A Question I Was Asked:

Can You Give Us Some Guidelines on Fasting?

The Question:

What about fasting? Can you give us some guidelines?

UK Apologetics Reply:

Despite what a few appear to think, Scripture does not actually command Christians to fast. It is not required nor demanded of Christians. However, the Bible does present fasting as something that may be good, profitable, and beneficial.

But what is "fasting"? Fasting is to go without food, or to go without certain meals (such as dinner), for a period of time in order to spend more time having a more spiritual focus, that is, drawing closer to God. At once let me state that fasting should not mean going without water or drinks, and to do so can be very dangerous for certain people, especially those suffering from diabetes and from certain other illnesses. In addition, certain sick people must take medication at regular intervals much of which cannot be taken on an empty stomach. So my first point here is that fasting, especially if it is quite a tough fast, is generally not for the sick but for the healthy.

Is Fasting for Christians Today?

(The following are some of Wayne Jackson's comments on fasting)

What does the Bible teach about fasting? Is it for Christians today? Fasting, in the biblical sense, is the abstaining from food and drink for a spiritual reason. In the Old Testament era, the Jews fasted frequently, though there was only one fast prescribed by the law. Once each year, on the Day of Atonement, the Hebrews were to "afflict" their souls (Leviticus 16:31), which meant fasting (cf. Isaiah 58:3).

Though there are no compulsory fasts required of Christians today, the New Testament seems to take for granted that children of God would see the need to fast occasionally. When the Lord's disciples were criticized for not fasting, Jesus responded by suggesting that it was hardly appropriate for them to fast while he was yet with them. The time would come, however, when he would be taken away from them; then they would fast (Luke 5:35).

Fasting, for the Christian, is strictly a voluntary matter. It should arise out of a feeling of intense need, not as a result of mere formality.
When, then, might fasting be of value?

(1) Fasting may be beneficial in times of personal sorrow. David and his men mourned and fasted upon hearing of the death of Saul (2 Samuel 1:12), and Nehemiah did similarly when he was informed of Jerusalem's decimated condition (Nehemiah 1:4). Fasting and prayer would certainly seem to be fitting when a loved one is critically ill (2 Samuel 12:16).
(2) Fasting frequently accompanied repentance as an outward and genuine indication of contrition for spiritual rebellion (1 Samuel 7:6). The people of Nineveh proclaimed a fast when brought to a recognition of their sins (Jonah 3:5).
(3) Fasting was practiced in connection with great and important religious events. Moses fasted during that period when he was receiving the law (Exodus 34:28). Christ fasted prior to his encounter with Satan in the wilderness (Matthew 4:2). The church fasted before sending Barnabas and Saul on that perilous first missionary campaign (Acts 13:2-3). Fasting was certainly a component in the dynamic ministry of Paul (2 Corinthians 6:5; 11:27).

Admittedly, however, fasting can be abused. The practice must never be employed as a substitute for personal godly living. Isaiah delivered a blistering rebuke to those who fasted, then pursued their own worldly pleasures (Isaiah 58). Moreover, fasting must not be an occasion for the flaunting of one's religion. The Pharisees were guilty of this very thing (Matthew 6:16-18).
Finally, the rigors of fasting must not be allowed to ignite a spirit of religious smugness and self-righteousness.

Jesus was asked about fasting:

Then John's disciples came and asked him, "How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?"

Jesus answered, "How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast." (Matthew 9:14-15).

However, Jesus also criticised the Pharisees' general attitude toward fasting:

"When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." (Matthew 6:16-18).

The book of Acts records believers fasting before making important decisions (Acts 13:2; 14:23). Indeed, fasting and prayer are often linked together (Luke 2:37; 5:33). The focus of fasting should not be on the lack of food, rather, the purpose of fasting should be to take one's eyes off the things of this world and to focus completely on God. Fasting is a way to demonstrate to God, and to ourselves, that we are serious about our relationship with Him. Fasting can help us gain a new and refreshed perspective and a renewed reliance upon God. 1 Corinthians 7:5 shows that a period of fasting and prayer could also involve abstention from sexual intercourse (where it might otherwise occur). However the New Testament lays down no rules for this.

Fasting should always be limited to a set period of time, especially when fasting from food (rather than simply certain meals). Extended periods of time without eating can be very harmful to the body. Fasting is not intended to punish the flesh, but to redirect attention to God. Yes, certain fasts in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, could well have involved no food or water, however, the average human body is not necessarily as strong today as in those former times and, frankly, for 'soft' westeners such a practice could be very dangerous! So, in my considered opinion, do not attempt to deny your body fluids during any fasting period, especially if living in a hot, dry climate.

By taking our eyes off the things of this world, we can more successfully turn our attention to Christ. But fasting is not a way to get God to do what we want. Fasting changes us, not God. Fasting also is not a way to appear more spiritual than others. Fasting is to be done in a spirit of humility and a joyful attitude. If you are having a fast day, don't talk about it; God alone knows and He is the only one who needs to know. However, if married, a spouse will also need to know to prevent unrequired food preparation and so on. Perhaps, just on rare occasions, an experienced pastor might just suggest a fast as helpful to a person's spiritual problems but he should be very cautious especially if perhaps he himself is unable to fast for health reasons.

Be Careful of Extremism and Legalism

In Isaiah 58:3-9 the people asked "Why have we fasted, and you see it not?", and the answer is given: "Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high." Again in Jeremiah 14:12, the Lord said: "though they fast, I will not hear their cry." Here the Lord's people had turned to wickedness and the prophet was asked to refrain even from praying for them. In Zechariah 7:5, the people's fasting was lost because of wickedness. Thus, fasting is not a substitute for righteousness. Sadly, those who discuss fasting just a bit too much do often come across as being a little self-righteous.

Some religious groups have set aside seasons and days when their followers are expected to refrain from eating or are to abstain from certain foods. Be very wary of any Christian group which has imposed certain fasting days, or practices upon a congregation. The New Testament must always be our guide, not some extremist leader who thinks that he or she knows better!

Perhaps many Christians today would do well to consider fasting as an occasional means of drawing closer to God, or gaining spiritual strength. It is not a command, it is a privilege. In times of great stress it is a way of communicating with the Lord, and if it is sincere and dedicated to God, it will be regarded by him. (Matthew 6:18). However, once again, if there are particular health problems one should approach any fast with extreme caution.

Robin A. Brace. March 17th, 2014.