Moreover, 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. (Matthew 6:16–18—NKJV)

The first time I really paid attention to fasting was when I was a student in a Christian school. It was in the mid seventies and my pastor had preached upon the spiritual needs of our country since the USA was just a year away from its two hundredth birthday. He challenged our church to pray for our nation and called for a corporate day of fasting so that we could make room for additional seasons of prayer during the day.

It was a valuable experience for me because it gave me an opportunity to importune myself for a significant purpose. I committed myself to spend the time I would normally eat my meals, pouring out my requests for my country to my Lord. I was serious about it and determined not to let anything pass through my teeth for twenty four hours. I succeeded, though I had not counted on the fact that I was a growing teenager and I had a grueling basketball practice in the afternoon. Every teenager lives on the borderline of starvation and I recall being pretty famished and mighty thirsty when I was able to break my fast! It was later that I learned that fasting does not always require abstaining from liquids.

Just as in my own youthful experience, there are many well-intentioned instructions concerning fasting. In fact, some encourage fasting as a form of penance, or even dieting. The danger in following a regimen of fasting is that ritual practice can rob you of the divinely intended uniqueness of the worship afforded in fasting and prayer. Scripturally, there is evidence of the practice of fasting in a very public, corporate sense, evidenced upon various occasions in Israel’s history where a great crisis faced the nation and they were prostrate upon their faces before the Lord, seeking His face. We read about the people praying and fasting in times of danger (Esther 4:16), judgment (Joel 1:14, 2:12), calamities and mourning (2 Samuel 1:12). Praying while fasting signifies confession of sin (1 Samuel 7:6, Nehemiah 9:1, 2), mourning (Joel 2:12, Psalm 69:10), and humiliation (Deuteronomy 9:18). Israel’s scheduled day of fasting was the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29).

Fasting was probably most often practiced by individuals in the Scriptures. Both Moses and our Lord fasted forty days without eating or drinking (Exodus 34:28, Mark 4:2). Elijah, David, Nehemiah, Daniel, Anna, and Cornelius are recorded as praying and fasting. Daniel’s practice in prayer and fasting is instructive. In Daniel 9:3 and 10:2, 3, Daniel’s impetus for fasting was a heavy sense of mourning for his own personal sin and for the sin of his nation. Israel was in captivity, away from the land of promise, because of unbelief. Daniel’s prayer and fasting was in sackcloth and ashes. In chapter 10 he ate no delicacies, meat, or fruit of the vine; he was mourning and so there was no room for “business as usual,” or for niceties. Little faith leads to little prayer; much faith urges the importance of prayer ahead of our own urge for food.

Some common threads among those faithful ones who fasted in the Bible are:

  • They spent their time of fasting in earnest prayer (Matthew 9:37, 38).
  • They seemed to end their fast toward evening (2 Samuel 1:22).
  • It is practiced in a very private fashion between God and you (Matthew 6:18).
  • It is always limited to a defined time (1 Corinthians 7:5, 2 Samuel 12:16–20).
  • It must be practiced in conformity to the spirit laid out in Isaiah 58.
  • The object of fasting and prayer is not your own benefit; it is worship of the Lord (Zechariah 7:5, Matthew 6:18).

Strikingly, the New Testament seems to speak of fasting with a slightly different tack. Paul speaks of being in fastings often (2 Corinthians 11:27), and listed fasting as one of a number of occurrences coming upon those who would serve and minister (2 Corinthians 6:1–6). It appears the early church had seasons of prayer prior to some significant events in the life of the church. One instance is that of the church in Antioch. The church was fasting just before being directed to set apart Barnabas and Paul as the first missionaries (Acts 13:1–3) and they, likewise, fasted after ordaining the pastors in their church plants (Acts 14:23).

Though not much more is spoken about fasting in the New Testament, it appears that the practice is nowhere frowned upon, unless form displaces substance (ostentation, boastfulness, and hypocrisy have no place—Luke 18:12, Jeremiah 14:12). When was the last time you were so heavily burdened over an issue of great spiritual moment that you were driven to your knees in a protracted season of prayer, such that you did not even think of satisfying your own need for food and drink? If it has been a while, is it because you have grown cold and distant from the heart of your Lord and the need of your world? Trust and obey.