Dr. Fred A. Lawson | Cleveland, Tennessee
Is fasting necessary for today’s Christian church? What does the Bible teach about fasting? What is it, in the biblical sense? Fasting is the abstaining from food and drink for a spiritual reason. In the Old Testament era, the Jews fasted frequently, though there was only one fast prescribed by the law. Once each year, on the Day of Atonement, the Hebrews were to “afflict” their souls (see Leviticus 16:31), which meant fasting (see Isaiah 58:3).
Fasting was an expected discipline in both the Old and New Testament eras. Examples of fasting appear in both the Old and the New Testaments. The new covenant is based on the truth that we have received everything in Christ: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3 NIV). Nevertheless, we cooperate with the Spirit in the working out of our salvation with much prayer, meditation, and the study of God’s Word. In addition, to all these spiritual practices, Christians should also employ the humbling discipline of fasting. The New Testament seems to take for granted that the children of God would see the need to fast occasionally. Biblical fasting is a spiritual discipline which was encouraged by Jesus, Himself, while He was on earth.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book, The Cost of Discipleship, said, “Jesus takes it for granted that His disciples will observe the pious custom of fasting. In cautioning against improper motivation in worship, Christ warned: ‘Moreover when you fast, be not, as hypocrites’ (Matthew 6:16). It is significant that he did not say ‘if,’ but ‘when’ ye fast—reflecting the expectation that they would. Jesus’ words imply that fasting will be a regular practice in His followers’ lives.”
When the Lord’s disciples were criticized for not fasting, Jesus was asked why the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist fasted while Jesus disciples did not? Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast” (Matthew 9:15 NIV). Jesus was suggesting that it was hardly appropriate for them to fast while he was yet with them. Jesus was indicating that fasting would become a necessity, when the bridegroom (Jesus) was taken away (see Luke 5:35). Fasting, for the Christian, should arise out of a feeling of intense need, not as a result of mere formality. While Jesus, who was God manifested in human form, was still on earth, His followers enjoyed a close fellowship and friendship with Him. Jesus bestowed power and authority on them to the extent that they had limited power to preach, heal the sick, and cast out devils.
Similarly, when Jesus sent them out to minister to the populace, He instructed them to take few provisions. “Then Jesus asked them, ‘When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?’ ‘Nothing,’ they answered. He said to them, ‘But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one’” (Luke 22:35, 36 NIV). Jesus was teaching that after His departure, the entire dynamic would change, and the disciples would need a different type of preparation and provision. Fasting was to be a vital part of this new preparation.
What is the proper attitude and motive for fasting? For most people, fasting is not their favorite subject. The fleshly nature tends to want it easy; it craves comfort. Despite examples throughout Scripture, many Christians are slow to fast. I believe there are three main factors that cause believers to be hesitant: fear, ignorance, or rebellion. While fasting is not fun, it’s necessary. It is an intentional positioning of our hearts for breakthrough and spiritual growth. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6 ESV). Strict exercise of self-control is an essential feature of the Christian life. Such customs have only one purpose—to make the disciples more ready and cheerful to accomplish those things which God would have done.
Biblical fasting, unlike fasting for medical or health reasons, must be done:
(1) With an attitude of seriousness and sincerity. When we fast, we willingly deprive the body of nourishment and the pleasurable taste of food. The body requires food for sustenance; therefore, our hearts and minds must be totally focused and directed towards God so that He may be the full source of our strength during our period of fasting.
(2) Fasting must also be done in an attitude of humility. It is not necessary for others to know we are fasting; it is directed towards God. “But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:17, 18 NIV).
(3)Our motives must also be correct. In addition to our attitudes towards God and our stance before man, our motives must also be correct. We should fast in order to further the building up of God’s kingdom by seeking to minister to others. The prophet Isaiah received from the Lord the acceptable motives for our fasts: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:6, 7).
(4) Attitude of Spiritual Hunger. While we await the return of the bridegroom, our Lord Jesus Christ, fasting exemplifies our attitude of spiritual hunger—the promise is that we will be satisfied. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6 NIV).
Fasting is not a question of if, but when. Jesus said, “when you fast” (see Matthew 6:16–18), not “if you fast.” It is biblical; Jesus did it (see Matthew 4:2). Some people fast religiously, almost without direction. If that’s the case, then check your motive. God may be calling you to fast—He certainly has a specific purpose in mind. More often than not, when you decide to fast, God has already laid it on your heart for a definite reason. Fasting should have an object in mind. We should have a clear idea of the need and purpose for fasting. One of the most pressing reasons for Christian fasting may be revival. “Will you not revive us again” (Psalm 85:6 NIV).
How long an individual should fast will vary depending on the individual’s need and purpose for fasting. Fasts may last for varying lengths of time: one day, three days, seven days, and more. We should prayerfully seek the Lord about the length of our fast. The reason why an individual should fast will also depend on the individual’s need and purpose for fasting. We fast regularly. Fasting is a spiritual discipline. The frequency is Spirit led (see Luke 2:37; 2 Corinthians 11:27). We fast when the leadership calls a fast (in your church or nation). Public national fasts were recorded in the Bible on occasions when the people were repenting of sin (see 1 Samuel 7:5, 6; Nehemiah 9:1–3). We fast when direction is needed. Are you desperate to hear Him more clearly? When the noise of everything else is temporarily removed, it is easier to receive clarification, especially when seeking direction (see Acts 13:2).
There are many different kinds of fasts which include: total fast (only drinking water)—Jesus ate nothing when He fasted; Daniel fast—more restrictions than a vegan diet; juice fast (juicing and drinking water only)—only by the leading of the Lord, take medical conditions into consideration; Partial fast (food specific)—recommended if you have a medical condition and could be from sunup to sundown; and non-food related (e.g. entertainment) fast—my recommendation is to do these fill-in-the-blank types of fasts in addition to (and not in place of) one of the ones listed above.
When fasting, use wisdom. Some people cannot participate in fasts that involve the loss of vital calories for the body. Some may be advised by their doctor not to participate in a Daniel fast because he/she is concerned the body would burn muscle instead of the missing extra fat. Instead, some fast chocolate, sugar, or other specific treats they usually partake in daily. Occasionally, one could fast some form of entertainment or something he/she would rather not give up. God always makes it clear which precious commodity that a Christian should give to a fast. When fasting, take medications into consideration. If you are on medication and the directions say to eat food with it, then follow the instructions of your doctor or pharmacist. It’s not using wisdom to tempt God by throwing your body into a danger zone. Find the principle of not putting God to the test in Matthew 4:5–7. If you give into eating during your fast, don’t get into condemnation. Simply repent and keep moving forward. Remove or limit normal distractions, such as watching television. It will help you to remain sensitive to the Spirit. Resist temptation by running to God immediately.
What are Some Benefits of Fasting?
The Scriptures seem to suggest that God honors fasting when performed as a token of deep and sincere dedication. It is a biblical way to truly humble us in the sight of God. Fasting and prayer can restore the loss of the “first love” for our Lord and result in a more intimate relationship with Christ. It enables the Holy Spirit to reveal our true spiritual condition, resulting in brokenness, repentance, and a transformed life. In the final analysis, there does seem to be some benefits in voluntary fasting at certain times. Reflect upon the following:
(1) Self-discipline. Fasting can help one hone a keener edge on self-discipline.
(2) Fasting can have the added effect of reinforcing our appreciation for those things of which we’re deprived during the periods of abstention.
(3) While our bodies are being deprived for the purpose of drawing near to God, He has promised in return to draw near to us. This is a spiritual certainty. As we decrease, the Spirit increases.
(4) Luke 2 tells the story of an 84-year-old prophetess, named Anna. Verse 37, in the New International Version, says, “She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.” Anna was devoted to God and fasting was one expression of her love for Him.
(5) As we humble and deprive our bodies through fasting, our spiritual person is made stronger and our senses more acute. This principle served the apostles well during the early church days
(6) After losing 40,000 men in battle in two days, the Israelites cried out to God for help. Judges 20:26 says all the people went up to Bethel and “sat weeping before the Lord.” They also “fasted that day until evening.” The next day, the Lord gave them victory over the Benjamites.
(7) Instructions and directions, when fasting, are received from God. “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:2, 3 NIV). The entire city of Nineveh, including animals, fasted upon hearing the pronouncement of judgment from the prophet Jonah and God spared them (see Jonah 3:10).
(8) Fasting may be spiritually beneficial in times of personal sorrow. David and his men mourned and fasted upon hearing of the death of Saul (see 2 Samuel 1:12), and Nehemiah did similarly when he was informed of Jerusalem’s decimated condition (see Nehemiah 1:4).
(9) Fasting is frequently accompanied with repentance as an outward and genuine indication of contrition for spiritual rebellion (see 1 Samuel 7:6).
(10) Fasting was practiced in connection with great and important religious events. In preparation for receiving the Law, Moses fasted (see Exodus 34:28). In preparation for ministry, Jesus spent 40 days and nights in the wilderness fasting and praying before He began God’s work on this earth (see Matthew 4:1,2).
(11) The National Institute on Aging (NIA) recently revealed that intermittent fasting could be the greatest key to longevity, according to USA Today.
(12) When you fast, your cells, tissues, and organs dump out the accumulated waste products of cellular metabolism, as well as chemicals, heavy metals, pesticides, and solvents. Fasting revitalizes you in every way: mentally, physically, and spiritually.
Warnings for those who fast: Admittedly fasting can be abused. The practice must never be employed as a substitute for personal godly living. Isaiah delivered a blistering rebuke to those who fasted, then pursued their own worldly pleasures (Isaiah 58). Moreover, fasting must not be an occasion for the flaunting of one’s religion. The Pharisees were guilty of this very thing (see Matthew 6:16–18). The rigors of fasting must not be allowed to ignite a spirit of religious smugness and self-righteousness. This certainly could be a temptation (see Luke 18:9–14).
Remember, when you fast, especially a spiritual fast, the time you would usually spend eating is spent with the Lord, instead. Write down your questions, any struggles you may be facing during the fast, and what God is showing you in your journal. Go back later in the fast and read what you wrote. Often, you will gain more revelation or see the answers to your questions as God completes the work He is doing.
Do you want to grow spiritually? Are you longing for a spiritual breakthrough? Give God your undivided attention through biblical fasting and see Him move on your behalf. Whatever the purpose of your fast, it will strengthen your walk with God. Fasting will cause you to thrive spiritually. Amen!