By Donal Moroney
Definition: Fasting is not an exclusively Christian practice. It plays an important part in most of the world’s religions e.g. Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism etc… There can also be legitimate non-religious reasons why people fast. i.e. on medical grounds, dieting (some weight loss plans incorporate a form of fasting). Put simply, fasting is the discipline/practice of going without food for a period of time. It could last for many days, one day (this would be more typical), or a shorter portion of time within the course of a day.
Let us look at fasting from a Christian perspective.
What does fasting mean for a Christian?
It is a grace of God which allows His people to respond to His provision and kindness by humbling themselves before Him. In practice, fasting normally means going without food for the sake of seeking God, either personally or as a group. In the Bible, this most often means eating nothing and only drinking water for a period of time. Some Scriptural examples exist of partial fasting through dietary adjustment (such as Daniel 10:3) but that is not normative. In Scripture, fasting is often accompanied by mourning a lack or loss and undertaken in hope of God moving powerfully to bless His people, and achieve His work by accomplishing breakthrough for his people .
What does the Old Testament say about fasting?
Fasting is mentioned over 70 times throughout Scripture. In the Old Testament, there were two types of fasting: public and private. Public fasts were accompanied by prayer, supplication, and sackcloth, while private fasts were seen as expressions of repentance . Below are some examples of fasting in the old testament and there are many more to be found.
Moses fasted before receiving the Ten Commandments
“So he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.” Exodus 34:28
Moses fasted for 40 days and forty nights, without food and water Scripture says. It’s not possible for humans to survive that long without food or water. Here, we witness a supernatural fast in the pages of Scripture. Only God could sustain Moses for that long without substance. At the end of the fast, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments.
Daniel fasted and prayed to understand a vision
“I ate no delicacies, no meat or wine entered my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, for the full three weeks.” Daniel 10:3 ESV
This particular fast is in response to a vision Daniel had, but this is not the first time that Scripture records Daniel fasting. Daniel 1:8 reads, “But Daniel resolved he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank.” The food and drink the king’s court was consuming violated the laws God’s people followed, and so David denied himself in obedience to the Lord. For Daniel, fasting preceded revelation in regard to his vision as to what would happen to God’s people in the future.
David fasted in mourning the loss of his son and best friend
“And they mourned and wept and fasted until evening for Saul and for Jonathan his son and for the people of the LORD and for the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword.” 2 Samuel 1:12, ESV
It’s common to find fasting, especially in the Old Testament, as an expression of grief and sadness. Though King Saul had chased David viciously, the king’s son Jonathan and David were best of friends. Later in David’s life, he also mourned the loss of his own son. “David therefore sought God on behalf of the child. And David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground. And the elders of his house stood beside him, to raise him from the ground, but he would not, nor did he eat food with them. On the seventh day the child died” (2 Samuel 12:15-18 ESV).
According to the NIV Study Bible, his servants were afraid to tell David his son had died, fearing his reaction. If the child in fact was only seven days old, he was not even named or circumcised yet, and so not counted among the Israelites.
What did Jesus say about fasting?
Jesus made some key references to fasting in his teaching to his followers. In Matthew 6:16-17 Jesus is teaching on the futility of making a holy spectacle of things that should be done for God; specifically giving money, praying and fasting. In this statement a couple of things are interesting.
Firstly, Jesus mentions fasting in the same breath as two other important Christian disciplines, praying and financial giving.
Secondly, He says ‘when’ you do these things and not ‘if’, which tells us that fasting is just assumed as normal for (and expected of) a Christian in the same way as prayer and giving.
It is worth noting that, even though Jesus assumes that the spiritual discipline of fasting will be a normal part of the believers life, he does not issue it as a command. We ought to remember therefore that the discipline of fasting, whether practiced individually or corporately as a church, should be a response of love to the God of grace who has already saved us in Christ. Let us examine our motives before we embark on a fast to ensure that we don’t do it with a religious spirit or out of a sense of legalistic duty, but rather that it is an overspill of our love for the God who already has accepted us freely in Christ.
What are the different types of fasting in scripture?
The Bible mentions three kinds of fasts:
Regular/Normal : – abstaining from all food and drink except for water
Partial/Daniel fast :- abstaining from meat, sweets, bread or you can only eat bread.
Absolute fast:- going without all food and drink including water.
1.The regular fast
The regular fast is done by abstaining from all food, both solid and liquid, except for water. This is the type of fasting Judah’s King Jehoshaphat called for when his country was confronted with invasion (2 Chronicles 20:3). The Lord defeated their enemies, and the men of Judah blessed the Lord (2 Chronicles 20:24–27). After the Babylonian captivity, the people returning to Jerusalem prayed and fasted, asking God for His protection on their journey (Ezra 8:21). The Lord Jesus fasted during His forty days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan (Luke 4:2). When Jesus was hungry, Satan tempted Him to turn the stones into bread, to which Jesus replied, “Man shall not live by bread alone” (Luke 4:4).
2.The partial/Daniel fast
The prophet Daniel spent three weeks fasting from certain foods. In Daniel 10, the prophet says, “I, Daniel, mourned for three weeks. I ate no choice food; no meat or wine touched my lips; and I used no lotions at all until the three weeks were over” (Daniel 10:2–3). Note that Daniel’s fast to express his grief on this occasion only omitted “choice” food, and it also involved relinquishing the use of oils and “lotions” for refreshment. Today, many Christians follow this example and abstain from certain foods or activities for a short time, looking to the Lord for their comfort and strength.
3.The absolute fast
Also mentioned in the Bible is the absolute fast, or the full fast, where no food or water is consumed. When Esther discovered the plan for all the Jews to be killed in Persia, she and her fellow Jews fasted from food and water for three days before she entered the king’s courts to ask for his mercy (Esther 4:16). Another example of an absolute fast is found in the story of Saul’s conversion. The murderous Saul encountered Jesus in His glory on the road to Damascus. “For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything” (Acts 9:9). Immediately following that time of blindness and fasting, Saul dedicated his life to preaching Jesus Christ.
Note: I would not recommend that anyone pursue an absolute fast for any more than part of a day (certainly no more than 24hrs ) and only after you have sought advice from a doctor.