From time to time I hear Christians get into discussions concerning fasting. They ask questions like, “What is biblical fasting? Should we fast today? Is there any spiritual benefit to fasting?” The best way to answer all these questions is to look at what the Bible has to say about fasting. Let’s go there now.
The definition of biblical fasting is pretty straight forward. According to Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, fasting is to, “Eat sparingly or abstaining from food altogether, either by necessity or desire” (Clarence B. Bass). The purpose for which we abstain from eating is the real focus behind fasting. In the Old Testament the Jews were required to fast one time a year on the annual day of atonement (Leviticus 23.27). The term used in that passage is, “afflicting the soul.” The day of atonement was so important the Jews were to spend the day focusing on God and setting aside all physical appetites, such as food. Therein is our first clue as to the real meaning of fasting. Fasting is the setting aside of food and the routine appetites of the body to focus on God and communion with Him. Fasting in the Old Testament was often connected to contriteness for some sin, pleading for mercy in the face of imminent danger, and seeking God’s leading in an important decision. The effectiveness or worth of fasting was always connected to the attitude and intent of the heart, not the act itself. In Zechariah 7.5 God said, “Speak unto all the people of the land, and to the priests, saying, When ye fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh month, even those seventy years, did ye at all fast unto me, even to me?” The implied answer is that they had fasted twice a year for seventy years and it was not genuinely unto God, they just went through the motions. They fasted physically on the outside, but there was no fasting toward God in their hearts. That kind of hypocritical fasting is not acceptable to God and that is what He was saying to them by way of the prophet Zechariah.
What about in the New Testament? Are Christians commanded to fast today? Is there some unwritten, unspoken expectation for Christians to fast? The answer is, there is no command in the New Testament for Christians to fast. We do find in the New Testament, however, instances where Christians fasted for various reasons. For example, before the church at Antioch was told by the Holy Spirit to send out Barnabas and Paul as missionaries, they had been serving God and fasting (Acts 13.2). Jesus fasted forty days while He was in the wilderness after His baptism. The most definitive instruction concerning fasting in the New Testament comes from Jesus. In Matthew 6.16-18 Jesus said, “Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. 17 But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; 18 That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.” There is no command to fast, just directions for doing so properly when we do fast. Fasting is to be between God and the person who is fasting. We are reminded again by what Jesus said that fasting only has value if it is done with a right heart before God. God is not looking at the act of fasting itself, He is looking at the desire of the heart that moves us to fast. A correct motive for fasting starts with a genuine desire to seek the face of God. When we have a burden to be closer to God or we have a burden over a need in our lives or the lives of others, we might be so moved to set aside the appetites of the body so as to concentrate on communion with God.
We see then from scripture that fasting is not some special super-spiritual way of getting God’s attention. Neither is fasting a way to make ourselves more spiritual. Fasting is not to be exercised for spiritual show, it is to be a serious matter between the child of God and our heavenly Father. We are not commanded to fast in the New Testament, however, if we choose to fast, let us do it with a right heart and in a way that honors God and draws us closer to Him.