What does the Bible teach about fasting?
Explore the purpose of fasting, why people fast in the Bible, and tips for fasting in your own life.
Originally published by Kenneth Berding on the Good Book Blog by Biola University.
Recently, a group of students from Biola University gathered together to fast and pray. The students wanted to fast and call out to God to do a work of the Holy Spirit on Biola’s campus during the coming year. But they wanted to know what the Bible taught about fasting first. Here’s an outline of what I shared with them.
- The Bible doesn’t command New Testament believers (like us) to fast, but still seems to assume that we will (Mark 2:20).
- The Bible doesn’t prescribe only one way to fast. For example: Daniel went three weeks without any tasty food (Dan. 10:3).
- Fasting doesn’t stand on its own; it is always linked with prayer.
- Fasting is not the key to getting our prayers answered. Fasting simply reminds us to pray, and humbles us in the presence of God—which is the only attitude with which we can approach God in prayer.
10 reasons why people people fast in the Bible
1. To “humble our souls” before God
Example: The children of Israel were commanded to fast on the annual Day of Atonement. The expression “humble their souls” shows up repeatedly in connection with the fasting expected on this day (Lev 16:29, 31; 23:27, 32; cf. Num 29:7).
2. To grieve or lament in the presence of God
Example 1: Hannah cried out to God and refused to eat when she went up to the temple after Peninnah provoked her about not having any children (1 Sam. 1:6-8).
Example 2: David and the people fasted and mourned the death of Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam. 1:11-12), and then again the death of Abner (2 Sam. 3:31-36).
3. To call out to God for help when we’re afraid
Example: When Jehoshaphat learned that a great Syrian army was coming against his people, we read that “Jehoshaphat was afraid and turned his attention to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah” (2 Chron. 20:3).
4. To release the bonds of the oppressed and share with the poor
Example: Isaiah 58:6-7, “Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him…?”
5. To ask God to answer a prayer
Example 1: Daniel fasted and prayed that God would return the people from exile in answer to God’s promise (Dan. 9:3f; cf. Neh. 1:4-11).
Example 2: Ezra and company fasted and prayed for protection before their long journey back to their homeland (Ezra 8:21-23).
Example 3: Esther called for the Jews in Susa to fast and pray on her behalf so that the king would receive her after learning that Haman planned to annihilate the Jews (Esther 4:16).
6. To ask God to reveal an interpretation
Example: Daniel fasted and prayed for three weeks for God to give him understanding of a vision (Dan. 10:2-3).
7. For corporate repentance and calling upon God for mercy
Example 1: After a locust plague had decimated the land, Joel called out, “Consecrated a fast…and cry out to the LORD!” (Joel 1:14; cf. 2:15).
Example 2: The Assyrians fasted when they heard that God was going to destroy Nineveh (Jonah 3:5).
Example 3: Nehemiah assembled the people to fast and confess their sin of intermarriage with pagan wives (Neh. 9:1).
8. As a regular discipline for someone to whom God has given a focused ministry of prayer
Example: Anna was an elderly widow in the temple “serving night and day with fastings and prayers” (Luke 2:36-37).
9. To resist temptation
Example: The Holy Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil; he fasted and prayed for forty days before the temptation (Matt 4:1-2; Luke 4:1-2).
10. For guidance
Example 1: The prophets and teachers were “ministering to the Lord and fasting” when the Holy Spirit told them to set apart Barnabas and Saul/Paul for missionary work (Acts 13:1-4a).
Example 2: Barnabas and Paul appointed elders in the churches they planted “having prayed with fasting” (Acts 14:23).
How should we fast?
We should fast humbly
Example 1: David wrote, “I humbled my soul with fasting” (Psalm 35:13).
Example 2: In the Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector, the Pharisee said these words—in prayer(!)—to God(!), “Thank you that I am not like other people … I fast twice a week … ” (Luke 18:12; cf. Isaiah 58:3-5).
Engaging the heart, not just the stomach
Example: Joel relayed God’s words, “‘Yet even now,’ declares the LORD, ‘Return to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, weeping and mourning; and rend your heart and not your garments’”(Joel 2:12).
Out of weakness and need
Example: David wrote, “For zeal for your house has consumed me, and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me. When I wept in my soul with fasting, it became my reproach. When I made sackcloth my clothing, I became a byword to them.” (Psalm 69:9-11). Elsewhere: “My knees are weak from fasting” (Psalm 109:24)
Privately, to whatever degree is possible
Example: “But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret …” (Matt. 6:17-18; cf. 6:16)
I hope this short summary of fasting in the Bible will help you the next time you consider fasting for prayer.