Does Jesus come to your mind when you think of fasting and “fasters”? Jesus both practiced and taught fasting, you know. And yet, fasting is the most feared and misunderstood of all the Spiritual Disciplines.
One reason fasting is feared is that many believe it turns us into something we don’t want to become and causes things to happen that we don’t want to happen. We fear that fasting will make us hollow-eyed fanatics or odd for God. We’re afraid that it will make us suffer dreadfully and give us a generally negative experience. For some Christians, fasting for spiritual purposes is as unthinkable as shaving their head or walking barefoot across a fire pit.
The reason fasting is so misunderstood is due to the famine of contemporary awareness of it. Even though there’s more interest in fasting today than during the last half of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, how many people do you know who regularly practice fasting? How many sermons have you heard on the subject? In most Christian circles you will rarely hear fasting mentioned, and few will have read anything about it. And yet it’s mentioned in Scripture more times than even something as important as baptism (about seventy-seven times for fasting to seventy-five for baptism).
Christians in a gluttonous, denial-less, self-indulgent society may struggle to accept and to begin the practice of fasting. Few Disciplines go so radically against the flesh and the mainstream of culture as this one. But we cannot overlook its biblical significance. Of course, some people, for medical reasons, cannot fast. But most of us dare not overlook fasting’s benefits in the disciplined pursuit of a Christlike life.
A biblical definition of fasting is a Christian’s voluntary abstinence from food for spiritual purposes. It is Christian, for fasting by a nonChristian obtains no eternal value because the Discipline’s motives and purposes are to be God-centered. It is voluntary in that fasting is not to be coerced. Fasting is more than just the ultimate crash diet for the body; it is abstinence from food for spiritual purposes.
There is a broader view of fasting that is often overlooked. This is the approach Richard Foster takes when he defines fasting as “the voluntary denial of a normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity.”1 So then, fasting does not always deal with abstinence from food. Sometimes we may need to fast from involvement with other people, or from the media, from the telephone, from talking, from sleep, etc., in order to become more absorbed in a time of spiritual activity.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones concurs with this wider definition of fasting.
To make the matter complete, we would add that fasting, if we conceive of it truly, must not only be confined to the question of food and drink; fasting should really be made to include abstinence from anything which is legitimate in and of itself for the sake of some special spiritual purpose. There are many bodily functions which are right and normal and perfectly legitimate, but which for special peculiar reasons in certain circumstances should be controlled. That is fasting. There, I suggest, is a kind of general definition of what is meant by fasting.
Strictly speaking, however, the Bible only refers to fasting in terms of its primary sense, that is, abstinence from food. In this chapter I will limit my remarks to that kind of fasting.
The Bible distinguishes between several kinds of fasts. Although it doesn’t use the labels we frequently employ today to describe these fasts, each of the following may be found:
A normal fast involves abstaining from all food, but not from water. We’re told in Matthew 4:2, “After fasting forty days and forty nights, he [Jesus] was hungry.” It says nothing about Him becoming thirsty. Furthermore, Luke 4:2 says that He “ate nothing during those days,” but it does not say He drank nothing. Since the body can normally function no longer than three days without water, we assume that He drank water during this time. To abstain from food but to drink water or perhaps fruit juices is the most common kind of Christian fast.
A partial fast is a limitation of the diet but not abstention from all food. For ten days Daniel and three other Jewish young men only had “vegetables to eat and water to drink” (Daniel 1:12). It is said of the rugged prophet John the Baptist that “his food was locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4). Historically, Christians have observed partial fasts by eating much smaller portions of food than usual for a certain time and/or eating only a few simple foods.
An absolute fast is the avoidance of all food and liquid, even water. We’re told that Ezra “ate no food and drank no water, because he continued to mourn over the unfaithfulness of the exiles” (Ezra 10:6). When Esther requested that the Jews fast and pray on her behalf, she said, “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day” (Esther 4:16). After the Apostle Paul was converted on the road to Damascus, Acts 9:9 tells us, “For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.”
The Bible also describes a supernatural fast. There are two instances of these. When Moses wrote of his meeting with God on Mount Sinai, he said, “I stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights; I ate no bread and drank no water” (Deuteronomy 9:9). First Kings 19:8 may be saying that Elijah did the same thing when he went to the site of Moses’ miraculous fast: “So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.” These required God’s supernatural intervention into the bodily processes and are not repeatable apart from the Lord’s specific calling and miraculous provision.
A private fast is the one referred to most often in this chapter and what Jesus was speaking of in Matthew 6:16–18 when He says we should fast in a way not to be noticed by others.
Congregational fasts are the type found in Joel 2:15–16: “Blow a trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly. Gather the people, consecrate the assembly.” At least a part of the congregation of the church at Antioch was fasting together in Acts 13:2, as evidenced by Luke’s words “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting.”
The Bible also speaks of national fasts. The response of King Jehoshaphat to an invasion in 2 Chronicles 20:3 is to call a national fast: “Alarmed, Jehoshaphat resolved to inquire of the LORD, and he proclaimed a fast for all Judah.” The Jews were called to a national fast in Nehemiah 9:1 and Esther 4:16, and the king of Nineveh proclaimed a fast in response to the preaching of Jonah (3:5–8). Incidentally, during the early days of our nation, Congress proclaimed three national fasts. Presidents John Adams and James Madison each called all Americans to fast, and Abraham Lincoln did so on three separate occasions during the War Between the States.3
There was one regular fast that God commanded under the Old Covenant. Every Jew was to fast on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29–31). While they were in Babylon, the leaders of the Jews instituted four other annual fasts (Zechariah 8:19). The Pharisee in Luke 18:12 congratulates himself in prayer for keeping the tradition of the Pharisees by saying, “I fast twice a week.” Although without biblical warrant, it is well known that John Wesley would not ordain a man to the Methodist ministry who did not regularly fast every Wednesday and Friday.
Finally, the Bible mentions occasional fasts. These occur on special occasions as the need arises. This was the kind of fast Jehoshaphat, as well as Esther, called for. This is the kind of fast implied by Jesus in Matthew 9:15: “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.”
The most common fast among Christians today would fall under the categories of normal (abstaining from food but drinking water), private, and occasional fasts.
FASTING IS EXPECTED
To those unfamiliar with fasting, the most surprising part of this chapter may be the discovery that Jesus expected that His followers would fast.
Notice Jesus’ words at the beginning of Matthew 6:16–17: “And when you fast.… But when you fast.…” By giving us instructions on what to do and what not to do when we fast, Jesus assumes that we will fast.
Whitney, Donald S. 1991. Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.
We have just completed a 13-Part Study of Donald Whitney’s classic book, Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian Life. It is available as part of Good Questions Have Groups Talking Lesson Subscription Service. It is also available on Amazon