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What is Biblical Fasting?
Dr. Jim Wall
According to the Holman Bible Dictionary, “fasting” is “refraining from eating food.” Fasting has been around since the time of recorded history. When you Google the term fasting, it results in over 28 million hits which cover a multitude of different topics from weight loss to cleansing the body from toxins.
The first example of fasting in the Bible is found in Exodus 34. Moses led the Children of Israel out of Egypt and into the wilderness. On his third trip up Mount Sinai, the Bible says that Moses went without food or water for 40 days.
In recent years, some Christians have considering fasting to be outdated and not really important to their walk with Jesus. We believe the Bible teaches that fasting is one of the basic Christian disciplines that every believer should consider as a vital part of their relationship with Him!
Unfortunately, some Christians who fast, see it as a means of manipulating God into doing what they want. As if our fasting could force God to answer our prayers the way we want Him too. If you’ve been led to believe that, please know that fasting does not inspire or provoke God to do anything. It does not trick God into loving us any more than He already does. He already loves us more than we can comprehend. In Malachi 3:17, God says that we are His treasured possessions. Fasting also doesn’t make us more holy; we are made holy through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
To understand fasting we must turn to the Bible for the answers. In the Old Testament, the word “fast” comes from the Hebrew word tsom which refers to covering the mouth in self-denial. In the New Testament, we find the Greek word, nēsteuō which means to abstain from food for spiritual reasons.
Simply put, fasting is the Christian discipline that helps us recapture a true hunger for God. When we fast, we are saying we are willing to give up something of value, because spending that time with God is of higher value to us. The real benefit of fasting is that we set aside something we love to do (eat) and in the process, humble ourselves, and become more focused on God.
In James 1:17 we find that every good and perfect gift comes from God. That includes the food we eat. So, why should we fast? It is a way of demonstrating from time to time, that having more of the Giver is better than having the gifts He brings. In other words, we are saying to God, “Food is good, the many gifts You give are good, but You are better!”
There are three typical types of fasts. Here is a brief description each:
- An Absolute or Extreme Fast is going without food or liquids for a period of time. Moses and Jesus are the only two examples of an absolute fast for a 40-day period in Scripture. In both cases, they were specifically led into a remote place for God’s purposes. They were sustained by God for that time. This type of fast should never be considered without specific direction from God and direct monitoring by your doctor.
- A Complete Fast is going without food for a period of time. During this time, a person will drink liquids such as water or juice. Typically, this type of fasting will last a day, three days, a week, or longer. If you choose this type of fast, you should still use caution especially if you are on any type of medication. It is always wise to talk with your doctor before entering into a time of complete fasting.
- A Partial Fast is omitting a certain kind of food or a specific meal for a period of time. There are several examples of this kind of fast in the Bible including Elijah, Daniel, and John the Baptist. People with medical conditions such as diabetes or hypoglycemia might consider this type of fast.
Whatever type of fast you choose, you need to know that there are fasts that please God and fasts that don’t please Him.
The best explanation of a fast that displeases God is found in Isaiah 58. In this case, the Nation of Israel went through the motions of fasting, but missed the point entirely. Their rote following of the Law only led to a group of people whose focus was on themselves, getting what they wanted, when they wanted it, regardless of whether it was pleasing to God or not. The result of their fast led them further from God rather than closer to Him. The Living Bible paraphrase of Isaiah 58:3-5 makes clear the peoples’ frustration with God and His response to them.
Isaiah 58:3-5 TLB “‘We have fasted before you,’ they say. ‘Why aren’t you impressed? Why don’t you see our sacrifices? Why don’t you hear our prayers? We have done much penance, and you don’t even notice it!’ [God replies,] I’ll tell you why! Because you are living in evil pleasure even while you are fasting, and you keep right on oppressing your workers. Look, what good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarreling? This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with me. Is this what I want—this doing of penance and bowing like reeds in the wind, putting on sackcloth and covering yourselves with ashes? Is this what you call fasting?”
It’s clear that God was not happy with their fasting because it was all about themselves, their appearance, and impressing others. Their heart toward God never changed. God could see through their actions to their selfish motives.
God goes on, in the same chapter, to tell us the kind of fasting that pleases Him. It is the kind that changes us, helps us to become more intimate with Him, and leads us to reach out to those around us.
Isaiah 58:6-11 TLB “No, the kind of fast I want is that you stop oppressing those who work for you and treat them fairly and give them what they earn. I want you to share your food with the hungry and bring right into your own homes those who are helpless, poor, and destitute. Clothe those who are cold, and don’t hide from relatives who need your help. If you do these things, God will shed his own glorious light upon you. He will heal you; your godliness will lead you forward, goodness will be a shield before you, and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind. Then, when you call, the Lord will answer. ‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply. All you need to do is to stop oppressing the weak and stop making false accusations and spreading vicious rumors! Feed the hungry! Help those in trouble! Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you shall be as bright as day. And the Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy you with all good things, and keep you healthy too; and you will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring.”
Over the years, I’ve fasted many times. Each time, I’ve tried to make my goal a deeper intimacy with God. I’ve found that an added benefit of an increased intimacy has been an increased clarity in hearing His voice and finding His direction for my life and ministry.
My hope is that you will seriously consider making one of the types of fasting mentioned here a regular Christian discipline in your life. My prayer is that as you do, your level of closeness with Him and direction from Him will grow to ever deeper levels!
If you would like to learn more about fasting, I’ve found the following books to be Biblically sound and very helpful:
Franklin, Jentezen. Fasting, Charisma House. ©2008.
Towns, Elmer, L. Fasting for Spiritual Breakthroughs.
Regal Books, A Division of Gospel Light © 1996