What Exactly Is Fasting All About?

Lauren Sanchez

Thursday, March 29, 2018

If you've attended church for awhile you've probably heard the word "fasting." But, what exactly is fasting? Why do we do it? How do we do it? And, what are some Biblical examples of fasting?

What is Fasting?

Fasting is essentially giving up food (or something else) for a period of time in order to focus your thoughts on God. While fasting, many people read the Bible, pray, or worship. Fasting is found throughout the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, over fifty times!

In her blog, Gospel Taboo, Amanda Edmondson writes, "Biblically, fasting is mentioned in both the Old and New Testament. In the Old Testament it was often a way of expressing grief or a means of humbling one's self before the Lord. In Psalm 35:13, David humbled himself with fasting. In the New Testament it was a means to grow closer to God through mediating and focusing on Him. In Matthew 4:1-2, Jesus went to the wilderness to fast for 40 days. In Matthew 6:16-18 we learn that we aren’t to look somber while fasting so that it’s not obvious to others when we are fasting. Throughout the New Testament fasting and prayer are often mentioned together. In Acts 13:3, ‘they had fasted and prayed.’ In Luke 2:37 a widow worshiped day and night fasting and praying."

Following the example of Jesus and the Early Church believers, we, too can draw near to God while fasting.

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What Does Fasting Do For Our Spiritual Life?

In their Crosswalk.com blog on the subject, Suzanne Niles and Wendy Simpson Little give 5 Ways Fasting Can Change Your Life:

1. Fasting and prayer can help us hear from God.

2. Fasting and prayer can reveal our hidden sin.

3. Fasting and prayer can strengthen intimacy with God.

4. Fasting and prayer can teach us to pray with right motives.

5. Fasting and prayer can build our faith.

Not only does fasting and prayer help us focus on God, but through that time, it brings us closer to Him and changes our hearts. Niles and Little write, "When we fast and pray, we are taking time away from a meal or an activity to devote our entire being to focus on God. We find we are more sensitive to the voice of God, more attuned to hearing what He has to reveal to us. Gently, God whispers in our mind what we were really thinking at the time of our sin, what our true intent was and we are shocked…momentarily. Then like a light turned on in a pitch black room, we see it. We did mean harm. We were manipulative. Even though our recognition makes us want to hide our face, our loving Savior lifts our chin to look into his forgiving eyes. As we repent, we no longer want to hide, but to praise and worship the very one who confronted our wrong."

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Fasting from Food

In his article, What Christians Need to Know about Fasting, Sam Storms talks about the different ways Christians fast from food or drink:

There is a regular fast which consists of abstaining from all food and drink except for water (Matthew 4:2–3; Luke 4:2). Apart from supernatural enablement, the body can function only three days without water.

partial fast is when one abstains from some particular kind of food as in the case of Daniel while in Babylon (Daniel 10:3; cf. 1:8, 12).

As noted above, a liquid fast means that you abstain only from solid foods. Again, most who choose this path are sustained by fruit juices and the like.

A complete or absolute fast that entails no food or liquid of any kind (Ezra 10:6; Esther 4:16; Acts 9:9) should only be for a very short period of time. For anything longer than three to five days, seek medical advice.

There is also what can only be called a supernatural fast, as in the case of Moses (Deuteronomy 9:9), who abstained from both food and water for forty days (enabled to do so only by a miraculous enabling from God).

You may also wish to fast from all food for only a particular meal each day. In other words, you may choose to skip lunch for a day or two or a week, or dinner, or even breakfast. All such forms of partial fasting are entirely appropriate.

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What You Need to Know about Fasting from Food and Drink

“…a progression should be observed in your fasting, especially if this discipline is new to you and you are unfamiliar with its physical effects. Don’t start out with a weeklong water fast! Begin by skipping one meal each day for two to three days and setting aside the money it would have cost to give to the poor. Spend the time praying that you would have used for eating."

"If you’ve never fasted before, be aware that in the early stages you may get dizzy and have headaches. This is part of the body’s cleansing process and will pass with time. Be sure that you break the fast gradually with fresh fruit and vegetables. Do not overeat after the fast. Chili and pizza may sound good after several days of not eating, but please, exercise a little restraint and say no!” – What Christians Need to Know about Fasting by Sam Storms

When starting your fast, consider possible dietary restrictions. Pastor Brian Croft writes, “Be mindful of any health issues that could make a fast unwise. For example, if you are a diabetic or have any other physical condition that requires a strict diet, be especially mindful not to put yourself in a compromised position as a result of a fast."

"I also discourage the idea of fasting for those who struggle with eating disorders that are making intake of food a challenge and concern in their daily living. The point of the fast is to combine it with a more intense, focused time of prayer that brings a greater communion with God, a greater empowerment of the Spirit, and a greater earnestness in your soul.”

For more Practical Guidelines for Fasting, click here.

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What are Other Types of Fasting?

The most common type of fast is fasting from food for a period of time, but are there other types?

TV/Movie Fast: You can take a break from a weekly favorite and use the time to pray or read the Bible. Is there a small group at church that you've thought about joining but it's during the time your show is on? Do you spend your Saturday binging Netflix when you could take some time to mentor someone God has placed on your heart? This is also a good time to evaluate how much of your time is spent watching TV and whether you need to cut back to make time for other priorities.

Social Media Fast: This is becoming one of the more common fasts in our culture. Do you need to take some time away from the noise and refresh? Log out of your accounts, delete them from your device for a period of time, and just spend that time being present with God. Pray and listen. Spend some time in nature soaking in His beauty. Spend some time alone worshipping God.

Secular Music Fast: Instead of listening to Top Hits on the radio, you can choose to listen to the Christian radio station for a period of time. Pop in a CD of your favorite worship leader when you're driving to work. Listen to a Christian podcast or audiobook. You can even turn the stereo off completely and spend that time in prayer. You'll be amazed what this little change will do for your life. 

Fast from Going Out: Take a look at your calendar and pick a night when you'd usually go out and spend the time instead diving into Scripture. Maybe there's a book of the Bible you've always wanted to read but didn't have time. Perhaps you want to pray through the Psalms. Is there a person in the Bible you'd like to know more about? Give this time to God and let Him show you the great treasures of His Word!

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How Long Should I Fast?

"How long you fast is entirely up to you and the leadership of the Holy Spirit. The Bible gives examples of fasts that lasted one day or part of a day (Judges 20:26; 1 Samuel 7:6; 2 Samuel 1:12; 3:35; Nehemiah 9:1; Jeremiah 36:6), a one-night fast (Daniel 6:18–24), three-day fasts (Esther 4:16; Acts 9:9), seven-day fasts (1 Samuel 31:13; 2 Samuel 12:16–23), a fourteen-day fast (Acts 27:33–34), a twenty-one day fast (Daniel 10:3–13), forty-day fasts (Deuteronomy 9:9; 1 Kings 19:8; Matthew 4:2), and fasts of unspecified lengths (Matthew 9:14; Luke 2:37; Acts 13:2; 14:23)." -What Christians Need to Know about Fasting by Sam Storms

Occasional Short Fasts
Whether denying yourself food or some other pleasure, an occasional fast that lasts six, twelve, or twenty-four hours is the most manageable... You are not necessarily making a commitment to do this type of fast again, as it is a one-time fast for a specific purpose.

Intermittent Fasts
This is normally a regular act of abstinence, for example one day a week. You may abstain from food, or make some other sacrifice. This type of fast is a way of integrating the spiritual discipline of fasting into your life on an ongoing basis. 

Longer Fasts
Longer fasts likewise can take the form of abstinence from food or some other sacrifice. Some good options for a non-food fast would be abstaining from watching TV from Monday to Friday, reading a biography of a great man or woman of God each week, or dedicating every evening for a week to praying with friends...A longer water-only fast might last from one to three days. If you are fasting from something other than food, your longer fast might last a week. Some use Lent as a time for a longer fast. 

Extended Fasts
This is the hard path of fasting—choosing to give up something that you need or value for an extended period of time. One non-food extended fast would be to get up an hour earlier each day for a month in order to pray, worship, or read Scripture or a Christian book. 

Open-ended Fasts
Some extended fasts are open-ended, for example, where you make a commitment not to break your fast until your goals have been achieved. Defining your goals is particularly important here. Again, this type of fast should not be considered until you have gained some experience.

Occasional Group Fasts
Such fasts can be called by a church or a group of churches or, on a larger scale, even to a nation during a time of crisis. Alternately, such fasts can be called by a small group or even by a Christian business. With the right leadership, calling groups to prayer and fasting can be a very powerful tool.

Longer Group Fasts
The range of options for a group fast is extensive. Are you all going to fast at the same time, or are you setting up a rotation? If you are going to do a water-only fast, are there some who need to do a partial fast for health reasons? Is this an open-ended fast until a goal is achieved, or are you fasting for a specifically defined period?

To read more about these kinds of fasts in the original article by Dr. Peter Holmes, click here.

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Fasting Life-Hacks

In her article, 10 Tips for Successful Fasting, Lori Hatcher shares practical tips on fasting and praying:

1. Fast from dinner to dinner.

2. Consider an alternate fast.

3. Drink water constantly. 

4. Drink herbal tea with a little sweetener.

5. Set a timer.

6. Use a prayer guide for focus and direction.

7. Choose a day when you’re likely to have more “mental space.”

8. Be open to prayer “tangents."

9. Use your hunger or cravings as prompts to pray.

10. Expect spiritual and physical opposition. 

2 Corinthians 4:17-18 comforts and encourages me: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

 For more on these tips, click here.

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Bible Verses about Fasting

Acts 14:23: “Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.”

Daniel 10:3: “I ate no choice food; no meat or wine touched my lips; and I used no lotions at all until the three weeks were over.”

Esther 4:16: “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”

Exodus 34:28: “Moses was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments.”

Joel 2:12: “Even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.”

Luke 2:37: “and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.”

Luke 4:2-4: “where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”

For the Top 40 Bible Verses about Fasting, click here.

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More About Fasting

For more information on fasting, visit these links:

What Christians Need to Know about Fasting

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology - Fast, Fasting

Smith's Bible Dictionary - Fasts

10 Things You Should Know about Fasting

2 Practical Tips When Considering a Fast

10 Tips for Successful Fasting 

The Different Types of Fasts

What Evangelicals Need to Know about Fasting for Lent

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