The Spiritual Discipline of Fasting

I certainly can’t speak for you. But in my circles the Spiritual Discipline of fasting is not widely practiced. I don’t come across many people who even mention it, let alone practice it. And I’ve heard very few sermons on the topic.

I’ve often heard the term Bible illiteracy. Perhaps what we’re experiencing is the result of fasting illiteracy – fear and misunderstanding.

Before we define fasting, it is important that we remember that we are exploring Spiritual Transformation and each of the Spiritual Disciplines from a Christian perspective. That being said, there remain two widely accepted definitions for fasting.

According to this definition, a person abstains from or denies himself the enjoyment of something other than food, for purposes that are spiritual in nature. For example, one might perceive the need to abstain from social media, buying more books, sleeping in, or from a sport or hobby. The reason for this decision might be that they sense that the activity is wielding too much influence on their heart and mind. Or it might be that they simply want to free up more time to spend with God.

As previously stated, this definition is widely accepted. It is appropriate to fast from things that are exerting too much influence on our lives or getting in the way of our time with God. This definition also provides an option for those who for medical reasons cannot participate in a food fast.

These definitions have several things in common. They are for believers in Christ. The acts are voluntary. Abstinence is for spiritual purposes. The discipline rooted in a relationship with Christ and practiced with the desire to become more Christlike.

The difference in the definitions is the object of the fast. Definition #2 speaks of fasting from physical nourishment – period. Since the Bible only uses the term fasting regarding food, this is the type of fasting we will explore.

We’ve already mentioned that in the Bible fasting always pertains to physical nourishment. So, we can assume that fasting is in the Bible and meets our test. But let’s note a few places specifically where we see its appearance.

In just a few Old Testament examples, we see that Israel fasted on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29) and during four other annual fasts (Zechariah 8:19). David fasted while his child lay at death’s door (2 Samuel 12:22). And the people fasted for Saul and Jonathan because they had fallen by the sword (2 Samuel 1:12).

In the New Testament, the Jewish religious practices of the Old Testament continued, including fasting. We see this in the observance of the annual fast of the Day of Atonement (Acts 27:9), and in the Pharisees fasting twice a week (Luke 18:11-12). Other New Testament examples of fasting include Anna the prophetess (Luke 2:36-37), the leaders of the church (Acts 13:1-3), and the disciples of John (Mark 2:18).

Does Jesus come to your mind when you think of fasting? For many, sad to say, it’s probably the Pharisees – the bad example – who come to mind. But Jesus both practiced and taught fasting.

Jesus fasted.

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Matthew 4:1-4

He also taught fasting and expected that His disciples would indeed fast.

And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Matthew 6:16-18

There are at least four components of fasting – the degree of abstinence, the participants, the duration, and the frequency.

During a fast, we can abstain from food and drink to varying degrees. In a normal (or absolute) fast, one abstains from all food and drink (Esther 4:15-16; Acts 9:8-9). On the other hand, a partial fast is one in which there is a limitation of diet but not a complete abstinence (Daniel 1:12).

Examples of three different kinds of fasts according to the number of participants can be found in the Bible.

This fast is observed by an individual and is not to be noticed by others. This is the type of fast Jesus was speaking of in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:17-18).

Just as the leaders in the church in Acts did (Acts 13:1-3), we can fast with other Christians in a shared commitment.

An entire congregation of God’s people can conduct a fast. Examples from the Old Testament include all the Jews in Susa (Esther 4:16), the entire nation of Israel (Nehemiah 9:1), and the congregation recorded in the book of Joel (Joel 2:15-16).

The Bible does not give any commands about the duration or length of a fast. A quick survey finds fasts that cover:

  • Part of a day (Judges 20:26-28)
  • One day (Jeremiah 36:6)
  • Three days (Esther 4:1; Acts 9:8-9)
  • Seven days (1 Samuel 31:13)
  • Twenty-one days (Daniel 10:2-3)
  • Forty days (Deuteronomy 9:9; 1 Kings 19:8; Matthew 4:1-2)
  • No mention of duration (Matthew 9:14; Luke 2:37; Acts 13:3)

The question of how often, or on what schedule, a fast should occur, provides us with three types of fasts.

These are fasts which occur on a repetitive schedule. Examples include Israel’s annual fast on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29-31) and the Pharisees of the New Testament who fasted twice each week (Luke 8:12).

Occasional fasts occur whenever a need is perceived. Most of the fasting examples in Scripture seem to fall into this category (2 Samuel 12:22; Judges 20:26; Daniel 9:3-5; Ezra 8:21; Acts 14:23).

An example of a continuous fast is John the Baptist whose food was locusts and wild honey (Matthew 3:4).

In the Old Testament, God commanded the fast. The annual fast during the Day of Atonement was His directive. However, nowhere in the New Testament is fasting commanded. Neither is there any command in the New Testament about when, how often, or how long we should fast. Yet, we know that Jesus assumed that His followers would fast (Matthew 6:16-18).

Fasting is not to be a legalistic practice. It is a privilege and an opportunity. This spiritual discipline, like all others, is a means for drawing close to God and growing in Christlikeness. It should not be neglected but entered into at and with the Spirit’s leading, resting on the finished work of Christ.

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