By Jerran Jackson and Lareesa Jackson
My mother decided, at age 83, to fast. She had been a Christian for seven decades. Mom had graduated from Minnesota Bible College, taught Sunday school, and served faithfully in the church all of her adult life. And she still wanted to keep growing. So she did some reading, started fasting, and ended up in the hospital. Her doctor told her never to skip meals or stop taking her medicine again. Mom felt like a spiritual failure because her fast didn’t last.
Fasting in the Bible
Jesus said, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do” (Matthew 6:16). Notice Jesus said, “When you fast,” not “If you fast.” Jesus expects his followers to fast. He also expects us to pray (v. 5) and to give to the needy (v. 2). We all pray, we all give, but few of us fast. Fasting is un-American. We live in a land of abundance. Ours is a culture of super-sized portions and movies on demand. We can understand folks in the ancient, arid Middle East fasting; but not here, not now.
Yet in the Bible, fasting comes up again and again. The first time we read about it, Israel fasted out of grief, repentance, and to bring a request to God. “Then the Israelites, all the people, 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. And the Israelites inquired of the Lord” (Judges 20:26, 27, NIV 1984).
Later, God speaks about fasting as a means of celebration and worship. “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘The fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months will become joyful and glad occasions and happy festivals for Judah’” (Zechariah 8:19). Jesus fasted to prepare himself for his ministry. “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry” (Matthew 4:1, 2). The Bible presents fasting as part of our response to God.
Ramon fasted to break his drug addiction. He had been selling and using drugs and decided to get out before he got killed. In addition, Ramon knew he needed to return to the Lord. Ramon enrolled in Bible college, but confessed to one of his classmates that he didn’t think he could make it; he was addicted. Norma assured Ramon that God could help him. She said they should fast and pray. Christ broke Ramon’s addiction, Ramon graduated from Bible college, and he married Norma. Ramon thanks God for what he did for him through fasting. And years later in response to God, Ramon continues to fast.
The Purpose of Fasting
The purpose of fasting is to draw closer to the Lord. In fasting, we humble ourselves before God. We focus our desire on living with him and for him, instead of on serving ourselves. We give up our normal routine or pattern for a time to open ourselves to the Lord and to be useful to him. Fasting is not about losing weight. It’s not about showing God how serious we are, or about getting God to grant us something. It’s about seeking the Lord and doing what he wants.
The Bible hints at different kinds of fasts. Most fasts in the Bible involve not eating for a while. Fasting may involve only the daylight hours. When David grieved over Abner’s murder, the Bible records, “They all came and urged David to eat something while it was still day; but David took an oath, saying, ‘May God deal with me, be it ever so severely, if I taste bread or anything else before the sun sets!’” (2 Samuel 3:35).
A person may go without food and water in a fast; his fast may be connected to prayer. The Pharisees complained to Jesus, “John’s disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but Yours go on eating and drinking” (Luke 5:33). Fasting can involve abstaining from only some foods or comforts. “At that time I, Daniel, mourned for three weeks. I ate no choice food; no meat or wine touched my lips; and I used no lotions at all until the three weeks were over” (Daniel 10:2, 3).
Mark, my college roommate, suggested we try fasting. We chose Wednesdays when we would have a full schedule of classes. We would drink water, but we would pray instead of eating on those days. On the first Wednesday, we prayed together through our normal breakfast time. At lunchtime, we prayed separately. Mark had to work over supper, but we prayed together when he got back to the apartment. Then we celebrated with pizza at midnight. The second Wednesday, we were extremely hungry so we ate at 11 p.m. (The sun was down!) On the third Wednesday, we gave in before 10 p.m. We finally decided to stop fasting because we felt faint, had headaches, and couldn’t study.
God’s Kind of Fast
Fortunately, God revealed that fasting is about more than food deprivation. The Lord said,
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 him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: “Here am I.” If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, 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 (Isaiah 58:6-10).
Fasting, according to God, involves righteousness and active concern for others. Fasting is designed to draw you into closer communion with God and thereby to change your heart and life. Fasting is something you do rather than something you don’t do. Maybe you could engage in God’s kind of fast in one of the following ways. You could take time out of your schedule to help and to pray for someone who is dealing with problems. You could serve a week at a church camp. You could make an extra financial commitment to your church or to a mission. You could provide temporary foster care. You could help in Vacation Bible School. You could mentor a student or a coworker. The focus of fasting is on drawing near to God by serving or honoring him.
The Effect of Fasting
My friend Paul decided to join his church in a group fast. All went well at first. But Paul began to feel unsettled, burdened, agitated, weighed down. Before long, Paul realized God was calling him to repent of his “God helps those who help themselves” attitude. The Lord wanted Paul to learn to trust him, to wait on him. God made Paul miserable in his fast in order to change him.
Jesus said, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 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” (Matthew 6:16-18).
Fasting is not to impress people with how spiritual you are. Fasting is between you and the Lord. It may be regular; it may be spontaneous. You may restrict food; you may change your routine in another way. Jesus taught us to fast so we could draw nearer to God. Fasting can be a lasting part of your life. So how will you draw near?
Jerran Jackson and Lareesa Jackson are a father and daughter writing team from Clarksburg, Indiana.
Resources for Fasting
“Prayer, Meditation, and Fasting” sermon series by John Piper
A Hunger for God: Desiring God Through Fasting
by John Piper
(Crossway Books & Bibles, 2013)
Fasting: Opening the Door to a Deeper, More Intimate, More Powerful Relationship with God
by Jentezen Franklin
(Charisma House, 2007)
Hunger Pains: A Woman’s Guide to a Spiritual Fast
by Cynthia Moe-Lobeda
The Power of Prayer and Fasting: God’s Gateway
to Spiritual Breakthroughs
by Ronnie Floyd
(B & H Publishing Group, 2010)
Helping Kids Pray: 52 Creative Ways to Help Kids
Talk to God
by Katie Barbee
(Standard Publishing, 2011)
“Route 52—Growing In Prayer”
(Standard Publishing, 2010)