rebelling against low expectations

It Doesn’t Have to Be Scary: The What, How, and Why of Fasting

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Fasting⁠—”going without food for religious purposes⁠”—is an ancient tradition. References to fasting are scattered throughout both the Old and New Testaments, as well as church history. Like prayer and Bible reading, it’s a basic part of the Christian walk with God.

But it is a part many of us aren’t familiar with.

My Experience With Fasting

Growing up in a Christian community, I prayed and read my Bible regularly, but I rarely thought about fasting. That all changed one day when I was bored in an airport, and I picked up a copy of Fasting, by Jentezen Franklin.

I have mixed feelings about that book. I revisited it as I prepared to write this article, and was disheartened by the easy, breezy, “If you just do x and y, God will give you z,” attitude. Franklin gives story after story about people becoming blessed or getting breakthroughs because they fasted. I don’t doubt the stories, but our relationship with God is not transactional. When we fast, God does not promise us anything except Himself.Our relationship with God is not transactional. When we fast, God does not promise us anything except Himself. Click To Tweet

Still, Franklin made fasting feel accessible in a way it never had before. For the first time, I saw fasting as a spiritual discipline that any ordinary 19-year-old like myself could practice. I discovered that pretty much all the major characters in the Bible fasted: Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Jesus, Paul, and many more. In fact, fasting was such a basic expectation in the Bible, that when Jesus gave instructions in Matthew 6:16-18 about how we should fast, he didn’t say “If you fast,” but rather “When you fast.”

Influenced by Franklin, I decided to go on a three-day fast⁠—my first fast ever. In hindsight, the fasting was a good idea, but the three-day thing was not. I was struggling with clinical depression, and already my mental health was suppressing my appetite and making me sleep a lot. Fasting just made me eat less and sleep more. It benefited my spiritual life, but it would have been healthier to just skip a meal or two and spend that time in deliberate prayer.

The next time I fasted I got a raging headache from dehydration and low blood sugar. Oops! But hey, eventually I figured out my fasting rhythm. Just like you may be confused the first time you read the Bible, or unsure what to say the first time you pray, your first fasts may feel a bit chaotic. Don’t be afraid to seek advice from your doctor or from people who have more experience fasting. And remember that hunger pangs are totally normal and expected. I try to use the pain as a constant reminder to cry out to the Lord.

What Does Scripture Say About Fasting?

From beginning to end, the Bible is brimming with references to fasting. People in the Bible fasted for all sorts of reasons, but here are some of the main themes I discovered:

  • Grief (1 Samuel 31:13, 2 Samuel 1:12, 1 Chronicles 10:12, Nehemiah 1:4, Esther 4:3, Psalm 69:10, Matthew 9:14-15, Mark 2:18-20)
  • Repentance (1 Samuel 7:6, Nehemiah 9:1-2, Jonah 3:5)
  • Asking God for a specific favor (2 Samuel 12:16-23, 2 Chronicles 20:1-12, Ezra 8:21-23, Esther 4:16, Psalm 35:13, Daniel 9:2-3,17)
  • Worship (Luke 2:37, Acts 13:2-3)
  • A way to hear from the Holy Spirit (2 Chronicles 20:3, Acts 13:2-3)

What do all these things have in common? They’re all about deeply seeking God. Some of these may seem strange—I don’t see many people today fasting out of grief, for instance, even though grief is a very common reason for fasting in the Bible. But if you think about when you most need God to be close to you, fasting in grief makes sense.

Why Fast When You Can Just Pray?

You may find this concept confusing because usually when we want to seek God, we pray. So why fast?

Fasting is, in some ways, just a more intense way to pray. Here’s how I like to think about it: when your best friend lives far away, you keep up with her by texting, and maybe sharing photos and memes. This is an important but fairly low-effort way to keep in touch.

If you or your friend were going through something very difficult, you might get on an airplane and fly out to see her. In person, you’d experience a deeper connection than you did in a text message. However, since traveling so far requires a sacrifice of time and money, it’s not something you’d do every day or even every week. It’s something you only do on big occasions when you really really need to see your friend.

In the same way, prayer is our everyday way to connect with the Father. But sometimes we’re going through something really big, and we need that stronger connection. In those cases we fast. Fasting is hard. Going without food is a sacrifice. It’s not something we do every day, but it’s an option when we need it.

What’s the Point of Fasting?

It’s okay to fast and ask God for very specific things that we want. David asked God to spare his son’s life (2 Samuel 12:16-23). Ezra asked God for a safe journey (Ezra 8:21-23). Esther asked her people to fast before she went to the king, presumably asking for her life to be spared (Esther 4:16).
Some books about fasting make it sound like God will always give you the things that you ask for, or always give you some sort of specific, important blessing. But as I said before, God doesn’t guarantee us anything except Himself. Both 2 Samuel 12:16-23 and Psalm 35:13 chronicle times when King David fasted and asked God for things, but his prayers were unanswered. Both times, David’s response was to worship or praise God (2 Samuel 12:20; Psalm 35:18).

It’s vital to remember that the point of fasting is connection with God. If we miss the point, we can get caught up in questions like, “How often should I fast? How long should I fast for? How intense should my fast be?”

The Bible only mentions one person who fasted on some sort of regular schedule. This was the Pharisee in Luke 18:11-12, who prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” Jesus condemns this Pharisee for missing the point. We don’t fast to fulfill some spiritual quota, we do it to seek God. In some seasons of life, you will find yourself compelled to fast more often, and other seasons, less often.

Based on people in Scripture, you might choose to fast when facing important decisions or spiritual battles, when getting out of a spiritual rut, or in grief, repentance, or heaviness of heart. Basically, any situation where you are willing to sacrifice your desire for food in order to have that extra connection with God.

How Should I Fast?

The Bible gives a lot of examples of people fasting, but it doesn’t give much instruction on how to fast. However, there are a handful of instructional passages. Most famously, Jesus said in Matthew 6:16-18, “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

This shows us that fasting is a private act and not something we spread on social media or tell people so they’re impressed by our holiness.

As I dug deeper into Scripture, I was fascinated by the instructional passages I found in Isaiah 58 and Zechariah 7, because they didn’t say what I expected them to.

Isaiah 58 is about the Israelites desperately trying to seek God, but it’s not working. God doesn’t seem to be noticing them or paying attention to them. “Why have we fasted, and you see it not?” the Isrealites ask in verse 3. “Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?”

God gives them a blunt answer. “Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high” (Isaiah 58:3-4).

Then, God tells them that instead of abstaining from food, they should do a different sort of fast. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”

This passage presents fasting in a completely different light. Instead of the sacrifice of food, what God desires most from us is the sacrifice of caring about and helping other people. Interestingly enough, this exact theme shows up again in Zechariah 7.

For context, Zechariah 7 took place after the Jewish people had been in exile for many years. Since the conquest of Jerusalem was a sorrowful event for the people, they commemorated it with group fasts on specific days of the year. But eventually the people wanted to know, “Should I weep and abstain in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?” (Zechariah 7:3).

God responded by telling them that for 70 years, they hadn’t been fasting for him, they’d been fasting for themselves (Zechariah 7:4-6). Then, God told them what kind of fast he’d like to see, and it sounds almost exactly like what we heard in Isaiah 58. “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart” (Zechariah 7:9-10).

God wants us to care about justice, mercy, freeing the oppressed, and feeding the hungry. To really care, to the point that it’s a sacrifice, just like fasting is a sacrifice. Which is frustrating, because if you’re anything like me, you look at the broken systems around you and think, “How could I ever possibly fix this? What can I do? I have no power.”

Let me tell you, you may not feel like you have the power to bring justice, but you do have the power to listen to the oppressed. Look around you, in your own community. Who is being left out? Who is being gossipped about? Who is struggling financially? Who doesn’t fit in? Who doesn’t have a voice?
These are the people that you should be reaching out to, hearing their perspective. And then, when your friends are gossipping, you can speak up. “I don’t feel comfortable having this conversation. Sandy is going through a difficult time, and gossiping about it isn’t going to fix anything.”

In some ways, speaking up on a personal level like this can seem even harder than fighting for justice on a large scale. We care about what our friends think of us. But there’s a reason why God equates this kind of thing to fasting. It’s hard. It’s a sacrifice. Like my own early fasting experiences, we won’t necessarily be good at it at first. But it’s what the Lord requires of us (Micah 6:8).

The True Definition of Fasting

So let me now amend the definition of fasting that I gave at the beginning of this article. Instead of “Going without food for religious purposes,” maybe a better definition would be “Making a sacrifice in order to grow closer to God.”

Fasting from food is an important spiritual discipline practiced throughout human history. We should incorporate it into our lives, specifically during difficult times when we’re desperate to draw close to God. But never forget the heart of fasting. The sacrifice God desires most from us is not the sacrifice of food, but rather the sacrifice of caring about justice and extending mercy to the oppressed.


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About the author

Emily Smucker

is an author and blogger from Oregon. Her latest book, The Highway and Me and My Earl Grey Tea, is about a year she spent traveling around the United States, living in a different Mennonite community every month. You can visit her blog at emilysmucker.com.

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