Perhaps no spiritual discipline goes unpracticed as much as fasting. It’s rarely, if ever, taught and there seems to be little prescriptive New Testament writing on it. It’s nearly a forbidden word in modern Christianity and often leads to debate, confusion, and even misapplication. So what is it? Is there biblical warrant for it? If so, should believers practice it? How? Far from being an all-inclusive resource on this weighty subject, I hope this can provide a little understanding into an oft-neglected practice.
To begin, if the New Testament is silent on the issue then we can generally speaking disregard the practice altogether. If evidence is neither given for practice of or expectation to biblical fasting, then we probably have no warrant for it today. But is that the case? In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ wilderness experience, he includes for us the crucial detail of Jesus’ 40 day fast, “And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.” Matt. 4:2 This is critical because it begins to establish the baseline for the temptation from Satan that follows. Much more on that could be said, but simply stated Jesus relinquished all reliance on self, including His physical reliance on food (drink?) and at His lowest point of physical strength, He was tempted spiritually. Here we have our first New Testament evidence for the practice of fasting. But maybe this is just one of those things that Jesus did, right? Maybe it was just for Him? Certainly He wouldn’t expect believers to fast, right? Well, not so fast. In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from Matthew, He provides a prescription on what fasting should look like
“16 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. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 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.” Matt. 6:16-18
This is probably a familiar passage to most people because it points out that a person who fasts is not supposed to let others see or know that they are fasting. For some reason, this seems to create mystery into the entire discipline and may serve as some kind of rationale for avoiding it altogether. But, having already pointed out evidence on the practice from the life of Jesus, I want to now point out the expectation from Jesus by focusing on 1 key word in this passage, “when”. This same word is used in verse 17 and it seems fair to assign the implication of this passage is a foregone conclusion that the audience to whom Jesus is addressing His sermon will in fact fast. Matthew Henry, in his complete Bible commentary writes, “It is here supposed that religious fasting is a duty required of the disciples of Christ, when God, in his providence, calls to it, and when the case of their own souls upon any account requires it.” Far from being neglected among believers, it is actually expected. Unfortunately, this neglect has led to much confusion about what it is and isn’t. I’ve tried to capture my thoughts on some of the distinctions below.
Fasting is not:
- Holding your breath like a spoiled child to receive something from your Father.
- An attempt at piety in order for God to recognize how worthy you are to receive favor.
- A public exercise of asceticism for the glorification of self.
- An opportunity to define worship and sacrifice on your own terms.
- A matter of Old Testament Jewish Law.
- To be neglected.
- A declaration of total reliance upon your Heavenly Father.
- A denial of the sufficiency of self.
- A petition for a greater manifestation of grace.
- A forward look of expectation and groaning for the return of the Bridegroom, Jesus Christ.
- A recognition of moral bankruptcy while simultaneously recognizing the sufficient, cleansing atonement of Christ Jesus.
- Even more appropriate for NT believers, than OT.
An interesting note that you’ll find in the additional (and other) passages on fasting that I’ve included below, all biblical examples of fasting that I found involved a fast from food and/or drink or implied a fast from food/drink. Fasting should be a regular discipline practiced by all those who follow Jesus. It should also be done in conjunction with prayer (an argument could be made that verse 16 above connects to the previous section on prayer), Scripture reading, and meditation on God’s word. For more information, including greater biblical insights and an excellent warning in his Preface, see John Piper’s book, A Hunger for God.
For a free .pdf of the book, click here: http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/books/a-hunger-for-god
Additional Study: For Old Testament examples of fasting, see: 2 Samuel 12:16-23; Ezra 8:21-23; Jonah 3:5-6
For additional New Testament examples, see: Mark 2:18-22; Matt. 9:14-15; Acts 13:2-3; Acts 14:23