When You Fast

By Pastor Doug Batchelor

An Amazing Fact: The Guinness World Record for the longest fast is held by Angus Barbieri of Scotland. According to the British Medical Journal, Barbieri went without solid food for 382 days—from June 1965 to July 1966. While under medical supervision, he survived on tea, water, and vitamins. At the beginning of his fast, he weighed 456 pounds, and by the end, he weighed 180 pounds.

Most Christians get a little uncomfortable when they hear the word “fasting.”

I don’t blame them for getting antsy; eating is a very personal thing. Savory food seems to satisfy us at our very core, which is why most of us enjoy eating. I certainly do!

However, fasting is a subject that you find cover to cover in the Bible. It was a high-priority discipline for Jesus. In His Sermon on the Mount, He said, “When you fast, do not be like the hypocrites” (Matthew 6:16, my emphasis). Notice that He didn’t say, “If you fast.” This implies that He expected His people to be practicing the discipline of fasting. 

Let’s look at the full passage: When you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly (vv. 16–18).

Three times Jesus addresses His disciples not about whether they should fast, but how they should fast. But not too many churches today are teaching that fasting is a Christian essential. 

Some people even cite this passage in Matthew to show that Jesus doesn’t really ask us to fast today: The disciples of John came to Him, saying, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast? And Jesus said to them, Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast” (9:14, 15).

Notice that John the Baptist was calling his followers to fast, but Jesus wasn’t disputing that call. Just like He had addressed the manner of fasting, here He is speaking of the timing. If I said you’re invited to a great celebration at my house where we will be fasting, would you come? Probably not! God being in the flesh among His people was a time of celebration, not fasting.

It’s clear that Jesus put a premium on fasting in His own experience on Earth, so it’s worth the effort for His followers to study it out.

What Is Fasting?

“Fasting” means to voluntarily abstain from or consume very little food and/or drink for a specified period of time, usually as a religious or health discipline. That’s simple enough. 

The next question is, “Why does God want His people to fast?” We begin answering that question by addressing the wrong reason to fast—see Matthew 6:16–18 above. There we learned that fasting is not a way to advertise your piety to other sinful humans; that’s why Jesus said don’t go around parading to everyone that you’re fasting. Fasting is primarily an act of devotion and faith between you and God.

However, fasting is also not a tool to win God’s audience by manipulating Him through torturing yourself. No. It is really about building trust so that the desires of the flesh melt away into a desire to be more like Christ.

One reason Jesus can be our High Priest is that He experienced a deep hunger that few experience. This suffering kickstarted His ministry. The devil’s first temptation was centered on getting Jesus to eat that which He shouldn’t when He was literally starving to death. 

The human race fell into sin when we ate something we weren’t supposed to eat even though we had plenty of other satisfying options.

In this light, we can see that fasting allows us to practice concentrated self-control, building up our spiritual muscles so that we can overcome the things of the flesh. That is a powerful discipline for Christians to develop!

 To be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God (Romans 8:6–8).

A constant battle rages between the spirit and the flesh. When we fast, we are exercising self-denial. Matthew 26:41 says, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (NIV). Many today are now struggling with diet issues, something best seen in the light of a battle between the spirit and the flesh. That’s why fasting can be a powerful aid in overcoming sins of a physical nature. When you fast, you move from the physical realm to the spiritual, trusting God to care for your body as you deny its physical desires.

Types of Fasting

Christians have many reasons to perform a fast. Let’s examine a few of them now.

Seeking forgiveness. At one point, God’s people were intermarrying with pagans, whose practices were leading them into backsliding. Nehemiah 9:1, 3 says, “The children of Israel were assembled with fasting, in sackcloth, and with dust on their heads. … They confessed and worshiped the LORD their God.” Many times in the Bible, repentance is accompanied by prayer and fasting. After his conversion experience, the apostle Paul went three days without eating or drinking. He realized that he had been persecuting and killing God’s people—overwhelmed with repentance, he performed a severe fast.

Seeking clarity of mind. When you deny yourself food, you may experience a clearer mind. When you eat, your body begins to process the food, and much of the energy that would otherwise be directed to thinking and hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit is redirected to digestion. Eating can make you a little clouded mentally and spiritually. Often on Sabbath mornings, when I’m praying and studying, I will get tired after I eat, so I often skip breakfast or eat something light. It’s easier for me to understand and explain the Word if I haven’t just consumed a big meal.

Seeking comfort when mourning. When Saul and Jonathan died, the people “mourned and wept and fasted until evening” (2 Samuel 1:12). If you’re mourning a loss or facing a difficult circumstance, submitting to the rite of fasting can draw you closer to Jesus and His suffering on your behalf, opening your heart to His comfort and hope.

Seeking guidance and protection. Before God’s people left Persia on their way back to the Promised Land, they asked for the Lord’s guidance and protection. “I proclaimed a fast … that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from Him the right way for us and our little ones and all our possessions” (Ezra 8:21). When faced with making a difficult or important decision, like whether to marry a certain person or take a certain job, many people skip fasting when they’re praying for God’s direction. Don’t skip it!

Seeking intercession. In Mark 9:17–29, we learn that the devil had been tormenting a young boy. The father brought his child to the disciples, who prayed—but the evil spirit only mocked them. Later that day, the disciples met with Jesus, who explained, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.” When we get serious about seeking after God through prayer and fasting, God will do for us things that otherwise would not be done. Have you been praying for a loved one or for someone who is sick and struggling? When was the last time you had a season of special prayer and fasting that God would intervene? Try it and see what the Lord will do!

Seeking to avert judgment. Jonah said that in 40 days, Nineveh would be destroyed. The people prayed and fasted to avert their doom, and God relented. We see this often in the Bible—every time Israel responded to God’s rebuke by humbling themselves in fasting and prayer, God either gave them more time or completely suspended His discipline. “Says the LORD, ‘Turn to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.’ … For He is gracious and merciful” (Joel 2:12–14).

Seeking spiritual resolve. We know that at some point in the last days, the beast power will persecute those who do not receive his mark by not allowing them to buy or sell (Revelation 13:17). One of the first places that will hit home is the refrigerator. If we’ve not gained victory over our appetites, many, as it was with Esau, will sell their birthright for a bowl of beans (Hebrews 12:16).

Other Ways to Fast

Other than not eating for a season, there are other ways to fast in which you meaningfully deny yourself pleasures in order to draw closer to the Lord. Some of God’s people may also have medical conditions that prevent them from even limited food fasts. (Many have asked me if fasts are only meaningful if they deny themselves food for as long as Jesus did. I personally don’t believe so and counsel them that a fast of one to three days is sufficient for Christians today.)

There are also types of fasting that limit eating to simple foods. The prophet Daniel determined to avoid rich foods when trying to understand a vision. “I ate no pleasant food, no meat or wine came into my mouth” (Daniel 10:3). If you need to keep your energy levels for physical work but want to engage in fasting, consider a “fruit-only fast” or “juice fast.” 

Other ways to fast include denial of entertainment, like fasting from electronic media, which is especially good for children who need to eat to keep their bodies growing strong—but to whom you want to introduce the blessings of fasting. These are all good ways to dip one’s toe into the practice of fasting, and any kind of fasting will help us build self-control in other areas of life.

The Most Important Reason

What’s the most important fast in which every Christian should be engaged? It’s explained in Isaiah 58, one of the most powerful passages in all of literature on experiencing a meaningful life of faith: “Why have we fasted, they say, and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed? Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high (vv. 3, 4 NIV).

In other words, God’s people were saying, “Look, we’re going through this ritual and You, Lord, are not paying attention.” But the Lord explained to them that they needed more than just a fast from food: Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (vv. 6, 7 NIV).

The people were fasting as they were walking down the road, stepping around those who were hungry and naked. They didn’t care about their fellow man, yet they were flaunting their abstinence from food while demanding that the Lord bless them. God told them that they were missing the point because they didn’t love Him and their neighbors. Are you picturing this?

A real fast is not about wresting what we want out of God. It’s about denying ourselves so that the Lord can work His wonders through us to reach those outside His camp. As they see Christ’s power in our lives, they will be attracted to Him and be transformed. 

Romans 12:1, 2 says, By the mercies of God, … present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.

Fasting is about seeking after God. It’s not about living for the flesh or for personal pleasure, but finding out what pleases the Lord and doing it, regardless of the sacrifice.

Fasting is not always easy, but it’s always worth it when done in the right spirit. Let’s pray for grace and wisdom regarding how to fast. The process and experience may be a little different for each of us, but I firmly believe that we as a church family need to rediscover the blessings of this forgotten discipline. So I urge you to ask Him how to apply what you’ve learned today.  


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