“Fasting is the most powerful spiritual discipline of all the Christian disciplines. Through fasting and prayer, the Holy Spirit can transform your life.” No, that statement is not found in the Bible. I didn’t say that and neither did any inspired writer. That is typical of the claims made by some today for the ancient practice of fasting.
Fasting was practiced in Bible times. People did it frequently – in both Old and New Testaments. Some people still fast, advocating it as a practice essential to receiving spiritual blessings from God as in the quote above.
The Day of Atonement commanded in Leviticus 16, was interpreted as a public fast commanded by the Law of Moses. Actually what God commanded was that the people “afflict themselves” on account of their sins. Abstinence from food was only one way this could be accomplished. People of Bible times had a number of ways to express their sorrow, regret or affliction of soul such as tearing their clothing, wearing garments made of sackcloth, (a coarse, uncomfortable cloth similar to burlap), sitting in ashes and putting ashes or dust on their heads, pulling their hair or beard as well as by fasting. There were times when God called upon people to fast, apparently for the same reason the Israelites were commanded to afflict their souls on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16).
Among the numerous examples of people fasting in the Bible are …
David fasting and mourning the death of his child: 2 Samuel 12:16.
Elijah fasted 40 days after fleeing from Jezebel: 1 Kings 19:7-18.
Daniel fasted on behalf of Judah’s sin while reading Jeremiah’s prophecy: Daniel 9:1-19.
The people of Nineveh fasted after hearing the message of Jonah: Jonah 3.
In the New Testament there are …
Anna who fasted for the redemption of Jerusalem through the coming Messiah: Luke 2:37.
Jesus fasted 40 days before his temptation and the beginning of his ministry: Matthew 4:1-11.
The disciples of John the Baptist fasted: Matthew 9:14-15.
The elders in Antioch fasted before sending off Paul and Barnabas: Acts 13:1-5.
Cornelius fasted and sought God’s plan of salvation: Acts 10:30.
One very interesting and understandable incident is that of the Jews when wicked Haman plotted and had King Ahasuerus decree their destruction. Immediately there was great sorrow and concern among the people.
“And in every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree reached, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and many of them lay in sackcloth and ashes” (Esther 4:3).
Esther tells her uncle, Mordecai, to call upon the people to hold a fast for her before she went before the king uninvited and against the law of the land and she would intercede in behalf of them.
“Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16).
I think it would hardly be necessary to command a fast on an occasion such as this. If people know they are going to be killed on a certain day, I hardly think they would want to eat. Most likely they would have been spending their time in prayer to God instead of cooking and eating.
For Christians today, fasting is purely a matter of individual choice. There is no command that we do it nor is there anything forbidding it. If we do make a choice to engage in fasting in order that we might give ourselves to a period of meditation and prayer so as to not be distracted by eating or any other concern, there are some things we should be aware of.
Jesus warned people in the sermon on the mount …
“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. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 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.” (Matthew 6:16-18).
According to Jesus’ words here, fasting is something that must be between you and God. If one fasts to be seen by men, when they are seen they have achieved their purpose. But when it is done purely between an individual and God with the obvious purpose of drawing nearer to God, God will regard and bless that effort.
Jesus spoke of the Pharisee who boasted of his religious life including his fasting as though this was what God made him acceptable before God.
“I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get” (Luke 18:12).
There is more straight talk about fasting and religious observances done for the wrong reason in Isaiah 58. God tells the prophet to “Cry aloud and spare not” – to not mince words in speaking the truth about what his wayward people were doing. Speaking in a sarcastic way, he talks about how they sought him daily and delighted to know his ways “as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God” (vs. 2). They were a hypocritical people. Their claims and their lives did not match up. They were big on fasting, and short on results because theirs was a fasting of a kind that was offensive to God. They said …
‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’ (vs. 3a).
God told them in no uncertain terms exactly what was wrong with their fasting.
“Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
and oppress all your workers” (vs. 3b).
To be heard by God requires more than just the performance of some ritual. That their fasting was a sign of a superficial religion was seen in the fact that their hearts were not being changed by their relationship with God. This was because they did not know God. To them he was a being to be appeased or placated by some kind of formulaic action. God wanted their hearts. He wants our hearts. He lets them know that their ritualistic fasting would not achieve anything for them.
“Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to hit with a wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
will not make your voice to be heard on high” (vs. 4).
He goes on to describe their concept of fasting – what they were doing as a fast.
“Is such the fast that I choose,
a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
and a day acceptable to the Lord?” (vs. 5).
What did God really want of these people? Essentially the same thing he wants of everyone in every age. Isaiah goes on to relate what God wanted of them – what constituted the kind of fast he would respect.
“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (vs. 6-7).
The language here is very similar to Isaiah 61:1-2, the passage Jesus read in the synagogue when he was beginning his public ministry. These verses, in turn are based on Leviticus 25 which outlined the year of Jubilee, the 50th Sabbath year when all debts were forgiven, all land reverted to its original owners, all slaves or bond servants were set free and the land lay fallow for the second year in a row. The entire year was to be devoted to rest and restoration.
It is not without significance that the Day of Atonement when people were to fast or afflict themselves was the very day upon which the Year of Jubilee was to begin. The fasting or affliction advised here is the kind that God is interested in, not the kind of ritual fasting they were doing. God wanted them to be grieved for those imprisoned by the bonds of wickedness and yokes of oppression. He wanted them to be afflicted to the point they would deny themselves in behalf of the hungry, the poor, the homeless, the inadequately clothed. God wanted them to not turn their backs on the needy, but to sacrifice in order to alleviate their needs.
We see this very attitude very much alive and active in the lives of the Christians of the first century.
“There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:34).
There were the Macedonian Christians who, when they found out about the needs of their brothers and sisters in Judea, begged Paul “earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints—and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us” (2 Cor. 8:4-5).
When we reach the point that we cannot sit idly by when we know of another human being suffering and not be stirred to action, then we will practice the kind of fasting God is looking for from his people. When we reach the point that we would deny ourselves a meal – or several meals – in order to feed a hungry child, then we will be practicing the kind of fasting God is expecting from us. When we reach the point where we can do this and no one but ourselves and God know about it, then we will be fasting in the way God approves.