Thirty years ago Richard Foster wrote this about fasting in his bestselling book, The Celebration of Discipline:
In a culture where the landscape is dotted with shrines to the Golden Arches and an assortment of Pizza Temples, fasting seems out of place, out of step with the times.In his research on fasting Foster could not find a single book published on the subject between 1861 and 1954. Though there has been a renewed interest in fasting in our day, it is still a largely neglected practice among Christians. Why is this? Foster offers two reasons. First, fasting has developed a bad reputation in some of our minds because all we think of is the example of certain monks who many years ago practiced fasting and other ascetic disciplines without, perhaps, a proper spiritual focus. Fasting in the middle ages was, perhaps, taken to an extreme in certain places. Our modern culture has reacted against those extremes and often thrown out the baby with the bath water.
Secondly, fasting has fallen into neglect among Christians because we live in a culture that focuses on food to excess. Have you noticed how many restaurants you go to serve you more food than you can possibly eat at a single sitting? This has become a common practice. And so we are trained to think that if we aren’t eating three full meals with snacks in between then we are starving. But such is not the case.
These two verses from Matthew’s Gospel suggest that if fasting has no place in our lives, perhaps we are the ones who are out of step, rather than fasting being out of place and no longer a needed spiritual discipline. Hear the words of Jesus from Matthew 6:16-18,
When you go without eating, don't try to look gloomy as those show-offs do when they go without eating. I can assure you that they already have their reward. Instead, comb your hair and wash your face. Then others won't know that you are going without eating. But your Father sees what is done in private, and he will reward you.These words of Jesus raise several questions. First of all: What is fasting?
Throughout the Bible fasting refers to abstaining from food for spiritual purposes. In our day we are far more familiar with people going without food for other purposes. Some people go on hunger strikes in order to achieve political purposes. Many more of us go on diets of various sorts for physical purposes; we fast to lose weight. But in the Bible the purpose of fasting is clearly spiritual.
Several types of fasting are mentioned in the Bible. The most basic kind of fast involves abstaining from all food, solid and liquid, but not from drinking water. This is, undoubtedly, the type of fast which Jesus engaged in as recorded in Matthew 4. There we read about Jesus fasting for forty days, the utmost length of time that any human being can abstain from food before the body starts breaking down. But Jesus could not have abstained from water for this length of time. Human beings can only last for about three days without water.
We also read about partial fasts in the Bible. For three weeks Daniel ate no delicacies, no meat or wine entered his mouth (Daniel 10:3).
There is also an example of an absolute fast in the Bible. Esther instructed her uncle Mordecai, "Go, gather all the Jews . . . and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do” (Esther 4:16).
Paul also engaged in an absolute fast for three days following his encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:9).
In most cases fasting is an act of private devotion between the individual believer and God. However, there are some occasions in the Bible where public fasts are called for. Moses prescribed an annual public fast on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:27). Such fasting was connected with demonstrating repentance. When Judah was invaded, King Jehoshaphat called for a nationwide fast (2 Chronicles 20:1-4) so that the people would demonstrate their dependence on God. And in response to the preaching of Jonah the whole city of Ninevah fasted to demonstrate their repentance.
In one of the churches I previously served we engaged in days of prayer and fasting where we invited the whole church to participate together. We also used those days of prayer and fasting as opportunities for ministry where we would go through the neighborhood around the church and invite people to attend our worship services or simply pray for our neighborhood.
In 1756 the King of England called for a day of solemn prayer and fasting in response to a threatened invasion by the French. John Wesley recorded in his diary,
The fast day was a glorious day, such as London has scarce seen since the Restoration. Every church in the city was more than full, and a solemn seriousness sat on every face.Can you imagine if such a thing took place in our day? Can you imagine the President of the United States calling for a solemn day of prayer and fasting and seeing the churches full as a result? I suppose we saw something close to this following 9/11. But of course such times of urgency do not often last.
Secondly we must ask: Is fasting a biblical command?
In order to answer this question we need to remember that Jesus’ teaching about fasting comes here in the context of his teaching about the three great Jewish acts of devotion: giving, prayer and fasting. Jesus assumes that all three of these acts will be part of the regular devotional life of his kingdom followers. Notice Jesus says, “When you fast,” not “if you fast”. Jesus assumed that his followers would fast and that they simply needed instruction on proper fasting.
However, Jesus’ words here fall short of a direct command. Jesus was commenting on a common practice in his day without saying absolutely whether it should be continued. Jesus never says, “You must fast.”
In fact, Jesus was asked by the disciples of John the Baptist why his disciples didn’t fast. Jesus responded, “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 time that Jesus was with his disciples here on earth was a joyous time, not a time appropriate for fasting. But Jesus indicated that his disciples would fast in the future.
So, Jesus’ words fall short of a command. But clearly Jesus expected that we, as his disciples in the kingdom, would fast. Perhaps it is best to view Jesus’ words as an exciting invitation to a more intimate walk with our heavenly Father.
Thirdly we need to explore the question: What is the purpose of fasting?
Jesus’ statement in Matthew 6:16-18 deals largely with the question of motive. Jesus said, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.” Jesus once told a parable about a Pharisee who boasted, “I fast twice a week” (Luke 18:12). The Pharisees in Jesus’ day fasted on Mondays and Thursdays because those were market days; those were the days when the Pharisees could expect a bigger audience for their religious showmanship. That is precisely what Jesus is talking about when he calls people hypocrites. The hypocrite in Greek culture was a play-actor, one who wore a mask and performed for an audience. Jesus says that in fasting we should perform for an audience of one, and that one should be God the Father, not our neighbor. If we fast only to be recognized as having superior piety by our neighbor we have received all the reward we are going to get—the applause of men. God hates hypocrisy; he hates it when we act like something we aren’t, but he loves authenticity.
In Isaiah 58 we read about another time when God was frustrated with the fasting of his people which was mere play-acting.
Shout the message!
Don't hold back.
Say to my people Israel:
You've sinned! You've turned
against the LORD.
Day after day, you worship him
and seem eager to learn
You act like a nation
that wants to do right
by obeying his laws.
You ask him about justice,
and say you enjoy
worshiping the LORD.
You wonder why the LORD
pays no attention
when you go without eating
and act humble.
But on those same days
that you give up eating,
you think only of yourselves and abuse your workers.
You even get angry
and are ready to fight.
No wonder God won't listen
to your prayers!
Do you think the LORD
wants you to give up eating
and to act as humble
as a bent-over bush?
Or to dress in sackcloth
and sit in ashes?
Is this really what he wants
on a day of worship?
I'll tell you
what it really means
to worship the LORD.
Remove the chains of prisoners
who are chained unjustly.
Free those who are abused!
Share your food with everyone
who is hungry;
share your home
with the poor and homeless.
Give clothes to those in need;
don't turn away your relatives.
Then your light will shine
like the dawning sun,
will quickly be healed.
Your honesty will protect you as you advance,
and the glory of the LORD
will defend you from behind.
God isn’t interested in fasting as a discipline separated from the rest of life. He isn’t interested in us putting on a spiritual performance. He wants us to be his servants in the whole of life—in fasting, praying, and giving to meet the needs of others. Perhaps this suggests that when we fast we should give the money we would have spent on our food to feed those who are really starving.
Getting back to Matthew 6, Jesus instructs us as his disciples that when we fast we shouldn’t let others even know that we are fasting, beyond those who have to know, like people in our immediate family. We should wash our faces, comb our hair, look our best, and not let on that we are fasting. In Jesus’ day, when people didn’t have running water or bathtubs in their homes, looking one’s best meant anointing one’s head with oil. This is how one got clean and refreshed.
The purpose of fasting is to draw close to the Father, to focus on him and not on ourselves. If we make the Father our focus in fasting then the Father will reward us. And as we saw when we talked about giving, the greatest reward the Father can give us is simply a greater awareness of his presence with us. That is the great reward of fasting. Fasting is not about getting God to pay attention to us and give us what we want. Fasting is about our paying greater attention to God.
Certainly there are other benefits to fasting as well. Richard Foster has written,
More than any other single Discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. . . . We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface. If pride controls us, it will be revealed almost immediately. David said, “I humbled my soul with fasting” (Ps. 69:10). Anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear—if they are within us, they will surface during fasting. . . . We can rejoice in this knowledge because we know that healing is available through the power of Christ.
Fasting helps us keep our balance in life. How easily we begin to allow nonessentials to take precedence in our lives. How quickly we crave things we do not need until we are enslaved by them. . . . Our human cravings and desires are like a river that tends to overflow its banks; fasting helps keep them in their proper channel.Christians who regularly engage in the discipline of fasting have noted other benefits: increased effectiveness in prayer, guidance in decisions, deliverance from addictions, physical well-being, revelation, a greater sense of God’s peace. But the main purpose of fasting is simply to draw closer to our heavenly Father.
In short, fasting is all about getting our priorities straight. Do you remember what life was like when you were in school? If you were like I was there were all sorts of activities that were constantly vying for your attention. I was the type of person who could often get over-committed. It wasn’t that I got involved in bad things, most of the extra-curricular stuff I did had to do with church. But I can remember a time when my priorities really got confused and test days would arrive and I simply wasn’t prepared. That was a horrible feeling.
Fasting is a spiritual discipline that helps us get our priorities straight. Fasting helps us put first things first—like our relationship with God—so that when we come down to the final exam of life we won’t be unprepared or embarrassed.
This leads to our final question which is: How should we practice fasting? Jesus did it for forty days in the wilderness. Should we try to copy Jesus? Again, Richard Foster writes so helpfully, “As with all the Disciplines, a progression should be observed; it is wise to learn to walk well before we try to run.”
Therefore Foster recommends beginning with a partial fast of twenty-four hours. This means skipping two meals, not eating any food and drinking only fruit juice. He also suggests doing this once per week for several weeks. I find that the great value of a fast like this is that when my stomach growls it reminds me to pray. Outwardly I go about the regular duties of my day, but inwardly I am more focused on the Lord.
After getting started with this kind of fast then you can progress to a normal twenty-four hour fast, skipping two meals and drinking only water. Once you have achieved the twenty-four hour normal fast with some success then you can move on to the thirty-six hour fast where you skip three meals and drink only water. After you have seen the benefit of that kind of fast you may want to ask the Lord whether he would have you to go on a longer fast of maybe three to seven days. I have found this longer sort of fast can have a great purifying effect as my body eliminates the toxins which have built up from my normal bad eating habits! You may want to consider reducing yourself just to a piece of fruit during the day for this longer sort of fast. I have one Christian friend who has gone on forty day fasts where she eats only a piece of fresh fruit every day for forty days and drinks water. Of course, in addition to the spiritual benefits of such a fast, she also saw physical benefits. She lost a good bit of weight she needed to lose and ended up in much better physical health as a result.
Naturally, there are some among us who shouldn’t even consider engaging in fasting as a spiritual discipline. Diabetics, women who are pregnant, and people with heart difficulties should not fast. If you have any question about this, ask the advice of your doctor before going on any sort of fast. Again, fasting is not a command, and Jesus doesn’t expect us to engage in spiritual disciplines which would be physically harmful to us.
However, those of us who can engage in the spiritual discipline of fasting are joining a wonderful company of men and women down through the ages who have seen great spiritual benefit from this practice. Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Anna the prophetess, Paul, and of course Jesus all practiced fasting. And many Christians down through history have attested to the value of this spiritual discipline: Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, John Wesley, David Brainerd and Charles Finney, among others.
Jonathan Edwards was a preacher in colonial New England who was used of God to spark the Great Awakening. Although his voice and pulpit manner were not arresting (Edwards read his sermons!) many of his sermons had an overwhelming impact upon the people who heard him. One of Edwards’ most famous sermons was entitled Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. But few people knew at the time what spiritual preparation went into the giving of that message. For three days Edwards had not eaten any food. For three nights he had not closed his eyes in sleep. Over and over again Edwards simply prayed, “O Lord, give me New England! Give me New England!” God honored the prayer and fasting of Jonathan Edwards and a whole generation of men, women, boys and girls became followers of Jesus Christ. Who knows what God might do in our generation if we would simply fast and pray and seek God’s face?