There’s a lot of confusion out there on the nature of fasting—what it is and what it involves. Search the word “fasting” on Amazon.com and the first page of books will include titles like these: Fasting: Opening the Door to a Deeper, More Intimate, More Powerful Relationship with God; Fasting and Eating for Health: A Medical Doctor’s Program for Conquering Disease; The Fast Diet: Lose Weight, Stay Healthy, and Live Longer with the Simple Secret of Intermittent Fasting; and Fasting: An Exceptional Human Experience. So, some people believe fasting is a way to a more powerful relationship with God, some believe it’s a good way to lose weight and be healthy, and others that it’s a way to have an exceptional human experience.
I want to give what I consider to be three common misunderstandings of the nature of fasting both in the secular culture and in the church, and then offer what I think is a biblical answer to the question “What is fasting?”
Three Misconceptions of Fasting
1. The Diet View
The first misconception of biblical fasting is what I call the diet view. This is the view represented in many health books out there that call for fasting because of its supposed health benefits. One such book advertises that fasting prevents premature aging, makes you more energetic, helps break harmful habits like eating salty foods, drinking coffee, and using tobacco and alcohol, and increases clarity of thought. All these things might be true, but they are not why we as Christians fast.
2. The Mechanical View
This is what D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones calls “the penny in the slot view” of fasting. It’s the idea that we fast in order to get something in return, like spiritual growth, defeat of sin in our lives, and a better chance of having our prayers answered. This view treats God like a cosmic vending machine. We put our money (fasting) in the slot and we expect to get something in return. It’s a view that not only misunderstands the nature of fasting but that demonstrates a misunderstanding of the nature of God as well.
3. The Self-Discipline View
This is one of the most common Christian views of fasting. It’s the position of many Christian authors and commentators, and was the primary way I thought about the subject for a long time before I studied in depth the biblical pattern of fasting. It’s the view that fasting is a way to discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness. We fast because we lack self-control in some area of our lives, and we believe that by fasting we can develop greater degrees of self-control in those areas. The tricky thing about this view is that its basic premise is probably correct for many people. Forcing oneself to go without food for an extended period of time might help a person develop self-control. As we grow in our ability to suppress our desire for food, we might be able to grow in our ability to suppress other desires (sinful ones) as well. The problem, however, and the reason I believe this is a misconception of fasting, is that nowhere in Scripture do you see fasting done as an act of self-discipline with the goal of developing greater degrees of self-control. It’s not that fasting should never be done for these reasons, it’s just that these are not the reasons the Bible gives for fasting.
What Is Biblical Fasting?
Here is the definition of fasting that I believe captures the biblical use of the concept: Fasting is prayerful abstinence from food in response to a severe situation. Fasting is prayerful. A study of fasting throughout the canon of Scripture shows that prayer and fasting are almost always linked. Fasting is prayerful abstinence from food. You cannot do a biblical fast from television, or the internet, or riding your bike. You might need to refrain from these types of things for a while, but to do so is not “fasting” in the biblical sense of the word. Biblically, fasting is always abstinence from food. Furthermore, fasting is prayerful abstinence from food in response to a severe situation. This is the part that distinguishes a biblical understanding of the nature of fasting from the self-discipline view. The pattern of fasting in Scripture shows that fasting is not something we’re meant to make ourselves do because it’s good for us. Instead, the biblical pattern is that fasting is always a kind of natural and fitting response to severe situations in the life of the believer. Most frequently, it’s a response to mourning. For example:
- The public fast on the Day of Atonement (Lev 23:27) was a time to mourn over the sin in the lives of the Israelites for which atonement would be made by the high priest.
- Moses fasted on Mt. Sinai for forty days and nights (Exod 34:28), not as a spiritual discipline, but as a response to the weightiness of what it meant to behold God’s glory and receive God’s law.
- David fasted when his son by Bathsheba got deathly sick (2 Sam 12:14).
- Esther fasted, and called all the Israelites around her to do the same, before she went in to seek audience with the king and attempt to save her people from slaughter (Esther 4:3)—a severe situation indeed.
- Nehemiah fasted in response to the news that the city of Jerusalem was in ruins (Neh 1:4).
- Jesus fasted forty days and nights in the wilderness while being attacked with severe temptations from the devil (Matt 4:2ff).
- Paul fasted for three days in response to the Lord striking him with a blinding light on his way to Damascus (Acts 9:9).
- The early church fasted and prayed in the context of Paul and Barnabas being set apart and sent off on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:1ff).
Interestingly, all of these examples, and many others not mentioned in this list, occur in the context of severe and weighty situations, and are almost always a response to the severity and weightiness of those situations. One of the passages that shows the link between fasting and severe situations most clearly is Matthew 9:14-15. Here the disciples of John the Baptist ask Jesus, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus’ response is, “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.” The reason Jesus’ disciples didn’t fast while he was with them is because his being with them was a cause for rejoicing not mourning. But when Jesus was taken away from them (through his ascension) they would fast again. Why? Because then they would have reason to mourn once more—to long for his return, to groan because their king and bridegroom is away and all is not as it should be.
And this is the time we, the 21st century church, are living in today. We fast because we mourn. We mourn, as is appropriate (Matt 5:4; 1 Cor 5:2), because all is not as it should be. And all is not as it should be because our king has not yet come again. We fast because we are still in a time when we must cry, “Maranatha, come quickly Lord, Jesus!” We fast because, as John MacArthur puts it, “fasting is the body’s response to the heart’s anxieties.”
When it comes to fasting, what we need is not to go out there and fast more; to try harder not to eat so that we can become a more disciplined people. What we need is to mourn more. What we need is to walk with God in such a way that we grow more and more sensitive to things that ought to grieve us, but that don’t because we’ve become desensitized to them. We need God to soften our hard hearts and cause us to be more easily moved by the severity of things like sin, death, tragedy, war, poverty, and the weighty matters of the kingdom of Christ. And when we become more deeply sensitive to these things that ought to move us, we will find that sometimes our body’s natural response will be to become so grieved by them that we will not even want to eat, because everything within us is devoted, body and soul, to mourning and prayer. The more our hearts are moved, the more we will fast.