Fasting—going without food and water—is mentioned often in the Bible. What can we learn from the examples we are given?
What can we learn from not eating and drinking?
What does the Bible teach us about fasting, or temporarily abstaining from food? The Bible records no commanded fast day except the Day of Atonement, one of God's Holy Days (Leviticus:23:26-32). But many examples of fasting are recorded in the Old and New Testaments from which we can come to understand the principle and meaning of the practice for us today:
* After the Israelites were defeated by the men of Ai (Joshua:7:6), Joshua and the elders of Israel remained prostrate before the Ark of the Covenant from morning until evening without eating.
* On one occasion, the 11 tribes that had taken up arms against Benjamin, seeing that they would not stand against the inhabitants of Gibeah, fell before the Ark on their faces and so continued until the evening without eating (Judges:20:26).
* David fasted while the first child he had by Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, lay dying (2 Samuel:12:16).
* Moses fasted 40 days on Mount Horeb before God gave him the two tables of testimony (Exodus:34:28-29), during which time he neither ate bread nor drank water.
* Elijah fasted for 40 days during a trip from the wilderness to Horeb, the mountain of God (1 Kings:19:8).
* Jesus Christ fasted 40 days and nights in the wilderness while being tempted by Satan the devil (Matthew:4:1-3; Luke:4:2).
Christ knew we would fast
The disciples of John asked Jesus Christ about the subject. Christ's answer was that, while He was on earth, it was not necessary for His disciples to fast, but after His death and departure His disciples would fast (Matthew:9:14-15; Luke:5:33-35). During Christ's ministry and shortly after His death, He and the early Church dealt with the practice of setting aside certain days of the week or month to fast. The Pharisees bragged about fasting twice a week (Luke:18:12) and considered themselves more righteous than others for doing so.
Certain members of the Church at Rome appeared to be trying to enforce fasting on particular days on other Christians at Rome. Paul addressed the subject by pointing out that fasting was an individual matter (Romans:14:5-6).
Fasting is highly personal
Christ's statements concerning fasting are simple and straightforward. His disciples will fast (Luke:5:33-35), but He did not specify when, how long or how often. As Paul amplified in Romans, fasting is an individual concern between us and Jesus Christ, who is our judge. Jesus, knowing that His disciples would fast, left ample instruction in both the Old and New Testaments on how to go about it and the purpose of going for a time without food and drink.
In Matthew:6:16-18 Christ explains that fasting is not to be a show of our supposed righteousness before men, but that it is a personal affair between us and God and that by all outward appearances no one should be aware of our fasting. Our dress and demeanor should not broadcast to others that we are fasting, which is a matter between us and God and our service to Him.
In Isaiah:58:3-5 God further explains that fasting is not to be for selfish pleasure or gain. God takes no pleasure in our going without food and drink to importune Him for selfish gain at others' expense. God will not take note of someone who is fasting with a wrong attitude.
Why should we fast? The Bible does not enumerate the reasons for fasting, but, by studying the examples of those in the Bible who fasted, we can arrive at many of the reasons for doing so.
A close study of Isaiah:58:6-11 reveals one of the primary reasons for fasting and some of its results in our lives. As these verses reveal, fasting is to loose the bands of wickedness (sin), to undo heavy burdens, to come out from under oppression, and to break the yoke of bondage that besets all of us from time to time.
Verse 8 explains the end result: "Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard." By humbling ourselves and seeking God's will, we are able to see mistakes that we may be making in our relationships with one another and with God. Once we repent of these mistakes, and are reconciled with God and our fellowman, then we're ready to do God's will without the fetters and burdens that impede us from time to time.
The biblical examples of the use of the tool of fasting are a big help in understanding when and why to fast. David used the principle of fasting in a time of great sorrow, when he needed comfort and understanding from God. In 1 Samuel:31:11-13 and 1 Samuel:1:17-27, David lamented deeply over the death of King Saul, God's anointed, and Saul's son Jonathan, a beloved friend. In his fasting and lamentation, David remembered the greatness of these men and his personal relationship with them. David sought comfort from God in times of sorrow at the loss of beloved friends.
David also used fasting at a time of serious illness, when with all his heart he sought forgiveness for his sins. He asked God to hear and answer his prayer and heal his child (2 Samuel:12:13-22). David explained the whole principle of the reason for fasting on this occasion in verse 22: "While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, Who can tell whether the LORD will be gracious to me, that the child may live?' "
Jesus Christ explained to His disciples the need to pray and fast in dealing with healing and the casting out of demons (Matthew:17:14-21). From these examples we can see the value and use of fasting during a time of serious illness or certain instances of demon possession: when we need God's help desperately, when we need to make sure that nothing has cut us off from God and that our prayers are being heard and answered.
Fasting important in seeking help
Fasting can be invaluable in a time of serious trouble, when we desperately need God's help. Jehoshaphat and the nation of Judah used fasting under these circumstances as recorded in 2 Chronicles:20:3-4: "And Jehoshaphat feared, and set himself to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. So Judah gathered together to ask help from the LORD; and from all the cities of Judah they came to seek the LORD."
Jesus made use of fasting to prepare for a time of testing recorded in Matthew:4:1-2: "Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry." We note in the Bible the example of fasting used in seeking God's help in making major decisions. For example, the early Church fasted before deciding on ordinations and important regional or Church-assigned responsibilities (Acts:13:1-3; 14:23).
Fasting is an individual matter between Christians and God, helping us to humble ourselves and draw closer to God. It brings us into a right mental and physical relationship with God to help us to know His will and to seek His answers to our prayers in time of need.