Fasting: For the Purpose of Godliness
Fasting is often one of the more misunderstood Spiritual Disciplines. This is probably the case because there is a lack of awareness of it in our culture. Even though there has been somewhat of an increase in awareness more recently, many of us don’t know someone who regularly practices fasting or regularly practice fasting ourselves. We don’t here it taught very often. However, Jesus Himself both taught and practiced fasting. It is mentioned in scripture more times than baptism (75-baptism; 77- fasting). So, it has strong biblical significance. Even if you are unable to abstain from food for medical reasons, there are many applications of this discipline. We should not ignore fasting, as it is another discipline to be used in our pursuit of Godliness. Here is a definition…
Unbelievers cannot fast Biblically. The discipline must be rooted in a relationship with Christ and practiced with a desire to be more like Him. Believers should fast according to Biblical teaching and with a purpose that is God centered. It should be voluntary and not meant for a diet, but meant for a Spiritual purpose.
Technically speaking, fasting is abstinence from food. However, someone can abstain from things other than food to pursue a Spiritual purpose (media, sex or a hobby). We may feel there are things in life taking too much of our attention and we need to fast in order to regain a Biblical perspective. It might be that we want freedom to become more absorbed in a particular Spiritual purpose.
So, while it is good to fast from various things, the primary sense of fasting is from food. Therefore, we will limit our discussion today primarily to that kind of fast. Although others are good as well. There are a variety of different kinds of fasts mentioned in the Scripture.
A. Kinds of Fasts
a. Normal Fast (Matthew 4:2; Luke 4:2) *Most common
This involves abstaining from food but not water. In Matthew 4:2 it tells us that Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights and that “he was hungry”. It doesn’t mention that He was thirsty. In Luke 4:2 it says that “He ate nothing during those days”, but again it does not say that he drank nothing. Since the human body can only function a few days without water, it can be assumed that He did drink water during this time. This type of fast, abstaining from food only, it the most common type of fast for Christians today.
b. Partial Fast (Daniel 1:12)
This is a limit to the diet, but not an abstinence from all food. We see this in Daniel 1:12 when for ten days Daniel and his three friends only had “vegetables and water to drink”. Historically, Christians have done this by eating smaller portions of food and/or only eating a few simple foods. This is good because if you can’t observe a normal fast for any reason, this is a great option.
c. Absolute Fast (Ezra 10:6; Esther 4:16; Acts 9:9)
This is the avoidance of all foods and drinks, even water. We are told in Ezra 10:6 that “Ezra withdrew …neither eating bread nor drinking water, for he was mourning over the faithlessness of the exiles”. When Esther requested that the Jews fast and pray on her behalf in Esther 4:16, she said, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day”. After the Apostle Paul was converted in Acts 9:9 it tells us “for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank”. These are examples of an absolute fast.
d. Supernatural Fast (Deuteronomy 9:9; 1 Kings 19:8)
There are two instances in Scripture for this. It’s supernatural because there is no eating or drinking for forty days, which is impossible for the human body to handle. When Moses met with God on Mt. Sinai in Deuteronomy 9:9, he said, “I remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights. I neither are bread nor drank water”. Then in 1 Kings 19:8, when Elijah did the same thing at the site of Moses, it says “And he rose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that for forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God” These required God’s supernatural intervention into the body. This is not repeatable apart from the Lord’s specific calling and miraculous provision. *Possible Jesus in wilderness* e. Private Fast (Matthew 6:16-18) *Most common
This is most common today as well. Jesus mentioned in Matthew 6 that we should fast in a way not to be noticed by others. It is a private fast for an individual with some Spiritual purpose.
f. Congregational Fast (Joel 2:15-16; Acts 13:2)
We did this as a church. We see this in Joel 2:15-16 where it says, “Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Consecrate the congregation”. We see that at least a part of the Church at Antioch was fasting together in Acts 13:2, where Luke says “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting.”
g. National Fasts (2 Chronicle 20:3; Jonah 3:5-8)
In response to an invasion, King Jehoshaphat in 2 Chronicles 20:3 called a national fast. “Jehoshaphat was afraid and turned his attention to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah.” Also, the King of Nineveh proclaimed a national fast in response to the preaching of Jonah in Jonah 3:5-8. Historically, even in our Nation early on, Congress proclaimed national fasts. Three presidents, John Adams, James Madison and Abraham Lincoln all proclaimed a national fast. Lincoln did three times during the Civil War.
h. Regular Fast (Leviticus 16:29-31; Zechariah 8:19; Luke 18:12)
Each year in the Old Covenant, every Jew was to fast on the Day of Atonement. We see this in Leviticus 16:29-31. While they were in in Babylon, the leaders of the Jews instituted four other annual fasts in Zechariah 8:19. Even in the NT we see the Pharisee in Luke 18:12 congratulate himself for keeping the Pharisee tradition of “fasting twice a week.” So, there have been some regularly scheduled fasting.
i. Occasional Fast (Matthew 9:15) *Most common
Again, this is the most common. Typically occurring when special needs arise. This is what happened with King Jehoshaphat and Ester because of their circumstances. This is the kind of fast implied by Jesus in Matthew 9:15 when He said, “Can the wedding guest mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The day will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”
So, the most common fasting today for Christians is a normal, private and occasional fast.
B. Fasting is Expected
(Matthew 6:16-17; Acts 9:9, 13:2, 14:23)
Jesus expected His followers to fast. In Matthew 6:16-17 Jesus says, “And when you fast” and “But when you fast”. Jesus assumed His followers would fast. The same chapter is where Jesus says, “And when you give” and “But when you give. He also says, “And when you pray” and “But when you pray”. No doubt we are to give and pray. We often use this passages to show that it is expected of believers to give and pray. And since there is no indication anywhere in Scripture that fasting has ceased, and that in Acts the people fasted, we can be sure that Jesus still expects us to fast.
Other instruction is given in Matthew 6:16-18, which we mentioned already. Jesus gives a negative command, a positive command and a promise. He said, “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. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face 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.”
So, don’t fast to make a show of it by neglecting physical appearance and talking about how hungry you are. Instead, make it so that no one can tell based on your appearance that you are fasting. Your observer should be the secret one, God. Although there may be times when you have to let someone know (wife or friend). It’s to avoid hypocrisy, not telling people so that they think you are Spiritual.
Then Jesus gives a promise of reward. What a great promise that is certain for those who fast according to the Word of God. God will bless and reward you. There is a Spiritual reward for fasting.
Jesus does not however talk about the length of a fast. There are no time requirements given. Just like other disciplines, fasting should not be an empty legalistic routine. God can bless us through fasting as often as we desire to do it. In the Bible we find examples of several lengths of fasts from one day, part of a day, one night, three days, seven days, fourteen days, twenty one days, forty days and some mentioned with unspecified time frames. Abstinence from one meal for a Spiritual purpose is a fast. The length of time is up to you and the leadership of the Holy Spirit.
C. Fasting is to be Done for a Purpose
It’s more than just food abstinence, it requires a Spiritual Purpose to be a true fast. Without a purpose, fasting can be a miserable, self-centered experience about willpower and endurance. Purpose is extremely important. As you feel hunger, it should bring you a regular reminder of the purpose of the fast.
So, the hunger of a fast serves as a consistent reminder of the purpose of the fast. Every time it should bring us to prayer regarding the purpose. Scripture has many purposes for a fast. Here are a few of the major categories. Notice that none of them are to earn the favor of God. We cannot earn God’s acceptance through a fast. Fasting is a means of experiencing God’s grace, not His favor. Here are a few of the biblical purposes given in Scripture.
a. To Strengthen Prayer (Ezra 8:23; Nehemiah 1:4; Daniel 9:3; Acts 13:3)
People of God have used fasting when there was an urgency in their prayer regarding the concern they are bringing before God. When Ezra was going to lead a group of exiles back to Jerusalem, he proclaimed a fast in order for the people to seek the Lord for safe passage. They would have to face many dangers on the 900-mile trip and they did not have any military protection. They were vulnerable. It says in Ezra 8:23 “So we fasted and implored our God for this, and He listened to our entreaty.”
It’s not that fasting compels God to do what we want. If we are asking for things outside of God’s will then fasting will not cause Him to reconsider. It isn’t meant to change God’s hearing, as much as it is to change our praying. Biblical fasting is God’s idea. When we need to strengthen our prayers, God says to apply fasting. It brings more intensity and urgency to a Spiritual desire.
We see prayer coupled with fasting in Nehemiah 1:4 where it says Nehemiah, “continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven. In Daniel 9:3 its says that Daniel pleaded with God “by prayers and please for mercy with fasting”. In Acts 13:3 the church at Antioch laid hands on Barnabas and Saul to send them on their missionary journey “after fasting and praying”.
In Scripture fasting to strengthen prayer is most emphasized. They are often coupled together. Really, when you look at all the other Biblical reasons to fast, in one way or another, they relate to prayer. Fasting is one of the best things we can bring into our prayer lives.
Arthur Wallis in his book God’s Chosen Fast stated, “Fasting is calculated to bring a note of urgency and importunity into our praying, and to give force to our pleading in the court of heaven. The man who prays with fasting is giving heaven notice that he is truly in earnest… Not only so, but he is expressing his earnestness in a divinely-appointed way. He is using a means that God has chosen to make his voice heard on high.”
b. To Seek God’s Guidance (Acts 14:23)
So, to try to gain a clearer understanding of God’s will. According to Acts 14:23 when Paul and Barnabas would appoint Elders in the churches they founded, the first prayed and fasted to receive God’s guidance. While fasting does not guarantee clear and direct guidance, when practiced correctly, it does make us more receptive to the God who loves to guide us.
c. To Express Grief (1 Samuel 20:34)
Three of the first four references to fasting in the Bible connect it to grief. Many reference griefs because of death to someone, and it was followed by a fast. It could also be grief over sin in your own life or over the sin of others. When King Saul was trying to kill David, Saul’s son Jonathan responded with “ate no food on the second day of the month, for he was grieved for David” (1 Samuel 20:34). He was fasting over his father’s treatment of David. Since fasting, like crying, is a way of physically expressing the depth of our grief to God, it is appropriate to accompany our grieving with fasting.
d. To Seek Deliverance or Protection (2 Chronicles 20:3-4; Esther 4:16)
A very common fast in the Biblical times was to fast seeking salvation from an enemy or a circumstance. After being notified that a large army was coming against him, King Jehoshaphat “was afraid and set his face to seek the Lord and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah.” Probably the best example we have of fasting for protection or deliverance is in Esther 4:16. She is having to go before the kind and need God’s protection from the king’s wrath. She risked death by going before the king. She told her cousin, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.”
Fasting, rather than reacting in the flesh, should be one of our first defenses against persecution from people in the world due to our faith. We may desire to strike back with anger, or verbal abuse and have anxiety, but we can appeal to God first for protection and deliverance.
e. To Express Repentance and Return to God (Joel 2:12)
This is similar to fasting for expressing grief over sin. Repentance is a change of mind resulting in a change of action, fasting can represent more than just grief over sin. It can also be a sign of a commitment to obedience to God. In Joel 2:12 the Lord specifically calls the people to repent and return to Him by fasting. It says, ““Yet even now,” declares the Lord, Return to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, weeping and mourning;”.
In fact, without repentance fasting can be done in vain. If we are hardening our hearts to God’s call to deal with specific sin in our life, it can be pointless. We should be sensitive to God’s conviction by the Holy Spirit and not pervert fasting by holding on to sin in our lives.
f. To Humble Oneself Before God (1 Kings 21:27-29)
In the same way we sometimes bow or get on our knees in prayer to express humility, fasting can also be an expression of humility before God. Fasting in itself is not humility before God, it is an expression of humility before God. One of the most wicked Kings in Jewish history, King Ahab, humbled himself before God and demonstrated it by fasting. It says in 1 Kings 1:27-29 “It came about when Ahab heard these words, that he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and fasted, and he lay in sackcloth and went about despondently. Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, “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.”
g. To Express Concern for the Work of God (Nehemiah 1:3-4)
There may be a desire to fast and pray for the work of God in a place that needs His help. This was the purpose of Nehemiah’s fast when he heard that despite the return of many Jewish exiles to Jerusalem, the city still had no wall to defend it. It says, “They said to me, “The remnant there in the province who survived the captivity are in great distress and reproach, and the wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its gates are burned with fire. 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.”
h. To Minister to the Needs of Others (Isaiah 58:1-7)
Spiritual disciplines were not meant to foster independence and self-focus. Isaiah 58 is the most extensive passage of scripture dealing exclusively with fasting. Here God emphasizes fasting for the purpose of meeting the needs of others. The people being addressed here had complained to the Lord that He had not answered their prayers even though they fasted and humbled themselves. The reason He had not heard them was due to disobedience. They were hypocritical with their lives. In v3-4 God responds and says, “Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers/ Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fating like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high.” So, although they were fasting, they were arguing, fighting and mistreating each other. God does not allow us to compartmentalize fasting from the rest of our lives! God will not bless any discipline, including fasting, when we disregard His Word and relationships with other people.
What should we do? How does God want us to fast? In verse 6-7 the Lord says, “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? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and to bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” In other words, the kind of fasting that pleases God is one that results in concern for others and not just for ourselves. We can fast with the Spiritual purpose of ministering to others.
i. To Overcome Temptation and Dedicate Yourself to God (Matthew 4:1-11)
In Matthew 4:1-11 Jesus is coming off of a forty day fast to prepare himself for the public ministry He was about to begin. In the Spiritual strength of the long fast, he was prepared to overcome the temptations of Satan. Satan tempted Him in various ways. Now, the passage has more to do with declaring who Jesus is rather than fasting, but there is something for us to learn about His unique experience fasting. Fasting is a way of overcoming temptation and of freshly dedicating ourselves to the Father. Sometimes we struggle with temptation or anticipate a struggle to come. We know that we need extra Spiritual strength to overcome it. Depending on your situation, it may be beneficial to fast for the purpose of overcoming temptation and of renewing your dedication to the Lord.
j. To Express Love and Worship to God (Luke 2:37)
Fasting is not just meant for tough circumstances and trouble. It can purely be an expression of love and devotion to God. It’s a way to demonstrate that you love God more than food and that seeking Him is more important than eating. It is a reminder that our stomach is not our God. We desire Spiritual bread more than physical because we love God. John Piper said, “What we hunger for most, we worship.”
In Luke 2:37 we read about an unforgettable woman named Anna. It says that “She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day.” It was an act of worship. We can take time away from food to devote time to praise and worship God.
Regardless of the purpose of our fast, it is primarily about God. On each fast, seeking God in the fast should be more important than what we are fasting about. In his book A Hunger For God, John Piper stated,
Here is an important quote from Donald Whitney to close…
God will bless a biblical fast by any of His children. Whether or not we get the specific blessing we seek, one thing is certain: