Understanding Biblical Fasting
When & How To Fast
We’ve all been guilty of overlooking those we love. There are so many things vying for our attention, and we often choose the quick task over investment in a relationship. Unfortunately, we can do the same thing with God. But that’s not what we really want, is it?
The biblical practice of fasting is one way to help us focus on God and what matters to Him. It’s an opportunity to set aside other things so we can to seek His face and hear His voice. It’s a time of preparation that leads us to fix our attention on God’s purposes and will.
Many of us haven’t tried fasting because it seems too hard. We don’t know how to begin or when to find the time. But if we see it for what it is—something that sharpens our spiritual vision, intensifies our desire for God, and leads to understanding His direction—then we will want to try it for ourselves.
Have you been crying out to the Father for more of Him? Do you need to know God’s will for a particular area of your life? Biblical fasting can help bring you to the place where your hearing is sharper, your mind is clearer, and your eyes are more firmly fixed on the Lord and His plans. Why not discover this for yourself?
When Should We Fast?
Throughout the Bible we most often find God’s people turn to fasting as the natural, inevitable response to a grievous sacred moment in life, such as death, sin and tragedy. But other times a fast is not a spontaneous reaction and we have time to prepare to respond both physically and spiritually.
Fasting is not an end unto itself, but a means of focusing our minds and bodies for a spiritual reason. Whenever you fast, do so for a reason that is mentioned or modeled in the Bible. Here are ten primary purposes for fasting mentioned in Scripture:¹
- To strengthen prayer (e.g., see Ezra 8:23)
Numerous incidents in the Old Testament connect fasting to prayer, especially intercessory prayer. Fasting does not change whether God hears our prayers, but it can change our praying. As Arthur Wallis says, “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.”²
- To seek God’s guidance (e.g., see Judges 20:26)
As with prayer, fasting to seek God’s guidance isn’t done to change God but to make us more receptive to his guidance.
- To express grief (e.g., see 1 Samuel 31:13)
Expressing grief is one of the primary reasons for fasting. Ever notice that when you’re moved to tears by grief you lose the urge to eat? When we grieve, our family and friends often have to plead with us to eat because our body’s appropriate response to grief is to fast. A prime example occurs in 2 Samuel 1:12, where David and his men are described as having “mourned and wept and fasted till evening” for their friends, their enemies and their nation.
- To seek deliverance or protection (e.g., see 2 Chronicles 20:3 – 4)
Another common reason for fasting in the Old Testament was to seek deliverance from enemies or circumstances. In Scripture, this type of fast is generally carried out with other believers.
- To express repentance and a return to God (e.g., see 1 Samuel 7:6)
This type of fasting helps us to express grief over our sins and shows our seriousness about returning to the path of godly obedience.
- To humble oneself before God (e.g., see 1 Kings 21:27 – 29)
“Remember that fasting itself is not humility before God,” reminds Donald Whitney, “but should be an expression of humility.”³
- To express concern for the work of God (e.g., see Nehemiah 1:3 – 4)
As with Nehemiah, fasting can be a tangible sign of our concern over a particular work God is doing.
- To minister to the needs of others (e.g., see Isaiah 58:3 – 7)
We can use time we’d normally spend eating to fast and minister to others.
- To overcome temptation and dedicate yourself to God (e.g., see Matthew 4:1 – 11)
Fasting can help us focus when we are struggling with particular temptations.
- To express love and worship for God (e.g., see Luke 2:37)
Fasting can show, as John Piper says, that “what we hunger for most, we worship.”⁴
How Should We Prepare To Fast?
Pray and confess your sins
A necessary step before fasting is to humble yourself before God (see Psalm 35:13) and confess your sins (see 1 Samuel 7:6). Prayer should be our sustenance throughout the fast, but it is imperative we begin the fast with a contrite heart.
Turn to Scripture
Spend additional time meditating on God’s Word, before and during the fast.
Keep it secret
Fasting is unbiblical and even spiritually harmful when we do it to show off our spirituality (see Matthew 6:16 – 18) or when we focus more on our own fasting than on the clear needs of others (see Isaiah 58:1 – 11). Don’t boast about your fast; tell people you won’t be eating only if necessary. Fasting should not be done when imposed for false motives (see 1 Samuel 14:24-30).
Prepare your body
Fasting, especially for days or weeks, can have unexpected and even detrimental effects on your health. There is no scriptural warrant for harming yourself to undergo a fast. Be sure to consult a doctor before starting any fasting regimen to make sure you can fast in a healthy manner.
How Do We Fast?
Fasting is an appropriate bodily reaction to the grievous state of our soul. If it is done correctly you can expect many results, including growing closer to God, feeling more solidarity with those who suffer, and increasing self-control.
For new beginners in fasting, start slow. Progressive steps help our body to be accustomed to the drop in food intake. You can start by fasting for one meal a day, one day a week or one week a month.
Before the Fast:
Those planning for an extended fast (more than 14 days) should prepare mentally and physically by cutting down on food intake one week before the actual fast and take on a vegetarian diet to control cravings for food. You should reduce strong beverages like coffee, tea or coke as well. Drink plenty of water.
During the Fast:
Spend the time that you would normally use for meals to pray and seek the Lord. Keep a journal on what the Lord has been showing and speaking to you.
Continue to drink plenty of water. Apple or watermelon juices are great morale boosters. Sleep early–the first few days of the fast are usually the most challenging. Persevere through this period. Consult your doctor if you are unsure of any headaches or body reactions.
Ending the Fast:
Breaking extended fasts should not be done abruptly. Start by taking small portions of food or liquids. Pace yourselves to return slowly to your normal diet in about a week.
Do not have a big celebration feast when breaking a fast! Your body may not be used to the sudden increased intake and break down. Be cautious, and always consult your doctor if you are unsure of your physical condition.
The Benefits of Fasting
In the parable of the sower, Jesus teaches that it takes good soil to produce a plentiful harvest. He advises against planting seed on the rocky places and warns about dangerous thorns that choke the plants. He directly applies this to our spiritual life, explaining that the seed is God’s truth; it’s only in good soil that the Word is received and spiritual fruitfulness is produced.
Biblical fasting can position our heart to receive God’s truth. It can make us ready for the planting of the Word, and through that, to receive greater insight, direction, and faith (Rom. 10:17). Then we will be better prepared to set ourselves apart from earthly concerns and spend time concentrating on heavenly matters. The Lord may use this time to reveal any stumps, rocks, and roots that entangle our heart and prevent spiritual growth. And He promises to be with us as we confess and face these obstacles.
What’s the condition of your heart’s soil? God wants to clear out the rocks and weeds in our life and break up any hard soil; biblical fasting prepares us for such tilling. God is calling His people to consecrate themselves to Him. Won’t you come before Him to be made ready?