How do we who believe in Jesus do fasting? In a world inundated with diets and fads, it’s hard to know how to separate the two. What makes fasting different from simply dieting? Also, how is the Christian fast different from other religions? To answer these questions, we can separate our actions of faith from culture and other religions by going back to the Bible itself. To know how to fast as a Christian, these three steps are essential:
- Study what the Bible says about fasting.
- Include prayer and Scripture while fasting.
- Clarify your reason for the fast. Get to the heart of it.
Let’s dig deeper into each step to clarify how we do fasting as Christians.
Where Does the Bible Mention Fasting?
Fasting can be found in both the Old and New Testaments. According to “Bible Verses About Fasting,” the Bible mentions fasting over 70 times. If the Word of God mentions this discipline so many times, doesn’t it prove its importance? Sometimes, Bible stories seem removed from our modernity, but the disciplines of prayer and fasting hold no timeline. Whether before the Cross or after, fasting still plays a role in our faith.
We learn how to fast, when to fast, and how long to fast from biblical heroes like Moses, Daniel, and Esther. Each fasted for a certain length of time and specific reasons. They also fasted in different ways.
Moses’ Fast for Good Hearing
In Exodus 34, Moses fasted for 40 days and 40 nights on Mt. Sinai in the presence of God. During those 40 days and nights, he did not eat anything or drink water while he chiseled the ten commandments on stone tablets.
Have you wondered how he fasted for so long? Undoubtedly, this was a supernatural moment in time, but it’s possible that Moses didn’t actually fast for 40 days and 40 nights. This phrase was a Hebrew idiom meaning “a really long time.” It also identified a testing or probationary period like Jesus’s testing in the desert after his baptism. Whether or not Moses fasted for exactly 40 days and 40 nights is not crucial. Rather than focusing on the fast’s length, let’s focus on why Moses fasted.
Go back to what he was doing on Mt. Sinai to understand why he was fasting. Remember, Moses was not preserving his own law; he was writing down what he heard from God. From this example, we can conclude that fasting opens our ears to the voice and purpose of God. It empties us so that we can hear God more clearly. Sometimes that emptying is needed for better understanding.
Daniel’s Fast for Revelation and Warfare
Daniel mourned for three weeks because of a prophesy he’d received about a great war. During this period of mourning, he did not eat “choice” food or meat, and he did not drink wine. Daniel also did not use lotions. After this period of mourning and fasting, he received understanding through a vision. Jesus came to Daniel to give him insight. These words spoken by Jesus refer to Daniel’s fast and its purpose:
“Then he continued, “Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them.But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me 21 days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia. Now I have come to explain to you what will happen to your people in the future, for the vision concerns a time yet to come” (Daniel 10:12-14, emphasis added).
Daniel’s fast was not only a sign of mourning, but it was also a humble act. One could also argue that his fast played an important role in the waged spiritual warfare. Daniel’s fast lasted exactly the length of the resistance of the enemy. Fasting may weaken our bodies, but it strengthens our spirits to fight battles we cannot see.
Aretha Grant writes about the spiritual warfare component in “Christian Fasting and the Power of Biblical Facts.” She writes, “Indeed, fasting brings God’s protection, provision, and help. Fast your way through afflictions, hardships, obstacles, and opposition.”
Esther’s Fast for Wisdom and Favor
Esther initiated a fast because of an enemy too. As her people faced a doomed future, and Esther prepared to intervene at the risk of death, this humble queen called for her people to fast for three days.
“Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: ‘Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish’” (Esther 4:15-16).
Esther’s actions reveal another reason for fasting. She needed wisdom and favor to save her people from destruction. But Esther was not alone in her fast as Daniel and Moses were. Esther called for the entire Jewish population to fast with her. Though her instructions did not include orders to pray, it is clear their fasting would be partnered with petitions for her safety and the salvation of the Jews.
How Do Christian Fasting and Prayer Fit Together?
Fasting must be coupled with prayer because it strengthens prayer. As demonstrated in the three examples above, the fast’s purpose involved hearing God. Fasting provided wisdom, strength, and the Presence and favor of God.
Another story in the Bible proves how fasting and prayer go hand in hand. This story involved a demon-possessed boy. Jesus explained the relationship of prayer and fasting to his disciples who were unsuccessful in attempts to heal this mute, seizure-ladened boy:
“This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29 NKJV).
For reasons unknown to me, many translations leave out the word “fasting” in this Scripture. It is, however, in the original text. It is the Greek word nēsteia. This word referred to private and public fasts, such as those held during the Jewish Day of Atonement. From this Scripture and Jesus’s trial in the desert, we know Jesus fasted. If Jesus, the Son of God, fasted, how much more should we? Jesus taught through these scriptures that prayer without fasting lacks power, and fasting prepares us for ministry to come.
Is Christian Fasting a Form of Meditation?
Fasting strengthens our prayers and prepares us for ministry because it cultivates a greater awareness of God and his wisdom. It helps us pray with clarity and purpose. It improves our focus. In this way, fasting can be considered meditation, especially when coupled with Scripture. In simplest terms, fasting involves abstaining from food, water, or something we enjoy, like social media or coffee. It doesn’t always involve food, but it should always involve replacing those things with time spent in God’s Word, meditating on God’s truth. The psalmist wrote:
“I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches. I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways” (Psalm 119:14-15).
When I fast and my stomach rumbles, I’m reminded to pray. In the same sense, when I’ve chosen to fast a meal or social media or time watching television at night, I replace what I’m fasting with God’s Word—this is a form of meditation. In eastern religions, meditation involves emptying oneself completely, but the Christian fills that empty place with truth.
What Separates Christian Fasting from Other Religions’ Form of Fasting?
Many religions include the discipline of fasting. Though it’s a similar practice, with each form involving abstaining from food, sometimes water, and other pleasures of life, what separates Christian fasting from Hindus, Muslims, and other eastern religions is the fast’s purpose.
Muslims fast during Ramadan, a corporate fast abstaining from food and water during the daylight hours for 30 days. Sam Martyn explains:
“Whereas fasting in other traditions is sometimes associated with health benefits, political advocacy, or the ascetic rejection of the world, such is not the case with Islam. Islam affirms the goodness of creation and human enjoyment of creation in moderation, evidenced by the feast that takes place each evening when the fast is broken at sunset. Instead, Muslims fast primarily to express their submission to Allah.”
Though the Christian fast is a form of submission or humility to God, Christian fasting is not done to gain favor with God. Jesus did that for us. It is only by grace that we’re saved. No amount of fasting can get us into heaven without Jesus.
Rather than fasting to gain favor with God, or a higher level of spirituality, as in Hinduism, Christians fast to gain wisdom and strength to help them live more eternally productive lives on this side of eternity.
Get to the Heart of Your Fasting
The Christian’s reason for fasting and what we do during the fast is what separates the fast from diets and fads and other religions. It is possible to fast for health reasons, and that’s okay. We may employ intermittent fasting to lose weight. But when we fast to grow closer to God, hear the Lord’s wisdom, and fight spiritual battles, and we incorporate prayer and the Word of God, then our fast becomes a Christian discipline. I am reminded of David’s plea, “Search me oh God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious ways. See if there is any offensive [idolatrous] way in me and lead me into the everlasting way” (Psalm 139:23-24, addition mine). May this be our prayer as we fast to serve God better.
Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/camaralenta
Andy Lee is an event speaker, blogger, YouTuber, and award winning author of three books, A Mary Like Me; The Book of Ruth Key-Word Bible Study, and Radiant Influence: How an ordinary girl changed the world. She passionately teaches how to find life in God's Word in order to live abundantly. You can catch her life giving messages weekly on Instagram and YouTube. She also provides monthly Bible reading plans and articles on her website www.wordsbyandylee.
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