Fasting

Preaching and Worship Resources about Fasting

One of the classic spiritual disciplines, fasting is deliberate abstinence from solid (and, in rigorous fasts, liquid) food for a period of time that would ordinarily have included meals.

In Scripture

Moses "When I [Moses] went up the mountain to receive the stone tablets, the tablets of the covenant that the Lord made with you, I remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights; I neither ate bread nor drank water" (Deut. 9:9).

Elijah "[Elijah] got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God" (1 Kings 19:8).

Esther "Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, `Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish'" (Esther 4:15 - 16).

Daniel "I had eaten no rich food, no meat or wine had entered my mouth, and I had not anointed myself at all, for the full three weeks" (Dan. 10:3).

Sanctify a fast "Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly" (Joel 2:15).

Hypocritical fasting "Say to all the people of the land and the priests: When you fasted and lamented in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted?" (Zech. 7:5).

Feeding on the word of God "[Jesus] answered, `It is written, "One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God"'" (Matt. 4:4).

Private fasting "`And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward'" (Matt. 6:16).

Feasting and fasting "Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, `Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?' And Jesus said to them, `The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast'" (Matt. 9:14 - 15).

Public fasting "`I [a Pharisee in Jesus' parable] fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income'" (Luke 18:12).

Satisfied by doing God's work "But [Jesus] said to them, `I have food to eat that you do not know about.' So the disciples said to one another, `Surely no one has brought him something to eat?' Jesus said to them, `My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work'" (John 4:32 - 34).

Paul "For three days [after his conversion, Saul — later called Paul] was without sight, and neither ate nor drank" (Acts 9:9).

The Holy Spirit speaks "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'" (Acts 13:2).

I will not be dominated by anything "`All things are lawful for me,' but not all things are beneficial. `All things are lawful for me,' but I will not be dominated by anything" (1 Cor. 6:12).

Their god is the belly "For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things" (Phil. 3:18 - 19).

Points to Ponder

Surprisingly common To the uninitiated, fasting is surprisingly common among the people of God, among them Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Anna, Jesus, Paul, Luther, Calvin, Knox, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney and countless others.

Distinct from dieting Fasting is distinct from dieting and from hunger strikes. People undertake diets and hunger strikes from various physical and political motives, but undertake fasts to turn their hearts toward God.

Supernatural support Since the body cannot go without water for more than a few days, the fasts by Moses (Deut. 9) and by Elijah (1 Kings 19) would have needed supernatural support.

Voluntary spiritual discipline Fasting is a voluntary spiritual discipline. There are no commands in Scripture to fast, unlike, for example, to pray or to give generously. But in Matthew 6, Jesus speaks first of giving alms ("do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing") and then of prayer ("do not heap up empty phrases") and then of fasting ("do not look dismal"), as if these are all natural practices for a believer. Almsgiving, prayer and fasting are treated by Jesus as the same sort of thing — namely, regular spiritual discipline. And while Jesus does not command fasting, he does in Matthew 9 state his expectation that after his departure his disciples will fast.

A genuine fast is God-centered. The idea is to isolate and celebrate our sheer dependence on God for life itself, and to increase our hunger and thirst for God. As the desert fathers already knew, human appetites are linked. Abandoning gluttony, the desert fathers counseled fasting as a deliberate deprivation that would sharpen the hunger for God and the desire to feast on God. "Fasting is feasting," which is why Jesus tells his disciples not to look dismal while fasting.

Breaks down our idolatry Both Richard Foster and Dallas Willard, following centuries of Christian reflection, state that among the spiritual benefits of fasting is that it reveals and breaks down our idolatry to food and to other gods. A fast brings to the surface the things that control us and undermines them. Fasting teaches us "how powerful and clever our body is in getting its own way against our stronger resolves."

Freedom Like every classic spiritual discipline, the goal of fasting is freedom. Discipline is not the enemy of freedom; discipline is the very basis of freedom. Discipline takes aim at our bondage in order to break it.

Contentment When freedom from idolatry arrives, so does a kind of contentment. Our comfort food is now the blessed word of God. And contentment can spread. Foster cites Elizabeth O'Connor, who recounts how once she had fasted she became content, too, when she was too warm or too cool or had to stand up on the bus. On the other hand, she became much more mindful of the sufferings of Jesus, and of hungry people all over the globe. She began to feel compassion for them and to pray for them. Once a Christian starts fasting, her whole spiritual landscape starts to shift in healthy directions.


Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.