Fasting literally means abstinence from food, and in the Biblical sense, for a spiritual reason. In the Old Testament era the Jews fasted frequently, though there was only one fast demanded by Law. Once each year on the Day of Atonement the Jews were to “afflict” their souls (Lev. 16:31).
There is no evidence that the ceremonial fasting of Judaism is bound upon the church, but we can see that fasting was practiced by early New Testament Christians. Although there are no compulsory fasts required of the Christian today, the New Testament sees to take for granted the fact that children of God would occasionally see the need to fast.
33* And they said to Him, “The disciples of John often fast and offer prayers, the disciples of the Pharisees also do the same, but Yours eat and drink.”
34* And Jesus said to them, “You cannot make the attendants of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you?
35* “But the days will come; and when the bridegroom is taken away from them, then they will fast in those days.”
I believe that Jesus indicates here that it was hardly appropriate for the disciple to fast while he was yet with them, but that a time would come, after he was taken away from them that they WOULD fast (verse 35).
16* ¶ “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.
17* “But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face
18* 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.
Here we have another indication that Christians are encouraged to fast. Jesus cautions against improper motivation in fasting, but clearly indicates that “whenever you fast,” and “when you fast,” you should fast to obtain a spiritual purpose, not to be seen of men.
Fasting then, is a strictly voluntary matter. It should rise out of the heart and should not be imposed on the body by mere external custom. With these thoughts in mind, let me suggest a number of occasions that the Bible suggests for fasting.
1. Fasting may be of value in times of personal sorrow.
2 Sam. 1:12
“They mourned and wept and fasted until evening for Saul and his son Jonathan and for the people of the LORD and the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword.”
David and his men mourned and fasted upon hearing of the death of Saul.
“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.”
Nehemiah was fasting and praying before the God of Heaven, when he discovered the sad news of Jerusalem’s condition.
2 Sam. 12:16
“David therefore inquired of God for the child; and David fasted and went and lay all night on the ground.”
David felt that fasting and prayer was important when a loved one was critically ill.
2. Fasting frequently accompanied repentance as an outward and genuine indication of sorrow for apostasy.
1 Sam. 7:6
“They gathered to Mizpah, and drew water and poured it out before the LORD, and fasted on that day and said there, “We have sinned against the LORD.” And Samuel judged the sons of Israel at Mizpah.”
“Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them”
3. Fasting was practiced in connection with great and important spiritual events
“So he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did not eat bread or drink water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.”
Moses fasted when he received the Law.
1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
2 And after He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry.
Jesus fasted when he faced the Devil.
2 While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”
3 Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.
The early church saw the need to fast before important decisions.
“When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.”
THE BIBLE ALSO WARNS ABOUT SOME ABUSES OF FASTING
1. Fasting can never serve as a substitute for personal godliness. Isaiah delivers a blistering rebuke to those who would fast and then go about their own pleasure.
3 ¶ ‘Why have we fasted and You do not see? Why have we humbled ourselves and You do not notice?’ Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire, And drive hard all your workers.
4 “Behold, you fast for contention and strife and to strike with a wicked fist. You do not fast like you do today to make your voice heard on high.
5 “Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed And for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed? Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the LORD?
2. Fasting must not be used as an occasion for putting on a religious front.
16 ¶ “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.
17 “But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face
18 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.
3. One must guard himself, lest his fasting cause him to develop a sense of smugness and self-righteousness.
9 ¶ And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt:
10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
11 “The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.
12 ‘I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’
13 “But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’
14 “I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
4. Today some religious groups have made a mockery of fasting by their “Mardi gras” (fat tuesday) a day of inhibited indulgence in foods in preparation for the fast of “Lent.” There will always be those who “fast to be seen of men.” But our avoidance of such extremes should not be used as an excuse to avoid fasting for the spiritual benefit it provides.
THERE ARE OTHER BENEFITS DERIVED FROM FASTING
1. General indications in Scripture suggest that God recognizes fasting as a token of deep sincerity.
2. Physicians contend that moderate fasting is a boon to the health, having the effect of allowing our systems to occasionally cleanse themselves.
3. The mind is able to plumb greater depths of concentration during fasting.
4. Fasting helps us with much needed self-discipline.
5. Fasting reinforces our appreciation for the abundance of good things which we have been so graciously blessed.