Fasting is a spiritual act of worship that humbles the soul before God. It involves partial or total abstinence from food and/or water, as well as other carnal pleasures, for a specified period of time, during which the individual gives himself to prayers. Fasting is associated with seeking God’s face in desperate circumstances, as well as in mourning for sin and other calamities, and was widely practised in biblical times. However, some people have questioned its relevance in the New Testament, equating it with works of the Law. Is fasting still relevant in this dispensation of grace? And if so, how are Christians to fast in order to please God and achieve results? We shall examine Scripture to answer these questions.
Fasting was a common practice in biblical times, as recorded in both the Old and New Testaments. Jesus was recorded to have fasted for a lengthy period at the start of his ministry. We are told that he was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit and fasted for forty days and forty nights. This was to prepare himself for his earthly ministry and the temptation he was going to face. He no doubt continued this practice of fasting throughout his ministry, as evidenced by some of his remarks.
Matthew 4:1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
Matthew 4:2 And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.
Matthew 4:3 And the tempter came and said to him, If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.
Matthew 4:4 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 4:5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple
Matthew 4:6 and said to him, If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, He will command his angels concerning you, and On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.
Matthew 4:7 Jesus said to him, Again it is written, You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.
Matthew 4:8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.
Matthew 4:9 And he said to him, All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.
Matthew 4:10 Then Jesus said to him, Be gone, Satan! For it is written, You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.
Matthew 4:11 Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him (ESV).
John the Baptist and his disciples also fasted often. Before his death and resurrection, the disciples of Jesus apparently weren’t much into fasting. This was noted by John’s disciples and the Pharisees, who questioned Jesus about it. His response was very instructive. Jesus made it clear he didn’t exempt his disciples from fasting. They apparently didn’t see any need for fasting while Jesus was with them. However, according to Jesus, a time would come when he would be taken away from them and then they would begin to fast! A time was coming, Jesus said, when fasting would become necessary for the disciples!
Matthew 9:14 Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?
Matthew 9:15 And Jesus said to them, 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 (ESV).
True to Jesus’ words, we see the apostles fasting often after his ascension. Paul was an outstanding apostle, and by far the chief of the apostles. For sure, God’s grace was abundant upon him, but he did not frustrate the grace of God. He laboured more abundantly than all the others who were apostles before him, in order to make the grace of God count. Key to that effort to effectively harness the grace of God in his life and ministry was prayer coupled with fasting! Paul made it abundantly clear that he fasted often!
2 Corinthians 11:22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I.
2 Corinthians 11:23 Are they servants of Christ? (I speak as one beside himself) I am more so; in labors more abundantly, in prisons more abundantly, in stripes above measure, in deaths often.
2 Corinthians 11:24 Five times from the Jews I received forty stripes minus one.
2 Corinthians 11:25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I suffered shipwreck. I have been a night and a day in the deep.
2 Corinthians 11:26 I have been in travels often, perils of rivers, perils of robbers, perils from my countrymen, perils from the Gentiles, perils in the city, perils in the wilderness, perils in the sea, perils among false brothers;
2 Corinthians 11:27 in labor and travail, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, and in cold and nakedness.
2 Corinthians 11:28 Besides those things that are outside, there is that which presses on me daily, anxiety for all the assemblies (WEB).
Paul listed fasting as one of the ways through which ministers show themselves forth as true servants of God. He not only fasted, he fasted often! Paul also described fasting as an act of worship through which believers serve God. His own ministry, like that of our Lord, was launched by prayer and fasting, and energised throughout by it! Paul (addressed as Saul at the beginning of his ministry) was a man given to prayer and fasting!
The Acts 13:1 Now in the assembly that was at Antioch there were some prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen the foster brother of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.
The Acts 13:2 As they served the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, “Separate Barnabas and Saul for me, for the work to which I have called them.”
The Acts 13:3 Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.
The Acts 13:4 So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia. From there they sailed to Cyprus (WEB).
2 Corinthians 6:3 We give no occasion of stumbling in anything, that our service may not be blamed,
2 Corinthians 6:4 but in everything commending ourselves, as servants of God, in great endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses,
2 Corinthians 6:5 in beatings, in imprisonments, in riots, in labors, in watchings, in fastings;
2 Corinthians 6:6 in pureness, in knowledge, in patience, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in sincere love,
2 Corinthians 6:7 in the word of truth, in the power of God; by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left,
2 Corinthians 6:8 by glory and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as deceivers, and yet true;
2 Corinthians 6:9 as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and not killed (WEB).
Paul equally expected believers to fast regularly. In his first Epistle to the Corinthians, he mentioned fasting as a reason for married couples to mutually agree to abstain from sexual relations. Married people were to pray and fast regularly (and abstain from sex during this period) so that they would develop self-control inorder to be able to resist sexual temptations. When someone in the Corinthian church was living immorally with his father’s wife, Paul expected the church to be mourning over this sin rather than rejoicing, an allusion to the practice of fasting as a way of mourning for sin and other calamities, as a show of humble repentance and prostration before God for mercy.
1 Corinthians 7:3 Let the husband render to his wife the affection owed her, and likewise also the wife to her husband.
1 Corinthians 7:4 The wife doesn’t have authority over her own body, but the husband. Likewise also the husband doesn’t have authority over his own body, but the wife.
1 Corinthians 7:5 Don’t deprive one another, unless it is by consent for a season, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer, and may be together again, that Satan doesn’t tempt you because of your lack of self-control (WEB).
1 Corinthians 5:1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife.
1 Corinthians 5:2 And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this? (NIV).
Jesus himself emphasised the necessity of prayer coupled with fasting. He taught that some demons could not be cast out of people, except by prayer and fasting. His disciples had tried in vain to cast out some demons from someone. When Jesus did it so effortlessly, the disciples were humbled and wondered why they themselves could not do same. The answer was simple: some demons can’t be cast out except by fasting and prayer!That’s what Jesus himself taught!
St. Mark 9:17 One of the multitude answered, “Teacher, I brought to you my son, who has a mute spirit;
St. Mark 9:18 and wherever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams at the mouth, and grinds his teeth, and wastes away. I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they weren’t able.”
St. Mark 9:19 He answered him, “Unbelieving generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him to me.”
St. Mark 9:20 They brought him to him, and when he saw him, immediately the spirit convulsed him, and he fell on the ground, wallowing and foaming at the mouth.
St. Mark 9:21 He asked his father, “How long has it been since this has come to him?” He said, “From childhood.
St. Mark 9:22 Often it has cast him both into the fire and into the water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us, and help us.”
St. Mark 9:23 Jesus said to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.”
St. Mark 9:24 Immediately the father of the child cried out with tears, “I believe. Help my unbelief!”
St. Mark 9:25 When Jesus saw that a multitude came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to him, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!”
St. Mark 9:26 Having cried out, and convulsed greatly, it came out of him. The boy became like one dead; so much that most of them said, “He is dead.”
St. Mark 9:27 But Jesus took him by the hand, and raised him up; and he arose.
St. Mark 9:28 When he had come into the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we cast it out?”
St. Mark 9:29 He said to them, “This kind can come out by nothing, except by prayer and fasting.” (WEB).
Now, having established the necessity and relevance of fasting for New Testament believers, let’s quickly examine the type of fasting that pleases God and achieves results. Like all other religious obligations, except we do things lawfully and scripturally, we end up serving God in vain. People may just be starving themselves while thinking they’re fasting! Therefore, to avoid fasting in vain, let’s examine Scripture to see the type of fasting God recommends.
St. Matthew 6:16 “Moreover when you fast, don’t be like the hypocrites, with sad faces. For they disfigure their faces, that they may be seen by men to be fasting. Most certainly I tell you, they have received their reward.
St. Matthew 6:17 But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face;
St. Matthew 6:18 so that you are not seen by men to be fasting, but by your Father who is in secret, and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you (WEB).
We are warned against hypocrisy in fasting. Hypocrites do their religious duties for others to see and applaud. Those who fast hypocritically disfigure their faces for all who see them to know they’re fasting. They wear long mournful faces, and never miss the opportunity to let people know they’re fasting. According to the Lord, that’s hypocrisy. That doesn’t impress God and it doesn’t attract any divine reward. Rather, we’re instructed to look cheerful when we’re fasting, so as to distract others from knowing what we’re doing. Our fasting should be known only by God, if possible. When we fast to please God only, when we fast in secret, God who sees in secret will reward us openly. Fasting, like prayer and giving, is not to be announced publicly, otherwise we lose our reward from God! Fasting is not for show off!
God is not pleased when people fast with strife, bitterness and malice in their hearts. When we display wickedness to others while fasting, when we turn our faces away from the poor and needy while fasting, our fasting is in vain. Fasting becomes an unprofitable hypocritical ritual when we fast with wicked hearts and evil intentions! Some people even fast for God to harm or kill their enemies! God will not honour fastings that emanate from malice and wickedness to our fellow men!
Isaiah 58:1 “Shout with the voice of a trumpet blast. Tell my people Israel of their sins!
Isaiah 58:2 Yet they act so pious! They come to the Temple every day and seem delighted to hear my laws. You would almost think this was a righteous nation that would never abandon its God. They love to make a show of coming to me and asking me to take action on their behalf.
Isaiah 58:3 ‘We have fasted before you!’ they say. ‘Why aren’t you impressed? We have done much penance, and you don’t even notice it!’ “I will tell you why! It’s because you are living for yourselves even while you are fasting. You keep right on oppressing your workers.
Isaiah 58:4 What good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarreling? This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with me.
Isaiah 58:5 You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like a blade of grass in the wind. You dress in sackcloth and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the Lord?
Isaiah 58:6 “No, the kind of fasting I want calls you to free those who are wrongly imprisoned and to stop oppressing those who work for you. Treat them fairly and give them what they earn.
Isaiah 58:7 I want you to share your food with the hungry and to welcome poor wanderers into your homes. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help.
Isaiah 58:8 “If you do these things, your salvation will come like the dawn. Yes, your healing will come quickly. Your godliness will lead you forward, and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind.
Isaiah 58:9 Then when you call, the Lord will answer. ‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply. “Stop oppressing the helpless and stop making false accusations and spreading vicious rumors!
Isaiah 58:10 Feed the hungry and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as day.
Isaiah 58:11 The Lord will guide you continually, watering your life when you are dry and keeping you healthy, too. You will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring.
Isaiah 58:12 Your children will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities. Then you will be known as the people who rebuild their walls and cities (NLT).
A word of caution concerning fasting: people should fast according to their abilities and according to the grace they’ve received from God. Also, individuals should factor in their medical conditions while fasting. People with pre-existing medical conditions should get clearance from their physicians before fasting. Pregnant women should also avoid fasting. As much as possible, people should avoid prolonged fasting that can have dangerous effects on health and well-being. Fasting should not be seen as a competition, but rather as a service to be rendered to God according to the grace given to each one.
Romans 12:6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith;
Romans 12:7 if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach;
Romans 12:8 if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully (NIV).
In conclusion, fasting as a means of humbling oneself before God through abstinence from food and carnal pleasures is still as relevant for God’s people today as it was in biblical times. However, it can easily turn to unproductive hunger strike if done with wrong motives and intentions. The fast that God desires must be done with pure motives, and it must be a secret between the faster and God. Only fasting done in this way attracts blessings from God.