When Should I Consider Fasting?

Contributing Writer
When Should I Consider Fasting?

Prayer and fasting. The Bible often connects these two spiritual disciplines. Prayer garners a certain amount of attention in Christian teaching and sermons, as it should. But in our Western evangelical culture, fasting has become relegated to a more extreme practice for the super spiritual, not something for everyday Jesus followers. 

However, the New Testament includes several important examples of people fasting for various reasons. Notably, Jesus fasted and also declared his followers would fast after his earthly ministry (Matthew 9:15). Why don’t we practice this discipline more often? 

Many simply aren’t familiar with the discipline of fasting and its spiritual role in our lives to help us become more like Christ. 

What Is Fasting?

Fasting is the voluntary abstention from food, drink, or both for a specified period, often for spiritual, religious, or health reasons.

Fasting has been a significant spiritual discipline in various religious traditions. In Christianity, fasting is practiced particularly during Lent, a 40-day period of repentance and preparation before Easter. Christians may abstain from certain foods or meals to focus on prayer, reflection, and penance.

Islam has one of the most rigorous and structured fasting practices, observed during the month of Ramadan. Muslims fast from dawn until sunset, refraining from eating, drinking, smoking, and marital relations. This fast is one of the Five Pillars of Islam and is intended to teach self-discipline, self-control, and empathy for the less fortunate. Muslims break the fast each evening with a meal called Iftar, often starting with dates and water, following the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad.

Judaism incorporates fasting in several observances, most notably Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and Tisha B'Av, commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples. On these days, Jews refrain from eating and drinking for 25 hours, engaging in prayer and reflection. The purpose is to seek forgiveness, atone for sins, and draw closer to God.

Buddhism also includes fasting, though it varies by tradition. Monks and nuns often practice intermittent fasting, not eating solid foods after midday. Lay Buddhists may fast on Uposatha days, which are observed four times a month, focusing on meditation, moral discipline, and purification.

In India, fasting is a common practice among Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs. Hindus might fast on specific days of the week dedicated to different deities, during festivals like Navaratri, or on Ekadashi, a twice-monthly day of fasting. Jain fasting practices are particularly rigorous, with some adherents undertaking extended fasts for spiritual purification and penance.

But fasting is not limited to religious observances. Many cultures have incorporated fasting into their traditions for various reasons. In ancient Greece, fasting was practiced by Pythagoras and other philosophers as a means of mental and physical purification.

In contemporary times, fasting has also gained popularity beyond religious contexts, particularly for its potential health benefits. Intermittent fasting, where individuals cycle between periods of eating and fasting, has been adopted for weight loss, improved metabolic health, and longevity. Scientific studies suggest that intermittent fasting can reduce inflammation, improve insulin sensitivity, and promote cellular repair processes.

Despite the varied reasons and methods, the core principles of fasting often converge on themes of self-discipline, purification, and spiritual or mental clarity. Whether for religious devotion, cultural practice, or health improvement, fasting remains a powerful tool for many people worldwide.

What Does the Bible Say about the Spiritual Discipline of Fasting?

In the Old Testament, fasting is often associated with mourning, repentance, and seeking God’s intervention in dire situations. For instance, in the book of Esther, Queen Esther calls for a fast among the Jews before she approaches King Xerxes to plead for her people’s lives (Esther 4:16). Similarly, the prophet Daniel fasts as part of his prayer for the restoration of Jerusalem (Daniel 9:3). These instances highlight fasting as a means of expressing deep spiritual need and dependence on God.

The New Testament continues this emphasis but also introduces fasting to draw closer to God and seek his will. Jesus himself fasted for 40 days and nights in the wilderness before beginning his public ministry (Matthew 4:1-2). This period of fasting and prayer prepared and strengthened Christ. Jesus also taught about fasting in the Sermon on the Mount, instructing his followers to fast with a sincere heart and not for public recognition (Matthew 6:16-18).

Christian fasting is primarily about humbling oneself and seeking a deeper relationship with God. It often accompanies prayer, allowing believers to focus more intently on their spiritual life and tune out distractions. The Bible encourages fasting to be done discreetly and with genuine devotion, emphasizing the inward spiritual condition over outward appearances.

Christian fasting stands out for its emphasis on the relational aspect with God. It is not just a ritualistic practice but a heartfelt pursuit of a closer communion with God. Jesus’s teachings on fasting focus on the sincerity of the heart and the spiritual connection rather than merely the physical act of abstention. Fasting reflects a personal and intimate devotion to God, often done in secret, unlike some other traditions where public or communal fasting is emphasized.  

What Reasons Do People in the Bible Have for Fasting?

One primary reason for fasting in the Bible is to seek God’s guidance in critical situations. In Acts 13:2-3, we see the early church in Antioch fasting and praying for direction. “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.’ So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.” Here, the church collectively fasted to discern God’s will and make an important decision, responding to the Spirit.  

Often, the Bible associates fasting with repentance and mourning over sin. In the book of Jonah, the people of Nineveh fasted and wore sackcloth in response to Jonah’s message of impending judgment. Jonah 3:5 states, “The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.” Their fasting tangibly expressed their sorrow for sin and desire for forgiveness.

Biblical fasting goes beyond personal repentance but also applies to intercession, where individuals fast and pray on behalf of others. In Daniel 9:3, the prophet Daniel says, “So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.” Daniel’s fasting and prayer were intercessory acts, seeking God’s mercy and intervention for his people.

Before embarking on significant spiritual missions, individuals in the Bible often fasted to prepare themselves. Jesus himself fasted for 40 days and nights in the wilderness before beginning His public ministry. Matthew 4:1-2 recounts, “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.” This period of fasting was crucial for Jesus as he prepared to face temptations and start his ministry.

Regarding ministry, in fasting we humble ourselves and communicate our absolute dependence on God. In Psalm 35:13, David says, “Yet when they were ill, I put on sackcloth and humbled myself with fasting.” This act of fasting symbolizes a humble acknowledgment of a believer’s reliance on God’s provision, both spiritual and physical.

In times of crisis and desperation, people often fast to earnestly seek God’s help. Esther called for a fast among the Jews when their lives were threatened by a royal decree. Esther 4:16 records her words, “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.” This collective fast pleaded for divine intervention in a dire situation.

Fasting is also a form of deepening one’s devotion and worship to God. In Luke 2:36-37, we read about Anna, a prophetess, who “never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.” Her fasting was an act of worship and continuous devotion to God.

When Should Christians Today Fast?

We can incorporate fasting into our lives in various ways and for several biblically-based reasons.

A complete fast involves abstaining from all food and drink, except water, for a set period, as seen in Esther’s example. Christians today can undertake a complete fast to seek God’s intervention in critical situations or to deepen their spiritual focus.

A partial fast restricts certain foods or meals. An example of this is found in Daniel 10:3, where Daniel says, “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.” Modern Christians might choose to fast from specific items such as sweets, meat, or luxury foods to humble themselves before God and seek his guidance. An intermittent fast involves abstaining from food for specific periods, such as skipping one or two meals a day or fasting for certain hours each day. Intermittent fasting can help believers maintain a regular rhythm of seeking God through fasting and prayer.

In today’s context, fasting can also extend beyond food. Christians can fast from activities or media that consume their time and attention, such as social media, television, or other forms of entertainment. This type of fast can help believers refocus their minds and hearts on God, similar to the biblical principle of removing distractions to seek God earnestly.

From biblical examples, we choose to fast for several reasons. First, we fast to seek divine direction in important decisions. We all at times face important choices, both personal and spiritual. And we understand the importance of seeking God’s will in in these decisions. Fasting removes distractions and cooperates with prayer to better hear God’s voice.

God gives grace to the humble and resists the proud. Therefore, we seek to be humble ourselves in all areas of our lives. Fasting humbles the soul and acknowledges total dependence on God. Through fasting, we realize how weak we are without something as basic as food. This teaches us where our source of provision truly lies, with God. As Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy, we don’t live by food alone but through God’s voice continually speaking to us. We purposefully humble ourselves and rest in God’s strength through fasting.

Fasting serves as a means of expressing sorrow for sin and seeking God’s forgiveness. God responds to repentance. He forgives and restores. People like David and others fasted when seeking God’s forgiveness, and so should we.

Regarding sorrow, God is grieved by our sin and the wickedness of others. Sin leads to death, and God didn’t design us for that. His sorrow over the brokenness of death can be seen when Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus, even though he would be resurrected moments later. When we fast, we choose to join God in his sorrow over the sin of people and the pain of death. This brings us into a more intimate relationship with God. Fasting accompanies our prayers for others, seeking God’s intervention on their behalf. We can fast when praying for the needs and salvation of others.

With the common connection to intercession, fasting intensifies prayer, creating a deeper focus on God. Jesus taught us that some spiritual breakthroughs require both prayer and fasting (Matthew 17:21). We should use fasting to enhance our prayer life, seeking greater clarity for his will and answer to prayer.

Finally, fasting prepares us for ministry and spiritual endeavors. Jesus fasted for 40 days before beginning His public ministry (Matthew 4:1-2). Believers today can fast to seek God’s anointing and strength for their ministries and service.


Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Jorg Greuel

Britt MooneyBritt Mooney lives and tells great stories. As an author of fiction and non -iction, he is passionate about teaching ministries and nonprofits the power of storytelling to inspire and spread truth. Mooney has a podcast called Kingdom Over Coffee and is a published author of We Were Reborn for This: The Jesus Model for Living Heaven on Earth as well as Say Yes: How God-Sized Dreams Take Flight.