“In general we must hold that whenever any religious controversy arises, which either a council or ecclesiastical tribunal behooves to decide; whenever a minister is to be chosen; whenever, in short any matter of difficulty and great importance is under consideration: on the other hand, when manifestations of the divine anger appear, as pestilence, war, and famine, the sacred and salutary custom of all ages has been for pastors to exhort the people to public fasting and extraordinary prayer.”
(John Calvin, Institutes, IV, 12, 14)
What is fasting?
Fasting is deliberately abstaining from food for religious purposes. It is not dieting. A ‘normal’ fast involves continuing to drink water but not eating foods. An ‘absolute’ fast, neither eating nor drinking, is very rare in the Bible. For some Christians fasting means replacing normal meals with lighter foods or much smaller portions. For others it means missing meals altogether. Many spend the time which would have been used for preparing and eating the meal in prayer. Others continue with their usual activities using the pangs of hunger as prompts to prayer. Some medical conditions (e.g. diabetes) prevent such abstinence, but doctors generally agree that missing occasional meals can actually be beneficial to health.
Because our Lord Jesus Christ did! So also did Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Anna, Paul and many more. Committed Jews in Jesus’ time fasted twice a week and at the end of the First Century this was the common pattern in the Church too. Fasting has always been a part of Roman Catholic spirituality. Among great Protestants Luther and Calvin fasted. Wesley urged Methodists to fast every Wednesday and Friday, and wouldn’t ordain anyone to Ministry who didn’t fast twice a week! Many Christians in many denominations today testify to the great value of fasting. It has special value in helping us to hear God’s voice and discover His will, in the area of spiritual warfare, and as part of intercessory prayer.
Fasting in the Old Testament
Fasting was a spontaneous expression of strong feeling and emotion: a way of saying to God, ‘I really care about this.’ It is a simple act of sacrifice which shows God we really do care and we really mean business in prayer.
Fasting in preparation to meet with God or to consult God:
Then the Israelites, all the people, went up to Bethel, and there they sat weeping before the LORD. They fasted that day until evening and presented burnt offerings and fellowship offerings to the LORD. And the Israelites enquired of the LORD. (Judges 20:26-27)
Fasting to show sincere repentance. For example, the nation of Nineveh in Jonah 3:6-10, and also:
Then Samuel said, “Assemble all Israel at Mizpah and I will intercede with the LORD for you.” When they had assembled at Mizpah, they drew water and poured it out before the LORD. On that day they fasted and there they confessed, “We have sinned against the LORD.” (1 Samuel 7:5-6)
Fasting accompanying prayer, especially intercession. See e.g. David in 2 Samuel 12:15-22, and also:
When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. (Nehemiah 1:4)
Fasting in the New Testament
Some people wrongly suggest that fasting is a part of Old Testament Law which does not apply to us as Christian. Quite the reverse. In the New Testament it was simply assumed that both Jews and Christians would fast. Jesus Himself fasted in the desert. One of the temptations was to break His fast.
In the Sermon on the Mount after the sections on the Lord’s prayer and on giving to the poor, Jesus teaches about fasting in parallel. Jesus clearly implies that all three will be a regular part of the life of a disciple: prayer, giving, fasting. Note that Jesus says ‘WHEN you fast’, not ‘IF you fast’!
When you fast, do not look sombre 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. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18)
Jesus’s disciples did not fast while He was with them, but Jesus specifically taught them that one day, when He is not with them (i.e. NOW) his followers WILL fast (Matthew 9:14-15).
The early church often fasted, especially when they were praying about important matters, seeking guidance and commissioning.
In the church at Antioch …. While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. (Acts 13:1-3)
The benefits of fasting
Fasting in the Bible is not a commandment required for salvation but it is assumed that all disciples WILL fast from time to time as a helpful spiritual practice. Fasting must always be directed towards God and not to impress other people. in Celebration of Discipline Richard Foster comments
“Fasting must forever center on God. It must be God-initiated and God-ordained…Fasting reminds us that we are sustained by ‘every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’ (Matthew 4:4) … Therefore, in experiences of fasting we are not so much abstaining from food as we are feasting on the word of God. Fasting is feasting!”
Fasting, like praying and giving, is a legitimate spiritual discipline to be practiced in private between a Christian and the Lord. How often we practice it is not prescribed, because that too is between the believer and Christ. When we desire to seek God’s face more than we want dinner, that will be the proper time to fast. Spending time in Prayer and Fasting will be a sacrificial physical and bodily expression of our commitment to worshipping and witnessing together. It will focus our thinking and praying, as well as offering an opportunity for those who do not already practise fasting to discover the value of this helpful spiritual discipline.
Normally fasting involves not eating but still drinking water. It is not helpful to have a large meal as the last meal before the fast, or to over-eat to make up afterwards. For those unaccustomed to hunger, frequently sipping water or fruit juice can be very helpful. Unless there are medical reasons why you should not, as part of our Week of Prayer and Fasting you may care to join in one of the following:
From breakfast to tea-time, missing out lunch and snacks during that day and only drinking water.
A 24 hour fast
From tea-time to tea-time, missing or reducing the size of breakfast and lunch on that day .
A 36 hour fast
from tea-time to breakfast, missing or reducing the size of all meals on one day.
Jim Packer wrote, “In Scripture we see several purposes for fasting. It’s a way of sharing that we depend on God alone and draw all our strength and resources from him; it’s a way of focusing totally on him when seeking his guidance and help, and of showing that you really are in earnest in your quest; it’s also, at times, an expression of sorrow and deep repentance, something that a person or community will do in order to acknowledge failure before God and seek his mercy.”
Packer continues, “We tend to think of fasting as going without food. But we can fast from anything. If we love music and decide to miss a concert in order to spend time with God, that is fasting. It is helpful to think of the parallel of human friendship. When friends need to be together, they will cancel all other activities in order to make that possible. There’s nothing magical about fasting. It’s just one way of telling God that your priority at that moment is to be alone with him, sorting out whatever is necessary, and you have canceled the meal, party, concert, or whatever else you had planned to do in order to fulfill that priority.”