“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that you fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And you Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18, ESV).
Fasting is probably the spiritual discipline that Christians are most likely to avoid. Many of us are willing to begin our day with a “quiet time,” or to set aside time for prayer, Bible reading, worship, or fellowship. Fasting meets resistance, though. If you invite people to join in a fast, there is a strong likelihood that you will hear some creative excuses for not participating. In fact, many churches completely avoid the subject or present it as little more than a noble exercise for Old Testament prophets, New Testament apostles, Jesus, or some wildly ascetic monks. They think that the ordinary Christian is not supposed to fast.
It is important to note, though, that Jesus expects His disciples to fast. In the passage at the top of this article, Jesus did not say, “If you fast.” He clearly said, “When you fast.” For a true disciple, the question is not whether you will fast or not. It is when and how you will fast.
What, exactly, is fasting? A simple definition is: fasting is to abstain from food and/or drink for spiritual purposes. It is not merely to skip a meal, but to consciously commit yourself to self-sacrifice so that you can more fully devote yourself to seeking the Lord.
When we fast, we subdue our physical urges so that our spiritual nature may grow stronger. All humans have several parts to our nature (body, soul, and spirit). We often nourish one part over the others. For example, I might sometimes devote so much attention to caring for my physical well-being that my spiritual life does not get the attention it serves. In fact, human nature being what it is, most of us are much more prone to cherishing our fleshly sides instead of the spiritual. When we fast, though, we put our spiritual needs first. This may be what Paul was speaking of when he wrote, “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others, I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). Some translations substitute words like “buffet,” “beat,” or “subdue” instead of discipline here.
The emphasis during a fast, then, is on spiritual growth, not on weight loss or other physical benefits. During a fast, a Christian should concentrate more attention on his spiritual and moral concerns, giving them higher priority in his life. The person who is fasting chooses to pray, study Scripture, or otherwise connect with the Lord at times when he or she would otherwise be eating. We sacrifice physical strength to learn how to lean on God’s spiritual strength. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:10, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Frequently, when people think of fasts, they envision 40 days and nights in the wilderness. Although it is true that Moses (Exodus 34:28), Elijah (1 Kings 19:8), and Jesus (Luke 4:1-2) all fasted in this way, they are the only people in Scripture to do so. None of them made a regular habit of such extensive fasts, either. Jesus went on only one 40-day fast, at the beginning of His public ministry. Elijah went on a 40-day fast at a crisis moment in his ministry and the history of Israel. Moses was the only one who went on two 40-day fasts, both of which were centered around receiving the Law from God. All of these fasts occurred under very unusual circumstances, during true crisis moments in salvation history. Most fasts in Scripture were of a much shorter duration, usually only one or two days.
Many, perhaps most, fasts in the Bible were performed by an entire group, such as the nation of Israel, an army, or a local church. It was not unusual for a spiritual leader to proclaim a fast, and for everybody under his authority to join in.
In addition to the different lengths of time for fasts, there are also different degrees of fasting in the Bible. Some were quite thorough. In many cases, people had only water; in other cases, they had neither food nor drink of any kind. Occasionally, a person or group would abstain from solid foods and drink only liquids.
In Daniel 10:2-3, we read how the prophet fasted for 21 days, abstaining from any “tasty food, meat, or wine. At that time, Daniel probably went on a strict diet of fruit, vegetables, grains, and water. This passage, along with Daniel 1:8-16, provides the biblical foundation for what is known as “the Daniel fast.” [For more information about the Daniel fast, see: Susan Gregory, The Daniel Fast (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2010), or visit her website at www.daniel-fast.com. You can find other excellent resources by searching for “Daniel fast” on any search engine.]
Although not strictly biblical, many traditional churches permit a lighter version of fasting wherein a person abstains from a specific food type during a period of fasting. For example, the Roman Catholic church urges its members to abstain from eating meat on Fridays; fish is permitted, however. During Lent, members may be encouraged to give up one food item. This can be a very good habit to pursue, especially for those who are otherwise uncomfortable or inexperienced with fasting.
When choosing this option of giving up a specific food item, I would urge three specific guidelines: (1) It should be food that you really enjoy. (2) It should be one that you will notice giving up. Do not “give up” something that you rarely eat and will not notice is missing from your diet. (3) Set a goal that is both realistic yet challenging. You should give up a food that you can realistically abstain from for a specific period of time, while ensuring that it involves at least a noticeable (not torturous) sacrifice.
Fasting should be distinguished from other forms of abstinence, which often serve as alternatives to fasting. Such form of abstinence have biblical foundation. For example, in 1 Corinthians 7:5, Paul gave instructions for married couples who decide to abstain from sexual relations for a mutually acceptable period of time, so that they may devote themselves to prayer. This advice could easily be extended to other kinds of leisure activities. Most American Christians would profit immeasurably from a television “fast”!
Finally, I believe that fasting should be a lifestyle choice for all Christians. Early Christians fasted to some degree on Wednesday and Friday, which contributed to the development of the season of fasting known as Lent. Although the New Testament never commands a specific time to fast, the principle of regular fasting is scriptural. Such practices, including both regular weekly fasts and periodic longer ones, would be a blessing to any Christian’s spiritual growth.
All Christians should commit themselves to this challenging means of spiritual growth. If you have a specific medical condition (such as diabetes), you should check with your doctor first. Even if you are unable to commit to an intensive fast, you can at least commit to a Daniel fast or a simple abstaining-from-one-food fast that a medical professional would approve. (Note: A hearty appetite or lack of self-control is not a “specific medical condition”!)
It may also prove helpful to abstain from a favorite activity during your fast days. That way, you can dedicate much more of your time and energy to the Lord. Spend you free time studying God’s Word and praying. Fasting is a challenge, but for those who persevere, it is also a pathway to greater spiritual growth.