Christian Fasting

A Meditation on Fasting Prayer

Christian Fasting

"Then Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah" 2 Chronicles 20:3.

Fasting is found in both the testaments as a practice of God’s people. It is often coupled with prayer. Fasting refers to abstaining from food either fully or partially for the sake of seeking God with undivided devotion. Fasting is found in the Bible as practiced by individuals in private (e.g.: David in 2Sam.12:16; Daniel in Dan.9:3) as well as the whole assembly of God’s people in public (e.g.: Joel.1:4).  It is the latter we are studying today.

Fasting in the Old Testament

In the Law, Moses commanded an annual mandatory fast on the Day of Atonement (Lev.16:29, 23:29). In addition to this, there are several instances when Israel is called to collectively fast like in 1Sam.7:5-6, Joel 2:12; all signifying repentance for their sins.

In Ezra 9 and Nehemiah 9 we see fasting accompanying the work of reformation. As Ezra fasted and led the congregation in confession and prayer, the people repented of their lack of separation and reformed their lives. In Nehemiah 9 with fasting, they heard the word expounded and it led to the reformation of their worship.

In Esther, we see fasting as God’s people sought God in a time of emergency. They were in imminent danger and they cried to God for deliverance with fasting. Even the passage we began with (2Chron.20:3) is an emergency fast seeking God for deliverance from the enemy.

Fasting in the New Testament

Unlike the Old Testament, the New Testament does not command a mandatory fast on a special day or season. Under the gospel dispensation, there is only one day that is to be set apart as holy, which is the Lord’s day. Unlike what many churches do, there is no church calendar in the Bible.

However we do find fasting being practiced in the New Testament and though it is not commanded, it is expected of believers (Mat.6:16). Our Lord taught that fasting would be done by His followers when He leaves and until He returns (Mat.9:14-17). Fasting and prayer are coupled together when it comes to ordaining men to the eldership of a church (Acts 14:23) and commending men to mission work outside the church (Acts.13:1-3). In other words, the principle is that the church is expected to fast out of her desperate longing for the Lord, and while making crucial decisions concerning her life and ministry.

Warnings Regarding Fasting

The Bible not only contains positive instructions and examples of fasting but also issues caution and warning against wrong ways of doing it. In the Old Testament, the Lord condemns fasting that is merely ritualistic and legalistic, without any humility or holiness of the heart (Isa.58:3-7; Zech.7:5).In the New Testament, our Lord clearly taught us to avoid hypocrisy when we fast (Mat.6:16-18). For our Lord, trying to impress people by boasting about one’s fasting is a mark of the Pharisee (Lk.18:12). Rather, believers are to fast secretly before their Heavenly Father (Mat.6:18). In other words, more than what is not going into your belly, what is coming out of your heart is of supreme importance to our Lord. Motive is always more important to the Lord than the manner of our praying.

The New Testament also teaches very clearly against the dangers of asceticism and ritualism (Rom.14; Col.2). Mandatory, seasonal fasting on set days of a year, a practice that crept into the church during the early church period, is thus to be avoided in light of the New Testament. During the Reformation, this is exactly what our Protestant fathers did. Luther, for e.g. says “We do not, therefore, object to fasting in itself, but to the fact that it is represented as a necessary duty and that specific days have been fixed for its performance.

The important thing in fasting is prayer, not mere abstinence from food. We fast in order that we may pray more and hence all the glorious results of fasting prayer, is due to devout intercessory prayer to God. Christians ought to be doing intercessory prayer at all times, but sadly it is mostly during certain times of fasting that we all really engage in it and are then amazed at how wonderfully God answers our prayers. Some of the unnecessary elevations of fasting as some magical discipline that guarantees answered prayers are due to a lack of exposure to deep prayer in the normal course of our Christian life. As John R. Mott observed, "The Church has not yet touched the fringe of the possibilities of intercessory prayer. Her largest victories will be witnessed when individual Christians everywhere come to recognize their priesthood unto God and day by day give themselves unto prayer."

Regarding prayer, Calvin once gave four guidelines on how New Testament believers should pray: Believers should pray reverently and not casually; earnestly and not coldly; humbly and not presumptuously; confidently and not doubtfully. Such prayer leads us to move from being merely knowledgeable to being truly godly. As John Newton noted, "The Lord alone can give us the true, vital, comforting, and useful knowledge of His own truths. We may become wise in ideas, and so far masters of a system of doctrine, as to be able to argue, object, and fight in favor of our own hypothesis, by dint of application and natural abilities, but we rightly understand what we say only if we have a spiritual perception of it wrought in our hearts by the power of the Holy Ghost. It is not by noisy disputation, but by humble waiting upon God in prayer and a careful perusal of His holy Word, that we are to expect a satisfactory, experimental, and efficacious knowledge of the truth as it is in Jesus."

When we pray properly, with all seriousness and faith, manifesting our love for God and man, accompanied with fasting, the Lord works both inside and outside the church, bringing glory to His Name. Amen.

Questions to ask ourselves:

  1. Am I fasting in order to pray? More than my body, is my heart ready to seek the Lord diligently in prayer?
  2. Fasting accompanies prayer to mark our humility and brokenness of heart before the Lord. Is that how I am fasting today?
  3. Fasting accompanies prayer in times of crisis, either physical or spiritual. Is that why I am fasting today?