By Elizabeth Prata
The Christian practice of fasting is not talked about a lot in churches today. I am careful to say ‘Christian fasting’ because other religions have fasts. Ramadan in the Muslim religion is a month-long fast with many prescribed rules. Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 are obligated to fast on certain holy days of the year and during Lent, and in certain prescribed ways. And so on.
Christians saved by the grace of God and the blood of Jesus are not obligated to fast. There is no command in the New Testament commanding a Christian to fast. But it is a worthwhile spiritual practice in which Jesus expected a believer might choose to engage. There are no rules for it, thankfully. However, fasting seems to be a spiritual duty the believer might perform at least on occasion, so Jesus gave some thumbnail outlines for the practice in Matthew 6:16-18,
“Now whenever you fast, do not make a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they distort their faces so that they will be noticed by people when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But as for you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that your fasting will not be noticed by people but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.“
Examples in the New Testament fasting:
Jesus fasted in the desert wilderness for His Temptation. (Matthew 4:2). He fasted for 40 days and nights!
Anna served the Lord in the temple by praying and fasting frequently. (Luke 2:37). Fasting is almost always mentioned in conjunction with prayer. In Acts 13:1-3 Barnabas, Simeon, Lucius, Manaen, and Saul were ‘serving the Lord and fasting’ at Antioch. ‘serving the Lord’ usually meant praying, but in that verse it is also more extensive, meaning they could have been performing any service unto the Lord.
Paul and Barnabas prayed with fasting before appointing elders in all the churches. (Acts 14:23).
Fasting can be privately habitual. Cornelius habitually fasted. Acts 10:30 some translations have him praying at the ninth hour, others say he was fasting at that hour. Again, fasting and prayer are tied together. You can pray without fasting, but fasting without prayer is spiritually meaningless.
Saul/Paul fasted after he was visited by Jesus on the Damascus road, for three days and nights.(Acts 9:9). Many people fast and pray ahead of a decision, or during a trial or a time of deep spiritual anguish as Paul was doing there.
There is/was such a thing as a national prayer & fast. US President John Adams called for a national day of prayer, fasting and humiliation on March 23, 1798 because the new nation of the United States was being harassed by a foreign power. He said, “it has appeared to me that the duty of imploring the mercy and benediction of Heaven on our country demands at this time a special attention from its inhabitants.” He said in part,
"I have therefore thought fit to recommend, and I do hereby recommend, that Wednesday, the 9th day of May next, be observed throughout the United States as a day of solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer; that the citizens of these States, abstaining on that day from their customary worldly occupations, offer their devout addresses to the Father of Mercies agreeably to those forms or methods which they have severally adopted as the most suitable and becoming; that all religious congregations do, with the deepest humility, acknowledge before God the manifold sins and transgressions with which we are justly chargeable as individuals and as a nation, beseeching Him at the same time, of His infinite grace, through the Redeemer of the World, freely to remit all our offenses..."
President Abraham Lincoln also called for a national fast. His Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day was issued for March 30, 1863, smack in the middle of the 4-year Civil War. He wrote,
"We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us! It behooves us then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness." Whether private or corporate, the first step in fasting is to confess sin. The confession of sin is more of an Old Testament preface to fasting & prayer, but as with NT supping at the Lord's Table with admonitions to clear the decks of your life and conscience of sin before partaking, it is also wise to ensure that your devotion to Christ through prayer and fasting is not polluted with unconfessed sin. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and avails much says James 5:16, so alternately if one is not righteous, the prayer would be less likely to be powerful. Humble yourself as you enter your fast. You're going before the throne of God for a reason or issue that you want to earnestly bring to the Lord. Don't complicate it with unconfessed sins.
Normally, fasting and prayer are done for negative reasons, as in, before a decision, an urgent need, a national or personal calamity, and so on. Jesus said in answer to the disciples of John who asked why Jesus’ disciples do not fast. Jesus replied that fasting is a mourning activity and while the groom was with them they were not mourning. (Matthew 9:14-15). So treat fasting & prayer as a serious endeavor. We should not enter into it lightly or for the wrong reasons (hence confessing sin, first).
Speaking of wrong reasons, fasting doesn’t ‘force’ God to pay attention to your prayer more than He would if you were just plain old praying. It is more for the believer to demonstrate devotion to God in a single-minded pursuit of Him for Himself, on behalf of the issue or person you are fasting for. Fasting is a punctuation to prayer, not the point of it. The other wrong way to fast & pray is to parade it in front of people to show your piety to men as Jesus warned about the hypocritical Pharisees.
We fast to divest ourselves of something that would otherwise crowd our attention. Most people fast from food, and that is the description of NT prayer & fasting. Fasting from food. Don Whitney tends more toward fasting from food as true fasting, but accepts Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ expanded definition of a fast including a cessation of any activity that would otherwise distract one’s attention from their prayers.
A person can fast from any activity that would take time away from prayer and conscious, continual devotion to the throne of God. In the Jesus times, food procurement and preparation was a lengthy and labor intensive process. You could not just go to Wal-Mart and get groceries. You couldn’t drive thru McDonald’s and grab a burger. There wasn’t a means of even storing food. Anything prepared would go bad in desert temperatures. Fasting from food made sense because it would free up the believer to engage in solemn prayer more constantly.
I fast, but it is not habitual, meaning a set time I always do it. I do it when I feel a strong spiritual burden or a spiritual anguish that needs attention. When I fast, it is always from food. I’ve found that my mind drifts toward food more often than I think! Not just the three times a day “I’m hungry” but “Did I take down the chicken to defrost?” “Do I have all the ingredients for dinner?” How long will it take me to cook this or that?” “Should I do grocery shopping today or tomorrow?” Taking away all the activity surrounding food gathering, preparation, eating, and cleaning up after clears a lot of mental time. During my fast, whenever I think of anything related to food, I stop what I’m doing and pray for my identified issue right then and there.
Usually I declare a fast out loud to begin. It is a kind of oath or vow. Ligonier has a devotional on New Testament oaths. I find that if I say it out loud and dedicate my fast to Jesus, I am more inclined to keep it, given the solemnity of swearing an oath to begin with. (cf Ligonier again). Again, this is personal. You may choose to fast differently, of course.
I have fasted/prayed for a unique issue in my former or current church, for a personal heavy decision, for salvation for someone, or when I feel especially deeply attacked in spiritual warfare.
I declare a fast for a certain amount of time, 24 hours, 2 days, or 3 days, usually. Once in a while I declare a fast with no time limit, letting the Holy Spirit guide as to when the pressure might still be on or off. However, I do try always to make it at least 24 hours. If you have medical issues, please check with your doctor before beginning any fast from food. I tend to get dizzy by the end of a 3-day fast.
When I end a fast I punctuate it with one last prayer in thanks to the Lord for hearing my prayers, for the privilege of being able to come to the throne boldly, and for His will to be done.
If you decide to fast and pray, however you decide to do it is an individual discipline, and only guided by the few scriptures mentioned above and below. I DO recommend fasting occasionally though. It is spiritually refreshing and I believe it honors Jesus.
There are a LOT of bad books and materials out there guiding the believer in fasting. When I began my recent fast, I looked for good materials to review in order to ensure I was doing it right and for the right reasons. Phew, there’s not a lot. I have these resources and I’ve read these resources. All of them. I recommend them to you whole heartedly. This is what I found and recommend-
Resources on Fasting
Understanding the Discipline of Fasting (Biblical Foundations for the Christian Faith)
by Paul David Washer. $5.25
Why Should I Fast? (Cultivating Biblical Godliness) Kindle Edition, by Daniel R. Hyde. $2.99 Kindle, $4.78 booklet
Blog series at GTY.org by Don Green-
The Heart of Christian Fasting, Part 1: Fasting in the Old Testament
The Heart of Christian Fasting, Part 2: Fasting in the Sermon on the Mount
The Heart of Christian Fasting, Part 3: Fasting in the New Testament
The Heart of Christian Fasting Part 4: Fasting Today
This book is a series of 8 sermons preached by English Puritan Arthur Hildersham at the outbreak of plague in 1625-26. It deals with corporate prayer and fasting but is still a worthwhile resource for what fasting is, preached by a more than credible source.
Other resources I have not read but can recommend are:
Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, by Don Whitney. Chapter nine deals exclusively with fasting.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book on his sermon series from Matthew deals quite a bit with fasting. Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. You will find lots of online quotations from Lloyd-Jones from his sermon on fasting
Here is a quick-list of fasting in the Bible, by subject. Source is Torrey, R. A. (2001). The new topical text book: A scriptural text book for the use of ministers, teachers, and all Christian workers. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Bible Software.
1. Spirit of, explained. Isa 58:6, 7.
2. Not to be made a subject of display. Mt 6:16–18.
3. Should be to God. Zec 7:5; Mt 6:18.
4. For the chastening of the soul. Ps 69:10.
5. For the humbling of the soul. Ps 35:13.
6. Observed on occasions of
a. Judgments of God. Joe 1:14; 2:12.
b. Public calamities. 2 Sa 1:12.
c. Afflictions of the Church. Lu 5:33–35.
d. Afflictions of others. Ps 35:13; Da 6:18.
e. Private afflictions. 2 Sa 12:16.
f. Approaching danger. Es 4:16.
g. Ordination of ministers. Ac 13:3; 14:23.
7. Accompanied by
a. Prayer. Ezr 8:23; Da 9:3.
b. Confession of sin. 1 Sa 7:6; Ne 9:1, 2.
c. Mourning. Joe 2:12.
d. Humiliation. De 9:18; Ne 9:1.
8. Promises connected with. Isa 58:8–12; Mt 6:18.
9. Of hypocrites
a. Described. Isa 58:4, 5.
b. Ostentatious. Mt 6:16.
c. Boasted of, before God. Lu 18:12.
d. Rejected. Isa 58:3; Jer 14:12.
10. Extraordinary Exemplified
a. Our Lord. Mt 4:2.
b. Moses. Ex 34:28; De 9:9, 18.
c. Elijah. 1 Ki 19:8.
11. National Exemplified
a. Israel. Jdj 20:26; Ezr 8:21; Es 4:3, 16; Jer 36:9.
b. Men of Jabesh-gilead. 1 Sa 31:13.
c. Ninevites. Jon 3:5–8.
12. Of Saints Exemplified
a. David. 2 Sa 12:16; Ps 109:24.
b. Nehemiah. Ne 1:4.
c. Esther. Es 4:16.
d. Daniel. Da 9:3.
e. Disciples of John. Mt 9:14.
f. Anna. Lu 2:37.
g. Cornelius. Ac 10:30.
h. Christians. Ac 13:2.
i. Apostles. 2 Co 6:5.
j. Paul. 2 Co 11:27.
13. Of the wicked-Exemplified
a. Elders of Jezreel. 1 Ki 21:12.
b. Ahab. 1 Ki 21:27.
c. Pharisees. Mr 2:18; Lu 18:12.
I pray this helps you if you have decided to fast for the glory of Christ and personal devotion to Him. Jesus is the Bread of life. Why not feast solely on Him for a period of time?!