By Betty Dunn, Crosswalk.com
There are over 70 examples of Scripture on fasting throughout the Bible. Moses, David, and the prophets and leaders of the Old Testament all fasted to draw closer to God when making important decisions and taking critical actions. In the New Testament, Jesus fasted while he was tempted for 40 days by Satan, to steel His spirit before His ministry on earth began. All the early church missions of Christ and the disciples were accompanied by fasting and prayer.
In the 21st century, intermittent fasting is practiced by Hollywood celebrities and health gurus, seeking weight loss, slower aging, and a sharper focus. Fasting is certainly nothing new. It is practiced in the religious traditions of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Throughout history, grieving people have fasted—however now the word is sad people are very hungry at funeral luncheons—and protesters and crash dieting girls have gone on hunger strikes.
What Is Fasting in Christianity?
Bible accounts describe fasting as an act of reverence through self-control. By disciplining the body, the spirit of God’s people got stronger. Moses fasted 40 days twice while receiving the Ten Commandments from God. Elijah had a partial fast in which ravens fed him bread and meat and he drank water from a brook (I Kings 17:5-6) and a 40-day fast before a journey (I Kings 19:7-8). These fasts prepared God’s prophets for their missions.
These biblical examples are “supernatural fasts,” which run for a longer duration of time and are overseen by God. In his Crosswalk.com article, “What Christians Need to Know about Fasting,” Sam Storms lists other types of fasts: a partial fast from a particular food, such as Daniel’s fast while in Babylon (Daniel 10:3), when Daniel “ate no choice food” for three weeks; a liquid fast without solid foods; a fast with no solid foods, which may be how Jesus fasted in the wilderness (Luke 4:2); and an absolute fast with no food or liquid.
Early Christians fasted before appointing leaders who faced great opposition to their ministry: “Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 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.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:1-3). In this passage, fasting clears the minds of men choosing leaders with God’s guidance.
Most people think of going without food when they hear the word fasting. Fasting has a broader meaning for Christians and in our common culture. To fast is to abstain from something important to you, whether a particular food or drink, social media, screen time, or any uncritical, time-consuming activity. When the need for filling our stomach with food or calendar with activities is put on the back burner, we become more focused on our spirit. We are quieted to listen to God. We get direction on how to live differently, closer to the way God would have us live.
Meg Bucher, in her Crosswalk.com article “What Does the Bible Say About Fasting?” describes fasting as an act of worship. She writes that fasting keeps God on the “throne of our hearts” and on the “top of our minds.”
Why Is Fasting Important for Christians?
Christians of all denominations traditionally fast during Lent. The 40 days of Lent remind us of the 40 days Christ was tempted by Satan in the wilderness. Since Jesus fasted the duration of the forty days of His temptation, many Christians fast on a certain day of the week or from some food or activity during the forty days of Lent to honor Christ’s life.
Jesus did not command fasting, but it was a normal occurrence in His earthly time, and it would have made sense to His followers to take up this practice as a spiritual discipline. In the Gospel story of Jesus at the Cana wedding, He presents an alternative view of fasting: Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, ‘Why do we and the Pharisee fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ And Jesus to them, ‘Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Matthew 9:14-17). It’s more good news from the Gospel. In this passage, Jesus replaces the somber practice of fasting with merrymaking while life is good.
Jesus instructs his disciples that when they do fast, they need to do it quietly and not to show off. It’s to be private communion with God—without the elements of bread or wine—much like individual prayer. It’s a barebones, stripped-down, fundamental way to worship. “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, 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 others 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.
An episode from the Bible’s Old Testament history related to fasting has the teacher Ezra leading a remnant of Israelites back to Jerusalem from Babylon. Ezra prays and fasts to ensure the journey will be safe: “There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions … So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer” (Ezra 8:21-23). God’s people proceed on a journey with conventional protection from the Egyptian army and spiritual protection from God. Prayer and fasting set the safe journey in motion. Christians can follow this example of praying and fasting to receive God’s blessing on their endeavors.
How Should Christians Go about This Practice?
Too much fasting is detrimental to health and extreme fasting over a long period of time can cause death. Fasting for a few days probably won't hurt most people who are healthy, provided they don't get dehydrated, but fasting for long periods of time is bad for your body. Fatigue, dizziness, constipation, dehydration, and temperature sensitivity may result from fasting. Diabetics and pregnant or breastfeeding women should not fast if they wish to remain healthy.
Without supernatural intervention from God, such as with Moses and Jesus, the body can function only for three days without water. A complete or absolute fast without food or liquid of any kind should be short. Seek medical advice before a fast longer than a day or two.
Fasting may have health benefits as well and could be considered a way to honor our bodies as temples of God. You may choose to fast from sugar or some other unhealthy element that is normally a regular, even daily, part of your diet. Perhaps you choose to eat only fruits and vegetables for the length of a fast, refraining from all meat. The nutrients in fruits and vegetables would benefit your body. Losing weight on a fast is also beneficial to your health, although fasting confuses your body’s metabolism and it is likely you will quickly gain back any weight you lost during a fast as soon as you begin to eat and drink again.
Encouraging Scriptures for Fasting
In the book of Matthew, Jesus explains the difference between observing Jewish laws and traditions and practicing true spirituality. Jesus says, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them” (Matthew 15:11). The Pharisees in Jesus’ time had difficulty understanding this concept. They remained bound by the laws and traditions of the Old Testament, known to the Pharisees as the Jewish Torah.
Feeding our own stomachs is not as important as feeding others out of our hearts. On this topic, here is a conversation from the book of Isaiah, between God and the woebegone Israelites:
“Why have we fasted,” they say, “and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?” Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” Isaiah 58:3-8.
A true sacrifice to God—while recognizing that fasting is a type of sacrifice—is “a broken and contrite heart” (Psalms 51:17). God knows our hearts (I Samuel 16:7b).
Joel 2:12-13 says, “Even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.”
Fasting has had profound effects on people and their actions in biblical history and modern times. It is a way to listen with the heart and then get things done. The need to clutter the mind with ideas reduces with deprivation from food or a favorite activity. We can then listen with the heart in the quiet, reflective ambiance of Lent. As in the season of Advent, in Lent, we wait for a monumental event in the Christian tradition. We prepare our hearts and minds to receive a renewed spirit as we honor Christ’s suffering in fasting and His resurrection with the Easter feast.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” Matthew 5:6.
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Betty Dunn hopes her articles in Crosswalk.com help you hold hands with God, a theme in her self-published novel Medusa. A former high school English teacher and editor, she is working on new writing projects from her home in West Michigan, where she enjoys woods, water, pets, and family. Check out her blog at Betty Dunn and her website, www.elizabethdunning-wix.com