Being on break from school gives me the opportunity of doing some self study on different subjects or topics and having a blog like this lets me write about them. When thinking about Christian practices and disciplines, the one that I am least familiar with is the practice of fasting. Of course, I know the basics of fasting (abstain from eating and drinking or some other thing, usually relating to prayer), but I do not fully understand the aspect of it, specifically like how on decides to start fasting, how often, etc. So without further ado, this is my personal study on fasting.
The word “fast” in Hebrew is צוֹם (tsowm) for the noun, צוּם (tsuwm) for the verb. In Koine Greek, the word is νῆστις (nēstis) and νηστεία (nēsteia) for the noun, νηστεύω (nēsteuō) for the verb, and ἄσιτος (asitos) for the adjective. Another phrase that is used to describe fasting is “neither eat food nor drink water” or some different form of the phrase. There are times in the Bible when these words can mean that they would not eat or drink due to involuntary circumstances, like lack of food (Matthew 15:32), but in this particular study, we are focusing on the voluntary practice.
What is fasting?
Fasting is the abstaining of a certain object or part of one’s lifestyle in order for one to put more focus on God. It is a demonstration of the commitment of devotion and reliance towards God that one is willing to neglect something of this world to focus on the relationship that one has with God. In scripture, much of fasting is relating to the fasting of food. However, it does not have to be a fast of food. Technically, the Sabbath was established as a fast from work. Another example of fasting other than food is in 1 Corinthians 7, where it is suggested that husband and wife should deprive from sex for a limited time to devote to prayer when Paul was talking about the topic of marriage and the temptations of sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 7:5). We also see in scripture that prayer and fasting are usually seen beside each other. We see that fast and prayer work hand in hand with the purpose of wanting to be closer to God and depend on God. Fasting is done in a certain period of time. It could be 1 day, a couple days, a week, etc. It should not, however, be a length of time that would cause harm to the body. For example, for food, one should be aware of how long one can handle without food.
When do people in the Bible fast? (Some of these may overlap)
- Find time for personal devotion/Being with God. Jesus went into the wilderness and fasted for forty days and nights (Matthew 4); Moses fasting for forty days and nights when up on the mountain before receiving the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 9:9).
- In preparation for something to come; asking God for help. Examples would be Esther calling for a fast of three days before she approaching the king’s throne (Esther 4); I would also say Paul’s fast before he became a follower of Christ is another example (Acts 9:9). David was fasting for his child through his affair with Bathsheba, begging for mercy hoping that God would be gracious to him (2 Samual 12).
- When encountering important decisions. We see examples of this during the early church. When the Church made the decision to send Paul and Barnabas to go on their first missionary trip, they were praying and fasting (Acts 13:2); when they appointed elders in a local church (Acts 14:23).
- When mourning. Nehemiah mourned and fasted for Israel (Nehemiah 1:4). Daniel also mourned fasted and prayed for his people (Daniel 9:3-4).
- When repenting of sin. Examples include the City of Nineveh fasting, praying, and in sackcloth in repentance and ask for mercy from Jonah’s proclamation of Judgment (Jonah 3).
How should one fast?
- Remember the purpose of fasting. Isaiah 58 is all about true and false fasting. It talked about how there are those who fast to “seek your own pleasure,” that they fast “to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist.” It was made known that these “fasts” “will not make your voice to be heard on high” and is not considered “acceptable.” Just like every other aspect of the Christian life, fasting is not about oneself getting pleasures, but to strength one’s relationship with God and to give glory and honor to God’s name.
- Do not make your fasting apparent to others. Part of Jesus’ well known Sermon on the Mount talked about how our image is when fasting. Fasting is between us and God. However, that purpose would be distorted if one were to use fasting to be holier-than-thou by wanting others to see how much that you “suffer” in order to gain a better relationship with God or that you are “more spiritual” life. Jesus makes it clear that you “received your reward” when you intentionally “look gloomy” or “disfigure your face” so that others will know that you are fasting. Instead, one should “anoint your head and wash your face” so that God “who sees in secret will reward you.” (Read Matt. 6:16-18). In other words, do not make it known to others that you are fasting, like complaining how hungry you are, or brag about how much you are “sacrificing” for God.
What Fasting Isn’t
- It is not a required practice. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that one has to fast to be a Christian. There have been instances that a whole nation or city has been ordered to fast, but it was due to repentance for the entire group of people’s sake. However, it is a personal decision to do a fast.
- It is not a punishment. The Bible does not put emphasis on suffering from fasting. We are human, the lack of food would obviously cause one to be hungry. Even Jesus was hungry during his fast of forty days and forty nights (Matt. 4:2). However, fasting should not be seen as a lack of something and it is not a self suffering practice (like a Buddhist practice). It is beneficial spiritually. It is not meant to harm the body physically, it is only to lose something so that one can put more focus on God. In fact, a great example of this would be when Daniel demanded not to eat the king’s meat (Daniel 1). Look what happened to him afterwards! He was “better in appearance and fatter in flesh than all the youths who ate the king’s food.” (vv. 15)
- It is not a diet plan. Of course, not eating nor drinking would make one’s body lose some pounds, but it is not its purpose. In fact, scripture does not even have a single mention of weight whenever fasting was mentioned. Using fasting as a way to lose weight detracts and distorts from the purpose of fasting itself.
Conclusion and Reflections
As I do this study, I can’t help but think about many that I know who participate in the tradition of lent, which tends to be the time period when those who practice this tradition give up something leading up to Easter. This is a tradition that is beneficial for the believer to prepare oneself in remembrance of what Jesus did on the cross for our sins and His victory against death. However, I feel that some of those who practice this tradition misunderstand or lose the purpose of fasting. When talking about what they give up during lent, I hear resolutions that sound rather petty, like giving up “chocolate” or “bad habits”. Furthermore, such resolutions make me wonder where their focus is in terms of fasting. Obviously, it is different for everyone, and chocolate might actually be something that is a factor of distraction for one to be closer to God. But one should ask the question when doing a fast: “Is the lost focus on an item turned to a gained focus to God?” In other words, are you focusing on what you give up or are you focusing on how what you give up is helping you putting more focus to God? I can simply put this into a conversation between two people:
- “So, I’m fasting from television. I’m not going to watch television for a month.”
- “That’s nice. So what are you doing instead to develop a closer relationship to God? Is not watching television helping you to pray more?”
As Christians, we understand that fasting is not a requirement of being a Christian. It is a practice with a purpose and it is to benefit and strengthen our relationship with God. A ritual is a ritual, and if it goes away from its purpose, not only will it be meaningless, but it also cause the person to miss the benefits from this practice. I think when people think of fasting, they think of letting go of something, when the main focus should be on what we get back from letting go of something. The main focus should be that you are doing so to put more focus and more devotion to God. Abstain from something for a certain period of time is not fasting. Fasting is to abstain from something AND devoting more to God. In fact, fasting is PRIMARILY a practice for one to come closer to God and show that food does not stop you from coming to Him.
In conclusion, fasting is a beneficial practice that should be practiced by Christians to devote time and focus to God. We need to be reminded that this is not a suffering practice and we shouldn’t focus on what was “sacrificed”. Rather we should focus on what we gained through this process, which is a practice showing discipline and self control in our relationship to God, and to develop a more intimate and close relationship with Him, giving him more time and focus through prayer, worship, and devotion.
So, that’s it. I may make updates or changes if I find something to add or change later on.
An Asian Believer, Elliot