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Spiritual Disciplines: What Is Fasting & Why Do We Do It?

While the discipline of fasting is not unique to the Christian experience, nor is it explicitly commanded in Scripture, the Christian Church does have a long history surrounding the practice. It has stemmed from numerous examples and teachings on fasting found in the Bible. Throughout the biblical account, fasting has been practiced by many. Moses, Esther, Nehemiah, Daniel and Jesus are just a few of the many examples. Fasting is found among the elite as well as common people, the rich and poor, men and women, individuals as well as communities and among the godly and ungodly. In this document, we will draw from the biblical record as we examine this practice from several angles. We hope this look at the topic will yield us better informed on fasting as practiced in the Bible. We also hope it will equip us to appropriately practice the discipline ourselves. This document will attempt to answer the following:

  1. What is fasting?
  2. Why do we fast?
  3. How do we fast?

What is Fasting?

Biblical fasting is denying our bodies of physical nourishment. When the word “fast” is used in the Bible, it can be used to describe a habit of a religious person (Luke 2:37), a characteristic of mourning (Psa 35:13), or merely a period of time when someone is without food for a period of time (Matt 15:32).

Why do we Fast?

When considering the practice of fasting, “Why we fast”, is the most important question to ask. The Bible gives us warnings about wrong motives for fasting (Isa 58, Matt 6:16-18). When fasting is practiced with discernment it has the wonderful potential to be a blessing to us and others. Four reasons to fast are below.

For Mourning

The primary context for fasting in the Bible is grief. The overwhelming number of examples in the biblical record for fasting comes out of the seedbed of sorrow. Fasting then, is used as an outward expression for mourning. Crying, weeping, silence and being in a down cast disposition are all well understood expressions for grief today. These expressions are at times appropriate, as well emotionally advantageous. In this way, fasting is yet another physical expression of troubling circumstances.

Jesus associates fasting with morning when he addressed the question of fasting among John the Baptist’s disciples.  Matthew 9:14-15 says, “Then came to him the disciples of John, saying, Why do we and the Pharisees fast oft, but thy disciples fast not? And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast.” He uses the analogy of a bridegroom being with his guests. Therefore, there are times for fasting and times for feasting. Events such as weddings, birthdays, holidays, etc. are not appropriate times to fast because these are times of joy and feasting. Periods where mourning and fasting are appropriate include times of deep disappointment (Neh 1:4), sin and repentance (Jonah 3:5), death and sickness (1 Sam 31:13; Ps 35:13), and impending danger (2 Chron 20:3; Ezra 8:23).

In this way, fasting is primarily a response. Fasting was the way people in the Bible responded to the times when the brokenness of the world was amplified in their lives. When our hearts are troubled in some way, fasting allows the body to ache along with our hearts. Therefore, it should help us become more in tune with the sufferings around us, and assist us to respond to these sufferings. By fasting we respond physically to the brokenness we encounter in this world. In so doing we align ourselves with the heart of God concerning these matters.

For Devotion

There is a common understanding in Christendom that fasting is a discipline for the devout.  An expression for serving God. Anna, for example, was a widow “which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day” (Luke 2:37). The Pharisee in Luke 18:12 is said to have fasted twice a week. Christian history includes many examples of revered men and women who practiced a lifestyle of fasting as a way of devotion to God. The Bible does talk about the need for us to discipline our bodies, such as in Paul’s strong words in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27. However, we carefully acknowledge that the biblical examples from which we draw these conclusions are vague in helping us understand just exactly why they were fasting. Fasting then, for the reason of devotion, should be left to one’s conscience.

For Breakthrough

There has been some attention given to fasting as a means to fighting against the demonic forces. Scriptures often referenced are Daniel 10, Jesus’ temptation, and the time when Jesus told his disciples that some demons only come out “by prayer and fasting” (Matt 17:21; Mark 9:29). Just as we saw with fasting as a way for devotion, we should likewise notice that the examples are few with regards to demonic spiritual warfare. Furthermore, varying interpretations swirl regarding why Daniel and Jesus fasted in these cases. However, let us acknowledge that spiritual warfare is real and is more than reason enough for us to respond to that brokenness with fasting.

For Direction

Fasting is often associated with seeking direction from God. The early church prayed and fasted. They also had the clarity to send Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journey. Acts 13:1-3 records it this way. “Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.  As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.” We notice that God spoke to the church while they were ministering and fasting. In addition, once direction was given they continued to fast. We see again the Biblical record suggests fasting is instrumental in providing direction, yet we still are left reading between the lines to understand exactly why the early church was fasting. Fasting for direction, once again, should be left to individual conscience.

The common thread weaving through the biblical fasting narrative is that fasting is a reaction. Individuals respond to their grief, personal brokenness, oppression and indecision with an outward physical abstinence from food.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How do you grieve the brokenness you experience in your life?
  2. Describe how you grieve the brokenness you see in the lives of others.
  3. How similar is your grief compared to what God grieves about?
  4. Describe how fasting could better align your sorrow with the heart of God.
  5. What does it mean that fasting is primarily a response and not a manipulative tool for effect?

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