So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with Him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes – Daniel 9:3
Throughout the Bible we most often find God’s people turning to fasting as the natural, inevitable response to a grievous sacred moment in life, such as death, sin and tragedy. But other times a fast is not a spontaneous reaction and we have time to prepare to respond both physically and spiritually.
Fasting is not an end in itself, but a means of focusing our minds and bodies for a spiritual reason. Whenever we fast, we must do so for a reason that is mentioned or modeled in the Bible. Here are ten primary purposes for fasting mentioned in Scripture:
- TO STRENGTHEN PRAYER; “So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer.” – Ezra 8:23
Numerous incidents in the Old Testament connect fasting to prayer, especially intercessory prayer. Fasting does not change whether God hears our prayers, but it can change our praying. As Arthur Wallis says, “Fasting is calculated to bring a note of urgency and importunity into our praying, and to give force to our pleading in the court of heaven.”
- TO SEEK GOD’S GUIDANCE; “Then all the Israelites, the whole army, went up to Bethel, and there they sat weeping before the Lord. They fasted that day until evening and presented burnt offerings and fellowship offerings to the Lord.” – Judges 20:26
As with prayer, fasting to seek God’s guidance isn’t done to change God but to make us more receptive to His guidance.
- TO EXPRESS GRIEF; “Then they took their bones and buried them under a tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and they fasted seven days.” – 1 Samuel 31:13
Expressing grief is one of the primary reasons for fasting. Ever notice that when you’re moved to tears by grief you lose the urge to eat? When we grieve, our family and friends often have to plead with us to eat because our body’s appropriate response to grief is to fast. A prime example occurs in 2 Samuel 1:12, where David and his men are described as having “mourned and wept and fasted till evening” for their friends, their enemies and their nation.
- TO SEEK DELIVERANCE OR PROTECTION; “Alarmed, Jehoshaphat resolved to inquire of the Lord, and he proclaimed a fast for all Judah. The people of Judah came together to seek help from the Lord; indeed, they came from every town in Judah to seek Him. – 2 Chronicles 20:3 – 4
Another common reason for fasting in the Old Testament was to seek deliverance from enemies or circumstances. In Scripture, this type of fast is generally carried out with other believers.
- TO EXPRESS REPENTANCE AND A RETURN TO GOD;“When they had assembled at Mizpah, they drew water and poured it out before the Lord. On that day they fasted and there they confessed, “We have sinned against the Lord.” Now Samuel was serving as leader of Israel at Mizpah.” -1 Samuel 7:6
This type of fasting helps us to express grief over our sins and shows our seriousness about returning to the path of godly obedience.
- TO HUMBLE ONESELF BEFORE GOD; “When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackclothand fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly. Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite: “Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before Me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son.” – 1 Kings 21:27 – 29
“Remember that fasting itself is not humility before God,” reminds Donald Whitney, “but should be an expression of humility.”
- TO EXPRESS CONCERN FOR THE WORK OF GOD; “They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.”- Nehemiah 1:3 – 4
As with Nehemiah, fasting can be a tangible sign of our concern over a particular work God is doing.
- TO MINISTER TO THE NEEDS OF OTHERS; “Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? – Isaiah 58:3 – 7
We can use time we’d normally spend eating to fast and minister to others.
- TO OVERCOME TEMPTATION AND DEDICATE YOURSELF TO GOD; “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. The tempter came to Him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took Him to the holy city and had Him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” He said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command His angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.’” Then the devil left Him, and angels came and attended Him.” – Matthew 4:1 – 11
Fasting can help us focus when we are struggling with particular temptations.
- TO EXPRESS LOVE AND WORSHIP FOR GOD; “and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.” – Luke 2:37
Fasting can show, as John Piper says, that “what we hunger for most, we worship.”
PREPARING TO FAST
How should we equip ourselves when God calls us to “declare a holy fast”? Here are some four things to consider as you prepare for fasting:
- PRAY AND CONFESS YOUR SINS
A necessary step before fasting is to humble yourself before God – Psalm 35:13 and confess your sins – 1 Samuel 7:6. Prayer should be our sustenance throughout the fast, but it is imperative we begin the fast with a contrite heart.
- TURN TO SCRIPTURE
Spend additional time meditating on God’s Word, before and during the fast. – Psalm 119:15
- KEEP IT SECRET
Fasting is unbiblical and even spiritually harmful when we do it to show off our spirituality – Matthew 6:16 – 18 or when we focus more on our own fasting than on the clear needs of others – Isaiah 58:1 – 11. Don’t boast about your fast; tell people you won’t be eating only if necessary. Fasting should not be done when imposed for false motives – 1 Samuel 14:24-30.
- PREPARE YOUR BODY
Fasting, especially for days or weeks, can have unexpected and even detrimental effects on your health. There is no scriptural warrant for harming yourself to undergo a fast. Be sure to consult a doctor before starting any fasting regimen to make sure you can fast in a healthy manner.
Fasting is an appropriate bodily reaction to the grievous state of our soul. If it is done correctly you can expect many results, including growing closer to God, feeling more solidarity with those who suffer, and increasing self-control.
Rather than wondering whether you should fast, ask why you would want to miss out on the Father’s reward.
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