We’ve heard people say they are going to start a “fast,” whether for health reasons, for spiritual reasons, or maybe even for Lent. But there are very few people who preach on it or write Bible studies on it, maybe because it’s not easy or comfortable to do.
But what does fasting mean in the biblical context? Are we, as Christians, supposed to practice it?
Jesus preached on it in Matthew chapter six, as he called out the people who were doing it wrong:
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men 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 6:16-18)
The Pharisees were hypocritical in their fasting, and Jesus wasn’t going to beat around the bush about it. The Pharisees fasted to be seen and praised by men (Matthew 6:1). They also believed they would gain favor with God by doing religious acts and then God would owe them.
Jesus was not pleased with their misuse of the biblical doctrine of fasting.
Throughout Scripture, fasting refers to abstaining from food for spiritual purposes. Fasting is not:
- A hunger strike
- Done to save money on food
- Done for health reasons
- A form of dieting for the purpose of weight loss
Fasting is abstaining from food so the time usually given for food preparation, eating, and cleaning up after the meal can be devoted to prayer.
Fasting acts like a mirror that reveals the things in life that control us.
For me at least, food controls my life.
When I am sad – I eat.
When I am happy – I eat.
When I am bored – I eat.
When I am tired – I eat.
When I am angry – I eat.
When I go to church meetings – I eat.
The purpose of fasting is to identify our spiritual problems so we can then deal with them.
Fasting is not commanded in the New Testament, but Jesus certainly encouraged it when he said, “When you fast…” (Matthew 6:16,17). In fact, when Jesus said that word when, he assumed we would fast.
The Pharisees fasted weekly on Thursday and Monday. These days were chosen because tradition said Moses ascended the Mount to receive the Ten Commandments on a Thursday and he descended the Mount on a Monday. However, Monday and Thursday just happened to be the major Jewish market days when the cities and towns were crowded with farmers, merchants and shoppers. Therefore, these two days afforded the religious leaders of Israel the largest audience to be seen by men.
Jesus stated the Pharisees had “received their reward in full” (Matthew 6:16) – referring to the applause of men.
False righteousness, like true righteousness, does have its reward – the recognition and applause of other hypocrites and ignorant people.
The reward they wanted and received was the recognition and praise of men. And because they had received exactly what they wanted, God owed them nothing.
The Bible mentions fasting in 59 passages of Scripture. Of these 59 references, thirteen times fasting is mentioned negatively because of hypocrisy or sinful motives – exactly what the Pharisees were doing.
In fact, Jesus told the disciples not to do several things that the Pharisees did when they fasted: to not look sad nor change their faces so as not to look different, seeking attention (Matthew 6:16).
Now that we understand what not to do, let’s look at several Biblical fasts one can do in order to grow in their spiritual walk:
The normal fast
The normal fast is going without food for a definite period of time during which you ingest only liquids (water and/or juice). The duration we see in Scripture for this fast can either be for one meal, one day, three days, one week or forty days.
I definitely do not recommend a forty-day fast without working up to it with multiple shorter fasts, and only under a doctor’s supervision.
The absolute fast
The absolute fast abstains from both food and water. Therefore, it must be very short unless you want to die.
The partial fast
The partial fast is one that omits certain foods or is on a schedule that includes limited eating.
You may omit starches, sweets, etc. for a period of time, on certain days of the week, or you may even omit one meal a day.
Fasting from things
Although this type of fast is not mentioned in the Scriptures, I personally believe it could be Christ-honoring. Some things the 21st century believer might fast from include:
- Social Media
So, another question we have to ask is why should we fast?
In the Bible, fasts were proclaimed and practiced on the following occasions:
- Mourning or other times of great spiritual need (Daniel 6:18)
- Times of overwhelming danger (Esther 4:16)
- As a demonstration of repentance (Joel 2:12)
- To understand the will of God (Acts 10:31)
- To attain spiritual victory (Matthew 17:21)
In the Scriptures, fasting is always linked to prayer and a pure heart. You can go without food and water for forty days, but if you don’t pray and if you are only doing it to “look good,” then it will be worthless spiritually.
The purpose of fasting is to grow in our personal relationship with God and to gain ground for the kingdom of God. I remind you that no great movement of the Holy Spirit goes unchallenged by Satan.
Because fasting is a physical discipline, I encourage you to consult your physician before you begin to fast. Not everyone should fast, nor should everyone fast for more than one day at time.
Let me suggest the following activities during your fast:
- Determine the length of the fast.
I would suggest you begin fasting by starting a twenty-four hour fast from noon to noon. This means you would skip two meals—supper and breakfast. During this time, you could drink water and/or fruit juices.
2. Spend several extended periods in prayer (7:7).
3. Ask God to reveal your sin to you (Psalm 19:12).
4. Confess any and all sin that the Holy Spirit reveals, repent of it, and ask God for forgiveness (1 John 1:9).
5. Read large portions of Scripture (Romans 10:17).
6. Select several verses to memorize (Psalm 119:11).
7. Worship God (Luke 2:37).Be discreet about it so men will not know that you are fasting (Matthew 6:18)
When you fast “in secret,” you may be out of the sight of men but God “sees what is done in secret” and will reward you openly (Matthew 6:18).
He who fasts in hypocrisy and with impure motives will receive the rewards of the world, but he who fasts sincerely and with a pure heart will receive the rewards of God.
So, fast, but do it Scripturally!
Copyright © 2020 by Jeff Swart. Used with permission. No part of this article may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from Lifeword.org.