What is fasting?

by Luke Wayne
7/26/16

Fasting is temporarily depriving oneself of food as an act of mourning, repentance, or religious devotion. Fasting is often strongly associated with prayer and with deeply and earnestly calling out to God. Biblically, fasting was done for a variety of reasons and is discussed in both the Old and New Testaments. Fasting is not mandatory, but can be a very healthy part of Christian devotion today.

Grieving and Mourning

Scripture often associates fasting with grief and mourning. For example, when King David's child was sick and dying, it says that:

"David therefore inquired of God for the child; and David fasted and went and lay all night on the ground. The elders of his household stood beside him in order to raise him up from the ground, but he was unwilling and would not eat food with them," (2 Samuel 12:16-17).

One of David's Psalms likewise describes his grieving even for his enemies when they were sick, saying:

"But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth; I humbled my soul with fasting, And my prayer kept returning to my bosom. I went about as though it were my friend or brother; I bowed down mourning, as one who sorrows for a mother," (Psalm 35:13-14).

Similarly in Esther, when the decree went out against the Jews, it explains:

"In each and every province where the command and decree of the king came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping and wailing; and many lay on sackcloth and ashes," (Esther 4:3).

We see in passages like these that fasting was considered an expression of mourning. It is both a way of grieving and also of humbling oneself before God and imploring Him for help in a time of need. This is also made clear by passages that point out that fasting is not appropriate for times of rejoicing:

"John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and they came and said to Him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “While the bridegroom is with them, the attendants of the bridegroom cannot fast, can they? So long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day," (Mark 2:18-20).

"Then Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people were weeping when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved.” All the people went away to eat, to drink, to send portions and to celebrate a great festival, because they understood the words which had been made known to them," (Nehemiah 8:9-12)

In times of rejoicing, the Bible speaks of increasing one's joy by celebrating with pleasurable food and drink and increasing the joy of others by inviting them to join with you and even sending portions to those who do not have any. Times of blessing are times for celebration in thanksgiving to God and generosity to others. Jesus never tells us not to have banquets. In fact, He tells us to have them but urges us to invite the poor, blind, and lame who cannot have banquets of their own, (Luke 14:13). In times of trouble or loss, however, we are not to mask our sorrow with pleasures. We are to grieve. We are to mourn. These are painful times and it is right and natural to hurt. While our culture pictures a woman with a broken heart putting on comfortable sweat pants and feeling better by eating chocolate ice cream, this is not what the Bible prescribes. While a worldly man deals with the pangs of bad news by numbing them with the pleasures of alcohol, this is not the biblical response. Men and women of the Bible recognize that, in this sin sick world, pain can be as healthy as pleasure and sadness can be as needful as happiness. Far from comfortable clothes and good food, the Bible pictures mourning as doing things like wearing coarse sackcloth and eating nothing at all. Celebration is pausing to embrace joy in particularly positive times and to thank God for them. Mourning is pausing to embrace sorrow in particularly negative times and to cry out to God for help. Fasting is not the only way in which people properly grieve, but it is one of the biblical expressions of sorrow and mourning.

Repentance

It should come as no surprise, then, that fasting is also associated with repentance. An important part of repentance is to grieve over our sin. To recognize that we have done something wicked, that we have offended a holy God and wronged our fellow man who is made in His image. We are to humble ourselves, to sorrow over our sin, and to cry out to God for help and forgiveness. This is where repentance begins. In the book of Jonah, for example, when Nineveh came to repentance, we read:

"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. When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth and sat on the ashes. He issued a proclamation and it said, “In Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing. Do not let them eat or drink water. But both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands. Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish,” (Jonah 3:5-9).

We see here that fasting and other expressions of mourning and humility were paired with crying out to God and turning from wicked ways. All of this was combined together with the focus of seeking God's forgiveness. Fasting is, of course, not necessary for repentance. Many people in scripture repented of their sins and received God's mercy without fasting. Fasting is, however, a tool that helps bring us to the place of humility, sorrow, and lowliness of heart. It is also a very healthy and biblical expression of Godly sorrow and of humbling ourselves before Him.

Private Worship

While most worship described in the New Testament is corporate and focused on the church community worshiping together as a people, there are a few passages that focus on our private acts of individual worship of God. In Matthew 6, Jesus offers three examples of this: Prayer, giving of alms, and fasting. When speaking of fasting He says:

"When 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. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face 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," (Matthew 6:16-18).

In the time of the New Testament, Jews saw regular fasting as an expression of piety and devotion to God. It was to them what many today would call a "spiritual discipline." The most devout Jews would fast twice a week. We even see this expressed in the boasting of the Pharisee in Jesus' parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, (Luke 18:12). Interestingly, Jesus does not attack this tradition as a whole. As we read above, He encourages His disciples to fast in devotion to God, but to do so secretly so that only God knows about it. If we tell everyone we are fasting and let on about all the hunger pangs we are enduring in our act of devotion, then our fasting serves only to make us look more holy and religious to others. This is not honoring to God. But if no one else knows you are fasting, then you receive no personal gain from the fast at all. The fasting becomes an act of faith. You are trusting that God can see what men cannot and that God is pleased in your devotion to Him. Secret fasting makes no sense if God is not there. It is just needless pain. Fasting in secret, therefore, helps to cultivate faith and is a pleasing act of devotion to God. One of the earliest Christian documents called the Didache shows us that at some early Christians continued the Jewish pattern of trying to fast two days a week, but others did not and the bible nowhere specifically prescribes this. Indeed, the Bible never says that a Christian must fast at all. It is by no means mandatory, and one can be pleasing to God without fasting. Still, this is a form of self-sacrificing, God-centered worship that the Bible does teach us is pleasing to God if we practice it secretly and without self-righteousness or wrong motives

Conclusion

While fasting is not necessary for salvation or Christian holiness, it can be a very helpful aspect of a faithful life. It can help bring us back to a more biblical approach to mourning, repentance, and piety. In a self-centered age of decadence where happiness is often falsely considered the only healthy and proper emotion, fasting can help us to be more God-focused and to remain properly balanced in a life where both celebration and sorrow need proper expression. Private fasting also drives us back to faith and self-sacrificial worship that is all about God and not about our own pleasure of preferences.