What Fasting Does For Us
Faith needs prayer for its development and full growth, and prayer needs fasting for the same reason. Fasting has done wonders when used in combination with prayer and faith.
When the disciples were confronted with the lunatic boy and were unable to deliver him from the afflicting spirit, Jesus, after commenting on their unbelief, goes on to say:
17:21 Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.
Just as the spiritual armor of God is delineated in Ephesians 6, and followed with an injunction to pray always, even so fasting can be seen in many areas of scripture as a supportive arm to prayer.
Examples of Times to Fast
The original law of God required one fast per year for the people of Israel. This is recorded in Leviticus 23:27-32 as part of the day of atonement in which the people were to afflict their souls.
23:26 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
23:27 Also on the tenth day of this seventh month there shall be a day of atonement: it shall be an holy convocation unto you; and ye shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire unto the LORD.
23:28 And ye shall do no work in that same day: for it is a day of atonement, to make an atonement for you before the LORD your God.
23:29 For whatsoever soul it be that shall not be afflicted in that same day, he shall be cut off from among his people.
23:30 And whatsoever soul it be that doeth any work in that same day, the same soul will I destroy from among his people.
23:31 Ye shall do no manner of work: it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations in all your dwellings.
23:32 It shall be unto you a sabbath of rest, and ye shall afflict your souls: in the ninth day of the month at even, from even unto even, shall ye celebrate your sabbath.
By the time of Zechariah - approximately 1,200 years after the giving of the law, the required fasts had been increased by four per year.
Zechariah 7:5-6, 8:19
7:5 Speak unto all the people of the land, and to the priests, saying, When ye fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh month, even those seventy years, did ye at all fast unto me, even to me?
7:6 And when ye did eat, and when ye did drink, did not ye eat for yourselves, and drink for yourselves?
8:19 Thus saith the LORD of hosts; The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be to the house of Judah joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts; therefore love the truth and peace.
God was not pleased with the people because they had lost their focus on God when fasting. The fast of the fourth month was to commemorate the breaking up of the city of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar. The fast in the fifth month was commemorating the destruction of the temple and houses of Jerusalem. The fast in the seventh month was commemorating the murder of Gedaliah by Ishmael. The last fast in the tenth month commemorated the day in which the king of Babylon besieged Jerusalem. All of these extra fasts had to do with recording historical disasters as a time of mourning the past problems rather than blessing God and putting the body into submission to the desire for food which caused the original sin. God goes on to say that these fasts would become feasts to God when Jerusalem is restored - not a term we usually associate with fasting. Yet denying the body that which caused sin surely gladdens the heart of God.
By Christ's time, some 500 years after that, Christ had these comments on the Pharisee who stood in the view of all praying and counting his supposed blessings:
18:9 And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:
18:10 Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.
18:11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.
18:12 I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.
18:13 And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.
18:14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
This was a parable, and Christ may have exaggerated the number of fasts for greater effect compared to the true number the Pharisee would be expected to perform. But I am sure that whatever number he gave was not so far out of line that the people had an excuse to reject the similarity with what they saw going on around them. If the description Christ gave was correct, the Pharisee described would be fasting at least 104 times per year - and we don't know if this was in addition to the other mandated fasts of the period, or if he counted those times as among his two days per week. It points to dangers of fasting for the wrong reasons - to be seen of men - or out of a sense of duty.
Although the ceremonial fasts have ceased to be a part of the Christian world today - which is probably a good thing, fasting was also done at many other times in the Old Testament and New Testament to meet particular needs or situations. We will look at several of these as part of this study. Although the exact circumstances in which these people fasted will probably not be duplicated in us, hopefully we can see some of the same principles they operated on and apply these to our own situations that come up in our age.
Fasting when being chastened by God
2 Samuel 12:16, 21-23
12:16 David therefore besought God for the child; and David fasted, and went in, and lay all night upon the earth.
12:21 Then said his servants unto him, What thing is this that thou hast done? thou didst fast and weep for the child, while it was alive; but when the child was dead, thou didst rise and eat bread.
12:22 And he said, While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept: for I said, Who can tell whether GOD will be gracious to me, that the child may live?
12:23 But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.
When David had sinned with Bathsheba, and God sent illness on the child of the union as punishment, David fasted on behalf of the child for his error, but it was in vain. When the child dies, the servants are afraid to come to him to tell him due to the great mourning and distress he was clearly under in this case. The fast was broken on the death of the child since there was no longer any reason to fast.
Fasting for a particular need
8:21 Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river of Ahava, that we might afflict ourselves before our God, to seek of him a right way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance.
8:22 For I was ashamed to require of the king a band of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy in the way: because we had spoken unto the king, saying, The hand of our God is upon all them for good that seek him; but his power and his wrath is against all them that forsake him.
8:23 So we fasted and besought our God for this: and he was intreated of us.
When Ezra was preparing to return to Jerusalem with his group to rebuild, he had to make a decision as to whether to go to the king to whom he had preached God's mighty power and ask for soldiers to protect his people on the trip back or have faith in God's hand. He proclaimed a fast to seek favor and direction from the Lord both for the leaders and the people in this momentous journey.
4:1 Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.
4:2 And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred.
I put Christ's 40 day fast in this category, although there was an element of seeking direction and guidance as well - He was led of the spirit to the wilderness to be tested. During this time of testing He chose to fast for spiritual strength against the forces of the enemy. His hunger left after a short time, and it wasn't until after the 40 day time when hunger came back (which is the real point of danger of bodily damage for a healthy person) when Satan began to tempt Him.
There are many fasts of unknown length recorded, but it is believed that the four 40 days fasts of Moses, Joshua, Elijah and Jesus are certainly among the longest in the Bible. Each of these men, and Christ in his humanity on earth, were blessed for their fasts, and were great leaders or prophets. Each of us must weigh the effect of their obedience in fasting and the results in their lives.
Fasting in times of mourning
2 Samuel 1:12
2:12 And they mourned, and wept, and fasted until even, for Saul, and for Jonathan his son, and for the people of the LORD, and for the house of Israel; because they were fallen by the sword.
When word came back to David concerning the death of Saul and Jonathan at the hand of the Amalekite, there was mourning and weeping for a short time (until evening).
1 Chronicles 10:12
10:12 They arose, all the valiant men, and took away the body of Saul, and the bodies of his sons, and brought them to Jabesh, and buried their bones under the oak in Jabesh, and fasted seven days.
When the men of Jabeshgilead heard of Saul's death, they took the body away and fasted seven days, due to their close feelings toward Saul from his help to them at the start of his reign (1 Sam. 11:1-5).
Fasting for direction and guidance
14:23 And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.
When ordaining elders, the people prayed and fasted that the choices they would make would be acceptable to God.
Fasting when in danger or trouble
There were probably more fasts prepared for times of danger and to atone for sin than anything else in the Bible. Usually, they were one in the same - they had sinned, come under judgment or were otherwise in danger, and were fasting as part of the process of getting right with God again.
The first example, falls more strictly under the case of danger (although they were subject to a foreign power at this time.) In this example from Esther's time, Haman plots to kill all of the Jews. When Mordecai and the Jews hear of this, there was much fasting. When Esther decided to approach the king, she asked the people to fast for her that she would obtain favor of the king.
Esther 4:3, 16
4:3 And in every province, whithersoever the king's commandment and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, and fasting, and weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ashes.
4:16 Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day: I also and my maidens will fast likewise; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law: and if I perish, I perish.
20:26 Then all the children of Israel, and all the people, went up, and came unto the house of God, and wept, and sat there before the LORD, and fasted that day until even, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the LORD.
In this passage, the tribes of Israel had gone to war trusting in their own numbers and the rightness of their cause against the tribe of Benjamin. Benjamin had trounced them the first two times, so Israel prayed and fasted for the arm of God to go with them. After this period of fasting and seeking God, the tribe of Benjamin was almost totally destroyed in the next battle.
Fasting to atone for sin or when under judgment
The Israelites had been under the hand of the Philistines for 20 years due to their sin and idol worship.
1 Samuel 7:4-6
7:4 Then the children of Israel did put away Baalim and Ashtaroth, and served the LORD only.
7:5 And Samuel said, Gather all Israel to Mizpeh, and I will pray for you unto the LORD.
7:6 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. And Samuel judged the children of Israel in Mizpeh.
As a result of their turning from sin, God allowed the Israelites to gain a great victory over the Philistines.
Fasts used for evil
1 Kings 21:9, 12, 27
21:9 And she wrote in the letters, saying, Proclaim a fast, and set Naboth on high among the people:
21:12 They proclaimed a fast, and set Naboth on high among the people.
21:27 And it came to pass, when Ahab heard those words, that he rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth, and went softly.
Jezebel was, to put it mildly, a pretty good schemer and not a very nice person. Ahab wanted a vineyard, but the owner (Naboth) wouldn't sell it to the governor of Israel. Jezebel was incensed that he wouldn't sell, and gave the command to make a fast and set Naboth up as a very exalted person. Then accuse him of blasphemy against God and Ahab and stone him. The plot succeeded, and Ahab gets the vineyard. When Ahab is confronted by the scheme and denounced by Elijah, he repents and fasts. God allows his kingdom to continue until his death at which time the destruction foretold by Elijah would come to pass.
Things not to do When Fasting
58:3 Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not? wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge? Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact all your labours.
58:4 Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness: ye shall not fast as ye do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high.
58:5 Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD?
- These verses from Isaiah present some major things not to do when fasting. First is complaining - whether to God or to men about the fast. Saying things like - Here I am fasting, and you don't see what I am going through any better now than when I wasn't fasting would be an example of this.
- Fasting to attract God's blessing or notice rather than simply as a submission and castigation of self.
- Doing pleasureful things or working during the fast.
- Having a spirit of contention, strife, or debate while fasting.
- Acting in any way during the fast to bring attention to the state you are in by those around you - whether by bowing your head as a bulrush, wearing sackcloth, or disfiguring the countenance with ashes. This is echoed again in Matthew's Gospel.
6:16 Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
Fasting at inappropriate times is also something to avoid. I don't have good examples of the equivalent to the times of Christ to equate this to, however it was clear from Christ's teaching that at least when He was present with the body, there were more important things to do than fast continually. Each person must follow the Spirit's leading in your own situation of your life in this area.
5:33 And they said unto him, Why do the disciples of John fast often, and make prayers, and likewise the disciples of the Pharisees; but thine eat and drink?
5:34 And he said unto them, Can ye make the children of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them?
5:35 But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days.
Things to do When Fasting
Matthew 6:17 But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face;
6:18 That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.
This is one of many times in this chapter that God is said to see the secret things we do to reward openly our actions. The counterpoint, presented in the next section, is that doing things openly to be seen of men has its own reward in what men think of us.
58:6 Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?
58:7 Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?
58:8 Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy rereward.
58:9 Then shalt thou call, and the LORD shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am. If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity;
58:10 And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noonday:
58:11 And the LORD shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.
58:12 And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in.
58:13 If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the LORD, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words:
58:14 Then shalt thou delight thyself in the LORD; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.
Going down through these verses, there is quite a list of things that are listed which are elements of a true fast which is acceptable to God.
- Be especially watchful that wickedness has no place in us during the time.
- We should lighten other peoples burdens when possible.
- We should set the oppressed free - what could they be in today's society - perhaps strained friendships which need mended, perhaps consider helping with things that are severely weighing on peoples hearts, perhaps praying for healing for those physically afflicted, et cetera.
- Breaking the yokes we are bound by when these are not of God. Whether they come from tradition or necessity, whether they seemed to us to be good or bad when we took them on, we need to be freed of them to function well.
- One of the key things mentioned here which we usually miss during times of fasting is to provide food to those who are hungry during this time. Give what you would normally eat to another, and then some.
- House the poor, provide clothes for those without.
- Don't cover up your own faults.
- Call on the Lord.
Blessings of a True Fast
Also from the section in Isaiah can be found many blessings that come from a true fast.
- God's Light will shine through us - we will be as the candle on the candlestick, lighting the whole room rather than one stuffed in a corner or under a bushel basket, where it can do no good.
- We will have better health.
- The righteousness of our actions will be demonstrated to the enemy, with the glory of God coming behind us.
- When we call upon or cry unto the Lord, He will hear us.
- The Lord will guide us and direct us. He will make our paths sure.
- The Lord will provide water to our parched and thirsting souls and will provide fat on our bones. Indeed, we are promised that we will be like well watered gardens with unfailing sources of water from on high. The Holy Spirit will dwell with us and refresh our spirits in times of troubles.
- The things that lie in waste around us will be repaired - whether these are physical or spiritual, emotional or mental, God promises to help in our endeavors to repair the breaches. The blessings which God had withheld from previous generations will be poured out on this people as it should have been before.
In addition, God's heart can be changed by true repentance and mourning. When Jonah finally went to Nineveh to preach to the people and to warn them of their impending destruction, the people heard his message and repented. The fasted as part of this mourning for their sin.
3:5 So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them.
God accepted the change in their lives they made, honoured their remorse, mourning and fasting, and repented of the evil He had planned for them. Things like this are probably among the most direct and obvious immediate results of a fast. Prophesied destruction does not come to pass.
Likewise, angels have appeared and the Holy Ghost has moved as the partial result of fasting of the people. After Peter had had the vision of the sheet of clean and unclean animals which let him know that the Gentiles were part of God's plan, an angel was sent to Cornelius (a Gentile) telling him to call for Peter. This was after Cornelius had been fasting.
10:30 And Cornelius said, Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and, behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing,
10:31 And said, Cornelius, thy prayer is heard, and thine alms are had in remembrance in the sight of God.
Likewise, in the early church, fasting was done in times of need of direction, and a direct blessing of the fast was that God did in fact give direction when needed. An example is the initial calling of Barnabas and Saul into the work of missionaries.
13:2 As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.
13:3 And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.
Advice on Fasting
When Paul was on the boat with the sailors and the storm beset them, Paul and the men fasted. After 14 days, Paul prayed that the men would break their fast and take some meat for their health's sake. We must always be cognizant of the state of people's health and not ask others to fast where damage to their health is an issue. Sometimes we cannot know this on our own and the people may not even realize it, so we must be ever mindful of the promptings of the Spirit in this matter, even as Paul was.
27:33 And while the day was coming on, Paul besought them all to take meat, saying, This day is the fourteenth day that ye have tarried and continued fasting, having taken nothing.
27:34 Wherefore I pray you to take some meat: for this is for your health: for there shall not an hair fall from the head of any of you.
27:35 And when he had thus spoken, he took bread, and gave thanks to God in presence of them all: and when he had broken it, he began to eat.
Likewise, we must be aware of the conditions of people who are fasting. When Christ had had multitudes of people following Him, who were fasting by virtue of not having brought food with them and having no place to purchase it, he had compassion on them and found a way to meet their need so their health would not fail on the way home. Four thousand were fed here in the miracle of the seven loaves and a few small fish.
8:3 And if I send them away fasting to their own houses, they will faint by the way: for divers of them came from far.
Finally, I don't personally believe that there are any fasts in the Bible which were partial. Many refer to the fast of Daniel as an exception. Here, he lists some foods he avoided.
10:1 In the third year of Cyrus king of Persia a thing was revealed unto Daniel, whose name was called Belteshazzar; and the thing was true, but the time appointed was long: and he understood the thing, and had understanding of the vision.
10:2 In those days I Daniel was mourning three full weeks.
10:3 I ate no pleasant bread, neither came flesh nor wine in my mouth, neither did I anoint myself at all, till three whole weeks were fulfilled.
I personally believe that when Daniel is declaring in his fast that he didn't eat certain foods, he is just making general categories and that his fast then was total. Since there is no other record in the history of the Bible concerning a partial fast, I don't believe he would have had any precedent in his history to do anything but make a total fast either. Yet the whole of the rest of his book deals with images and visions, and I feel that this visual characteristic of his was also applied as he recorded his fast. Rather than just saying that he fasted, he presented a visual image of it. But I feel his fast was total and the concept of Daniel fasts as they are called today really don't meet the spirit of fasting as recorded in the Bible.
God desires fasting to be a part of our Christian experience. From it, we gain power over the enemy and strength in prayer. It is best when the need to fast comes straight from God. We are more likely to have the proper attitudes about it when this is the case and do a better job of managing everything that goes along with a fast.