What's the Deal with Fasting, Anyway?

Jonathan Pokluda | 11.22.15

As I write this, it’s almost Thanksgiving, the one day of the year that most people eat just about as much food as they can.

So, I thought, what better time to talk about…pretty much the exact opposite of that?

Fasting is something that we don’t discuss that much. That’s why a lot of people, if they even think about fasting at all, tend to have questions about it. What is fasting? How do you fast? Why should you fast? What’s the deal with fasting, anyway?

What is Fasting?

Fasting is the act of giving up something—food, in almost all cases—for a set period of time, in order to draw closer to God.

At least, that’s the Christian perspective. Any time you choose to go without food, for any reason, could be defined as a “fast.” (Even sleeping; that’s why “breakfast” is when you “break the fast” of the previous night.) But it’s not fasting the way the Bible talks about it unless the purpose is to focus on or improve your relationship with God.

So, for instance, if your goal is to lose weight, that’s not fasting as the Bible describes it. (Fasting to lose weight is also probably not a good idea, and can sometimes be a sign of anorexia; get help if that’s the case.)

Can You Fast From Just Certain Foods?

You can, yes. Usually fasting means giving up all food, but there are variations in Scripture.

  • Some fasts involve abstaining from food and water, as in Esther 4:16 and Acts 9:9. In both those cases it was limited to three days; you can’t really go without water for longer than that.

  • You can fast from food but still drink water. In Matthew 4:2, after Jesus fasted for 40 days, it said He was hungry, but doesn’t say anything about Him being thirsty. (Also, unless a miracle was involved, a person would die without water after just a few days.)

  • You can fast from certain types of food. In Daniel 10:3, Daniel fasted from “choice food,” meat, wine, and lotion (seriously) for three weeks. He still ate something; probably vegetables and water (Daniel 1:12).

  • You can even fast from activities. 1 Corinthians 7:2-5 indicates that married couples can together choose to abstain from sex with each other “for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer.” You can debate whether that should be called fasting, since it has nothing to do with food, but it otherwise has the same purpose and characteristics as a fast.

So if you willingly give up coffee, or dessert, or possibly even television for a month, and do so for the purpose of focusing more on God, that could be considered a type of fast. But the clearest and strictest definition of the word “fasting” still means to give up all food for a time.

Are Christians Required to Fast?

Fasting is not a requirement for salvation. Fasting will not help you get into heaven, just like no amount of good works can get you into heaven. We’re not saved by religious observances; we’re saved if we accept Jesus’ free gift of salvation.

Though it’s not a requirement for salvation, we are still expected to fast. In Matthew 6:16-18, Jesus twice says “when you fast,” which assumes that you do fast sometimes. And in Matthew 9:14-15, Jesus explained that although His disciples didn’t fast while He was with them, soon He would be gone and “then they will fast.” Jesus doesn’t command you to fast, but He endorses it and seems to expect it (and practiced it Himself). It is an act of obedience and faithfulness, just like prayer or reading your Bible.

When Should You Fast?

Some works-based religions do require fasts at certain times of the year. But grace-based Christianity doesn’t require such rituals. You have the freedom to fast or not fast anytime you want.

In the Bible, it was common for people to fast when seeking the Lord’s guidance on big decisions, or before starting a new ministry (Acts 13:2-3). David fasted as he prayed for his son to recover from an illness (2 Samuel 12:16), and to humble himself (Psalm 35:13). Ezra and Nehemiah each fasted to confess and mourn sin (Ezra 10:6 and Nehemiah 1:4-6). Jesus fasted before being tempted by Satan (Matthew 4:1-4). The common theme seems to be that people fasted when they really wanted to seek and follow God.

How Long Should You Fast?

It’s up to you. You can fast by just skipping one meal, or you can fast for a day, or for several days. If you plan to fast for more than a few days you should first ask your doctor (or before fasting at all if you’re pregnant, diabetic, or have some other medical condition). Jesus fasted for 40 days. Yes, He’s Jesus, but some other people have fasted that long; one of them, Bill Bright, has a PDF guide to fasting you can read here.

If you’re just giving up something non-essential, like coffee, you could fast for many weeks or months.

Why Should You Fast?

So what’s the point of fasting?

There’s something about going without food that helps you focus on God. For starters, choosing to give up food proves to yourself how serious you are about praying and listening to God. The hunger can serve as a constant reminder that you’re committed to praying. You have more time to pray, since you’re not cooking, cleaning, and eating.

It’s an exercise in trust; in Bible times, when there was less certainty about where your next meal would come from, willingly skipping meals meant you trusted that God was in control.

Fasting also strengthens your resolve to overcome sin. When fasting, you are intentionally not following your natural urges, which can include your urge to sin.

Even if you’re just fasting from your favorite food, or from that one thing you feel like you can’t go a day without, it refocuses your priorities and keeps that thing from becoming an idol in your life.

Conclusion

This Thanksgiving, eat responsibly, and give thanks to God for all that He’s provided you. And then, plan a time to go without some of those provisions so that you might grow closer to Him.

What other questions do you have about fasting?

  • JP

(With help from Kevin McConaghy)

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