Fasting is a spiritual discipline often overlooked. I don’t hear much about traditional fasting in church, though I have heard things like, “I’m going on a social media fast,” or “I’m going on a sugar fast.” And there’s nothing wrong with those. But the ancient practice of depriving oneself of food for extended periods of time, though gaining traction in the fitness world, is losing its place in the standard American Christian faith. But fasting can teach us how to get closer to God on several different levels. This post will outline the most prominent functions of fasting in the Bible, and hopefully inspire you to give it a try if you haven’t already.
Function #1: Fasting Over Big Decisions and Leadership Responsibilities
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” Moses was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments. - Exodus 34:27-28
As Moses listens for the pinnacle commandments on which the law of Israel will hinge for years to come, he fasts. He fasts perhaps as a way of focusing his full attention on God’s instruction. Like Moses, we can fast as a means of opening ourselves up to God’s direction and listening attentively for His commands.
We see a similar kind of fasting in the New Testament. In the early church, as God unfolded His radical plan for the rampant spreading of the gospel, church leaders fasted prior to receiving direction from the Spirit:
“Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. 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.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.” - Acts 13:1-3
The men fasted and prayed over Saul and Barnabas before sending them out to do the Lord’s work. Similarly, in the following chapter, Paul and Barnabas fast and pray over the appointment of church elders:
“Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.” - Acts 14:23
If we want to learn how to get closer to God, we must learn to recognize His voice. John 10:27 says, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” If we are to be His sheep, and if we are to truly “know” Him, we must become acquainted with His voice. We should know it when we hear it. And when we hear it, we should listen attentively. When we fast, we pave the way for receptive, humble, distraction-free listening.
Function #2: Fasting to Supplement Prayer When Facing a Challenge
“Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.” - Esther 4:16
Esther, before risking her life by appearing before the king to make a case for her people, asks Mordecai to have the people fast for her. We too, when facing a daunting challenge or danger, should fast. And if we’re blessed with the kind of community who will fast with us and for us, we should employ their help.
We also see Ezra fasting for deliverance for his people:
“There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions. I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, “The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him.” So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer.” - Ezra 8:21-23
In both Ezra’s and Esther’s cases, the prayers that were supplemented with fasting were answered. But in the following passage, we see a prayer, with fasting, go unanswered:
After Nathan had gone home, the Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife had borne to David, and he became ill. David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and spent the nights lying in sackcloth on the ground. The elders of his household stood beside him to get him up from the ground, but he refused, and he would not eat any food with them. - 2 Samuel 12:15-16
Here David fasts while praying that God would save the life of his child- a prayer which God does not fulfill. It’s important to note that fasting does not impose some kind of magic power that supercharges our prayers. However, that doesn’t mean fasting is useless. Here David’s fast still served as a purifying spiritual practice, even if it did not yield an immediate earthly result. Remember, our ultimate goal in fasting is to learn how to grow closer to God.
Function #3: Fasting in Repentance and Mourning
The most common purposes for fasting mentioned in the Bible are repentance for sin and mourning for misfortune. Twice we see David fasting as an expression of mourning for others:
● Then David and all the men with him took hold of their clothes and tore them. They mourned and wept and fasted till evening for Saul and his son Jonathan, and for the army of the Lord and for the nation of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword. - 2 Samuel 1:11-12
● Ruthless witnesses come forward; they question me on things I know nothing about. They repay me evil for good and leave my soul forlorn. Yet when they were ill, I put on sackcloth and humbled myself with fasting. When my prayers returned to me unanswered, I went about mourning as though for my friend or brother. I bowed my head in grief as though weeping for my mother. - Psalm 35:11-14
Like David, we can fast as a way of mourning for the misfortunes of others. Romans 12:15 instructs us to “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” As we learn how to get closer to God, we must learn to draw near to those who are suffering as He does. Fasting is a way of putting ourselves through physical discomfort so that we can be in solidarity with those who have experienced lack, pain, or loss. (If you have a loved one in mourning right now, take a look at our subscription box selection, and consider sending them a gift to raise their spirits.)
But we also see several cases of fasting as an expression of not just mourning, but repentance, or mourning for one’s sin:
● “Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. Who knows? He may turn and relent and leave behind a blessing—grain offerings and drink offerings for the Lord your God. - Joel 2:12-14
● The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish. Jonah 3:5-9
● 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. Then I said: “Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. - Nehemiah 1:3-6
● Dogs will eat those belonging to Ahab who die in the city, and the birds will feed on those who die in the country.” (There was never anyone like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord, urged on by Jezebel his wife. He behaved in the vilest manner by going after idols, like the Amorites the Lord drove out before Israel.) When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and 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 21:24-29
This last one is my favorite. Having already received a harsh condemnation from God, Ahab went into mourning, repentance, and fasting. Because of this, God noticed his humility and spared judgment.
It’s one thing to fast when we need God’s help with making a big decision or overcoming a lofty challenge. But there’s something beautiful about fasting out of repentance- making a deliberate, physical effort to humble ourselves before God and mourn for our own sin.
The idea of fasting and mourning for our own sin might sound melodramatic, but the idea behind it is that we are agreeing with God that what we did was sinful. We show Him that we are not going to overlook our sin or dismiss it as irrelevant or miniscule. We take it seriously enough to put ourselves through physical discomfort- not as a way of punishing ourselves, but as a way of starving the flesh that brought us into sin in the first place.
And that leads us to our next point.
Function #4: Fasting to Starve the Flesh
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’” - Luke 4:1-4
Notice that the devil tempts Jesus with food after Jesus has been fasting. You would think that Jesus would be extra-susceptible to the temptation after having fasted for so long. Yet He remains self-controlled. I would argue that His fast strengthened His ability to resist the temptation of food.
Ironically, when we fast, we starve our flesh. Jesus had been starving His flesh, so that when the temptation came along, although His body may have been starving, He had developed a firm control of His fleshly desires.
How Not to Fast
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others 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 others 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
Here Jesus warns against fasting as a means of flaunting piety. Fasting should be between us and God, or it can be done in an earnest community of believers with a common goal. But it is not something we do for our own glory. With fasting, as with everything, God’s glory should be the end goal.
In Isaiah, we see a critical reminder of the pointlessness of fasting when it’s made into a mere ritual and unaccompanied by the greater virtues of love and kindness:
‘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?
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. - Isaiah 58:3-9
In essence, fasting should only augment a life of peace, generosity, kindness, love, and harmonious fellowship. We cannot abuse it as a ritual and expect to see results if our overall lifestyle is completely amiss.
As we learn how to get closer to God, we should keep in mind that nothing can stunt our intimacy with Him faster than pride. The parable below cautions against allowing fasting to feed pride:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” - Luke 18:9-14
While fasting can be an expression of humility before God, the act alone does not make us humble. Our heart still needs to be in the right place. As we see in this parable, the Pharisee was prideful, and the fact that he regularly fasted fed into his pride. We must never be proud of ourselves for having the discipline or the piety to fast. Rather, we do it because we want to draw closer to God. With empty stomachs, we make room to be filled with Him.
If you’re new to fasting and wanting some practical tips on getting started, here’s a helpful article.
Have you ever fasted before?
If so, what was your experience? Let us know in the comments!
Erica Baker is a blogger and devotional writer, helping churches and faith-based businesses put their ideas in writing.
She is passionate about pointing women to God's Word and empowering them to take fierce ownership of their discipleship to Jesus.