What does the Bible teach about fasting? Is it for Christians today?
Fasting, in the biblical sense, is the abstaining from food and drink for a spiritual reason. In the Old Testament era, the Jews fasted frequently, though there was only one fast prescribed by the law. Once each year, on the Day of Atonement, the Hebrews were to “afflict” their souls (Leviticus 16:31), which meant fasting (cf. Isaiah 58:3).
Though there are no compulsory fasts required of Christians today, the New Testament seems to take for granted that children of God would see the need to fast occasionally.
When the Lord’s disciples were criticized for not fasting, Jesus responded by suggesting that it was hardly appropriate for them to fast while he was yet with them. The time would come, however, when he would be taken away from them; then they would fast (Luke 5:35).
Too, in cautioning against improper motivation in worship, Christ warned: “Moreover when you fast, be not, as hypocrites” (Matthew 6:16). It is significant that he did not say, “if,” but, “when” ye fast—reflecting the expectation that they would.
Fasting, for the Christian, is strictly a voluntary matter. It should arise out of a feeling of intense need, not as a result of mere formality.
What Is the Value of Fasting?
When, then, might fasting be of value?
Fasting may be spiritually beneficial in times of personal sorrow. David and his men mourned and fasted upon hearing of the death of Saul (2 Samuel 1:12), and Nehemiah did similarly when he was informed of Jerusalem’s decimated condition (Nehemiah 1:4).
Fasting and prayer would certainly seem to be fitting when a loved one is critically ill (2 Samuel 12:16).
Fasting frequently accompanied repentance as an outward and genuine indication of contrition for spiritual rebellion (1 Samuel 7:6). The people of Nineveh proclaimed a fast when brought to a recognition of their sins (Jonah 3:5).
Fasting was practiced in connection with great and important religious events. Moses fasted during that period when he was receiving the law (Exodus 34:28). Christ fasted prior to his encounter with Satan in the wilderness (Matthew 4:2).
The church fasted before sending Barnabas and Saul on that perilous first missionary campaign (Acts 13:2-3). Fasting was certainly a component in the dynamic ministry of Paul (2 Corinthians 6:5; 11:27).
Warnings For Those Who Fast
Admittedly, however, fasting can be abused. The practice must never be employed as a substitute for personal godly living.
Isaiah delivered a blistering rebuke to those who fasted, then pursued their own worldly pleasures (Isaiah 58).
Moreover, fasting must not be an occasion for the flaunting of one’s religion. The Pharisees were guilty of this very thing (Matthew 6:16-18).
Finally, the rigors of fasting must not be allowed to ignite a spirit of religious smugness and self-righteousness. This certainly could be a temptation (cf. Luke 18:9-14).
Benefits of Fasting
In the final analysis, there does seem to be some benefits in voluntary fasting at certain times. Reflect upon the following:
The Scriptures seem to suggest that God honors fasting when performed as a token of deep and sincere dedication.
Physicians indicate that moderate fasting can be a benefit to health, having the effect of allowing our systems to occasionally cleanse themselves.
The mind appears to be able to plumb greater depths of contemplation during periods of fasting.
Fasting can help one hone a keener edge on self-discipline.
Fasting can also have the added effect of reinforcing our appreciation for those things of which we’re deprived during the periods of abstention.