Fasting is a time honored Christian ritual. It is the voluntary sacrifice of food and sometimes drink, too. What is its purpose? How do we make a decision to fast? How long should we fast?
Abstaining from food is the typical kind of fast. (Daniel 6:18) There are occasions when people abstain from both food and drink, though this is not common. (Ezra 10:6) Typically, fasts are one day in length. (Judges 20:26) Sometimes, they are three days (Esther 4:16), or even seven days; “And they took their bones, and buried them under a tree at Jabesh, and fasted seven days. (1 Samuel 31:13)
On three occasions in the Bible, people fasted for forty days. This is not a prescribed practice; these were very unusual circumstances. The first occasion was when Moses received the Ten Commandments. (Exodus 34:28) The next occasion was when Elijah encountered God before the anointing of Elisha. (1 Kings 19:8) The third occasion for such a fast was when Jesus was in the wilderness and tempted by Satan. (Matthew 4:2)
There are many reasons given in the Bible for fasting. The fasting itself is an act of sacrifice and when we fast and experience hunger, we are reminded of God and His sacrifice for us. While fasting denies the flesh comfort, it feeds the spirit strength. Fasts are voluntary, part of religious tradition or done in obedience to God. When you decide to fast, be clear with yourself and with God about why you are fasting, how long you will fast and use the time normally spent preparing and eating food to deepen your relationship with God. The fast should serve a purpose; there should be a significant reason for it.
Bereavement was once a common reason for fasting, though it is not so much anymore. The fasting may have been incidental in some cases but was often a way to feel closer to God during a particularly difficult time. “And it came to pass, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned certain days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven” (Nehemiah 1:4)
Distressing or difficult times are reasons for fasting. Fasting is a way of communicating feelings of fear, anxiety, distress or grief to God. Self-denial is one way of expressing genuineness or sincerity. It’s also a way of making a spiritual contribution to relieving the situation, a way of showing God a willingness to do our part and asking Him to make up the difference. (See Esther 4:3) Fasting is sometimes used as a sacrifice when asking God to intervene in a situation. “But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth: I humbled my soul with fasting; and my prayer returned into mine own bosom.” (Psalms 35:13)
Fasting can also be a way of expressing sorrow or regret for sin. God doesn’t ask us for this sacrifice but He is pleased by it. “And they gathered together to Mizpeh, and drew water, and poured it out before the LORD, and fasted on that day, and said there, we have sinned against the LORD…”(1 Samuel 7:6) When this kind of sacrifice is made as a sincere gesture of sorrow or penitence, it is accepted by God.
When Christians seek guidance from God fasting may be an action that is helpful. The idea is to use the time we spend on food to spend with God instead. It provides extra time to spend in prayer, worship and listening. It is also a way of preparing for a spiritual event or change. It’s an act of submission, a way to get our desire out of the way in order to allow the spirit to work. (Acts 13:1-3)
Fasting can be a form of worship. “And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day.” (Luke 2:37) Surrendering comfort as an act of worship is not necessary but it is pleasing to God if it is sincere. It is much like saying, “Thank you God for giving Your Son for me. Let me be a little uncomfortable for Your sake.” Here again fasting is an act of sacrifice.
Fasting is a way of communicating emotion to God; it’s a sacrifice that can be made for the sake of restoring a right relationship with God, or can be made coupled with a request for help. Fasting is a way to subdue our flesh for the sake of our spirit. Fasting must be done sincerely to be a pleasing sacrifice to God. It should be kept private; there is no need to reveal our sacrifice to anyone else unless a group is fasting together for a particular reason. Revealing an act of sacrifice is like saying, “Look how holy I am.” It’s spiritual arrogance.
Fasting can be used for a variety of reasons but it must be done sincerely. Choosing to fast can be a way to communicate feelings like sorrow, grief, and regret but it can also be a way of worshipping God. Fasts can be a sacrifice when we ask God for help or guidance and they can be acts of obedience when God asks us to fast. Fasts are time limited and are done for a reason; be clear about how long you will fast and why you are fasting. Whatever your reason for fasting, use the extra time to grow closer to God. He will honor your sacrifice.