Biblical Fasting

Dr. Brian Allison

As Christians, we need to pray. This fact, of course, is self-evident; and requires no argument or discussion. Luke 18:1 reads, "Now [Jesus] was telling them a parable to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart." Philippians 4:6 reads, "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God." Prayer should be a way of life for professing believers. God the Father desires that His children come to Him with their concerns and needs. But sometimes a believer's concerns and needs assume serious proportions. Situations become urgent. In such cases, God has provided appropriate means for addressing such situations – fasting and prayer. Fasting and prayer should not normally be viewed as a daily or common-place practice, but rather that which should be employed for special times. Fasting and prayer is typically reserved for unusual and critical times; and so, in adopting extraordinary means, we want God to do extraordinary things.

Adopting such extraordinary means, as demanded by unusual or critical situations, has a long Biblical tradition. Concerning an Old Testament example, Daniel 9:1-3 reads, "In the first year of Darius the son of Ahasuerus, of Median descent, who was made king over the kingdom of the Chaldeans – in the first year of his reign I, Daniel, observed in the books the number of the years which was revealed as the word of the Lord to Jeremiah the prophet for the completion of the desolations of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years. [The nation of Israel was coming to an epochal period in their history. Daniel had been reading from the prophecy of Jeremiah, and he recognized the uniqueness of the moment. With spiritual sensitivity, he engaged in appropriate spiritual means, endeavouring to secure God's mercy and help.] So I gave my attention to the Lord God to seek Him by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes." Concerning a New Testament witness, we read in Acts 14:21-23 in reference to Paul and Barnabas' missionary work, "And after they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, 'Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.' [New church works had been established; new believers had come into the fold; church government was put into place, the apostles were going to return to Antioch – a delicate situation.] And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed."

Clearly, then, fasting is a New Testament practice. Fasting ought to be a part of a believer's spiritual disciplines. Thus, Mark 2:18-20 reads, "And John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and they came and said to [Jesus], '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 do not fast, do 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.'" The Bridegroom has been taken away; we are to fast until He returns.

What is Biblical Fasting?

Fasting, coupled with prayer, is a solemn religious practice by which one seriously and diligently seeks God. It is, therefore, a heightened kind of worship. It is a seeking of the Lord in a most intense way. In 2 Chronicles 20, we have the account of king Jehoshaphat. We read, "Now it came about after this that the sons of Moab and the sons of Ammon, together with some of the Meunites, came to make war against Jehoshaphat [a critical situation]. Then some came and reported to Jehoshaphat, saying, 'A great multitude is coming against you from beyond the sea, out of Aram and behold, they are in Hazazon-tamar (that is Engedi).' And Jehoshaphat was afraid and turned his attention to seek the LORD [and what was involved in that?]; and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. So Judah gathered together to seek help from the LORD; they even came from all the cities of Judah to seek the LORD" (vv. 1-4). And as we read further on in this account, we learn that the Lord acknowledged Israel's seeking, and brought about deliverance. The Lord is pleased to honour this form of worship. In fact, He has bound Himself to recognize His ordained means. He has given us a special way of laying hold on Him; and, sadly, the church, by and large, has sorely neglected it. I trust that this little tract will raise your consciousness concerning the importance and significance of fasting – abstaining from food in order to achieve some specified religious ends.

Fasting is an act of consecration

When we think of fasting, there are two essential ideas that we should keep in mind. First, fasting is an act of consecration. It is recorded of the prophetess Anna, "And she never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers" (Lu. 2:37b). She unreservedly consecrated herself to the Lord. Joel 1:12 clearly underscores this notion of consecration, "'Yet even now,' declares the LORD, 'Return to Me with all your heart [total consecration], and with fasting, weeping, and mourning.'" Fasting is a demonstration that we are seeking the Lord with our whole heart.

The importance of fasting is that it allows the spirit to seek the Lord with minimal or reduced hindrance and distraction by the physical. There is the removal of the concern to attend to one's bodily needs. How often does someone attend to his or her bodily needs in one day? For many, bodily needs require constant attention – "What am I going to make for supper? What should I have for lunch? Should I have cereal in the morning? What can I snack on?" But with fasting, you do not have to attend to these matters. With the distractions removed with respect to the physical, you are more focused. But further, the digestive system requires much energy in order to properly process food ingestion. When we shut down the digestive system, by abstaining from food, that energy can then be redirected. When someone has ingested a large meal, he or she usually may feel a bit sluggish. This is because the body is digesting and metabolizing the food. Understandably, many find it difficult to engage in intense prayer after they have ingested a big meal. We are a unit – body-spirit. Inevitably, the physical affects the spiritual, and vice versa. And when we shut down the physical, or reduce its demands, we can redirect that energy, and be wholly given to, and focused on, the Lord. We give ourselves 'in body' to God by fasting; and we give ourselves 'in spirit' to God by praying. The whole person, in a special sense, is involved in this act of worship.

Fasting is an act of humility

The second essential idea about fasting is that it is an act of self- humbling or self-abasing. One levels a strategic blow against his or her pride. It is in our humility that God hears us. David prays in Psalm 35:13, "But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth [that is the garment of fasting]; I humbled my soul with fasting; and my prayer kept returning to my bosom [i.e., I prayed incessantly]." Fasting is the outward expression of inner submission and brokenness. It is the acknowledgement and visible demonstration of one's helplessness and complete dependency upon the Lord; and thus fasting is called 'afflicting the soul'.

Whereas the importance of fasting is that one might totally give himself to God, focusing his whole being on God, the significance of fasting is that of concretely demonstrating, or visibly displaying, one's deep need. When we engage in fasting, we are declaring that we cannot help ourselves, and that God is our only resource. It is an observable crying out to God. You could come to God in prayer, saying, "Lord, I really have a need. Can You meet this need?" And God may be pleased to meet that need. But fasting, along with prayer, reveals and expresses more sharply and intensely the need. It is the 'incarnation' of grief. Accordingly, Joel 1:8-14 reads, "Wail like a virgin girded with sackcloth for the bridegroom of her youth. The grain offering and the libation are cut off from the house of the LORD. The priests mourn, the ministers of the Lord. The field is ruined, the land mourns, for the grain is ruined, the new wine dries up, fresh oil fails [truly a desperate situation]. Be ashamed, O farmers, wail, O vinedressers, for the wheat and the barley; because the harvest of the field is destroyed. The vine dries up, the fig tree fails; the pomegranate, the palm also, and the apple tree, all the trees of the field dry up. Indeed, rejoicing dries up from the sons of men [there is nothing to be happy about, life is miserable; nothing is going right]. Gird yourselves with sackcloth, and lament, O priests; wail, O ministers of the altar! Come, spend the night in sackcloth, O ministers of my God, for the grain offering and the libation are withheld from the house of your God. Consecrate a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly; gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the LORD your God and cry out to the LORD." With fasting, one publishes that he is unable to adequately handle the situation, and that human resources are useless.

So, fasting, as mentioned, is really an expression of mourning, a crying out to God in our need. Matthew 9: 14, in which we find this parallel thought, states, "Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, 'Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?' And Jesus said to them, 'The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.'" Recall the account of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 12. David had committed adultery with Bathsheba; and by way of judgement, the Lord struck the child who was born from their union with a fatal illness. What did David do? It was a desperate situation; it was now in God's hands alone. We read, "David therefore inquired of God for the child; and David fasted and went and lay all night on the ground" (v. 16). Yet, the child eventually died. David subsequently said, "While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, 'Who knows, the LORD may be gracious to me, that the child may live.' But now he has died; why should I fast?" (vv. 22,23). David fasted and prayed with the hope that God would remove His judgement, but He did not. David had applied himself to the God-ordained extreme measures because it was an extreme time.

What are the Reasons for Biblical Fasting?

There are a number of specific reasons for engaging in fasting, but there are two basic reasons.

Fasting expresses deep repentance

Fasting, first, is the means by which observable deep repentance is rendered to God. Depending upon the seriousness of the offence, mere confession may not be sufficient to release the soul of its sorrow over sin and bring it back into a restored relationship of peace and joy with the Lord. Fasting reveals or suggests the gravity of the offence, as well as one's serious commitment to change. For example, Jonah 3:5-10 presents the results of Jonah's preaching to the Ninevites, "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 in sackcloth, and sat on the ashes. And 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 shall not perish?' When God saw their deeds, and that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it."

Fasting secures God's blessings

But there is a second reason for fasting. Fasting is a means by which one may secure God's favour and special blessings. God is pleased to respond to the cry of the humble, providing them with special grace. You may say, "Well, why can't God give us special grace apart from fasting?" Well, He has not ordained that. We could just as easily ask, "Why doesn't God bless us without praying?" He has ordained the means; and because we have failed to appropriate the means, we have failed to secure the blessing. Recall the account of Ezra the scribe who returned to Jerusalem with the Israelites and reinstituted proper temple worship. He said, "Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God to seek from Him a safe journey for us, our little ones, and all our possessions. For I was ashamed to request from the king troops and horsemen to protect us from the enemy on the way, because we had said to the king, 'The hand of our God is favourably disposed to all those who seek Him, but His power and His anger are against all those who forsake Him.' So we fasted and sought our God concerning this matter, and He listened to our entreaty" (Ezr. 8:21-23).

The design of fasting is to move the heart of God to answer our prayers. Please don't respond by saying that God is sovereign and His will is already laid out. We will never figure out how human freedom and divine sovereignty come together. God is pleased to work and bless according to His ordained principles; one of which is fasting and prayer. God is pleased to be entreated by us when we fast; and it is that simple. God has been gracious enough to give us a means whereby we may humble ourselves so that He may bless us. Maybe you need to seek the Lord for something; you want His favour concerning something; and you have prayed incessantly. Have you fasted? If I may speak in human terms for a moment – God sees fasting in a special way because of what it signifies, and what it reveals, and it moves His heart to respond. Will it move His heart all the time? Possibly not, but there is a greater possibility of moving His heart when prayer is coupled with fasting. Even the evil king Manasseh experienced the favour of God when he fasted and prayed. We read, "And when [Manasseh] was in distress, he entreated the LORD his God and humbled himself greatly [i.e., fasted] before the God of his fathers. When he prayed to Him, He was moved by his entreaty and heard his supplication, and brought him again to Jerusalem to his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the LORD was God" (2 Chr. 33:12,13).

True fasting requires a right heart

Fasting, of course, should not be viewed as an automatic spiritual panacea; as if to simply engage in the act itself will guarantee divine favour; as if the mere act itself is some magical key for securing God's blessing, regardless of the spiritual state of one's heart or life. Fasting carries weight with God when such is performed from a spiritual posture of righteousness and truth. So, we read in Isaiah 58:1ff, "Cry loudly, do not hold back; raise your voice like a trumpet, and declare to My people their transgression, and to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek Me day by day, and delight to know My ways, as a nation that has done righteousness, and has not forsaken the ordinance of their God. They ask Me for just decisions, they delight in the nearness of God. 'Why have we fasted and Thou dost not see? [The problem was with their bad hearts; there is no spiritual power with the mere form of fasting; it must involve the whole person. Though the emphasis is on the body, it has to be a true reflection of the heart; but these Israelites were seeing fasting as merely some external religious rite, not recognizing that it is, and has to be, a heart affair.] Why have we humbled ourselves and Thou dost not notice?' ["You are supposed to notice, Lord, these are Your ordained means."] Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire, and drive hard all your workers [your heart is not right; it is not simply the act that matters, but rather the 'heart' of the act]. Behold, you fast for contention and strife and to strike with a wicked fist. You do not fast like you do today to make your voice heard on high [again, fasting gives power to our praying]. Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it for bowing one's head like a reed, and for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed? Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the Lord? Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke?" We must have a righteous, loving spirit in order to win God's ear. We must be pursuing godliness and holiness. The mere formal act is empty and meaningless. We must evidence a sincere, honest heart, and a righteous way of life; and then we will secure His favour and direction through fasting.

God reveals His will and direction through fasting. We read in Acts 13:1-3, "Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers: Barnabas, and Simeon who was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. And while they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, 'Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.' Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away." So, fasting is a Christian discipline which believers should be practicing. To neglect this spiritual discipline is to forfeit God's blessings and favour. Of course, if one has physical problems (e.g. diabetes), fasting may not be possible. If one has any concerns, he should consult with his doctor.

Fasting is the untapped means for securing the revival and renewal which the Church so desperately needs. God has promised us the manifestation of His marvellous grace through apparently unassuming, innocuous, and simple means. We read, "If I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or if I command the locust to devour the land, or if I send pestilence among My people, and My people who are called by My name humble themselves [i.e., fast] and pray, and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin, and will heal their land" (2 Chr. 7:13,14). What a marvelous promise and assurance from our God! Why should we delay in seeking Him? Let us seek Him with our whole heart. God may be pleased to rend the heavens and come down.