believer fasts is in secret. Obviously, in regard to corporate fasting, or a solemn assembly, others within that congregation will know that those present are taking part, but again, the same principle applies. Believers should not neglect themselves while fasting, but fast in a way that it is not noticeable from outsiders.


            The second passage, which we have already discussed above, gives us one more answer to how someone should fast. The second way is as a believer. Matthew 9:14-17 says: 


“Then the disciples of John came to Him, asking, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?” 15 And Jesus said to them, “Can the attendants of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. 16 But no one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and a worse tear results. Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.”


Christ is making the distinction between traditional fasting and spirit-led fasting. One is for external reasons, the other is internal. One is legalistic, the other is from a heart of obedience and love. One is to be more religious, the other is to become humble. The motives of the heart must be pure and held firm upon God and His Word.

 

            The first wrong way is to have wrong actions during a fast. Isaiah 58:3-4, “‘Why have we fasted and You do not see? Why have we afflicted our souls and You do not know?’ Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast for contention and quarreling and to strike with a wicked fist. You do not fast like you do today to make your voice heard on high.” The people were fasting but were acting contentious, quarrelsome, and violent. God tells them they were fasting wrongly, and He has not seen it. When fasting, believers must use it as a springboard toward love and obedience. It is no excuse to sin against God while claiming to fast. Believers must check their actions before, during, and after a fast to grow in the love and obedience of God. 


            The second wrong way is to have wrong motives while fasting. God speaks to the people in Zechariah 7:5-6, “Speak to all the people of the land and to the priests, saying, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months these seventy years, was it actually for Me that you fasted? And when you eat and when you drink, are you not eating for yourselves and are you not drinking for yourselves?” The people fasted but did so for themselves. Their motives were neither right nor pure. A believer must check their motives as to why they are desiring to fast. The best litmus test to see if you have right actions and motives behind fasting is reminding ourselves of 1 Corinthians 10:31, “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” This test will correct our actions and our motives as we live to glorify God.

            One last piece of caution regarding fasting is to keep the Word of God in its rightful place. The Word is our ultimate authority and guide. If you are led to fast, be careful that you don’t fall prey to believing God will speak to you in a way other than His Word. Paul Washer warns as well,


“As we seek the Lord in prayer, the Holy Spirit may impress His will upon our hearts and minds. However, we must proceed with caution. Not all impressions are from God, and our hearts and minds are easily deceived. The only infallible standard regarding God’s will is Scripture. Therefore, we must compare all thoughts, impressions, and human counsel to the inerrant words of Scripture. We must reject anything that contradicts what is written!”[5] 



 

[5] Washer, Understanding the Discipline of Fasting, 22. 


Conclusion


            My hope and prayer is that this article is another supplemental resource to help guide someone biblically through the discipline of fasting. Scripture does talk about fasting in many

 

ways; however, wisdom and discernment must be used if attempting to fast with the right motives and actions. I know there are many other questions that can be asked that give more specifics on the practical side of doing a fast. However, since I don’t see specifics described in Scripture, I have no authority to give specifics here. I have included a list of resources in the bibliography, two of which I have used in this article. I hope and pray this will be just a tool for greater obedience to our glorious Lord and Savior as we build our lives upon Him. As Jesus says in Matthew 7:24-27:


“Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and does them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain descended, and the rivers came, and the winds blew and fell against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. And everyone hearing these words of Mine and not doing them, may be compared to a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain descended, and the rivers came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall.” 

 

 


 

 [5] Washer, Understanding the Discipline of Fasting, 22. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY


“Fasting: Resources from Ligonier Ministries.” Ligonier Ministries. Accessed March 20, 2024.

 

MacArthur, John. “Is Fasting a Command?” Grace to You, January 23, 2024.


Mathis, David. “Fasting for Beginners.” Desiring God, March 20, 2024.


Skepple, Roger. “Biblical Fasting: Is It a Practice for the Church Today?” G3 Ministries, February 19, 2024. Part 1: https://g3min.org/biblical-fasting-is-it-a-practice-for-the-churchtoday/ Part 2: https://g3min.org/biblical-fasting-is-it-a-practice-for-the-church-today-part-


Strong’s Hebrew: 6031. עָָנָה (anah) -- defile. Accessed March 19, 2024.


Tarrants, Thomas. “The Place of Fasting in the Christian Life.” C.S. Lewis Institute, January 15, 2024. https://www.cslewisinstitute.org/resources/the-place-of-fasting-in-the-christian-life/


Verbruggen, Jan. “Expressing Our Dependence: A Biblical Case for Fasting.” Transform, October 3, 2022. https://transform.westernseminary.edu/resources/biblical-case-for-fasting


Washer, Paul. Understanding the discipline of fasting. Radford, VA: HeartCry Missionary Society, 2021. 


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