What is fasting?

Fasting is the act of deliberately denying oneself food for a particular period of time to express and cultivate dependence on and humility before God. Fasting has a profound impact on us as we intentionally deny our bodies their most essential provision and also seems to move the heart of God on behalf of his people. Throughout the Scriptures and the history of the Church, God’s people have maintained fasting as a crucial aspect of their seeking after Him. During this Lenten season, Jacob’s Well will be joining in this rich heritage by exploring this spiritual practice together. Fasting is not everything in the Christian life and there is no explicit command for Christians to fast in the Bible. However, Jesus assumed his followers would fast (Matthew 6:16: “… when you fast”) and, as we will see below, proper fasting can facilitate profound spiritual impact in the life of an individual disciple and in the community of God’s people.

Why fast?

The Scriptures repeatedly tell us that God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble (cf. James 4:6-10). In Isaiah 57:15 God says, "I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (see also Is 66:1,2). This great God who is above all earthly powers loves to draw especially close to those who willingly humble themselves before him. This is what makes fasting so powerful. Again and again, fasting is spoken of as an act that especially humbles us before God (cf. Joel 1:14; 2:12, 15). By going without our most basic need for a set amount of time, we declare to God that He is more significant than any worldly resource. At the same time, we learn that he can sustain us as we do what our bodies most obstinately resist. We declare to our own bodies that there is something more important and significant to us than meeting its (our body’s) needs. This is a powerful step in acknowledging to God our utter dependence on him for all things. It takes that declaration beyond mere words and actually cultivates the dependence we are declaring by our fast. Put simply, fasting both declares and develops the humility that draws God especially close to His people.

As God draws close to us in our humility, the implications are almost inevitably profound. Fasting often produces: fervency in prayer as our desperation for God increases (cf. Acts 13:2), freedom from besetting sins as our flesh is aggressively silenced (Galatians 6:8; Romans 8:13), clear insight into God’s will (cf. Acts 14:23), and dramatic intervention in circumstances (see many examples below under “When should I fast”).

How should I fast?

The Bible actually has a lot more to say about how not to fast than the particulars of how to do so. This is because the dangers of fasting are myriad. As with the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, fasting can easily become a legalistic badge of merit and superiority. Thus, when we fast, we must not do so in such a way that let’s everyone know we’re denying ourselves (exaggerated, distressed gasps as your friends eat lunch, complaining to your spouse or roommate repeatedly about how hungry you are and the like are what Jesus is referring to in Matthew 6:16-18). God’s people in the Old Testament are likewise condemned for fasting while simultaneously taking advantage of others (Isaiah 58). God condemns them for fasting to get what they want, rather than merely drawing close to God and leaving the “results” to him (“ … you seek your own pleasure.” v. 3). As such, our fasts must be accompanied by righteous living and love for others. To do otherwise is gross hypocrisy and ultimately a wasted fast.

Who should fast?

As mentioned, there is no explicit command given to Christians to fast. However, according to a first century document called the Didache, almost all of the earliest Christians fasted as a regular rhythm in their lives together (they fasted every Wednesday and Friday). Furthermore, Jesus says that his disciples will fast as an act of grief for his departure and as an act of longing for his return (Matthew 9:14-15). As such, it is fitting for Christians to appropriate this powerful means of grace in our lives. To shrink away from this practice is to refuse what God may want to accomplish in and through the process.

When should I fast?

The Scriptures are rife with examples of when God’s people are to fast. Nehemiah fasted for an astounding 120 days when he saw the state of God’s people and God’s city (Neh 1:1-4). Esther called for the entire nation of Israel to fast as she tried to divert Haman’s plan to annihilate the Jews (Esther 4:15-17). Ezra proclaimed a fast in order to seek God’s protection when the people returned from exile to rebuild Jerusalem (Ezra 8:21; similarly: 2 Chronicles 20:3). The apostles fasted when they needed clarity on God’s plan in the early days of the Church (Acts 13:2-3; 14:23). Even Jesus fasted for 40 days at the outset of his ministry to declare his complete dependence on the Father (Matthew 4). Given these examples, we can conclude that fasting is especially appropriate when God’s intervention is especially needed.

Let’s get practical …

  • Most people new to fasting should start slowly and build up to longer fasts. Begin with a 24-hour “juice only” fast. Then try a three-day “water only” fast and so on.
  • If attempting a longer fast – like a week or 10 days - try drinking fresh fruit juices at your regular meal times and water in the meantime. If attempting an even longer fast – like 21 or 40 days – consult your physician. They will most likely recommend some sort of multivitamin and a fiber supplement.
  • The first three days are almost universally the most difficult for people attempting longer fasts. The body is releasing toxins that have been built up for years. Once you’re through the fourth day, your equilibrium will return and you’ll likely feel surprisingly alert and strong.
  • How long should I fast? This inevitable question comes with a somewhat unsatisfying answer: however long you feel God is calling you to fast. Use the Spirit’s guidance, as well as the input of trusted believers to make this decision. There is no easy formula.
  • Don’t forget why you’re fasting! We can become so enthralled by the physical effects of our fast that we forget to maximize its impact in extended times of prayer and taking in large doses of the Scriptures. Don’t waste your fast.
  • If you have had serious eating issues in the past, you should approach fasting with great caution. You may consider fasting from a particular type of food (meat, fruit, etc.).
  • If you are diabetic, have a serious heart condition or are pregnant, you probably should not fast.
  • What about fasting from Facebook, TV, internet, etc? While these are admirable and even recommended practices, the Biblical definition of fasting is universally with respect to food. Nothing so thoroughly reminds us of our dependence on God than the denial of our most basic need … and no, our most basic need is not Facebook.