If you did a search for all the times fasting is mentioned in the Bible, you would come up with at least forty cases. But if you were to count up how many Christians you know who are regularly fasting today, would you use more than one hand? Dare I ask, would you use even one finger? Fasting just isn’t that common anymore. Why is that? Why was fasting a popular trend back then, but has been kicked to the curb in our churches today? Is fasting just not that big of a deal to God anymore? Or do we need to rethink our spiritual habits and start fasting more? In order to answer these questions, we need to answer a bigger question, “What is the point of fasting?” Once we know what fasting is all about, we can determine if it should make a comeback or not.
But in order to figure out what fasting is all about, we first need to take a look at the Old Testament, because it will help us understand why people fasted back then, whether for good reasons or bad.
GOOD REASONS PEOPLE FASTED IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
There are many good reasons people fasted in the Old Testament and you can organize them many different ways. But I’ve chosen to condense them into four basic reasons people chose to fast:
1. PEOPLE FASTED TO SHOW GRIEF
Fasting was a common way to express your grief back in those days, especially when someone passed away. When David heard that King Saul had died in battle, he along with those around him “mourned and wept and fasted until evening for Saul and for Jonathan his son and for the people of the LORD and for the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword” (2 Samuel 1:12). This should make sense even to us today. It’s not uncommon for people to refuse to eat when someone they love passes away. Not only might you lose your appetite, but your mind is often far too preoccupied with loss and funeral preparations to even take the time.
2. PEOPLE FASTED TO SHOW REPENTANCE
You could label this second reason as an extension of the first. Some people fasted to show grief for their sin. There many examples of this in the Old Testament. Under the direction of Samuel, the Israelites repented of their idolatry and fasted (1 Samuel 7:6). Both Daniel and Ezra mourned over Israel’s faithlessness and fasted (Daniel 9:3; Ezra 10:6). Even the wicked city of Nineveh wept and fasted over their sin in the book of Jonah (Jonah 3:7–9). Fasting in those days was often a means of showing contrition. It expressed that you were serious about your sin to the point where you were willing to forgo even the most basic necessity of your life to focus your attention on it. We don’t really see this kind of fasting in our churches today. Maybe that should tell us something?
3. PEOPLE FASTED TO ATTEND TO AN URGENT MATTER
Sometimes, there were needs that were so pressing that you could not eat until it was addressed. Moses found this out the hard way when he received the Ten Commandments from God on Mount Sinai (Deuteronomy 9:9). Elijah encountered a similar experience when he traveled to Mount Sinai as well (1 Kings 19:8). This is a form of fasting you have, no doubt, experienced yourself. When your paper is due at midnight and you haven’t even started on it yet, you may decide to skip dinner. When a loved one is taken to the emergency room, you may not have time to step out and grab a bite to eat. Why? There is a more urgent matter you need to attend to.
4. PEOPLE FASTED TO PLEAD WITH GOD TO INTERVENE
This is the reason in the Bible we are probably most familiar with. When disaster was about to strike, people often fasted in order to plead with God to help them. When the nation of Edom marched on Jerusalem, King Jehoshaphat ordered for a fast to be held throughout all the land so that they may “seek the LORD” for help (2 Chronicles 20:3–4). When Esther planned to go before the king of Persia to persuade him not to murder all the Jews, she called for every Jew to hold a fast on her behalf (Esther 4:16). Fasting was more than a way to focus on an urgent matter. It was a way to focus on God, who is in control of every urgent matter, and plead with Him to intervene and change the perceived outcome.
What do we learn from all these good reasons for fasting? They all revolve around a crisis. Every time someone fasted for the right reasons, it was always due to a moment of urgency or emergency. Fasting is not something you do when life is going well or when things are normal. It’s the right response to an abnormal situation that requires you to give all of your attention to it. It can also lead you to lean on God for help. Fasting is all about crisis.
BAD REASONS PEOPLE FASTED IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
There are not just four good reasons people fasted; there are also two bad ones.
1. PEOPLE FASTED TO MANIPULATE GOD TO INTERVENE
Some people fasted to try to coerce God to help them. When Isaiah told Israel that they were going to be punished by God, the nation fasted in hopes that God would change His mind. But after Isaiah’s prophecy remained unchanged, they asked, “Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?” (Isaiah 58:3). This is a prime example of manipulation. There’s a fine line between pleading with God to help you and manipulating him to help you. What’s the difference? Manipulation covers up the real crisis. Judgment was not the real problem for Israel; sin was. The reason Isaiah prophesied judgment against Israel in the first place was because they were sinning against God (Isaiah 58:4). But Israel refused to repent and instead tried to appease God with fasting. The irony of it all is that Israel was right to fast, if only their fasting was done for the right reason, namely repentance (Isaiah 58:6–7).
2. PEOPLE FASTED TO LOOK SPIRITUAL
This is the trap that the Pharisees fell into during the silent years between the Old and New Testament. When Jesus finally arrived on the scene, He had to rebuke them for their flagrant abuse of fasting, “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others” (Matthew 6:16). The Pharisees crafted a religious system around externalism that produced a culture concerned about appearance rather than authenticity. As long as you looked spiritual on the outside, you were in good shape. But this mindset does not actually care about what God wants with fasting. It only cares about how others perceive you.
What do we learn from these two bad reasons for fasting? They both lack sincerity. Every time someone fasted for the wrong reasons, it was always from a veneer of hypocrisy that failed to originate from a real crisis. Either the real crisis is replaced (like when Israel swapped out their crisis of sin with their crisis of judgment) or it is fabricated (like when the hypocrites acted gloomy about nothing). But real fasting always comes naturally from a heart burdened by crisis. It shows that you are honest about what’s going on and that you want to humble yourself before God and His sovereignty. Fasting is all about sincerity.
JESUS AND FASTING IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
There’s one more account of fasting in the Bible that needs attention. This is the seminal passage on fasting for Christians today, because it not only brings together everything already mentioned, but it also sheds new light on the nature of fasting today. Mark 2:18–20, the subject of the video, tells the story where the Pharisees and some disciples of John the Baptist asked Jesus why He and His disciples are not fasting (see Matthew 9:14–15 and Luke 5:33–35 for parallel accounts). Jesus responds with an analogy, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.” Jesus confirms everything we learned about fasting so far and then adds another layer to it:
First, just like we learned, fasting is all about crisis. A wedding is a common event when everything is going well, and food is often associated with weddings, because it’s a time of celebration. No one, therefore, would expect anyone to fast during a wedding. There’s no disaster to fear, no death to mourn, and no emergency to address. But as soon as the wedding ends and the groom leaves with his bride, everyone returns to their normal lives filled with all sorts of challenges. At that point, fasting is back on the table. In the same way, Jesus did not expect His disciples to fast while He was with them, because His presence was one to celebrate, not to be troubled by. Wherever Jesus went, people were being healed, demons were being cast out, and extraordinary miracles were taking place! There was no need to fast, because there was no crisis. But when Jesus finally leaves them after His resurrection, fasting will resume, because His life-changing presence is no longer around to keep crisis at bay. Fasting is still all about crisis.
Second, just like we learned, fasting is all about sincerity. Jesus’ disciples understood the purpose of fasting. They did not fast while He was with them, because they saw how much good Jesus was doing everywhere He went. But the Pharisees and John’s disciples did not understand the purpose of fasting. Although Jesus was in their midst and performing outstanding miracles before their eyes, they continued to fast as a form of religious asceticism. But the problem is there was no crisis to address. They concocted a fake crisis, because fasting to them was just a way to make God happy and to make themselves look more spiritual. But based on the wedding analogy Jesus tells them, fasting is derived from a real crisis, not a pretend one. Fasting is still all about sincerity.
Third, we now learn, fasting is all about Jesus. The difference between fasting in the Old Testament and fasting today is one person: Jesus. Everyone before Christ used to fast simply because there was a crisis. But now we learn something new about our crisis. Crisis is always present, because Jesus is not. If Jesus is present, crisis is not. “Christlessness” is now the catalyst for fasting, not just crisis. For this reason, fasting takes on a whole new meaning for believers today. It’s not just about mourning the death of a loved one or pleading with God to intervene; it’s about longing for the return of a Savior. Only when Jesus is present in all of His power and glory will crisis end for good. Jesus is the difference this world needs and fasting is one way we show it. By refusing to eat when times are tough, we not only admit that there is a real crisis, we also point to the hope that Jesus will one day put an end to it. Fasting is now all about Jesus.
SHOULD I FAST?
It may surprise you to find out that for all the times fasting is mentioned in the Bible never once is it commanded by God. Fasting is not a requirement, because fasting is not about godliness; it’s about “Christlessness.” It’s just what Christians do, because Christ is not here to fix a broken world. That said, fasting is not mandatory today, but it still can be practiced.
But the lack of fasting in our Christian culture today does not mean we are handling our crises biblically. Quite the contrary. Our typical approach to a “Christless” world is actually the opposite of fasting. Rather than abstaining from food, we like to binge. When life gets hard, we binge-eat to comfort ourselves. When things are tough, we binge-watch to distract ourselves. Through bingeing, we’ve been trained by our affluent western culture to pretend our crises do not exist. But this strategy is contrary to a theology of fasting. As Christians, we should learn to cultivate a heart of fasting that chooses to bear all the grief and pain of crisis in order to get our eyes off of this world and place them on the hope of the next. If a “Christless” world is our problem, then a “Christful” world is our solution, and we should hunger for it, both literally and figuratively. Fasting helps us to do just that.
So, should we be fasting more? Maybe, but not necessarily. That’s not really the issue. Instead, I think we should care more. We need to care more about our suffering, our sin, and our broken world, so that we may hope in the better one Jesus will bring. But I will say this: When we start caring more, we just might find ourselves fasting more.