“Prayer is for normal Christians. Fasting is for super-spiritual Christians.”
I don’t think anyone ever told me this directly, but it’s the impression I got, growing up in the general modern Mennonite/white evangelical culture. Preachers sometimes informed us of the long fasts they did. “The hunger pains go away by about day three,” they’d say loftily. But if my peers fasted, they never discussed it with me, and my Sunday School teachers made no attempt to teach us how to fast in an age-appropriate, sustainable way.
Thus, the impression persisted.
But sometimes in life, a single article or book can completely change my mind on an issue. That’s what happened when I read the book Fasting, by Jentezen Franklin. Franklin presented fasting as a normal thing that ordinary Christians can and should practice, on par with prayer and Bible reading. I discovered that pretty much all the major characters in the bible fasted: Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Jesus, Paul, and many, many more. In fact, fasting was such a basic expectation in the Bible, that when Jesus gave instructions in Matthew 6:16-18 about how we should fast, he didn’t say “if you fast,” but rather “when you fast.”
It’s been over ten years since I first picked up that book, and while I haven’t fasted in any sort of consistent way, it’s been there, as a tool in my spiritual journey, when I’ve needed it. And sometimes I have needed it, desperately. Which, I guess, is why I wanted to write this article in the first place; I wanted to do for others what Franklin had done for me.
But when I re-visited Franklin’s book in preparation for this article, I was disheartened by the easy, breezy, “if you just do x and y, God will give you z,” attitude. Franklin presented story after story of people becoming blessed or getting breakthroughs because they fasted. But it came across as prosperity-gospel-ish, and didn’t line up with what I’d read in Scripture myself.
In truth, I was disappointed by every book I picked up in hopes of understanding the discipline of fasting better. I’d turned to my local library system and checked out every book related to fasting/spiritual disciplines that I could find. But some books didn’t even mention fasting, and the ones that did tended to focus on the author’s own thoughts and experiences rather than diving into Scripture.
This article, then, is based on a simple Biblical word search for “fast.” Of course I had to scroll past all the references to “holding fast,” and I’m sure I missed key fasting passages that used phrases such as “refrained from eating and drinking” instead of the word “fast.” Still, I learned a lot more than I had in any of the books I’d read.
Biblical Fasting Themes
First, I looked at themes. The Bible is brimming with references to fasting, but why did they fast? Here are the primary fasting themes I discovered:
- Grief (I Samuel 31:13, II Samuel 1:12, 1 Chronicles 10:12, Nehemiah 1:4, Esther 4:3, Psalm 69:10, Matthew 9:14-15, Mark 2:18-20)
- Repentance (1 Samuel 7:6, Nehemiah 9:1-2, Jonah 3:5)
- Asking God for a specific favor (II Samuel 12:16-23, II Chronicles 20:1-12, Ezra 8:21-23, Esther 4:16, Psalm 35:13, Daniel 9:2-3,17)
- Worship (Luke 2:37, Acts 13:2-3)
- A way to hear from the Holy Spirit (II Chronicles 20:3, Acts 13:2-3)
Honestly, I didn’t find the themes I was expecting to find. Like, grief? Repentance? I’ve never heard of anyone today fasting out of grief or repentance. But it made me realize that fasting, at its core, is about deeply seeking God. If you think about when you most need God to be close to you, fasting in grief makes sense.
I was also struck by how many of the fasts—indeed, the majority—were corporate fasts rather than individual fasts. And maybe it’s just that corporate fasts were more likely to be recorded in the Bible than individual ones, I don’t know. I just found it interesting.
I’ve been involved in a few corporate fasts. Churches, Bible schools, missions, etc. will sometimes fast together to seek God’s guidance and promote spiritual growth and togetherness as a church.
But I’ve never, ever heard of a church or Christian organization fasting in corporate repentance. Why on earth not, though? Churches and Christian organizations screw up all the time. Sometimes in small ways, but sometimes in huge, awful ways that cause generational trauma. When such things are unearthed, shouldn’t true repentance involve calling a corporate fast? Shouldn’t it, at the very least, be on the table as an option?
I Samuel 7:6, Nehemiah 9:1-2, Jonah 3:5, Joel 1:14, and Joel 2:12-13 all reference fasting in repentance as a group. It’s true that we tend to perceive the Old Testament as being more concerned with group sin while the New Testament seems more concerned with individual sin. This could potentially explain the lack of corporate repentance in modern western Christianity. Yet in chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation, different churches are admonished for their sins, which shows that churchwide sin existed in New Testament times, and thus still exists today.
Like I said before, though, the fact that most fasts in the Bible are corporate fasts doesn’t mean that individual fasting was uncommon. Nor do the prevalence of grief and repentance themes mean that those were the primary reasons people fasted. I found many instances of people fasting because they wanted a specific favor from God. Hannah fasted because she wanted a son (I Samuel 1:7-11). David asked God to spare his son’s life (II Samuel 12:16-23). Ezra asked God for a safe journey (Ezra 8:21-23). Esther asked her people to fast before she went to the king, presumably asking for her life to be spared (Esther 4:16).
But when you ask God for a specific favor, even if you humble yourself with fasting, there’s a chance that God will not give you what you want. Unfortunately, many of the books about fasting state or imply that God will always give you the things that you ask for, or always give you some sort of specific, important blessing. This is not true. God doesn’t guarantee us anything except Himself. Both II Samuel 12:16-23 and Psalm 35:13 chronicle times when King David fasted and asked God for things, but his prayers were unanswered. Both times, David’s response was to worship or praise God (II Samuel 12:20; Psalm 35:18).
The How, When, and Why of Fasting
It took me a while to wrap my head around fasting. I definitely felt closeness and clarity while fasting that I rarely experienced otherwise. But I didn’t know how to describe the feeling, except that somehow physical hunger spurred me to feel hunger for God’s presence. And I didn’t know how it worked, or how, exactly, fasting is different from prayer.
My conclusion now, after studying the topic, is that fasting is a tangible way to show that you’re willing to sacrifice physical comfort for the sake of feeling that closeness and clarity.
It is vital to remember that the point of fasting is connection with God. If we miss the point, we can get caught up in questions like, “how often should I fast? How long should I fast for? How intense should my fast be?”
The Bible only mentions one person who fasted on some sort of regular schedule. This was the Pharisee in Luke 18:11-12, who prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” Jesus condemns this Pharisee for missing the point. We don’t fast to fulfill some spiritual quota, we do it to seek God. In some seasons of life, you will find yourself compelled to fast more often, and other seasons, less often.
Based on people in Scripture, you might choose to fast when facing important decisions or spiritual battles, when getting out of a spiritual rut, or in grief, repentance, or heaviness of heart. Basically, any situation where you are willing to sacrifice your desire for food in order to have that extra connection with God.
Of course, you are not the only person on the planet, and God created you to exist in community. As you go through these hard things, it’s important to seek help from people too. And if you struggle with mental health and find yourself obsessing about your prayer and fasting rituals, a doctor or therapist can help you learn to seek God in a healthy way. After all, we can’t ever “fix” ourselves with prayer and fasting. All we can do is humble ourselves and seek the face of God.
A Different Sort of Fast
The Bible gives many examples of people fasting, but it doesn’t give a lot of instruction on how to fast. However, there are a handful of instructional passages. Most famously, Jesus said in Matthew 6:16-18, “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
But I was far more fascinated by the instructional passages I found in Isaiah 58 and Zechariah 7, because they didn’t say what I expected them to say.
In Isaiah 58, the Israelites were desperately trying to seek God, but it wasn’t working. God didn’t seem to be noticing them or paying attention to them. “Why have we fasted, and you see it not?” the Isrealites asked in verse 3. “Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?”
God gave them a blunt answer. “Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high” (Isaiah 58:3-4).
Then, God told them that instead of abstaining from food, they should do a different sort of fast. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” This passage presents fasting in a completely different light. Instead of the sacrifice of food, what God desires most from us is the sacrifice of caring about and helping other people. Interestingly enough, this exact theme shows up again in Zechariah 7.
For context, Zechariah 7 took place after the Jewish people had been in exile for many years. Since the conquest of Jerusalem was a sorrowful event for the people, they commemorated it with group fasts on specific days of the year. But eventually the people wanted to know, “Should I weep and abstain in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?” (Zechariah 7:3).
God responded by telling them that for 70 years, they hadn’t been fasting for him, they’d been fasting for themselves (Zechariah 7:4-6). Then, God told them what kind of fast he’d like to see, and it sounds almost exactly like what we heard in Isaiah 58. “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart” (Zechariah 7:9-10).
God wants us to care about justice, mercy, freeing the oppressed, and feeding the hungry. To really care, to the point that it’s a sacrifice, the way fasting is.
Unfortunately, while some of us have the power to influence or change the system, many of us feel overwhelmed and powerless when we look at the injustice that surrounds us. Police brutality? Homelessness? My heart aches, but how could I possibly fix it?
But before we worry about fixing it, we need to remember that we all have the power to listen to the oppressed. Look around you, in your own community. Who is being left out? Who is being gossipped about? Who is struggling financially? Who doesn’t fit in? Who doesn’t have a voice? These are the people that you should be reaching out to, hearing their perspective. These are the people you should speak up about and defend.
And often, these are the people who can give the best insights into how to fix the problems they face.
I’m not just talking about, say, homeless people here. I’m talking about people in your own church, the “weirdos” who get gossipped about. It’s uncomfortable, because when they talk about the way church has hurt them, they’ll be talking about things you participated in. And if you speak up to defend them, or to halt gossip about them, you’ll be speaking up to your friends and family.
In some ways, speaking up on a personal level like this can seem even harder than fighting for justice on a large scale. We care about what our friends think of us. But there’s a reason why God equates this kind of thing to fasting. It’s hard. It’s a sacrifice. We won’t necessarily be good at it at first. But it’s what the Lord requires of us (Micah 6:8).
Fasting from food is an important spiritual discipline practiced throughout human history. We should incorporate it into our lives, specifically during difficult times when we’re desperate to draw close to God. But never forget the heart of fasting. The sacrifice God desires most from us is not the sacrifice of food, but rather the sacrifice of caring about justice and extending mercy to the oppressed.
When Emily Smucker decided to spend a year traveling around the United States, living in a different Mennonite community every month, the world seemed exciting and limitless. She was ready to find her place in the world and begin her career as a freelance writer and editor. Follow Emily’s story as she embarks on the road trip of a lifetime, haphazardly finding her way through community after community in an attempt to figure out where she truly belongs.