Before I start, I want to declare and confess the following: I am not a Bible scholar. I am not a theologian. I do not have a degree from any seminary. I am merely a servant of the Lord and my desire is to serve Him and bless others.
How relevant is fasting in this day and age? Do Christians fast? Should Christians fast? If so, how should we fast? Has the Lord given us strict guidelines to engage in fasting? Are there Biblical examples of fasting? These are some of the questions I have heard in the past.
Only recently, a fellow believer (whom I love and is very dear to my heart), asked me what I knew about fasting. This is one of the big reasons why I decided to put this article/study together. I realized that there might be others who would have the same question as this dear friend of mine.
Doing a search on the term “fasting”, I came across the following (but not exhaustive) places where the word is mentioned in the Bible. I have used the New International Version translation for this particular study. If you are using a different Bible translation, then the word “fasting” may or may not appear in your translation in these particular verses.
I first look at fasting in the Old Testament and then move on to the New Testament. This will help us understand the significance of fasting in the Old and New Testaments and draw comparisons and contrasts between them, if any. In each section, I have listed the key verse where fasting is mentioned, but also provided a link to the full context the verse(s) may belong to. It is extremely important that we put all Scripture verses in its proper context so as to avoid the risk of misinterpretation and misrepresentation (so as to suit our needs).
I pray that you will be blessed by this humble effort. All credit goes to the Lord and the Holy Spirit. I just merely typed it up
Exodus 34:28 (Exodus 34)
Moses was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments.
My Thoughts: Moses was spending time with the Lord as the Lord was speaking with Him, as a friend would, face to face. The Lord was giving Moses the Ten Commandments. No doubt, it was a solemn time and we can see that when we are with the Lord, we don’t need physical sustenance as His presence in our midst will meet all our needs.
1 Kings 21:9 (1 Kings 21)
In those letters she wrote: “Proclaim a day of fasting and seat Naboth in a prominent place among the people.
My Thoughts: Jezebel, Ahab’s wife, asked the people to fast, but with an evil and false motive. It was purely for show, as an excuse, to get Naboth (who refused to sell his vineyard to Ahab) to be falsely accused by her people and get him stoned to death for cursing God and the Ahab the king (neither of which Naboth had not done). As you can see here, fasting can be used for wicked purposes as well, though it is not God who answered any prayers or did anything.
Ezra 10:6 (Ezra 10)
Then Ezra withdrew from before the house of God and went to the room of Jehohanan son of Eliashib. While he was there, he ate no food and drank no water, because he continued to mourn over the unfaithfulness of the exiles.
My Thoughts: Ezra was heart-broken about the sins that the returning exiles (from Babylon) had committed. As a priest, He was fasting as a sign of mourning for all his people. Remember that the priests at the time represented the people before the Lord. Ezra was not only fulfilling his God appointed duty, but out of his own love for the Lord and His Law, he was doing this before the Lord for his people. So, you could say that this is intercessory fasting, not for our own needs, but for a person or group of people. Ezra was not asking the Lord for anything, but perhaps to forgive and restore his people (we are not told what he was asking the Lord).
Nehemiah 1:4 (Nehemiah 1)
When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.
My Thoughts: Ezra (while he was in Babylon, prior to returning to Jerusalem with the rest of the exiles) had heard a report from some men from Judah, of the condition Jerusalem was in with its walls torn down and the city mostly in ruins. This led Ezra to spend time in fasting, confession and prayer for Israel and the sins that it had committed that brought about this destruction and asking the Lord to once again show mercy to His people and gather them together again. Again, intercessory prayer from Ezra for all of Israel.
Nehemiah 9:1-3 (Nehemiah 9)
On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and having dust on their heads. Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners. They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the wickedness of their fathers. They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Law of the LORD their God for a quarter of the day, and spent another quarter in confession and in worshiping the LORD their God.
My Thoughts: Ezra the priest had just finished reading from the Book of the Law of Moses (the Pentateuch – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers & Deuteronomy), the Israelites who had listened to the Law, put on sackcloth and heaped ashes on their head (a sign of equating themselves to dust as a sign utter humility before God) and fasted for a part of the day while confessing their sins and praising God and for another part of the day, read from the Law. This kind of fasting is done when people want to set themselves apart and just pour themselves to God in confession and repentance and spend time in worship and prayer.
Esther 4:3 (Esther 3-4)
In every province to which the edict and order of the king came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping and wailing. Many lay in sackcloth and ashes.
My Thoughts: When Haman convinced King Xerxes to destroy all the Jews (because Haman saw that Mordecai didn’t think much of him), Mordecai and all the other Jews all over the kingdom cried out to the Lord for deliverance. Here, the people had utterly given up everything and desperately seeking out the Lord for Him to save them. Whether or not the Lord answers, it should not stop us from seeking this kind of help from the Lord.
Psalm 35:13-14 (Psalm 35)
Yet when they were ill, I put on sackcloth and humbled myself with fasting. When my prayers returned to me unanswered, I went about mourning as though for my friend or brother. I bowed my head in grief as though weeping for my mother.
My Thoughts: In this Psalm, David is asking the Lord to deal with his accusers. However, we see that David was fasting and praying for them when they were ill (we see David’s love and grace here) so that the Lord might heal them. Clearly, we can see that the Lord did not answer David’s prayers (despite his fast). Also, we see that David recognized that the Lord had not answered his prayer, but that did not stop him from grieving for those sick people (despite them being against him). We learn that we can fast and pray for those who are sick and require the Lord’s healing, even if they are against us/our enemies.
Psalm 109:21-24 (Psalm 109) (David – accusers)
But you, O Sovereign LORD, deal well with me for your name’s sake; out of the goodness of your love, deliver me. For I am poor and needy, and my heart is wounded within me. I fade away like an evening shadow; I am shaken off like a locust. My knees give way from fasting; my body is thin and gaunt.
My Thoughts: Another Psalm where David is talking about people rising up against him. Here, David was fasting for his own deliverance. It’s quite possible that this was an absolute fast (no food or water), but it’s not clear from the text, except for how David describes the condition of his body because of this fast.
Isaiah 58:2-4 (Isaiah 58)
For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. ‘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.
My Thoughts: Here, the Lord points out that the Israelites are fasting amidst their disobedience and lawlessness. However, notice that He does not chastise them for it. In response to their questions as to why the Lord has not paid attention to them, He then points out that even when they are fasting, they are being ungodly towards one another and overall, being not very “Christian” in their behaviour and attitude. So, here, we can see that even if we are disobedient and far away from the Lord, when we do fast, we must not be the same and inwardly and outwardly, behave in a manner that is pleasing to the Lord. Then, He will see us and hear us!
Jeremiah 36:9-10 (Jeremiah 36)
In the ninth month of the fifth year of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, a time of fasting before the LORD was proclaimed for all the people in Jerusalem and those who had come from the towns of Judah. From the room of Gemariah son of Shaphan the secretary, which was in the upper courtyard at the entrance of the New Gate of the temple, Baruch read to all the people at the LORD’s temple the words of Jeremiah from the scroll.
My Thoughts: Please read Jeremiah 36 to get a full understanding of what’s happening here. Jeremiah had just recited to Baruch, what the Lord had revealed to him about the judgement that awaits Judah if they don’t turn to Him. He had then asked Baruch to read it to the people. It is not clear who proclaimed the time of fasting (The king would later burn this scroll, so it could not have been him. It may well have been under Jeremiah’s guidance.) and how long the period of fasting was. What is clear is that in this particular instance is that this fasting was a sort of spiritual preparation that the people had to undergo before hearing what the Lord had to tell them. We are not told what the people’s reaction was, but the king was not very pleased with what he heard.
This kind of fasting is a good idea when we are really wanting to spend time studying the Word and wanting to hear from the Lord and want to have a receptive heart and mind.
Daniel 9:2-3 (Daniel 9)
in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the LORD given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years. So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.
while I was still in prayer, Gabriel, the man I had seen in the earlier vision, came to me in swift flight about the time of the evening sacrifice. He instructed me and said to me, “Daniel, I have now come to give you insight and understanding. As soon as you began to pray, an answer was given, which I have come to tell you, for you are highly esteemed.
My Thoughts: Please read Daniel 9 to get the complete picture of what’s going on here. Daniel realized from what the prophet Jeremiah had recorded that Jerusalem would be destroyed if the people did not turn to the Lord. So, he humbles himself before the Lord by covering himself with dust and ashes and engages in fasting and prayer for him and his people. If you read Daniel 9, you will see that it is a very detailed and explicit prayer that Daniel engages in because he recognizes that they have gravely sinned against the Lord and unless the Lord relents, their destruction is certain.
We also see further in the chapter that God does answer Daniel through Gabriel (an archangel). Gabriel also informs Daniel that he is “highly esteemed”. It is safe to say that it was not the angels that highly esteemed Daniel, but the Lord Himself. We know of Daniel’s steadfast faith in the Lord and it is clear why the Lord would have high esteem for him.
My friends, we too can hold a high esteem with God, if only we are to sincerely and faithfully follow the Lord and His ways and be steadfast in Him.
Joel 1:14 (Joel 1)
Declare a holy fast; call a sacred assembly. Summon the elders and all who live in the land to the house of the LORD your God, and cry out to the LORD.
My Thoughts: The Lord reveals to Joel, the destruction that is planned for Judah. As a result, the people are urged to come before the Lord and to fast and pray so that the Lord’s anger against them subsides and His judgement wouldn’t fall on them.
Joel 2:12-13 (Joel 2)
“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.
My Thoughts: The Lord implores His people to not just tear their clothes (which was a sign of mourning and showing humility), but to do the same in their hearts, as in, to have a sincere desire to repent and turn to Him so that He may bless them with His love instead of destroying them.
The Lord is always wanting us to return to Him. If you think you have strayed too far out of His reach, you are wrong. You can never be so far away from Him that He wouldn’t be able to reach you. So, today, if you want to draw near to the Lord, prepare your heart and mind and spirit by engaging in fasting and prayer and approach the Lord with a repentant heart and He will not turn you away, but will restore you. You may have to face the consequences of any sins you might have committed, but be assured that your salvation and eternal destination is secured in Him, IF you truly come before the Lord seeking fellowship and a genuine relationship with Him.
Matthew 4:1-2 (Matthew 3:13-17; Matthew 4:1-11)
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.
My Thoughts: Before the Lord Jesus began His ministry, He engaged in fasting and prayer (based on the text, it’s possible that this was an absolute fast, meaning no food or water).
What we can learn from our Lord here is that if we are preparing to start/join a ministry, such kind of fasting and praying will prepare us for the testing/tempting situations that might come our way. But like our Lord, through the Holy Spirit, we will have the strength to withstand the enemies attack. It should be noted that the Lord did quite Scripture, which makes it clear to us that our fasting and praying should be accompanied by the studying of the Word.
“When you fast, do not look somber 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.
My Thoughts: Notice that the Lord says “When we fast”, meaning that fasting is still relevant and important today as it was when the Lord walked amongst us. These verses tell us how the Lord expects us to carry ourselves in the world, when we are engaged in fasting. We shouldn’t look/act weary and tired so that people notice us and then ask us why we are looking that way, giving us an opportunity to tell them we are fasting. Why is this bad? Well, it causes us to swell up in pride when people allude to us as being so godly and spiritual, patting us on the back for doing something so great!! Nope, it should be done in secret so that only the Lord knows you are fasting.
If you “fast” in such a way that everyone knows that you are fasting, the only “reward” you get may be the empty praises of a few people.
Matthew 9:14-15 (Matthew 9:14-15;Mark 2:18-19;Luke 5:33-34)
Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.
My Thoughts: Jesus refers to Himself as the bridegroom on many occasions. Here, he was telling those who were asking Him about fasting that while He is still with them, they need not fast. It is only when He has left that they would need to fast because He will no longer be physically present with them to heal and to do miracles and such.
The Lord is no longer with us in His bodily form. He has given us the Holy Spirit. We are to engage in fasting and prayer so that we can continue to build a strong relationship with our Lord through the Holy Spirit.
Matthew 17:19-21 (Matthew 17:14-21 ***see footnote)
Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out? ”He replied, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you. ***But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.”
My Thoughts: Though some translations leave the last verse about fasting out, we see here that Jesus is telling His disciples that in some situations, to overcome a spiritual battle, fasting (along with prayer) may be required to receive the extra strength needed to overcome such situations and get a result.
There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
My Thoughts: Anna is an encouragement and an example to all of us. She could have easily remarried when her husband died, instead, she spent the rest of her life, fasting and praying and drawing nearer to the Lord. Though we don’t know at what age she married, considering the time period, she may have been in her late teens (or younger) and so, may have become a widow before she turned 25. Based on these assumptions, we see that she had spent 60 years, growing in the Lord, through fasting and prayer and constant worship. It is clear that she spoke about the Lord to all the people who visited the temple (based on how she approached Joseph and Mary when they came with the Lord Jesus to the temple). No doubt, after Mary and Joseph left, she would have been all the more sharing about the Messiah whom she had laid eyes on. God blessed her by allowing her to see the Lord Jesus before He called her home.
Acts 9:9 (Acts 9:1-30)
For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.
My Thoughts: When Saul became Paul, it was a life changing experience. Though it is not clear why he fasted, knowing what we know of Paul and his ministry, we can with a great amount of certainty say that he may have been repentant of his past, spending time in prayer and conversations with the Lord, even as the Lord was preparing to do great things in Him and through Him.
Acts 13:2-3 (Acts 13:1-5)
While they were worshiping 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.
My Thoughts: Here, the Church was praying for the Lord to give them direction about where to go, what to do and who to send for His work.
We have looked at a number of verses from various books of the Bible and seen how fasting played a role in that particular situation, circumstance or individual persons life.
We know that we can engage in fasting to (in no particular order):
- Draw nearer to the Lord and help us focus on Him
- Ask the Lord to turn away from His anger
- Ask Him for forgiveness and restoration (to mourn our sin and seek repentance)
- Learn more about Him (when studying the Word)
- Grant us strength
- Prepare us or others for ministry
- Help us to make godly choices when appointing people in ministries
- To seek His will (clarity of mind and thought)
- To gain wisdom and understanding
- To praise and worship Him
You could attempt to fast in the following ways:
- No food or water of any kind (absolute fast)
- Fruits/vegetables only with no water
- Only water (no other food)
- Fruits/vegetables without much water
- Giving up something you like/do everyday or think you can’t live without
Fasting is not just about abstaining from food or water. It can also be you giving up something that is very close/dear to you (chocolates, TV, sports, hobbies etc). Your reason to fast (your attitude) should be to come before the Lord in humility and to submit yourselves to Him and to confess to Him that He is your everything, that He is all you need and that everything else, including food, water, (insert your favorite thing here) and anything else is meaningless without Him. Of course, merely saying it with your mouth amounts to nothing. Neither is a strong will going to please the Lord. Fasting will achieve nothing if your attitude is not one of surrender, humility and dependance on the Lord and the Holy Spirit for sustenance and survival. Fasting is meaningless if you do not have a passionate desire for the Lord to work in you and to transform you and to make you more like Him. Not so that you can become a better Christian and be satisfied and content about your own life, but so that He can then use you to bless others and serve in His Kingdom and lead others to Him.
Fasting does not guarantee results, so please don’t be disappointed and angry at the Lord because He didn’t answer you in the way you would have hoped.
Remember: If or when you do engage in fasting, ensure that you also pray earnestly during that time and also spend time studying the Word (not just reading it).
If the Lord leads me to correct or change this post, I shall do so according to His leading.
If you have any questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me.
God bless you all.