Fasting is kind of a lost art for some Christians. It is a serious discipline that involves depriving yourself of something - traditionally food - in order to help you refocus your spirituality. The acute but manageable pain of hunger is a good way to sharpen your awareness of your need for God. Prayer and Fasting is often seen in the Bible as a powerful combination. David, when he believed that his newborn child would possibly die, spent many days fasting and praying to God [2 Samuel 12:16]. We also see people fasting in the context of repentance [Jonah 3:5] as a way to be more hungry for God’s forgiveness.
There are also examples of fasting in the context of mourning [1 Samuel 31:13]. Even today in cultures where fasting is not really practiced, many people simply don’t feel like eating when someone they love has died. It is a natural expression of sadness and loss, and can sometimes be helpful - as long as it is kept in balance with healthy living.
People may also fast when there is a very serious decision to be made or dangerous risk to be taken. In the story of Esther, we see her fasting before breaking a law that might risk the death penalty. While the text implies that she prayed, simply referring to fasting is enough to tell us that she was engaging in a deeply spiritual practice in preparation for a terrible risk.
Today, some Christians have expanded the idea of fasting to other areas of life besides food. Some Christians will, for a set amount of time, refuse to participate in certain activities to remind themselves of what really matters - like a detox or recalibration. Some people fast from TV, social media, sports, certain social activities, and so on. Learning to spend time in silence is in some ways a form of fasting too. This helps to remind us that nothing in life is permanent and that the only thing that lasts is our relationship with God.
But the solemn nature of fasting can also make it inappropriate for moments of great joy or celebration. The Bible promotes both fasting and feasting. The famous modern Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that it is totally inappropriate to fast on the Sabbath:
The Sabbath is no time for personal anxiety or care, for any activity that might dampen the spirit of joy. The Sabbath is no time to remember sins, to confess, to repent or even to pray for relief or anything we might need. It is a day for praise, not a day for petitions. Fasting, mourning, demonstrations of grief are forbidden. (Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath, pg. 21)
Jesus himself didn’t think his disciples needed to fast before he had been crucified - while they were still enjoying each other’s company (Matthew 9:14-17).
It is also inappropriate to use fasting as a way of showing off or trying to seem extra “spiritual” to others. (Matthew 6:16-18) Fasting is supposed to lead to real lifestyle and attitude changes; it is not just an empty ritual. In Isaiah 58, God says: “They come to the Temple every day and seem delighted to learn all about me. [...] ‘We have fasted before you!’ they say. ‘Why aren’t you impressed? We have been very hard on ourselves, and you don’t even notice it!’
“I will tell you why!” I respond. “It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves. Even while you fast, you keep oppressing your workers. What good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarreling? This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with me. [...] “No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help.” [Isaiah 58:2-4, 6-7 NIV]
Part of what makes fasting such a powerful spiritual discipline is that fasting requires wisdom in order to do it properly. Not everyone should fast. If you are prone to disordered eating or unhealthy restriction for the sake of control, you should not use fasting as a spiritual practice. When fasting, you must be willing to deprive yourself of things, but not so much that you harm yourself or become a burden to others. Use your wisdom.
Fasting is kind of a lost art for some Christians. But when it is reclaimed in the right way, it can be a powerful discipline for individuals and communities that want to refocus on their need for God.
- In Ezra 8:15-23, what seems to be the purpose and effect of fasting? Why did they fast, and what would you say happened as a result?
- Read 1 Samuel 31 and take special note of verse 13. Why did the people fast in this instance?
- See 2 Samuel 1:1-15 for more details. What was the purpose of fasting in this situation? Do you think that fasting was helpful to David and his people as they grieved? Why or why not?
- Look at how and why Ahab practices fasting in 1 Kings 21:17-29. Do you think he was genuinely distressed, and is that the same thing, in this instance, as having sincere motivations? Do you think that this is a good example of fasting, or a bad one, or a neutral one? Why?
- Isaiah 58 has an interesting criticism of the way some people practiced fasting. Read verses 1-9 and answer the following questions:
- What is the connection between the act of not eating and following the directions given in verse 7?
- What does this section say about the way people were fasting? Was it a meaningful exercize, or an empty ritual done for show?
- Compare what you read here to what Jesus describes in Matthew 6:16-18. Why does Jesus refer to these people are "hypocrites," and what do they do that seems hypocritical? What does Jesus say is the right way to fast? Why do you think he advises this, rather than "showing off" and making a scene out of being hungry?
- In Luke 4:1-13 there is the infamous story of Jesus being tempted by Satan in the desert. The story tells us that Jesus was led out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit - so this seems to be part of God's plan. However Jesus then goes on to not eat for 40 days, and Luke seems to understate the situation when he says that at the end of the 40 days Jesus was hungry.
- Do you think this incident was easy or difficult for Jesus?
- Do you think that this incident is meant to be an example of what the average Christian believer is supposed to do, or is it something that Jesus has accomplished uniquely? Are Jesus' temptations here the kinds of temptations that we all face, or are they unique to him?
- Would it have been healthy for Jesus to go without food for 40 whole days, or was this meant to serve as a very extreme test for the Son of God?
- Read 1 Corinthians 7:1-7. Do you think it's possible to take this passage (and especially verse 5) as an example of "fasting" from something other than food? Do you think this same kind of logic could apply to things like Television, Social Media, Sports, Video Games, or other kinds of things? Why or why not?
- Take note also of Daniel 10:1-3, or the fact that fasting also seems to often be accompanied by wearing rough, uncomfortable clothing (sackcloth) instead of nice, comfortable clothes. Is depriving oneself of other comforts, luxuries, and even necessities a form of fasting?
- Look at David's fasting in 2 Samuel 12:15-25 while keeping in mind that the situation leading up to this is not one that anyone should ever try to imitate or replicate. Do you notice how David breaks his fast in verse 20-23? What observations can you make about this? What lessons might you take from it?
- Is there such a thing as excessive fasting? Going too far with it?
- By David's logic, would there be a point to go on praying and fasting after the thing you were hoping for did not come to pass? When does fasting with a goal turn into pure hopelessness?
- David most likely felt grief when the child died, but unlike other instances of grief, David here stops fasting instead of starting to fast. Is there flexibility in when fasting is an acceptable or helpful activity?