With a little help from John Piper (A Hunger for God), Donald Whitney (Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life) and a couple of others, I have tried to outline the biblical occasions for fasting. Here is the fruit of that study.
Please recognize that I am not addressing in this article any of the ways wrong goals, motives or practices can detract from the purpose of one’s fast. I am simply reminding those who understand the proper goals, motives and practices of the various occasions in Scripture where God’s people practiced fasting.
Let’s begin by briefly answering, “What is a fast?”
A strict biblical definition of fasting would be limited to abstaining from eating. That is actually the literal meaning of the idea. However, there were those in the church who voluntarily abstained from other activities for spiritual purposes (marital relations is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 7), and that could probably be properly referred to as fasting. So a broader definition might include abstaining from other things. One author concludes that fasting is “The voluntary denial of a normal physical function for the sake of intense spiritual activity” (Richard Foster, quoted in Whitney, p. 160). Whenever fasting is mentioned in the Bible it is always accompanied by prayer. That is always part of the specific “intense spiritual activity” that always takes place.
Surveying the roughly 70 passages in the Bible that mention fasting, I believe we can break them up into four broad categories. Within each of those categories there are different ways to express and pursue that goal. Let’s look at them
Requests for Deliverance or Protection
In the time of King Jehoshaphat (read 1 Chronicles 20:1-19), there was a desperate situation where the armies of Judah were vastly outnumbered by an alliance of the Ammonites, Moabites and people of Mt. Seir. A national fast for deliverance and protection was declared (v. 3). The king’s prayer was not focused and centered on their safety, but on God’s glory, and on His name being exalted and feared among the nations. It was a humble expression of their dependence and helplessness before God.
In another example, Ezra is leading a host of the captives to return to Jerusalem, and they proclaim a fast as part of their humble request for protection (read Ezra 8:21-23). This request for protection and safety is not because they are unwilling to experience trial, or simply because they want to avoid what is unpleasant. It is because he is concerned that the honor and faithfulness of God’s name is displayed.
One of the largest and most significant fasts for protection and deliverance was in the time of Esther (read Esther 4:5-17). In times of persecution or potential affliction at the hands of those who do not love God, His people, or His truth, fasting is a tool for expressing our neediness and dependence upon God.
Requests for Healing or Grace During Sickness
After David’s sin with Bathsheba was exposed, the prophet Nathan announced to him that the child of his adultery would be sick and die. The child did become deathly ill, and immediately upon this sickness, King David sought the Lord through fasting (read 2 Samuel 12:15-23). David clearly says that the purpose of the fast was to seek the Lord’s grace (“the Lord may be gracious to me, that the child may live” v. 22), and the potential that God might heal him. God’s answer in this case was no, but certainly it shows that it is appropriate to fast on such occasions, and prayerfully seek God’s help and grace.
Requests for What You Want
It is not always selfish to simply pray for what you desire, making sure your goal and motives center around the glory of God. Hannah is a good example of this (read 1 Samuel 1:1-8). It could be that her not eating was a fast for deliverance from her husband’s evil second wife, who was mistreating her. Or, it could have been part of her earnest request for a child. I believe it was probably both—she was seeing the gracious gift of a child as part of her vindication before this wicked woman, and longed for both the blessing of a child, as well as the personal vindication from God.
Requests for God’s Sanctifying Work
Jesus’ 40-day fast in the wilderness was not in order to be sanctified, but it was in part a preparation to be tested and tempted by the devil, and to overcome that temptation. Fasting is a way of overcoming temptation and of freshly dedicating ourselves to the Father. There are times when we struggle with temptation, and times when we may be able to anticipate temptation. Fasting is a means of earnestly imploring God for His help. This kind of self-discipline cannot accomplish anything. It isn’t a magical formula for spiritual strength, so don’t think that it is.
Let’s move on to the second broad category of biblical occasions for fasting.
There are various ways and reasons to express grief and mourning, and we see a number of them occur in conjunction with fasting in the Bible.
Mourning Over Death
Three of the first four references in the Bible to fasting connect it with an expression of grief. In Judges 20:18ff, the sons of Israel were engaged in an ugly Civil War. In the first day of battle, they lost 22,000 men. In the second day they lost 18,000 more. They called a fast for both mourning and deliverance (read Judges 20:26-28). They were crushed and did not want to experience further loss, and God used those crushing defeats to humble them in His sight.
A second occasion, which is purely in mourning over death, was at the death of King Saul. When King Saul was killed by the Philistines, the men of Jabesh Gilead walked all night to recover the bodies of the king and his sons. After the burial, there was a fast for seven days (read 1 Samuel 31:12-13). The next chapter records the response of the new king, David, and of his armies. “They mourned and wept and fasted until evening for Saul and his son Jonathan and for the people of the LORD and the house of Israel” (2 Samuel 1:12).
It seems that fasting in a time of grief, particularly over the death of someone, is a way of expressing trust in God, and devotion to God.
Particularly in death, we have questions about God’s purposes, God’s goodness, His plan, how all these things work together. Fasting is a way of saying “I am devoted to you, and not to the fulfillment of my own desires. I am devoted to seeing your purposes accomplished, and this death is part of that…so hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done.”
Mourning Over Sin
The first example is King Ahab, in 1 Kings 21. Ahab was led like a foolish puppet by his sinfully ambitious wife Jezebel, and did some pretty evil things, murdering innocent people, stealing and oppressing others, and really became an evil, power-mongering king. God pronounced judgment on him for this through the prophet Elijah. Despite all his evil, and the sweeping nature of God’s pronounced judgment against him, Ahab responded with humility and repentance expressed through fasting (read 1 Kings 21:20-29). Judgment was deferred because even such a man as Ahab was prepared to humble his soul with fasting. How great is God’s mercy! How great the power of fasting to call it forth!
Another example of fasting as an expression of grief over sin is in the book of Nehemiah. The prophet Ezra, after years of captivity in Babylon, is now part of God’s movement to bring the people of Israel back into the Promised Land. In chapter 8 it says that the people were exposed to the truth, through the reading of the Law, for the first time in decades (read Nehemiah 8:1-10). They continued to listen to Ezra and the appointed Levites expound from the Law, daily for about three weeks. By the end of this time, they were so broken over their sins of rebellion, and of neglect of God and His Law, that they were driven to fast in humble contrition and repentance (read Nehemiah 9:1-3).
Mourning Over the Sins of Others
One biblical account to illustrate this is King Saul, who was bent on destroying David in 1 Samuel 20. You may remember the story, that King Saul was jealous of David’s popularity, and Saul had planned his normal “new moon” dinner shortly after attempting to take David’s life. David figured he would try again, but Saul’s son Jonathan, who was loved and was loyal to David, believed that his father was truly repentant after the last attempt, and that if he was planning harm to David he would have told him so. As it turned out, Jonathan was wrong, and he found out that his father Saul was still intent on killing David, when he got angry at Jonathan’s request to visit David. In response to his father’s hatred of David, Jonathan fasted, grieving over the sin, and no doubt asking for the protection of David from his father (read 1 Samuel 20:30-34).
That is Jonathan and David’s story. Many of us would have similar stories where we were heartbroken over the sins of others, perhaps not murderous sins, but heartbreaking nonetheless. Fasting and praying for their repentance is appropriate and honoring to God. It should be a humble, broken-hearted fasting accompanied by earnest prayer on their behalf.
Now for a third broad category of fasting.
Seeking Revelatory Direction in Times Past
While God is no longer giving revelation today as He did in the past, there are example in Scripture where the people of God sought this kind of direction from God through prayerful fasting (Daniel 9, Exodus 34).
Decision Making, or Seeking Guidance
We’ve seen one example of this in Judges 20, which was mingled with mourning over lost comrades in battle. In that context the people asked, “‘Shall I yet again go out to battle against the sons of my brother Benjamin, or shall I cease?’ And the LORD said, ‘Go up, for tomorrow I will deliver them into your hand'” (Judges 20:28). This was also a time of direct revelation from God, which we should not expect. However, I am convinced an example is set for fasting when you are in need of direction and guidance. Another example would be Acts 13, where God—again in a revelatory way, not in a normative way—spoke of setting apart Paul and Barnabas for ministry (read Acts 13:1-3). It was during a time of devoted fasting that the Lord’s will in regard to ministry and the mission of Paul was made clear. It was also after a time of fasting and prayer that they laid hands on them and commended them to this ministry. Certainly no one is beyond this need to commit themselves and others to the work of ministry with this kind of sacrifice and devotion.
It wasn’t just for the purpose of seeking of direction. We see fasting taking place as a sort of “launching point” in pursuing a chosen direction. It is used as an earnest means of seeking the Lord’s blessing on that chosen path. Whenever Paul appointed elders in the churches that were formed through his ministry it appears that his practice was to pray and fast first.
Acts 14:23 – When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
Here the prayer and fasting was apparently a devoted pursuit of God’s blessing and enablement upon the men being set apart for the work of the ministry. It communicates to God the earnest desire to see His grace poured out for the glory of His name, and the good of His people.
This leaves us one final category. It is the one category that perhaps best explains the answer to the burning question, “why does God reward and bless those who fast?”
When God rewards fasting (i.e., answers those who fast), He is not paying wages, or settling debts—giving us what we have earned and deserve. Any concept of reward that approaches that idea is a dishonor to the God of grace. God does not respond to our fasting because it gives Him new knowledge about our faith or devotion—He knows all of that already. Fasting is simply a God-ordained, and divinely enabled way, of expressing that heart-felt devotion.
To Express Worship Toward God
God is worth our sacrifice. Making sacrifices for His sake—and purely for His sake—is an honor to Him. But even these sacrifices are an overflow of His gracious work in our lives.
1 Chronicles 29:14 – But who am I and who are my people that we should be able to offer as generously as this? For all things come from You, and from Your hand we have given You.
Who are we that we can choose to sacrifice our own pleasure and comfort for His sake—apart from His saving grace, we would be bent on our own pleasure. Instead, through fasting, and because of God’s gracious work through the gospel, we can express to God what ought to always be true in our hearts—that our greatest satisfaction, our greatest pleasure, our greatest joy, is found in Him and Him alone. We remind oursevles, and express to God in a practical way, that our god is not our belly (Phi 3:19).
It isn’t that he doesn’t already know the attitude of our hearts—but fasting is a means of expressing it to Him. Fasting is an outward manifestation of a heart fully devoted to God. The fast itself demonstrates this devoted heart, and by faith gives a reassurance of our devotion. Clearly, any outward act of obedience or devotion can be done in self-righteous way, and this is not what we desire to encourage. However, outward obedience and acts o devotion (like fasting) evidences that the grace of God is operative in our lives.
Beyond just devotion, fasting is most often associated with humility and helplessness. We’ve noted its connection with prayer, and usually it is prayer offered in times of crisis. Those crises that energize and motivate prayer combine with our fasting to enable us to express our devotion in a particular way.
To Express Humility, Helplessness and Hope in God (Piper, 175ff)
Fasting is a way to express the reality that we are looking away from ourself, and our own self-sufficiency, and acknowledging that God is our strength and hope. It is an offering of ourselves—emptied of the strength and sustenance of this life—in order to request that He fill us and sustain us and empower us with divine strength in our circumstances.
In some ways, it should be evident that the categories of fasting above could easily fit under this umbrella. We express humility, helplessness and hope in God when we make requests, during times of mourning, when we need direction, or when we embark on a new ministry venture. Those categories attempt to describe the biblical examples we have. This last one simply leaves it to your own application. What are the occasions in your life where devotion, humility, helplessness and hope should be expressed?