Not So Fast: Is This the Fast the Lord Has Chosen?
The Biblical teaching on fasting is misunderstood by many Christians. They are confused on everything from the frequency to the purpose of fasting. What does the Bible say about this subject? What is the purpose for fasting? How often should we fast?
It should be made clear from the beginning that the question is not Should we fast? Jesus made it clear that His followers would fast, saying, "Can the children of the bridechamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast." (Matthew 9:15). The real question is Why are we to fast? In what follows we will explore the Biblical data to answer the questions just raised. We will also evaluate some popular theories about the benefits of fasting to see where they err.
It is noteworthy to begin this discussion by drawing a distinction between OT and NT fasting. Based on the remarks of Jesus it appears that the manner in which people are to fast, and the purpose for which they fast has changed considerably between the testaments. The disciples of John asked why the Pharisees fasted often, but Jesus disciples did not fast (Matthew 9:14). Jesus answered saying they would fast, but only after He had departed from them (9:15; See also Mark 2:18-22; Luke 5:33-39). He went on to explain saying, "No man puts a piece of new cloth on an old garment, for that which is put in to fill it up takes from the garment, and the tear is made worse. Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runs out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved" (9:16-17). If the disciples (new wine, patch) were to fast in the way it had been done in the OT (old wine, torn clothes), it would be a detriment to their relationship with God. The kind of fasting that Jesus wanted His disciples to fast would require a new view of fasting that was different than the OT view. Because it would take time for Jesus' followers to adjust to this new way and purpose of fasting, Jesus did not have them fast while He was still with them (coupled with the idea that they would not fast because of the importance of Jesus' personal presence with them).
Jesus' teaching was not entirely new. YHWH expressed similar sentiments several centuries before Jesus through the prophet Isaiah: "Do not fast as you do today . Is this really the kind of fasting I want? Do I want a day when people just humble themselves, bowing their heads like a reed and stretching out on sackcloth and ashes? Is this really what you call a fast, a day that is pleasing to the Lord?" (Isaiah 58:4b-5)
One of the ways in which NT fasting would differ from OT fasting was that in the latter fasting was a public enterprise. Those who fasted drew public attention to themselves by sitting in sackcloth and ashes. Jesus, however, desired for His followers to fast in secret (Matthew 6:16-18).
OT Purposes for Fasting
There are several purposes for fasting as detailed in the OT. The most apparent purpose was a humbling of oneself in repentance for sin, and for mourning. People would sit dressed in sackcloth with ashes sprinkled on their bodies. Jesus opposed this outward show of fasting, commanding His followers to fast in secret where their fasts would be observed by God alone (Matthew 6:16-18).
There are times in the OT in which people seemed to fast for the purpose of coaxing God to hear their prayers and attend to their urgent needs, not necessarily repentance or mourning. It might be said that they were fasting to get God's attention. Three cases of this nature involve Hezekiah, Esther, and David.
Hezekiah was about to be attacked by the Moabites and Ammonites when he proclaimed a fast throughout the land (II Chronicles 20:1-3). This fast was not for introspection or spiritual strength, but to "ask help of the Lord" (v. 4). We may see an element of repentance and humbling of themselves in God's sight in this fast. Surely they wanted to be right with God when going into battle, but the text seems to suggest that there was another motive behind their fast as well. It seems that they were fasting to get God's attention and help them in the battle. It was a fast birthed out of desperation for God's help. The end of the story is that Hezekiah and his army did win the battle.
The story of Esther presents a similar situation. When Esther's people were facing possible extermination it was decided that every Jew would fast for three days for Esther, apparently so God would give her favor when she approached the king (and her husband) to overturn the decree of extermination. This fast was directed toward God, but for the sake of Esther. The fast does not appear to be for the purpose of repentance or demonstrating humility, but an appeal for divine assistance. The end of the story is that Esther was able to persuade the king to reverse the edict and the Jews were preserved.
David's experience was quite different than Hezekiah's or Esther's. Because of David's sin with Bathsheba, God declared that the child born as a result of the adultery would die (II Samuel 12). After the child was born it became deathly ill. In response David began to fast. He had been fasting for seven days when the child died. At that point David broke his fast, and began eating once more. Such a response to the death of his child shocked David's servants, prompting them to ask, "What thing is this that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child, while it was alive; but when the child was dead, you rose and ate bread" (v. 21). David answered that he had fasted before the child died because he thought the LORD might be gracious to him and not take the life of his son after all (v. 22). Since the child was dead he had no need to continue fasting (v. 23). Clearly David's primary purpose for fasting was to get God's attention and change His mind, although it surely included the perspective of repentance and humility before God.
From the above episodes we recognize that fasting with the motive of getting God's attention, or with the idea that fasting may move God's hand "worked" sometimes, but not others. Even on the occasions where it "worked" the text does not offer a causal relationship between the act of fasting and the positive response. To assume there was a causal relationship is to read something into the text that is not there. God may have responded positively simply on the basis of their faith. For all we know God would have answered the request of His people even if they had not fasted. Human initiative and divine response do not always correlate, and we must not think that every result is due to every aspect of human initiative. We cannot approach the Scripture with the idea that every detail of a person's action contributed to, or is directly responsible for the outcome, apart from the explicit or highly implicit statement in the text.
If that were not enough, God has clearly communicated how He feels about those who fast in order to coax Him into giving them what they want. In His rebuke of Israel God said, "Do not fast as you do today, trying to make your voice heard in heaven (Isaiah 58:4b). So for those who fast with the psychological motive of moving the hand of God, beware, the Lord is not pleased with your motives.
NT Purposes for Fasting
In the NT we find three possible reasons for fasting: direction (Acts 13:1-2), to boost our level of faith for casting out devils (Matthew 17:14-21; Mark 9:17-29), and for ordination of the ministry (Acts 13:3; 14:23).
In the Acts 13 account we read that the brethren were ministering to the Lord and fasting. While doing so the Lord gave special direction concerning Paul and Barnabas' mission to the Gentiles.
Some have suggested the disciples fasted as part of their ministry to the Lord. The text, however, does not make this connection. It says they were ministering to the Lord and fasting. Fasting was something they were doing in addition to ministering to the Lord, not part of that ministry itself.
Others have suggested they were fasting because they were seeking direction from the Lord. While this is logically possible, the text does not make this supposed connection explicit. The text merely reports what they were doing, and what the Lord did. To be fair, by specifically reporting the two facts in close proximity Luke might have been implying a causal relationship between the two, but the text is not clear in this regard. We are bound to what is actually stated in the text, not what we think the author might have been thinking.
One thing that is often overlooked is that the text never says the brethren were seeking direction. All we find is that they received it. It could be that they were fasting because they were seeking direction, or it could be that they were fasting for some other reason (unknown to us) that just so happened to coincide with their being given direction.
Furthermore, the fact that the Lord gave them direction when they were fasting (whatever the causal relationship might be between their fasting and the Lord's direction) does not mean that God will always give us direction when we engage in such activities. We cannot get a divine prescription from the description we find of the circumstantial details given in the text.
At best this passage is ambiguous as to why the disciples were fasting, giving us little or no insight into its purpose.
Matthew 17:14-21 and Mark 9:17-29
In Matthew and Mark we read of a father who brought his demon-possessed boy to the apostles so they could cast the devils out of him. In all their attempts they could not do so. The man brought the same boy to Jesus and He was able to cast the demons out. Afterwards the apostles asked Jesus why they could not cast the demons out but He could. Jesus' response was that they could not cast out the devil because of their unbelief. He went on to say that "this kind does not go forth except by prayer and fasting." The reason the apostles failed was not due to their lack of fasting per se, but because of their lack of faith.
It should be noted that there is reason to believe these reference to fasting in these texts are not original to Matthew and Mark's texts. The evidence supporting and opposing their originality are included in Appendix I. If the texts are not original the purpose for fasting contained therein cannot be established as a NT purpose for fasting, leaving us with only one clear NT purpose (which will be discussed next). If the traditional reading of the texts is original Jesus' words would teach us that the kind of faith required to cast out certain kinds of devils only comes by prayer and fasting. It is not that fasting gives us some kind of special authority and power over demons, but rather fasting aids us in our faith-faith that is necessary to engage in spiritual battles such as casting out demons.
The last purpose for fasting is the ordination of ministers. Although the Bible does not say ministers must fast for ordinations, it is said in Acts 14:23 that Paul and Barnabas ordained elders in every city accompanied by prayer and fasting. (See also Acts 13:3 in which fasting accompanied the sending off of Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journey)
This brief examination leaves us with one sure purpose for fasting (ordination of ministers), one possible purpose (faith-boosting for devil-casting) hinging on a textual variant, and one unlikely purpose (direction, ministering to the Lord). While we are not told precisely why the disciples were fasting in Acts 13, it does not appear to be in connection with the ordination of bishops or the casting out of demons. It is likely, then, that there is at least one other purpose for fasting that is not necessarily communicated to us in the NT. What that purpose might be is open to debate.
Bad Reasons for Fasting
While fasting is Biblical, most of those who fast today fast for reasons not found in Scripture. Some, for example, fast for the purpose of saving lost souls. Is there any Biblical support for this? Is there any place in Scripture where someone fasted so that the lost could find salvation? No.
Even if we do not find people fasting for this purpose in Scripture, do we have reason to believe that it is a reasonable purpose for fasting? I do not think so. How would depriving myself of food help save lost souls? The last time I checked people are only saved by having the Gospel preached to them, and responding in faith.
Some reason that while fasting in itself is of no benefit to saving the lost, it shows God how serious we are about winning the lost." Although this noble in that it does demonstrate the seriousness of one's burden, is it effective? The person who fasts for this reason presumes that God needs to see that we are serious about winning the lost. Does God need to know that we are serious about winning the lost for Him to save them? Is God not serious about winning the lost whether we are or not? Is He not doing everything He can to save as many as He can whether we are serious about His mission or not? He is more serious and more concerned about the lost than any of us could ever be. The way we show God we are serious about winning the lost is by preaching the Gospel to them, not depriving ourselves of food. Fasting may make a statement when it comes to our desire to save the lost, but it will not make a difference. That requires that we "go."
Overcome the Flesh
Probably the main reason most Christians fast today is to overcome their own sinful nature. We hear it said that one fasts they are "killing their flesh," or "dying out to sin." Does the Bible teach that we are to fast for this reason? Is this a rationale reason to fast?
I question the Biblical basis for this and the logical reasoning behind such a belief. Not only is there no Biblical text supporting this belief, but it is actually anti-biblical.
Unlike the example above, not only is the idea that we should fast to "kill our flesh" not found in Scripture, it is contradicted by Scripture. In Colossians 2:20-23 Paul wrote:
If you have died with Christ to the elemental spirits of the world, why do you submit to them as though you lived in the world? "Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!" These are all destined to perish with use, founded as they are on human commands and teachings. They have the appearance of wisdom with their self-imposed worship and false humility, by an unsparing treatment of the body, but they are thoroughly useless when it comes to restraining the indulgences of the flesh. (NET Bible)
Notice what Paul said. Things such as commanding people not to eat certain things (although the general principle of eating nothing at all principally follows) appears to have a lot of wisdom attached to it, but in reality it is just self-imposed worship and false humility. How are these things manifested? They are manifested in the ill-treatment of the body (excessive fasting would qualify as such). Those who advocated the man-made rules Paul spoke of taught that by abstaining from (certain) foods the believer would become more spiritual, gaining an upper-hand over the sinful desires of the flesh. Paul flatly contradicted this claim saying that these practices were "thoroughly useless when it comes to restraining the indulgences of the flesh." How much clearer could Paul have been? Fasting, even with good intentions, cannot restrain the desires of the flesh.
Paul's point is straightforward: one cannot control the lusts of the flesh by abstaining from eating or touching certain things. Why? It is because material objects and food are not the source of our sinfulness. If they are not the source/cause of our sinfulness, removing them from our lives cannot aid us in overcoming our sinfulness. Sinfulness is a problem with our very nature, not with what we eat or touch, and thus our fight against our own sinfulness requires a different sort of weapon. Romans 6-8 is clear that our only weapon against our sinfulness and temptation is the Spirit of God. Not even our minds (will-power) are able to overcome sin.
Some claim that they experience a lack of desire for sinful things when they are fasting. I agree that this can be true. I have been on extended fasts in which I did little desire for sin. I would argue that the reason for this, however, was not because fasting helps overcome the sin nature, but because fasting often depletes one's energy. They simply do not have the desire to sin, to exercise, to work, or much of anything! On a practical level the decreased temptation on a fast is not due to increased spirituality, but increased desire for food. Your normal temptation is simply overridden by your new temptation (desire) for food. Everything else takes a backseat! What is most revealing is that when the fast is over those sinful desires that were supposedly killed during the fast come back again. They are like weeds: you can pull them out but they come back again. Fasting cannot overcome the sinful desires of the heart. At best, it can only temporarily divert them until we resume our normal diet.
Our experience is not a good gauge for judging either the purpose or effectiveness of fasting. When two people begin to compare their fasting experiences they will often find that they have different experiences. Some feel energized during a fast whereas others feel weak and tired. Some individuals feel as though temptation is lessened during a fast whereas others feel it is heightened. These sorts of differences in experience highlights the fact that we cannot look to our own experience as a basis to discover the purpose and nature of fasting.
The underlying problem to these disputes is that when you get away from Scripture as the source for determining the nature and purpose of fasting the only standard you are left with for determining such things is your own experience. When experience is the standard the natural tendency is to use your own experience as the norm, and judge everyone else's experience against it. We presuppose that everyone else's experience would be, and indeed should be just like ours. If they describe an experience that differs from our own we are liable to dismiss it as non-genuine. The possibility that our experience is invalid, or that there may be multiple experiences doesn't usually enter one's mind. The only reason we have to believe that everyone's fasting experience should be the same is if the Bible described the fasting experience, and how people feel while on fasts. Unfortunately it doesn't.
The idea that we can be spiritually strengthened if we stop feeding our physical body is not Christian, but pagan. It comes from Platonic Dualism, not Scripture. Platonic Dualism teaches that all matter (including the body) is inherently evil, while the human spirit/soul is good. It is believed that when you withdraw from those things that bring gratification to your physical body (food, water, comfort, etc.) we can transcend our evil body and get in touch with our true spirit man (good). Scripture does not root sin in the body. Sin is rooted in the very spirit of man. No harsh treatment of the body can help our spiritual condition-only Christ.
Dying Out To Sin?
A stronger word needs to be spoken concerning the idea of "crucifying our flesh," or "dying out to sin." This concept is derived from a misinterpretation of several NT passages (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23; I Corinthians 15:31; Galatians 2:20; 5:24). Rather than examining each of these passages individually to demonstrate that none of them teach the concept, I will exegete Romans 6, a passage flatly contradicting this false interpretation.
Paul said believers have died to sin (6:2-8, 11) through their union with Christ which occurred at baptism (6:3-4). Paul argued that since Christ died to sin, and sin does not have the ability to rule over Him, we also have died with Him when we are buried into His death (6:3-12). The death to the dominion of sin (sin's controlling power) over us is a past reality.
All of the verbs speaking of our "death" occur in the aorist indicative, indicating that the action being described occurred sometime in the past. Believers are dead to sin. There is no need to continue to die to sin. One who is dead cannot be more dead than they already are. We are to consider ourselves dead to sin (v. 11), but this act of considering is based on the objective reality of our having died to sin at baptism. Nowhere does Paul teach that one must continue to die to sin. Believers are only exhorted to apply their death to sin's ruling power over their lives, to their lives in a life of holiness.
Other people fast so they can be anointed by God for ministry. It is believed that fasting somehow merits God's anointing. Some are of the persuasion that if they are not fasting, or have not recently been fasting, that God cannot use them. They use fasting as a sort of "results-insurance" that things will go the way they desire. This is a distorted concept of fasting. Fasting cannot do anything; God can do anything. God can do what He will whether we are fasting or not. God is concerned about our faith, not our fasting. We should not fast to get the results from God that we desire, but because the fast is the Lord's desire.
How Much Should We Fast?
Many a men have fasted themselves into sickness, and possibly even early death. They fast so often that they do themselves bodily harm. Is this wise? Is this Biblical? While we find men fasting in Scripture we are not typically told how often they fasted. We are usually told only of some particular instance of fasting. This may be insightful. If fasting was a part of one's weekly life we would expect to hear about it in Scripture. Take Jesus for example. Interestingly we only have record of Jesus fasting one time. Whether He fasted again cannot be ascertained, but it appears that He was not in the habit of fasting because the Pharisees laid on Him the charge of being a glutton (Luke 7:33-34). Surely Jesus was not a glutton, but such a charge could not be made if Jesus was known for His excessive fasting. Even Moses is only recorded as having fasted once.
Most people's beliefs about fasting are not derived from Scripture, but an imaginative interpretation of their own experience. The problem gets worse when they extrapolate that personal and experiential interpretation of their fasting experiences to make it standard Christian experience. The Scripture must remain our guide for our beliefs about fasting.
There is a Biblical precedent for fasting, and the Bible even describes the purposes for which we are to fast. Fasting in accordance to the Biblical model, with the right motives and right understanding is spiritual; however, any fasting we might engage in for non-biblical reasons is not spiritual, but carnal. Our goal in fasting is not to prove something to ourselves or to God, nor is it to make something happen. Our goal in fasting should be to glorify God in obedience to His will.
Appendix I: Textual Evidence for Common Fasting Passages
Mat 17:21 Howbeit this kind goes not out but by prayer and fasting.
It is included in Aleph (2nd correction), C (5th century, Byzantine), D (5th or 6th century, Western), L (8th century, agrees frequently with B), W (late 4th or early 5th century, Byzantine in this text), f1, f13, Byzantine texts.
A wide variety of manuscripts from both the Byzantine and Alexandrian families omit this entire verse. Since it is unlikely that it would have been intentionally omitted, it is most likely not original. It is likely that copyists harmonized this passage with Mark 9:29. The manuscripts omitting it are Aleph (mid 4th century, Alexandrian, before corrections), B (mid 4th century, Alexandrian), ?? (?ninth century, Byzantine in Matthew), 33 (9th or 10th century, Alexandrian), 892 (9th or 10th century, Alexandrian), et pauci.
Mark 9:29 And he said unto them, This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting.
Omitted in the Alexandrian and Western witnesses.
I Cor 7:5 Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency.
"Fasting" is included in Aleph (mid 4th century, Alexandrian, corrected version), K (9th or 10th century, Byzantine), L (8th century, agrees frequently with B), 88, 614 (13th century, Western), Byzantine, Lectionaries, Syriac Peshitta and Harklensis (from 6th and 7th century respectively), Gothic.
It is absent from a wide variety of textual families as well as a variety of translations: p11, Aleph (mid 4th century, Alexandrian, before corrections), B (mid 4th century, Alexandrian), C (5th century, Byzantine), D (5th or 6th century, Western), G (10th century, Byzantine), 33 (9th or 10th century, Alexandrian with Byzantine influence), 81 (1044 AD, Alexandrian), 104, 1739 (10th century, Alexandrian), Vulgate, Coptic (Bohairic and Sahidic), Armenian, Ethiopian, Old Latin.
Appendix II-What About Isaiah 58?
I have heard our people reference Isaiah 58 in sermons and books many times, but never once have I heard it interpreted with reference to its context. Our tendency is to spiritualize it so that it fits our traditional understanding of the purpose of fasting. We would do well to observe the passage in its context and let it speak for itself:
58:1 "Shout loudly! Don't be quiet! Yell as loud as a trumpet! Confront my people with their rebellious deeds; confront Jacob's family with their sin! 58:2 They seek me day after day; they want to know my requirements, like a nation that does what is right and does not reject the law of their God. They ask me for just decrees; they want to be near God. 58:3 They lament, 'Why don't you notice when we fast? Why don't you pay attention when we humble ourselves?' Look, at the same time you fast, you satisfy your selfish desires, you oppress your workers.
58:4 Look, your fasting is accompanied by arguments, brawls, and fist fights. Do not fast as you do today, trying to make your voice heard in heaven. 58:5 Is this really the kind of fasting I want? Do I want a day when people just humble themselves, bowing their heads like a reed and stretching out on sackcloth and ashes? Is this really what you call a fast, a day that is pleasing to the Lord? 58:6 No, this is the kind of fast I want. I want you to remove the sinful chains, to tear away the ropes of the burdensome yoke, to set free the oppressed, and to break every burdensome yoke. 58:7 I want you to share your food with the hungry and to provide shelter for homeless, oppressed people. When you see someone naked, clothe him! Don't turn your back on your own flesh and blood!
58:8 Then your light will shine like the sunrise; your restoration will quickly arrive; your godly behavior will go before you, and the Lord's splendor will be your rear guard. 58:9 Then you will call out, and the Lord will respond; you will cry out, and he will reply, 'Here I am.' You must remove the burdensome yoke from among you and stop pointing fingers and speaking sinfully. 58:10 You must actively help the hungry and feed the oppressed.
Then your light will dispel the darkness, and your darkness will be transformed into noonday. 58:11 The Lord will continually lead you; he will feed you even in parched regions. He will give you renewed strength, and you will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring that continually produces water. 58:12 Your perpetual ruins will be rebuilt; you will reestablish the ancient foundations. You will be called, 'The one who repairs broken walls, the one who makes the streets livable again. (Isaiah 58:1-12, NET Bible)
The Lord is concerned with Israel's sin and rebellion. While they say they want to know God they continue to live in ways that anger the Lord. They fast, but the Lord is not impressed because it is not the kind of fast He desires. He did not want people fasting with the psychological motive to move God's hand (one of our primary motives for fasting), nor was He impressed with their humbling of themselves in sackcloth and ashes. What God wanted was for them to do righteousness: stop fighting, stop satisfying their fleshly desires, stop oppressing their workers; to share their food with the hungry, provide shelter for the homeless, and clothe the naked. In other words, God was not concerned that they simply go without food. Fasting is not to be an inactive, "me-centered" experience. God sees fasting as an opportunity to redirect our concerns away from self and toward others. We are to be productive during our fasts by doing good to the less fortunate. When Israel would learn to fast like that the Lord would take notice, and He would restore them to their former glory.
We spiritualize the elements of this passage to make them personal benefits from fasting. Our focus is on what we can get out of fasting--the very thing the Lord was upset with! Furthermore, when we preach this passage we say fasting accomplishes the spiritual benefits promised by the Lord. This is a complete misreading of the text. It is clear that the Israelites were fasting, and yet they were not experiencing the list of blessings. If they could fast and not experience those blessings, then clearly the act of fasting cannot bring the blessings in itself. Something else is needed: repentance and righteous acts. That is what the Lord was concerned with. When Israel would repent and do right they would be corporately restored (as opposed to mere individual restoration).
There is nothing in this passage to suggest fasting produces spiritual benefits in our lives such as freeing us from spiritual oppression, making us humble, or helping us overcome our sinful desires. Such notions are based on a gross misreading of the text.
Appendix III-What About Psalm 35:13?
In Psalm 35:13 David said, "I have humbled my soul with fasting." Some have understood this passage to mean that fasting aids us in overcoming human pride. An examination of both the context and the Hebrew reveal that this is a misreading of the text.
The Hebrew word translated "humbled" is anah. The idea is that of "affliction," whether that affliction is caused by oneself or others. How does the self-affliction that comes via abstaining from food help us to trust in God rather than in ourselves (which is the true nature of humility)?
The context makes it clear that the affliction David brought on himself by abstaining from food was not for the purpose of combating his human pride. David was fasting because he wanted to stand in solidarity with his friends who were being afflicted with disease. His self-affliction via fasting was a sign of his mourning for them. As the NET Bible study note for Psalm 35:13 notes, "Fasting was also a practice of mourners. By refraining from normal activities, such as eating food, the mourner demonstrated the sincerity of his sorrow."
Willingly afflicting one's body by depriving themselves of food is perfectly Biblical, but that observation does not answer the question How does the afflicting of your body benefit you spiritually? The texts of Scripture that connect humbling with fasting do not seem to indicate that it will help anyone overcome general human and spiritual pride. Many people actually become spiritually proud because they fast!
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