The Heart of Christian Fasting
Part 1: Fasting in the Old Testament
There’s something about the topic of Christian fasting that makes people defensive. I know I’m that way. When someone starts to talk about it, you can never be quite sure where they’re going or what burden they may try to lay on your conscience. So let me put your mind at ease as we open a short blog series on the topic. If you don’t want to fast, don’t fast. I have no hidden agenda that I’m going to spring on you in the last paragraph.
I do have an agenda to clarify the biblical teaching on fasting and call attention to bad habits some men have developed when they teach on fasting. Have you ever noticed that teachers who promote fasting often have a way of telling you about their own practice of fasting (even as they make you feel guilty about your lack of fasting)? That is fundamentally wrong—unless I missed their exemption from Jesus’ command to keep our fasting from the attention of men (Matt. 6:1, 16-18).
So in these posts, I don’t want to badger you into fasting. It’s more important that you understand why biblical saints fasted than for you to mechanically skip a few meals simply so you can say you’ve fasted. When you understand the principles behind fasting, you have a better idea of how to respond to the work of the Holy Spirit in your own life circumstances.
Today we’ll look briefly at fasting in the Old Testament, and save other passages for later. The Old Testament had only one commanded fast, which was found in Leviticus for the Day of Atonement. All other fasts were voluntary. Since the command to fast was directed to the nation Israel, and since the Day of Atonement was fulfilled in Christ, I want to focus on the voluntary fasts of the Old Testament.
The preliminary question is: what is fasting? Answer: Fasting is the voluntary abstinence from food for spiritual purposes.
That’s simple enough. But let’s ask a more penetrating question. Why did the saints fast in the Old Testament? In summary, we can say that voluntary fasting in the Old Testament expressed a mournful, urgent seeking of God in distressing circumstances. Consider some illustrations from the Old Testament.
2 Samuel 12: 16-18: David fasted and wept for his dying child.
Esther 4:3, 16: The Jews fasted when threatened with extermination at the hands of Haman.
Jonah 3:6-10: Nineveh fasted when Jonah pronounced judgment on them.
Notice the common thread from those examples, which could be multiplied from other Old Testament passages. Those who were fasting were faced with extreme circumstances of impending death or God’s imminent judgment. Greatly distressed and conscious of their utter helplessness, they suspended their normal eating habits in an urgent, extraordinary seeking of God who alone could deliver them from their distress.
In other words, their fasting naturally flowed from profound spiritual urgency. It was not the product of routine spiritual ritual. It expressed deep dependence on God in times of uncommon anguish. In Joel 2:12-13 we read:
“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “Return to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, weeping and mourning; and rend your heart and not your garments.” Now return to the LORD your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and relenting of evil.
Fasting was an outward expression of the inward reality of a shattered heart. It was an urgent response of repentance and great humility. It was the seeking of deliverance from a gracious God in profoundly desperate situations.
Old Testament fasting presupposes the spiritual realities of sin, judgment, repentance, helplessness, and dependence on God. It is a serious mistake to pursue external fasting without an earnest appreciation for the more important internal reasons that prompt it. Someone who casually pursues fasting as a religious duty without a broken heart actually mocks the reason for its existence.
What does that mean for you today? Ask yourself some serious questions. Do you turn to God in your trials or surrender to fear and grumbling? Do you repent of sin or tolerate it in your life? Are you confident in your own strength or do you see your utter need for the grace of God?
The true answers to those questions say much more about your sanctification than whether you have fasted recently. Ask the profound questions before you worry about eating food. If the internal reality is in place, external fasting will ultimately take care of itself.
We’ll develop this more fully next time when we look at Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.
#1 Posted by
Christopher Davis | Friday, January 07, 2011at
Thank you John for the truth that makes us free. I too have a profound love for the truth but knowing the truth has made my tolerance for error or lies very low so my family and I can not find a church in our area that preaches the Word of God so I teach them at home But we long for fellowship with our Brothers and Sisters in Christ
#2 Posted by
Mary Kidwell | Friday, January 07, 2011at
Thank you for discussing this topic. Fasting is something I have not really understood but I will admit I have not taken the time to search out scripture and study. My confusion has to do with the fact that I believe that God hears my humble prayers. I don't want to fast out of a false notion that God will more likely respond to me if I do something for Him. I believe this is a wrong attitude but am not quite sure what the right attitude toward fasting is. Am looking forward to reading more on this.
#3 Posted by
Matthew Ens | Friday, January 07, 2011at
Great post! I look forward to this study and hope it helps people understand fasting in biblical terms. When we fast it is truly amazing how humbling it makes one feel. The pain reminds us to continue to pray and study God's Word. Matthew 6:16 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.
#4 Posted by
Greg Wesson | Friday, January 07, 2011at
Thank you for discussing this topic! One of the most amazing aspects of fasting is that God will be with you through the entire process & help you through it by easing (not totally removing) the hunger pains, Psalm 17 : 14b "You still the hunger of those you cherish..." Niv
#5 Posted by
Tina Mullins | Friday, January 07, 2011at
Thank you! I've researched fasting for years, but still had questions about it. I've went on fasts because of a broken heart, because of a call from the Pastor and because I felt like it was my duty even though I didn't feel that call from the Holy Spirit. God is always on time. I was getting ready to go on a 21 day corporate fast starting Monday. I was doing it as my duty, but now I see it from another, more clear angle. I can't wait to read what more you have to say about this. Your input is an answer to my prayers. Again, thank you.
#6 Posted by
Jeri Tanner | Friday, January 07, 2011at
This is a very helpful beginning, thanks much for writing on the subject. I'm looking forward to coming posts.
#7 Posted by
Dan Wilson | Friday, January 07, 2011at
It's one way that we can focused more on God in prayer. A person can
live without food for days. It's the spiritual thing.
#8 Posted by
Jorge Alvarado | Saturday, January 08, 2011at
Re "In other words, their fasting naturally flowed from profound spiritual urgency."
Hi, Don. I think you did not choose a good example for your thoughts. I don't see, in the verse you referenced, something that "naturally flowed".
In a way, I see God COMMANDING, and expecting, a fast (among other things) as a mere outward work. As it were, it looks like a "only if you jump through some hoops, I'll do something" kind of deal.
Please clarify for me.
#9 Posted by
Orlando Delgado | Sunday, January 09, 2011at
I am looking forward where this discussion is going to take. I really want to know because I used to go to a church where the fasting practice was kind of like getting something from God, mostly like a favor. For instance, the anniversary week was approaching, so the pastor in turn so things planned go well, he would ask families to take fasting turns throughout the prior week of anniversary. The pastor’s request from the congregation went as if we were in an auction “who can do a half day here or there”, or “who can do a whole day…”
Any thoughts on this will be greatly appreciated. Don, good thought provoking subject, God bless you.
#10 Posted by
Alex Soriano | Sunday, January 09, 2011at
This topic just came on time. Someone gave me a booklet with schedule of fasting with many different options what kind of fast is appropriate. I am quite surprised to see a whole denomination engage in such activity. But this provoke me to search the scripture what really fasting and asking myself what really is my position over this practice.
Thanks for bringing this up... I'll reading along.
#11 Posted by
Mark Ferguson | Sunday, January 09, 2011at
I believe the Christian today should fast. Not for fasting sake, but for righteousness sake. There is so much injustice and wickedness on the Earth today that we have every reason to fast everyday. If people can not see that then I pray those choose to open their eyes. Yes fasting can be done wrongly In Isaiah 58 God says some fasting is not acceptable to him. I see in that context the person fasting is exalting him/her self. That person is finding pleasure(not in God), having an offensive spirit against others, even violence toward others in spirit or action. But the fast that God has chosen is for the purpose of acts of justice(wanting and doing good) for those under injustice. If we are obeying the second commandment fasting is the next step. So Yes and Amen that the heart is most important, that the first and second commandments must always prelude fasting to be acceptable to God. Yet some who ignore and care less about injustice may be doing a worse evil than selfish fasting. My purpose in writing this is not to condemn I am sorry if it's taken that way.
#12 Posted by
Jane Wilson | Sunday, January 09, 2011at
Very interesting topic, tackling a scary trend in some circles today. Dear friends of ours began fasting weekly which at first did not bother us. They began dropping hints at what a "blessing" it was. Then they continued to add to it here and there with more fasting (total fasts for some days/meals, or fasts from certain types of foods, then fasts of entertainments, etc.), and taking thier children through the "sanctifying process" with them. We, at one point, felt sorry for their children who did some work on a farm at the time, knowing they were not getting a square meal before the work on certain days. I in no way want to imply that fasting is wrong, but I have seen this practice used by the enemy to cause people to be puffed up in pride in their "Godly Christian performance". They sported what I would call a false humilty, and would have never admitted they felt they were superior to us, but we knew that is what they thought of themselves. Our friends soon spiraled into a deceptive group (they will not admit to that either), and sold out to it. At that time we were made to feel "less spiritual" because we did not buy into their fasting practices as they felt the Bible instructed- that all Christians WOULD fast as a matter of obedience. Thus causing them to sell their home, and pack up and move to be among people who follow similar practices. This can be a subtle "works" doctrine that is circulating with a topnote of "superior spirituality". In other words, "Oh you will not understand, you of less commitment and sacrifice, unless you fast too..." I guess they felt they needed to be among those who "understood" like them the deeper things of spiritual life through fasting. I was shocked at how quickly our friends fell into this trap. (What I would call a trap.) Yet, the Bible does mention fasting, as they were quick to point out. I am interested in your response to the New Testament mentions of fasting.
#14 Posted by
Jim Doyle | Monday, January 10, 2011at
Thanks, Don. I will be looking forward to more. At Harvest New Lenox we are embarking on our theme for the year, Praying and Fasting for The Harvest. I will be forwarding this link to share your series. God's peace to you, brother. Jim Doyle
#15 Posted by
Mark Tanner | Monday, January 10, 2011at
Christopher Davis "But we long for fellowship with our Brothers and Sisters in Christ"
Hi Christopher, You are not alone in this. Our family has the same issue and there are probably 30 plus churches w/in 12 miles of where I am typing. Trying to find a reformed church that preaches the whole counsel of God is near impossible. You likely feel that yearning to be around other godly people and this is natural for a child of God.
Sometimes it can get one discouraged and I keep seeking, praying and hoping that God will put us in a place that is Christ centered; ratherthan the man centered hyper-calvinist to Arminian theology, which seems to be the norm around here despite all the Southern baptist churches.
Keep praying and looking and take a break from the search when you need to and trust and wait on the Lord. Be careful about all the human advice of "there is no perfect church", which is another way of saying you need to compromise what you treasure concerning God's word (theology and soteriology) and that is not of God.
We use John's DVD's and the daily Bible and other resources to keep bathing in His word on a day by day basis.
So hang in there and I'll be praying for all of us that are in the same boat and there are many.
Father; there is a yearning and a cry of many of your children who do not want to compromise your beloved truth and I pray you will give to each of us a place we can enjoy fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ and that you can use us as vehicles to reach others with your message of love and hope because apart from Christ we are nothing and we have nothing. In Jesus Holy and precious name I ask and I pray.
#16 Posted by
Mark Tanner | Monday, January 10, 2011at
We need a little disclaimer and apply some common sense for those that have medical issues in which abstaining from "food" could cause serious problems.
God has given us a brain and expects us to use it; so for those of you that have a medical condition; don't heap a pile of guilt onto yourselves if you are unable to abstain from food.
I am looking forward to hearing more on this because I was under the belief that abstaining from any desire was a form of fasting; meaning it was not restricted to just food.
Anyone who would like to educate me from the God's word; I would love to hear from you.
May God continue to bless Grace To You and all the staffers and volunteers who make it all happen and most of all to our Saviour who has provided such resources in the midst of such perversion of His character and his word.
#17 Posted by
Dan Wilson | Monday, January 10, 2011at
It's amazing that Moses didn't eat 40 days and nights on the mountain
and as well Elijah too. They were focusing on God and not worry about
Yes, Jesus made a good point that we have a choice to fast or not.
Jesus mention a saying. Don't worry about food, clothing.
Jesus made another good point. We must plan ahead and trust Jesus
regarding to our health. If one can't, pray! If one can, take one
step at a time. One question, can water be allow as one fast?? Just
Thanks, Don for posting this.
#18 Posted by
Micah Marchewitz | Monday, January 10, 2011at
I am excited about this series. I personally have done very little actual studying on this principle. Our church does the annuual corporate 21 day fast. There is a sign up sheet in the lobby and people talk openly about there fast. Also what is common is people tend to "fast" from things that are not food. For instance television or social networking etc. I have actually had a few heated debates on weather or not that is even considered a fast or not because as far as I know the bible only talks about food and water. At anyrate, there are a small number of us who chose to decline signing up for the fast or to even state if we're fasting at all and have brought it to our pastor's attention what Jesus teaches about fasting. I personally have never fasted for more then 48 hours without some sort of liquid nourishment. A smoothy or protien shake or something. I am fairly certain that from a biblical standpoint that is not a fast either. But correct me if I am wrong about that. Really looking forward to this thread, thank you GTY
#19 Posted by
Ruth O'regan | Tuesday, January 11, 2011at
Can't wait to read further on this also. About ten years ago when I first became a christian I was involved in a church which was a Bible believing church but also quite legalistic and when i became pregnant which was about 6 months after I became a christian I was only a baby believer, 22 years of age so naieve and one friend of mine was very into fasting and denying herself things and we talked about fasting and I was uncertain that I should continue fasting anymore since I now had a little baby inside me, she then said that God would look after the baby's nutritional needs and I loaded with guilt was then unsure about how much food I could eat. Thankfully not long after this I met another lady who said I should eat healthily and not fast anymore while I was pregnant. This still hurts though when I think back to this time of my life, it even almost makes me cry, God's ways are not burdensome, he does not place heavy loads on us, Jesus did not save us to become legalistic, the law kills, the law places a yoke on us, the Pharisees and religious leaders loved putting heavy burdens on the people that they themselves would not even lift a finger to help them, I pray that the Lord gives Don sound wisdom and discernment in this series. Thank you Lord for this new message we are about to hear, please make it so clear to us from Your Word what we need to know from You about fasting. Amen.
#20 Posted by
Mark Tanner | Tuesday, January 11, 2011at
I did a quick search on "fasting" throughout the entire Bible and I picked up on two themes. In the OT it seems to be associated as Don Green pointed out with a sense of doom and/or urgency with some type of mourning and lament. Ne 1:4, Ne 9:1, Es 4:3, Es 9:31, Ps 35:13, Ps 69:10, Ps 109:24, Da 6:18, Da 9:3, Joe 2:12
Notice that fasting is absent from the Books of the Law; I was surprised by that, but as you get into the NT; fasting became a legalistic practice of the scribes & Pharisees, which Jesus discuses in His sermon on the Mount; not to practice as the Pharisees/hypocrites, but do it in private. Also, fasting is always practiced in conjunction with prayer; almost "hand and glove".
The word itself is "nēsteuō", which means "to abstain as a religious exercise from food and drink: either entirely, if the fast lasted but a single day, or from customary and choice nourishment, if it continued several days".
The root of nēsteuō is nēstis, which means: fasting, not having eaten.
In the NT it is used in Matthew, Mark & Luke and Acts only. Remember this exchange: "he disciples of John came to Him, asking, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast ?" AND Jesus answered: "And Jesus said to them, "The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast."
See the connection Jesus makes here with sadness and mourning as it was done in the OT and not as the Pharisees had made a "show" out of it to demonstrate their piety.
In Acts it is used twice in chapter 13 and in verses 2 & 3 and in this case the details of the reason for the fasting is unclear. It mentions that they were "ministering" to the Lord and fasting, which was likely praying and fasting, when the Holy Spirit came and said to set apart Barnabas and Sau.
So I see more of the sense of some kind of urgency as opposed to mourning and I believe it must deal with the urgency of the direction they were to take since Peters release, the persecution going on, rapid growth of the church, and now a calling of Barnabas and Saul. So it appears that this is an urgency of "what direction to take". I do not want to impose on the text something that is not here; so taking the repeated theme for the reasons for fasting is the safe & consistent way to approach these particular passages.
Fasting relates to abstaining from food and/or drink, but the root word pertains to food and it appears by the definition to be applied to a single day or for a period of days, such as Jesus in the wilderness being tempted.
#21 Posted by
Keith Farmer | Tuesday, January 11, 2011at
I was discussing this topic some time back with one of the pastors from my local church. I made mention that modern day "new spirituality" fasting of items such as candy bars and soft drinks is superficial and foolishness since the "fast" does not follow after the biblical model for fasting. I was shocked when the pastor later stated to me that he was offended by my remarks (although he never said anything while we were discussing the topic mutually) due to the fact that he himself was fasting "chocolate"...
Here is a link to a group calling for such a 21 day fast as mentioned above...http://www.awake21.org/
Here is a link to the originator's "church"...
Note the Mission and Values of this "church"...
#22 Posted by
Adrian Lomax | Tuesday, January 11, 2011at
Re: Mark Tanner
I am very grateful to men like John MacArthur who are being used by God to teach His Eternal Truths! I am also thankful for other Reformed teachers, like John Piper and R. C. Sproul. Over the past six months I have been studying Reformed Theology as well as Arminian Theology- not to be confused with Remonstrant Theology. I grew up in Restoration Movement churches which are for the most part Arminian; however, there is a lot about Arminius' beliefs that we on the whole have sadly shunned. I am proud to call believers from other Christ-honoring traditions "Brother", and welcome the oportunity to grow and learn. The church I attend is a "progressive" congregation among the churches of Christ where a friend of mine was able to announce that he had studied Reformed Theology and Covenental Theology with his family, had concluded that salvation was totaly one sided, God, and that, as he understood the Scriptures, our "response" to Him effects nothing. Then he and his wife immersed their two believing children into the Covenantal body of Christ and the congregation did not explode in a riot.
Chris & Mark, the Body needs you to be leaeders, God has not called us to be Lone Ranger Christians. "As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens another man", right? Being involved in local fellowships gives you the oportunity to sharpen others and to be sharpened. I obviously don't know your personal situations, but please, help those who don't have the revelation you do. Be salt and light for those -even in the church- who live in darkness.
God bless you both!
#23 Posted by
Mark Tanner | Wednesday, January 12, 2011at
Attn: Adrian Lomax
Thank you for the words of encouragement and I agree with most, if not all, of your points. The problem is I have a specific outreach that hits on the key doctrines of grace using among others, Dr. MacArthur's sermons. To do this inside of the church or pass along to members would undermine the Pastor's authority and potentially cause strife among some brethern, which is an abomination before the Lord.
The best strategy for me is to hit that area with the messages by distributing the CD's to every house in the area and thus I can get the message out without causing strife. Two of my favorites to distribute is "The Doctrine of Absolute Inability" by John MacArthur and "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" by Jonathan Edwards. Tony Capoccia's Bible Bulletin and Gospel Gems websites are terrific resources and many of John MacArthurs transcripts are found there along with Phil Johnson's link to the Spurgeon Archives. Highly recommend both sites to all.
Again I apologize for being off topic, but I did want to express my gratitude to Adrian for his insightful & encouraging comments.
God bless all of you and look forward to reading more of these blogs as the Lord allows.
#24 Posted by
Gabriel Powell | Wednesday, January 12, 2011at
Tony does have some of John MacArthur's transcripts, but here on the Grace to You website we have all the transcripts organized and easily searchable.
#25 Posted by
Mark Tanner | Wednesday, January 12, 2011at
Attn: Gabriel Powell
Thanks for the information. I am fully aware of the resources on GTY and utilize them regularly as I suspect everyone posting on the blog does.
However, the point I was making was that Tony's websites are valuable resources and the MacArthur transcripts he has available are actually organized by topic-alphabetically and because it is a shorter list; it is sometimes easier to sort through and there are also valuable links there that can be used for edification of any believer, which is the point I was alluding to.
The Gospel Gems site is real nice because he recreates sermons from Dabny, Wesley, Ryle, Bunyan, Whitefield, Edwards, & Spurgeon & does a great job. The CD's cost are nominal and he has one titled "When You Fast" by John Wesley, which would expound this particular topic at hand.
Also, for those that minister to Roman Catholics; Tony is a former Roman Catholic of 34 years and gives insights that others may not have in a clear and concise manner. Dr. MacArthur has great sermons and articles related to Catholics as well; not to mention the congregation is made of many former Catholics as well as many of the volunteers there.
Hope that helps to clarify and may God bless you.
Sincerely and respectfully,
#26 Posted by
Travis Allen | Wednesday, January 12, 2011at
There have been some insightful questions that have come up in this series. Thanks for your comments!
I talked with Don, and he told me he's planning to address your feedback in sort-of a Q&A wrap-up article. So, keep posting the questions, comments, and dilemmas. Don will tackle some of them in a final post.
Director of Internet Ministry
#27 Posted by
Kevin Labadessa | Wednesday, January 12, 2011at
I know my church just brought up fasting, and I'm sure the fad seekers will be fasting before you can say "hamburger." I, on the other hand don't ever know if i'll do an actual fast. First of all, I'm prone to hypoglycemia, and secondly, and I don't know if this applies, I've made free decisions to not drink alcohol, overeat, watch televison, and limit this device i'm on called the computer. This gives me more time to study the Word, pray, witness, talk to my wife, and play with my kids. I do want to learn more about it, but I think i'm glad God didn't command us to do it! Kevin
#28 Posted by
steve stricker | Wednesday, January 12, 2011at
Love GTY.......thank you for so ably teaching the Word of God.