FAQ: I know some Christians who often “fast,” that is, they go without eating for a period of time, usually while they are praying for a particular thing. I also hear many people on Christian television talking about fasting as if it is something that is spiritually beneficial. What does the Bible say about it? Does God say that we should fast?
Before we can accurately discuss the biblical information about fasting, we must understand that although when we speak of “fasting,” we usually mean going without food, that is not the only meaning it has in the Bible. Later in this article we will examine a second biblical meaning of “fasting,” which relates to self-humiliation, repentance, prayer, and doing good works.
There is no scriptural directive for Christians to “fast” by not eating food. In fact, God has never prescribed the practice of fasting for any of His people, either Israel or the Church. Nevertheless, some people think that God commands fasting. Furthermore, others who realize fasting is not a command of God practice it for a number of reasons such as: a tendency to want to save themselves by their works, to feel more valuable in the eyes of God, to try to gain God’s favor in a given situation, to prove to themselves that they really do love God, or to increase their self-discipline and prove they are not a slave to food. Also, there can be health benefits to fasting, although there are also reasons to be cautious about it, but that is not the focus of this article.
Through the centuries, fasting became such an important tradition in the Jewish religion that it was given the force of law. The Jews had many traditions that involved afflicting the flesh that were not commands of God, but which they kept as if they were. Many such traditions are mentioned in ancient Jewish literature but not in the Bible. Some are in the Bible, and even a cursory reading of the Gospels shows Jesus in conflict with the Jews about traditions that made people’s lives difficult, including Sabbath traditions (Matt. 12:10-12), traditions about helping parents (Matt. 15:3-6), and traditions involving cleanliness (Mark 7:1-6). Jesus also did not require his disciples to fast, something that confused the people of his time (Mark 2:18-20).
Even though fasting was a tradition, not a commandment, it was an important part of the Jewish religion and was also practiced by the early Christians, so it is mentioned many times in the Bible. For example, Zechariah mentions a public fast in the fourth, fifth, seventh, and tenth month (Zech. 8:19); Jesus mentions fasting in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:16-18); the Day of Atonement is called the “Fast” (Acts 27:9); and the early Christians fasted (Acts 13:1-3).
Fausset’s Bible Dictionary notes in its article on fasting (now Public Domain in Bibleworks) that fasting was not part of the Law of Moses.
The word (tsuwm) [“fast”] never occurs in the Pentateuch [Genesis – Deuteronomy]. The Mosaic Law, though directing minutely the foods to be eaten and to be shunned, never enjoins fasting. The false asceticism so common in the East was carefully avoided.
The Day of Atonement was traditionally a fast day in the Jewish religion, so it is called “the Fast” in Acts 27:9, but God never specifically commanded the Jews not to eat on that day. Fausset’s Bible Dictionary says:
On the yearly Day of Atonement, the 10th day of the 7th month, Israelites were directed to “afflict the soul” (Lev. 16:29-31; 23:27; Num. 30:13). This significant term implies that the essence of scriptural “fasting” lies in self-humiliation and penitence, and that the precise mode of subduing the flesh to the spirit, and of expressing sorrow for sin, is left to the conscientious discretion of each person.
The Day of Atonement was a day for people to “afflict your souls” (Lev. 16:29, 31 KJV), which other versions translate as “deny yourselves” (NIV), or “humble your souls” (NASB). The Hebrew word that the KJV translates “afflict” in Leviticus 16:29 and 31 means to “humble, overpower, subdue, oppress, or weaken,” depending on the context. The same Hebrew phrase occurs in the context of a woman making a vow to afflict her soul, which could be any vow she made that involved self-denial (Num. 30:13). Although over time the Day of Atonement became a day of fasting, God never specifically said people were to go without eating. Instead, people were to deny themselves, which different people would do in different ways.
Another reason people think the Bible commands not eating is that “fasting” wrongly appears in three places in widely read versions of the Bible. That is because during the centuries that monks and scribes controlled and copied the New Testament, the word “fasting” was added to some manuscripts in several places. This could have happened by accident, but the scribes may have added it on purpose, thinking it would help people in their walk with God, like the Jews who for the same purpose enforced their traditions as if they were laws. This is the position Fausset’s Bible Dictionary takes:
“Evidently the growing tendency to asceticism in post-apostolic times accounts for these interpolations [additions to the text].”
History shows us that what Fausset’s refers to as a “growing tendency to asceticism” or pious observance of regulations shows up in many ways besides fasting. Over time, many traditions that involved afflicting the flesh entered not only Judaism, as we have already seen, but also Christianity. For example, the Roman Catholic doctrine that priests not marry is a tradition that is not biblical (1 Tim. 3:2). Ditto for the regulation not to eat meat on Friday (which was done away with by the Roman Catholic Church in the late 1900s), and the tradition that many people follow when they get very dressed up to go to church on Sunday (a tradition that is less and less adhered to today).
It is important to be aware of the three verses where “fasting” was added to some of the Greek manuscripts, eventually finding their way into both Protestant and Roman Catholic Bibles, especially the earlier versions such as the King James Version, Geneva Bible, or Douay-Rheims. We will show each of them in both the KJV and a more modern version that recognizes the erroneous addition. For our modern version we will use the ESV (English Standard Version), which is the newest widely accepted essentially literal translation available today, although we would find the same thing in the vast majority of Protestant and Roman Catholic modern Bibles.
Matthew 17:21 (KJV) Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.
Matthew 17:21 (ESV)
Verse 21 does not even occur in the ESV, because the research done in the almost 400 years between the King James Version (1611) and the ESV (2001) to recover how the original Greek text reads shows that the whole verse in the KJV had been added by scribes to make Matthew more closely harmonize with Mark. In fact, the ESV does not even have a verse reference for verse 21, so unless a reader pays attention to the numbered verse order as he reads, he would not notice that verse 21 is not there.
Let’s continue to compare the older version with the modern one in the two verses below.
Mark 9:29 (KJV)
And he said unto them, This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting.
Mark 9:29 (ESV)
And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”
1 Corinthians 7:5 (KJV)
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.
1 Corinthians 7:5 (ESV)
Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
The addition of “fasting” in the above verses in widely read Bibles such as the King James Version has contributed to the idea that fasting was a command of God in certain situations.
We have seen that fasting was a man-made tradition that over time was given the force of a law. Another reason Christians fast by going without food is that we have a tendency to want to save ourselves by our works or gain the favor of God by what we do, and we think fasting gets God’s attention and demonstrates our love for Him. God does show favor to those who humble themselves before Him, as James 4:6 says: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” However, we must keep in mind that no verse of Scripture says that going without food is the kind of humility God wants from us. What God wants is what He has always wanted, that we deny ourselves in order to benefit others.
Isaiah 58 is a wonderful chapter about “fasting,” which contrasts pompous and pious fasting, which is just a show of the flesh, with the true fasting God expects from us. A careful study of the chapter shows that the people God was addressing were trying to look religious in the flesh, but were actually rebellious and sinful. God says to Isaiah, “Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins” (Isa. 58:1). The fleshly and hypocritical actions of the Israelites did not fool God, so He paid no attention to their fasting. God always looks on the heart, and does not respond to hypocritical actions, no matter how pious they look.
God’s lack of response to the people’s not eating prompted them to complain. They said, “Why have we fasted…and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?” God answered them in a way that showed their fasting was just a show in the flesh: “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” (Isa. 58:3 and 4).
Then comes a part of Isaiah 58 that we must pay special attention to, because God speaks of the kind of “fast” that He expects from people, and how He will bless us if we do good to others from the heart instead of making a prideful show in the flesh.
Isaiah 58:6, 7, 9 and 10
(6) “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?
(7) 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 him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
(9) …If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
(10) and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.
Through the prophet Isaiah, God tried to bring people back to what they should have learned from the Day of Atonement, that true “fasting” is not going without food, but denying ourselves by helping and serving others. This truth is taught again in Zechariah, in whose time the people had fasted regularly, and yet had many troubles. They sent to the priests and asked about their fasting, and were given the same kind of direction Isaiah had given: fasting was not refraining from food, but extending yourself for the sake of others.
Zechariah 7:4-6, 8-10 (NASB)
(4) Then the word of the LORD of hosts came to me saying,
(5) “Say to all the people of the land and to the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months these seventy years, was it actually for Me that you fasted?
(6) ‘And when you eat and drink, do you not eat for yourselves and do you not drink for yourselves?
(8) Then the word of the LORD came to Zechariah saying,
(9) “Thus has the LORD of hosts said, ‘Dispense true justice, and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother;
(10) and do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.’
These verses from Isaiah and Zechariah are the Old Testament equivalent of what Jesus spoke about when he said that anyone who wanted to follow him must deny himself (Luke 9:23), or when James said that pure and faultless religion is to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world (James 1:27). True humility is a matter of the heart, and is reflected in service to others.
In spite of the fact that fasting in the sense of going without food was not a command of God, Jewish tradition had given it such emphasis that most people considered it law. That is why in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “When you fast….” He was not commanding fasting, but acknowledging the common practice of the day. However, we can tell from what Jesus said that the religious leaders of his time were no different from those of Isaiah’s or Zechariah’s time; they were fasting to openly flaunt how spiritual they were and how much they loved God. In contrast, Jesus taught us that if we are going to fast, it is a private matter between God and us, and should not be made public.
(16) “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.
(17) But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face,
(18) so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
If going without food were necessary for our spiritual life, God or Jesus would have said so, but they did not. We do not have to go without food to obey God, but He does want us to “fast” by denying ourselves, like the Law, Prophets, and New Testament teach. If we go without food to try to get close to God while ignoring what He told us to do to get close to Him, we become like the Pharisees who rejected His commands and replaced them with their traditions (Matt. 15:1-3; Mark 7:5-9).
As long as we are “fasting” the way God has told us, by denying ourselves for the sake of others, it is fine to also go without food for some of the reasons we mentioned earlier: as an outward demonstration of the inward humble posture of our heart, to become clear-headed and focused on prayer or another spiritual goal, to attempt to gain God’s favor in a given situation, or to increase our self-discipline and prove we are not slaves to food. There is nothing wrong with any of these reasons for fasting, which through the centuries has been helpful for many people in their spiritual journey.
To put the practice of going without food in perspective, however, it will help if we realize that the Middle Eastern people had a number of customs besides fasting by which they demonstrated the humble or distressed posture of their heart, and that they were in need. One was to tear their clothes (Gen. 37:29, 34; 44:13; Num. 14:6; Josh. 7:6; Judg. 11:35; 1 Kings 21:27; Isa. 37:1). Another was to wear clothing made of “sackcloth,” a very rough and uncomfortable fabric that would be similar to our wearing clothing made out of burlap (Gen. 37:34; 1 Kings 21:27; 2 Kings 6:30; Esther 4:1; Isa. 37:1; Lam. 2:10). Another way was to sit in ashes or put ashes on themselves (2 Sam. 13:19; Esther 4:1, 3; Job 2:8; 42:6; Isa. 58:5; Dan. 9:3). Still another way was to put dust on their heads (Josh. 7:6; Job 2:12; Lam. 2:10; Ezek. 27:30; Rev. 18:19). God did not command any of these outward shows of humility and need, and none of these practices are essential for getting His attention, but neither are they forbidden. Anything we do to genuinely humble ourselves before God, subdue the power that our bodies and sin nature have over us, and increase our love for God and mankind, is fine with Him. Nevertheless, we should be sure that we “fast” the way God wants us to first, and only then fast or show our humility in other ways.
It we do choose to fast by going without food, it is important that we never consider it as a form of self-punishment for our sins. Jesus took on our punishment, and the chastisement of our peace was upon him. If God wanted us to punish ourselves for our sin, He would have made that perfectly clear. We all sin, and God has told us what to do in those cases: confess it and ask forgiveness (1 John 1:9). The Bible has examples of people fasting after they have sinned, but there is no reason to think they did so as a punishment, but rather to have time to focus on repentance and their walk with God (1 Sam. 7:6).
We live in a very self-centered culture, and our sin nature is relentlessly selfish. One way many people have become less self-centered and more Christ-centered, helped themselves focus on a petition before God, or helped themselves break the control that their fleshly desires had over them, was to fast. Many great men and women of the Bible fasted when they needed God’s help (2 Sam. 12:16; 2 Chron. 20:3; Ezra 8:21-23; Neh. 1:4; Esth. 4:16), and Jesus himself fasted in the desert for 40 days (Matt. 4:2). In each of these cases, fasting was something that the individual felt was important for his spiritual life and successful walk with God, and we must realize that as it helped them, it may possibly help us.
There are several common ways people practice fasting. One way is to go entirely without food. Another way is to fast from something that seems to have a control over us. For example, a person who craves chocolate may “fast” by giving it up for a period of time. We can even “fast” from non-food things that seem to have too much influence on us, such as watching TV, listening to a certain type of music, or sleeping late. These can be very effective ways to deny ourselves. There are many things we can give up for a while to help us focus on a petition before God, gain confidence that a request will be answered, or even just give us confidence that our flesh does not control our life.
What we learn by studying fasting in the Word of God flows in perfect harmony with what we know about God. No pious outward show we make in our flesh impresses God, for He looks on our heart. It is God’s desire that each of us learn to deny ourselves and serve others. In our efforts to live a life of service, it may be helpful to fast. If we do choose to do so, we must do it like Jesus taught us: as a private matter between God and us, and not as a display to others. Our goal is to be pleasing to God and helpful to others, which requires denying ourselves, which is the same instruction God gave us on the Day of Atonement.