Spiritual Disciplines: How Do We Fast?
Afflict your souls
What does fasting look like? In short, it varies in appearance. Completely giving up food and sometimes also drink is called a full fast. This is the primary way in which fasting was practiced. When fasting is referenced, it is likely referring to a full fast. In Jonah 3, Nineveh “proclaimed a fast” (v. 5), which is later clarified by saying, “Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water” (v. 7). Here it is made clear the fast included abstaining from food and drink, but other times the text only says that the person was going without food without any reference to drink.
A full fast is not the only way abstaining from food was practiced. In Daniel 10:2-3 it says, “In those days I Daniel was mourning three full weeks. I ate no pleasant bread, neither came flesh nor wine in my mouth, neither did I anoint myself at all, till three whole weeks were fulfilled.” Where it says “bread,” it means food in general. Daniel was still eating and drinking, but he gave up part of his diet in order to mourn. This type of practice has been called a partial fast. There is a range of partial fasts that can be practiced. One type is called a juice fast where one gives up all food but still drinks juice over the period of the fast. This allows believers to still feel the pangs of hunger, but some nutrients are being provided. Other partial fasts could include giving up meat or sugar or anything else that would still bring about the effects of mourning and denial. Creativity is allowed in exploring fasting. For those who are pregnant or have diabetes or other health issues, partial fasts could be a way for them to participate in fasting without causing severe health complications, but a doctor should be consulted in cases such as these. Partial fasts are also a way to extend the length of one’s fast. Fatigue quickly sets in during full fasts, so eating some food can extend the period of time without severe fatigue.
There is also freedom to abstain from other things other than food. In 1 Corinthians 7:5 it says, “Defraud ye [husbands and wives] 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.” Here Paul suggests that giving up sexual relations with one’s spouse can accompany a fast. Thus, we see that giving up something good and beneficial for a period of time can be used in a similar way to fasting. Caution needs to be given here. Fasting is not an excuse for overindulgence. If someone feels that they are overindulging on social media for example, to the extent that they are sinning, giving it up would not be fasting. If something is causing one to sin, then it needs to be cut back or cut out. This common Christian experience should not be seen as fasting.
What one abstains from is not the end we seek in fasting. The mechanics of how one fasts is not the ultimate concern. The goal for fasting is to afflict our souls. This is found in Leviticus 16, which explains the Day of Atonement. This is the only time where God commands a fast to be put on the Jewish calendar year. It says, “And this shall be a statute for ever unto you: that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, ye shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all” (v. 29). Historically Jews would fulfill this command to “afflict their souls” by fasting (see Acts 27:9). This then seems to be the basic principle for what fasting should result in: “ye shall afflict your souls.” This can be seen also in Ezra 8:21: “Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river of Ahava, that we might afflict ourselves before our God.”
Fasting is often accompanied with some sort of petition. The times mentioned above where they fasted and mourned over sin is usually coupled with a petition for mercy from God. The times of sickness are often coupled with a petition for healing, and the times of impending danger are coupled with petitions for God’s salvation. Fasting, however, is not always done with a petition, such as when people grieved over the death of someone (e.g. 1 Sam 31:13), nor is petition always done with fasting. Petitions are coupled with fasting when the severity of the situation naturally requires it. God grieves over sin, death and the brokenness that has resulted from sin. Fasting draws us closer to having the same feelings as God does during grievous times. While we don’t necessarily fast for an effect, it is not uncommon for an effect to occur because we’ve aligned ourselves with God’s heart and petitioned Him regarding our brokenness.
At the heart of fasting is a longing for God to mend the brokenness. We fast over bent and broken realities in the present world as a deep longing petition that Christ would reconcile all things. When our future hope becomes our reality, there will no longer be a reason to mourn or petition through fasting.
Another aspect of fasting relates to the period of time that one should fast. We must remember that fasting is not a magical formula and does not always produce exact, desired results. The examples in the Bible show great diversity: from morning until the evening (Judges 20:26), for a day (1 Sam 7:6), for three days (Est 4:16), for seven days (1 Sam 31:13), for three whole weeks (Dan 10:3), for forty days and nights (Exo 34:28). The typical length seems to be for a day, but longer periods happen during times where the circumstances call for a greater length. There are times where there seems to be a prescribed time period over which the people fast, such as the Day of Atonement each year, and there are other times when the length is determined by the reason for the fast. The basic principle learned here is that the severity of the situation determines the severity of the fast. This principle is clearly seen in 2 Sam 12 where David is told that his child would die (v. 14). David fasts and pleads to God (v. 16), but on the seventh day, the child dies (v. 18). When David heard the news, he stops his fasting (v. 20). The circumstances that cause the reason for fasting may be useful in determining the length of the fast.
Guard your expectations
Since fasting is primarily a response, it is more focused on the cause rather than on a hopeful effect. We should not fast with an attitude which says, “See God, I am fasting, therefore you ought to do something.” Fasting does not put God at our mercy but rather, we are putting ourselves at His mercy. Whatever effect does happen as a result of fasting, we can be sure it is due to our personal alignment with God and not that we endured hunger pains. Therefore, fast because your circumstances demand it, but guard your expectations of the results or effects. This concept wonderfully frees us to fast.
Fasting is not solely a personal endeavor. It is not a time for us to turn inward, but instead to turn outward towards others. If our intent is to look spiritual then we are off on the wrong foot. Isaiah reprimands Judah for fasting without care for the needy. Consider the text out of Isaiah 58. “Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not? wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge? Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact all your labours. Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness: ye shall not fast as ye do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high. Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?” (Isa 58:3-7). When we fast we should be aware of the needs of others and be ready to serve them. Since mourning is at the heart of the purpose of fasting, then we could fast to lean into the pain others experience and plead to God on their behalf.
Fasting can be done individually as well as corporately. The majority of the fasting references in the Bible deal with corporate fasting. For example, Esther asked others to fast with her before she went before the king. The Day of Atonement fast was practiced by the congregation. Jehoshaphat proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. (2 Ch 20:3). The church fasted in Acts 13. It is not uncommon to see fasting practiced in community. Yet Jesus’s warning in Matthew 6 must be carefully considered. “Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly” (Matt 6:16-18). This passage shows the great importance of stewarding how we personally fast. Fasting is something that can easily produce spiritual pride. In short, our fasts are God directed. This can be done individually or in a group. Fasting should never be done to win affection or attention from others. There will be circumstances where it is appropriate for a group of people to fast together. It could be a couple or a group of friends. It could be a family or even an entire church or country. Whoever is affected by the grievous event and is willing to join can be asked to fast.
- What is one way you can “afflict your soul” in a fast?
- Are there biological limitations you have that should be considered when determining how you fast?
- Why does loosening us from expectations free us to fast?
- Do you feel comfortable enough with fasting to ask someone to fast with you? If not, what needs to be done to get to that point?
- While fasting may not primarily be done to achieve some effect, why do we often see an effect that rises from the fasting practice?
A Guide to Fasting
What follows is a step-by-step guide which is not meant to be used in a mechanical manner. This is simply a guide to help you think through how to start applying fasting in a practical and useful way.
Step 1: Consider brokenness that troubles you.
As discussed above, fasting is a response to times of sin, sickness, death, danger, and anything else that causes one to be in a state of humility. This step is the launching pad into the actual practice of fasting.
- What brokenness do you or others endure?
- What situations or loved ones do you grieve over?
- What personal needs cause you sorrow?
- Lack of love
- Lack of wisdom
Step 2: Determine if you will fast alone or with others.
Step 3: Determine a level of fasting that is appropriate.
- What will you abstain from?
- How long will you abstain from it?
Step 4: Determine when to fast.
There are no hard fast rules here. Fasting may begin spontaneously when a grievous event takes place. However, there may be occasions where determining a time will be more orderly. By planning a fast you may be able to select a day when proper focus can be devoted to the practice.
Step 5: Follow through
Carry out your fast.
- Afflict your soul by means of fasting
- Accompany it with prayer
- Guard your expectations for effect
To view the complete PDF, click here.
For Further Information:
Biblical Fasting by HarvestCall
What is the Purpose of Fasting by Donald Whitney
Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words: Fast, Fasting
Kirk Plattner: 2019-02-07 – Topical; ISU Bible Study
Author: Scot McKnight
Join McKnight as he explores the idea of “whole-body spirituality,” in which fasting plays a central role. This ancient practice, he says, doesn’t make sense to most of us until we have grasped the importance of the body for our spirituality, until we can view it as a spiritual response to a sacred moment. Fasting―simple, primitive, and ancient―still demonstrates a whole person’s earnest need and hunger for the presence of God, just as it has in the lives of God’s people throughout history.