A Christian friend of mine mentioned that he fasted, and I asked him why. He said he found fasting helpful for his walk with the Lord. At times he felt he was falling short of the devotion he should have for Him, and he was dissatisfied with his own conduct and commitment to living worthily of Him. On such occasions he found fasting got him back on track. Sometimes he would fast for as long as three days without food, drinking only water, and while doing so he would engage in intense study of the Bible, coupled with prayer. The outcome for him was always positive. Afterwards he found he was refreshed and zealous for continuing his walk of obedience, desiring wholeheartedly to serve the Lord.
My conversation with my friend got me thinking. Why didn’t I fast? And, what does the Bible teach about it?
But, instead of going to the Bible, my first reaction was to turn on my computer and Google Christian fasting. I was amazed to discover loads of information telling of different fasting practices that take place in Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox churches – each having their own directives as to how, and when fasting should be done, but how biblical are their rules and regulations, if at all? Are they nothing more than observances and stumbling blocks devised by men?
Googling was getting me nowhere; it was a distraction. I had been distracted, just as Martha had been distracted from the teaching of Jesus when He was a guest at her house, along with others. (Luke 10: 38-42) Instead of doing the needful thing, which was to pay attention to the Lord, Martha became preoccupied with ‘serving’ people, and she became upset because her sister Mary was not helping her.
Instead, she should have focussed her attention on the Lord and to what He had to say. That’s what I should be doing! So I’ll turn now to His Word to hear what He has to say about fasting.
Some Texts Relating to Fasting
Isaiah 58:1-14 is all about the attitudes of those who fast. God told His people through Isaiah that He was not pleased with them, because while fasting, they were more concerned about having a good time and with exploiting their labourers than with delighting Him. They should have repented, done good works, and freed people from their bondage. They should have released them from their heavy burdens, sheltered the poor and provided for the naked. Graciously, God said that if they were to come to Him with sincere delight and genuine devotion, He would feed them with the heritage of Jacob, (v 14) and guard them with His glory. (v 8)
Had the Israelites fasted with the right attitudes and with good works, they would have been rewarded by the LORD.
Matthew 4:2 And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterwards He was hungry.
Jesus, having been baptised by John, saw the Spirit of God alighting upon Him, and the voice of God was heard saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:16, 17) Shortly afterwards He was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
There he fasted for forty days and forty nights, but why did He fast?
He was placed in a position of unimaginable temptation, but He did not succumb to the wiles of the devil. Without His fasting, the devil could not have tried exploiting the situation of Jesus’s extreme hunger. He tried tempting Him by saying, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread,” Jesus rebuked and humiliated him by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3 ‘……. man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD. (Matthew 4:4)
The Deuteronomy passage comes within the context of the Israelites’ forty years of wanderings in the desert. They had been humbled and chastened by God for lack of obedience to His word, despite the fact they had been dependent upon Him for the provision of manna and garments that did not wear out. If they were to enter the Promised Land and occupy it, they would only succeed by obeying His commandments. (Deuteronomy 8:1-6)
From this we learn that the fasting and temptation of Jesus was for preparing and strengthening Him for His great mission of overcoming the devil, sin and death. Bear in mind, this was a superlative temptation, since Jesus, although He was the Son of God, was also a man who could have been tempted, but unlike Adam he remained obedient to God.
This too, is about attitudes and motivations for fasting. Jesus says to those who fast, they are to hide the fact, and their Father who sees them in the secret place, will reward them openly. (Verses 17-18)
‘At the evening sacrifice I arose from my fasting; and having torn my garment and my robe, I fell on my knees and spread out my hands to the LORD my God.’
The fasting of Ezra within the context of Chapter 9, was one of sorrow and of contrition for the sins of God’s people, the priests, and the Levites who had disobeyed Him by not separating themselves from the Canaanites and other abominable nations. Their menfolk had ‘taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, so that the holy seed is mixed with the peoples of those lands.’ (v 2)
Ezra, as the leader of the people, fasted to express his remorse to the LORD for the iniquities of those who had forsaken His commandments. (v 10)
‘So it was, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned for many days; I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven.’
Nehemiah, the king’s cupbearer, was distressed when he heard of the pitiful condition of his brethren, the survivors in Jerusalem, the walls of which were broken down, and its gates were burned with fire. (Nehemiah 1:1-3) His response was to fast and pray. He pleaded with God to let him go to Jerusalem to rebuild it.
Well, I could look at many more texts about fasting, but from the ones above, what is to be learned?
Both the Old Testament Jews and the people of the New Testament fasted, Jesus was the notable example in the NT. We see from the gospel of Matthew, chapter 4, that He fasted for forty days and forty nights. Fasting helped prepare and strengthen Him for His mission of overcoming the devil, sin and death, and calling a people for Himself.
We learn from Isaiah, chapter 58 that it is necessary for those fasting to have the right attitudes of heart, and to please God by living righteously.
In Matthew 6:16-18 we note that it pleases God for those fasting to hide the fact. He knows what is in their hearts.
In Ezra 9.5 we discover Ezra fasted because of being sorrowful for the sins of God’s people. They and the priests and the Levites had broken God’s commandments by marrying foreigners, so Ezra petitioned God to help him restore the situation.
Nehemiah 1:4 reveals Nehemiah’s penitence and sorrow for the abysmal state of Jerusalem which caused him to fast and pray for its restoration.
Fasting can help one to prepare and be strengthened for ministry, but it should be done with the right attitudes of heart, and in secret. Fasting can be an expression of sorrow for sins, and coupled with prayer it can be used to petition God.
Should I fast?
Yes, when I have the heart and desire to do so. I thank my friend for drawing my attention to his practice of fasting.