The Spiritual Disciplines: Fasting

By Peter Amsterdam

March 18, 2014

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The Spiritual Discipline of fasting is a tough one for a lot of people. Like many of us, I had fasted a few times, but it was many years, even decades, ago. I haven’t been so keen on fasting, but after studying about it last year, I decided to try it again, and I’m glad I did. During the past year I’ve generally fasted one day a week, and I did one three-day fast as well. I’m no expert, but I’m very happy I’m learning about it and experiencing it, as I’ve found it to be spiritually fulfilling.

The fasting covered in this article will be limited to the fasting of food as spoken of in the Bible. This principle of fasting can be applied to abstinence from things other than food—such as television and other entertainment, recreational Internet browsing, social media, alcohol consumption, or talking—for the purpose of focusing on spiritual matters. However, the focus of this article is abstaining from food.

Throughout both the Old and New Testaments, and in Christianity in general for many centuries, fasting was fairly common. The Bible records types of fasting which differ from one another based on the food or water intake.

Types of Fasting

A normal fast refers to a fast in which a person abstains from all food but not water. It is likely that when Jesus fasted for forty days just prior to the beginning of His ministry, He abstained from food but not water. Luke tells us: He ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, He was hungry.[1]Matthew wrote: And after fasting forty days and forty nights, He was hungry.[2] In neither case does it mention Jesus being thirsty, but it does say that He ate nothing. Since the human body can normally function no more than three days without water, we assume that He drank water during this time.[3]

A partial fast refers to when some types of food are not eaten, similar to how Daniel and his three companions asked the chief official to “Test your servants for ten days; let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink.”[4] By this definition John the Baptist also adhered to a partial fast, as he limited what he ate. His food was locusts and wild honey.[5] Throughout Christian history, believers devoted themselves to partial fasts by eating much smaller amounts of food, or eating only simple foods.

There are instances of what are called absolute fasts during which neither food nor water is taken. Esther petitioned the Jews throughout Susa to hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day.[6] Saul, who later was known as the apostle Paul, also observed an absolute fast after his encounter with the risen Christ.

For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.[7]

The Bible also speaks about two supernatural fasts. Author Donald Whitney explains:

There are two instances of these. When Moses wrote of his meeting with God on Mount Sinai, he said, “I stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights; I ate no bread and drank no water” (Deuteronomy 9:9). 1 Kings 19:8 may be saying that Elijah did the same thing when he went to the site of Moses’ miraculous fast: “So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he travelled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.” These required God’s supernatural intervention into the bodily processes and are not repeatable apart from the Lord’s specific calling and miraculous provision.[8]

While there are Christians today who have fasted for forty days, these would have been normal fasts, meaning that liquids were drunk, as opposed to the supernatural fast of Moses and possibly Elijah.

Scripture also speaks of congregational fasts[9] in which believers fast together for a specific purpose, and national fasts[10] in which a whole country or people fast. In this article, we will focus on private fasts by individuals, the ones which Jesus referred to when He said:

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.[11]

For the most part, those practicing the Spiritual Discipline of fasting today fast from food but not water (normal fast), and many of those do it alone without others knowing about it (private fast).

There is no explicit command in the New Testament that Christians must fast; it is not a specified requirement. Jesus did, however, refer to fasting in a way that showed an expectation that believers would do it. In the verse quoted earlier, Jesus says: When you fast, do not look gloomy, and, When you fast, do so in secret. He used similar language when speaking of prayer:

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. But when you pray … pray to your Father who is in secret. And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do …”[12]

The same language was used when He spoke about giving:

Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing …”[13]

Using the phrase “when you” assumes that you do it sometimes.

Richard Foster expressed it this way:

It is as if there is an almost unconscious assumption that giving, praying, and fasting are all part of Christian devotion. We have no more reason to exclude fasting from the teaching [of Jesus] than we do giving or praying … Having said this, however, we must realize that these words do not constitute a command. Jesus was giving instruction on the proper exercise of a common practice of His day. He did not speak a word about whether it was a right practice or if it should be continued. So although Jesus does not say, “If you fast,” neither does He say “You must fast.” His word is, very simply, “When you fast.”[14]

When Jesus was asked by the disciples of John the Baptist why Jesus’ disciples didn’t fast, while they and the Pharisees did, He responded by saying:

“Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”[15]

While Jesus was with them, it was a time of feasting, not fasting.[16] The time, however, was coming when He would be taken away, and then His disciples would fast. While we don’t read of His disciples fasting when He was with them, we do hear of the early church fasting after His ascension.[17]

It’s interesting to note that when Jesus spoke about giving to the needy in secret, about praying in secret, and about fasting in secret, a promise of reward was given.

When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.[18] But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.[19] 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.[20]

While fasting isn’t a command in the New Testament, it is a Spiritual Discipline available to those who wish to use it in their desire to be like Jesus, to grow in godliness. As with all the Spiritual Disciplines, fasting isn’t a means to gain merit or earn favor with God. We don’t fast in order to impress Him or so that we will get our way in some matter we desire, nor to gain His acceptance. God’s love and acceptance have already been given to us through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.

Donald Whitney gave examples of different situations within the Old Testament showing when and why it may be beneficial to fast, which I’ve summarized.

To Strengthen Prayer

As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.[21]

Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking Him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.[22]

So we fasted and implored our God for this, and He listened to our entreaty.[23]

Arthur Wallis wrote in his book God’s Chosen Fast:

Fasting is calculated to bring a note of urgency and importunity into our praying, and to give force to our pleading in the court of heaven. The man who prays with fasting is giving heaven notice that he is truly in earnest…. Not only so, but he is expressing his earnestness in a divinely appointed way. He is using a means that God has chosen to make his voice be heard on high.[24]

When Seeking God’s Guidance

Fasting can be helpful when seeking God’s will in decisions, when asking for His guidance. We see an example of the children of Israel seeking the Lord with fasting and prayer when seeking His will as to whether to continue fighting after suffering devastating losses two days in a row.

Then all the people of Israel, the whole army, went up and came to Bethel and wept. They sat there before the LORD and fasted that day until evening, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the LORD. And the people of Israel inquired of the LORD … saying, “Shall we go out once more to battle against our brothers, the people of Benjamin, or shall we cease?” And the LORD said, “Go up, for tomorrow I will give them into your hand.”[25]

In Times of Grief

There are a number of biblical examples of fasting and prayer as a response to grief over someone’s death.[26] Fasting can also be a response to grief and remorse over sin, as it can communicate our sorrow for sinning against the Lord. Fasting doesn’t bring forgiveness of sin, as forgiveness is a gift given to us through salvation. However, we are told to confess our sins to the Lord. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.[27] Fasting doesn’t make us more worthy of forgiveness, but it can communicate the grief and confessions our words may not be able to.[28]

When Seeking Deliverance or Protection

Throughout the Old Testament there are examples of people fasting along with praying when in need of protection and deliverance. A number of these instances were congregational or national fasts, whereby those in danger fasted together, beseeching the Lord for protection.

Some men came and told Jehoshaphat, “A great multitude is coming against you from Edom, from beyond the sea; and, behold, they are in Hazazon-tamar” (that is, Engedi). Then Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. And Judah assembled to seek help from the LORD; from all the cities of Judah they came to seek the LORD.[29]

Then I [Ezra] proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from Him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods. For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king, “The hand of our God is for good on all who seek Him, and the power of His wrath is against all who forsake Him.” So we fasted and implored our God for this, and He listened to our entreaty.[30]

Another example includes Esther asking the Jews in Susa to fast and pray before she risked death by going to see the king unannounced.[31]

We also see an instance where King David fasted and prayed because people were speaking hatefully against him and making accusations. He apparently fasted for some time, as he says his body had become gaunt and he was weak through fasting.

O GOD my Lord, deal on my behalf for Your name’s sake; because Your steadfast love is good, deliver me! For I am poor and needy, and my heart is stricken within me. My knees are weak through fasting; my body has become gaunt, with no fat.[32]

When you are being gossiped about, falsely accused, spoken against, or persecuted for your faith, you can go to the Lord in prayer and fasting for protection and deliverance.

To Humble Yourself Before God

Fasting can be a physical expression of humility before the Lord. David said in Psalms: I put on sackcloth and humbled myself with fasting.[33] We’re not able to make ourselves humble; however, fasting expresses to the Lord that we are dependent on Him and weak without Him. When you fast, you realize how quickly the lack of food affects you. We often feel strong and self-sufficient, so it can be quite humbling to realize how fragile we actually are.

To Overcome Temptation and Dedicate Yourself to the Lord

There may be times when we are struggling with temptation and we need extra strength to overcome it. Or perhaps we have some besetting sin that we can’t seem to overcome. We may be faced with making a decision that will bring benefits into our life, but might put us in a position where we can give less time to the Lord or will be put in temptation’s way. It’s at times like these that fasting can help us overcome temptation or renew our dedication to the Lord. At the beginning of His ministry, Jesus fasted, and during that time He overcame all the temptations He was faced with. Because He did, He received God’s power.[34]

To Express Love and Worship to God

Fasting can be done for the purpose of devotion to God, as an expression of our love for Him, thankfulness for all He’s done for us, and as an act of worship and praise. It can be done to show God that He is more important to you than eating, that you are willing to set aside the pleasure and even need for food for a time in order to focus on Him, that you are nourished by being in His presence.

When You Fast …

As mentioned earlier, there is no explicit command to fast; fasting is a private matter between you and the Lord. The act of fasting doesn’t gain you any extra merit; it isn’t meant to be a bargaining chip with God or a guarantee that He is going to answer your prayers. However, like the other Spiritual Disciplines, it puts you in a position to receive from God.

If you choose to fast, you should consider beginning by fasting one meal or maybe two. It may be best to not start by trying a fast for three or more days. One way to start is to begin by fasting lunch, and then the next time by fasting both lunch and dinner. This way you go into the fast having just eaten, and you end it with breakfast the next morning, which means you are fasting for about twenty-four hours. In time, you can move to beginning your fast after dinner and fasting breakfast, lunch, and dinner the next day, and breaking the fast with breakfast the following morning. This is a thirty-six-hour fast. For someone choosing to fast on a regular basis, this could work well. There are, of course, various options of how to fast, how to start, and how to build up to it, so if you choose to fast you can experiment to see which one works best for you.

Longer fasts of three, five, ten or more days require more knowledge regarding what to expect, how to keep hydrated, and how to break the fast without damaging your body. If you consider a longer fast, there are some websites listed at the end of this article that have important information which you should read and follow. If you are diabetic, have a health condition that is affected by your diet, are pregnant or nursing, ill, frail, or recovering from illness, or have any other health problem, you probably shouldn’t fast; and if you wish to, you should check with a doctor first. Also, check with a doctor before considering a fast if you are taking strong medicines. If you have any health concerns whatsoever, consult your doctor as to whether it’s safe for you to fast. Children shouldn’t fast meals, though they may want to give up eating desserts or sweets for a time.

It may not be possible for you to fast a number of consecutive meals due to your work, your health, or caring for your family. If that’s the case, another option would be to fast one meal, and perhaps use the time you’d normally spend eating that meal to pray or read, or maybe witness. Another possibility is that if you regularly eat out at work, or if you dine out fairly regularly, you could consider fasting one meal a week and donating the money saved to someone in need.

Fasting might seem to be a big step to take; it did to me. I can say, though, from my experience that I am glad I took the step, as I feel that I’ve benefited from practicing this Spiritual Discipline. I can’t necessarily say my fasting has resulted in a specific blessing or reward that has come to me because of fasting, but that’s not the reason to fast. I don’t fast because I want something from the Lord. I fast because I love Him and this is one way of expressing that love and that He comes first in my life. Any spiritual blessings or results are a side effect and completely in the Lord’s hands. When I fast, or practice any of the Spiritual Disciplines, I’m committing to live in accordance with God’s Word and nature. My desire is to do what I can to be more like Jesus, to have a close relationship with God, to endeavor to live my life in alignment with His will. I find that fulfilling and rewarding in itself. I’ll end with a quote from Donald Whitney which expresses what I have experienced since beginning to fast.

Like all the Spiritual Disciplines, fasting hoists the sail of the soul in hopes of experiencing the gracious wind of God’s Spirit. But fasting also adds a unique dimension to your spiritual life and helps you grow in Christlikeness.[35]

Websites that have information about the physical aspects of fasting and breaking a fast:


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[1] Luke 4:2.

[2] Matthew 4:2.

[3] Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1991), 161.

[4] Daniel 1:12.

[5] Matthew 3:4.

[6] Esther 4:16.

[7] Acts 9:9.

[8] Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines, 162.

[9] Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber (Joel 2:15–16).

[10] Then Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. And Judah assembled to seek help from the LORD; from all the cities of Judah they came to seek the LORD (2 Chronicles 20:3–4). See also Nehemiah 9:1, Esther 4:16, and Jonah 3:5–8.

[11] Matthew 6:17–18.

[12] Matthew 6:5–7.

[13] Matthew 6:2–3.

[14] Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline (New York: HarperOne, 1998), 52–53.

[15] Matthew  9:15.

[16] Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 53.

[17] While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off (Acts 13:2–3).

When they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed (Acts 14:23).

[18] Matthew 6:3–4.

[19] Matthew 6:6.

[20] Matthew 6:17–18.

[21] Nehemiah 1:4.

[22] Daniel 9:3.

[23] Ezra 8:23.

[24] Arthur Wallis, God’s Chosen Fast (Fort Washington, PA: Christian Literature Crusade, 1968), 42, as quoted in Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1991), 166.

[25] Judges 20:26–28.

[26] 1 Samuel 31:12–13; 2 Samuel 1:11–12; Judges 20:25–26.

[27] 1 John 1:9.

[28] Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines, 169.

[29] 2 Chronicles 20:2–4.

[30] Ezra 8:21–23.

[31] Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish (Esther 4:16).

[32] Psalm 109:21–22, 24.

[33] Psalm 35:13 NIV.

[34] Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines, 175.

[35] Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines, 180.


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