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What is Fasting?

Embers and Flames

“Self-indulgence is the enemy of gratitude, and self-discipline usually its friend and generator. That is why gluttony is a deadly sin. The early desert fathers believed that a person’s appetites are linked: full stomachs and jaded palates take the edge from our hunger and thirst for righteousness. They spoil the appetite for God.”

 - Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., President of Calvin Theological Seminay


Fasting is a spiritual discipline that sharpens the edge for a thirst for righteousness and intensifies our hunger for God (click here for my brief 2016 post on fasting).  As we practice it we obey the command of 1 Timothy 4:7, “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.”  Fasting is like dieting and exercise.  If you want to eat and someone is just keeping you away from food, it feels unbearable.  If you are voluntarily fasting, there is an initial hard period or sense of exhaustion as your body gets used to it.  Eventually you feel a new burst of energy and a lack of craving all the time.   Resisting the urge to indulge is a powerful tool to intensify your prayer life, strengthen your fight against temptation, and deepen your gratitude.   Your ultimate goal in fasting is deeper self-awareness and intimacy with Jesus, who kept the ultimate fast (i.e., from sin) that humanity could not keep. The entire Biblical story of the Messianic hope is a story of a man who fasted.  Jesus fasted from sin and saved the world through his perfect obedience, sacrificial death and miraculous resurrection.  Jesus fasted so that we can feast with him in union and joy forever.  We remember this great new as we fast and devote ourselves to prayer, study, and reflection.


Richard Foster broadly defines fasting as “the voluntary denial of a normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity.” 

David Calhoun writes, “A fast is the self-denial of normal necessities in order to intentionally attend to God in prayer. Bringing attachments and cravings to the surface opens a place for prayer. This physical awareness of emptiness is the reminder to turn to Jesus who alone can satisfy (Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, 218).

Donald Whitney says, “A biblical definition of fasting is a Christian’s voluntary abstinence from food for spiritual purposes” (Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, 160).

Fasting does not always deal with abstinence from food, though all specific references in Scripture do.  Sometimes we need to fast from things that have a grip on us: current events, social media, TV, extraneous spending, etc. 

In the Bible, a normal fast involves abstaining from all food, but not from water (Mt. 4:2, Lk 4:2). A partial fast is a limitation of the diet by not abstention from all food (Dan. 1:12; Mt 3:4). An absolute fast is the avoidance of all food and liquid (Ezra 10:6; Esther 4:16, Acts 9:9). The Bible also describes the supernatural fast of Moses (Deut. 9:9) and Elijah (1 Kings 19:8), private fasts (Mt 6:16-18), congregational fasts (Joel 2:15-16), church leadership fasts (Acts 13), national fasts (2 Chr. 20:3), regular fasts (Lev. 16-29-31; Lk 18:12), and occasional fasts (Mt. 9:15).


Jesus said in Matthew 6:16-17 not IF you fast, but “... whenever you fast, ... But you, when you fast,...” By giving us instruction on what to do and what not to do when we fast, Jesus assumes that we will fast. Compare these words in the same passage with his statement about giving, Matthew 6:2-3: “When therefore you give alms,... But when you give alms,...” Compare also His words in the same section about prayer, Matthew 6:5-7: “And when you pray,... But you, when you pray,... And when you are praying,...” No one doubts that we are to give and to pray. It is quite common to use this passage to teach Jesus’ principles on giving and praying. Since there is nothing here or elsewhere in Scripture indicating that we no longer need to fast, we may conclude that Jesus still expects us to fast today. In fact, Jesus says of His followers in Matthew 9:15 after He leaves and returns to Heaven “then they will fast.”


  1. To strengthen prayer (Ezra 8:23; Neh. 1:4; Dan. 9:3; Joel 2:12-17; Acts 13:3)
  2. To seek God’s guidance (Judges 20:26-28; Acts 14:23)
  3. To express grief (Judges 20:26; 1 Sam. 31:11-13; 2 Sam. 1:11-12)
  4. To seek from God deliverance or protection (2 Chr. 20:34; Ezra 8:21-23; Esther 4:6; Ps. 109:21-26)
  5. To express repentance and the return to God (1 Sam. 7:6; Joel 2:12; Jonah 3:5-8)
  6. To humble oneself before God (1 Kings 21:27-29; Ps, 35:13)
  7. To express concern for the work of God (Neh. 1:3-11; Isa, 58:6-7; Dan, 9:3) Historically Christians have fasted as they have sought the revival of the Church.
  8. To minister to the needs of others (Isa. 58:6-7)
  9. To overcome temptation and dedicate yourself to God (Mt. 4:1-11)
  10. To express love and worship to God (Lk. 2:37)


Fasting is not a "cure all" for all our spiritual struggles or a short cut to a happy, problem-free life. It is a weapon in our walk and warfare as Christians. Fasting is also not a competition and we do not fast to earn answers or twist God's arm. We fast to intensify our connection with God and improve our communication so prayer is more effective. It humbles us and brings us to an awareness of our need of God. It renews the sense of balance and priority in our walk with God. It heightens our spiritual sensitivity and clears the channels of communication with God. It hits at our deep-seated selfishness and strengthens our self control. It clears the ground for greater spiritual breakthrough in our lives and the lives of those we come into contact with. In fasting we are reminded in a very tangible way what the Bible says: “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Deut. 8:3 & Mt. 4:4).


OT Examples

Fasting on the Day of Atonement

“29 “And it shall be a statute to you forever that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall fast and shall do no work, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you. 30 For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the Lord from all your sins. 31 It is a  Sabbath of solemn rest to you, and you shall afflict yourselves; it is a statute forever.” (Lev 16:29-31)

“27 “Now on the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be for you a time of holy convocation, and you shall fast and present a food offering to the Lord.” (Lev 23:27)

 Fasting during national emergency

“15 Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly;” (Joel 2:15)

 “After this the Moabites and Ammonites, and with them some of the Meunites, came against Jehoshaphat for battle. 2 Some men came and told Jehoshaphat, “A great multitude is coming against you from Edom, from beyond the sea; and, behold, they are in Hazazon-tamar” (that is, Engedi). 3 Then Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah. 4 And Judah assembled to seek help from the Lord; from all the cities of Judah they came to seek the Lord.” (2 Chron 20:1-4).

Fasting while in exile in Babylon

“19 “Thus says the Lord of hosts: The fast of the fourth month and the fast of the fifth and the fast of the seventh and the fast of the tenth shall be to the house of Judah seasons of joy and gladness and cheerful feasts. Therefore love truth and peace.” (Zech 8:19)

NT Examples

"And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.” (Matthew 4:2)

 “16 “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. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 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.” (Matt 6:16-18)

 “14 Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 15 And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” (Matt 9:14-15)

 “2 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.” 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.” (Acts 13:2-3) 

 Other Examples

“It was not Christ’s intention to reject or despise fasting…it was His intention to restore proper fasting.”  (Luther)

“The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear, the sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith, and reverence, singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ, are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God: beside religious oaths, vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner” (Westminster Confession of Faith 21.5).


Fasting apart from Christ or without a Godward focus.

“5 “Say to all the people of the land and the priests, When you fasted and mourned in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted?” (Zech 7:5)

“21  “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22  (referring to things that all perish as they are used — according to human precepts and teachings? 23  These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Col 2:21-23)

Fasting in Order to Be Seen

“16 “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. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 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.” (Matt 6:16-18)

Pharisee in the parable of Pharisee and Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14). 

Fasting While in Blatant and Rebellious Sin

 “3  ‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’ Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. 4  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. 5  Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord? 6  “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? 7  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?” (Isa 58:3-7)


Fasting must be God-centered and God-focused.

 “37  and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day.” (Luke 2:37)

Fasting strengthens prayer.

“Whenever men are to pray to God concerning any great matter, it would be expedient to appoint fasting along with prayer” (Calvin, Institutes, 4.12.16)

“The most important aspect of this Discipline is its influence on prayer. You’ll notice that in one way or another, all the other biblical purposes of fasting relate to prayer. Fasting is one of the best friends we can introduce to our prayer life” (Whitney, 166). 

“But prayer will not be established in our lives as it must be for us to flourish, unless we are practicing other disciplines such as solitude and fasting. In many Protestant churches prayer and Bible study are held up as the activities that will make us spiritually rich. But very few people actually succeed in attaining spiritual richness through them and indeed often find them to be intolerably burdensome. The ‘open secret’ of many ‘Bible believing’ churches is that a vanishingly small percentage of those talking about prayer and Bible reading are actually doing what they are talking about. They have not been shown how to change their life as a whole, permeating it with appropriate disciplines, so that prayer and Bible reading will be spiritually successful.”  (Willard,  186).

Fasting exposes our hearts, our false self, and our idols.

“19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.” (Phil 3:19)

“More than any other Discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us” (Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 55).

Fasting directly and obviously affects our desires.

“Fasting exposes how we try to keep empty hunger at bay and gain a sense of well-being by devouring creature comforts. Through self-denial we begin to recognize what controls us” (Calhoun 220).

“It will certainly prove humiliating to us, as it reveals to us how much our peace depends upon the pleasures of eating. It may also bring to mind how we are using food pleasure to assuage the discomforts caused in our bodies by faithless and unwise living and attitudes—lack of selfworth, meaningless work, purposeless existence, or lack of rest or exercise” (Willard 166).

Fasting takes our bodies seriously.

“What fasting is slowly teaching me is the simple lesson that I am not utterly subject to my bodily desires” (Lauren Winner, Real Sex, 127).

“Fasting is the practice that most obviously helps us learn to discipline our physical selves” (Winner 128).

Fasting is an embodied act of trusting in God alone.

“Fasting confirms our utter dependence upon God by finding in him a source of sustenance beyond food. Through it we learn by experience the God’s word to us is a life substance, that is not food (“bread”) alone that gives life, but also the words that proceed from the mouth of God (Matt 4:4)” (Willard, 166). 

Fasting teaches self-control, moderation, and restraint.

“Fasting teaches temperance or self-control and therefore teaches moderation and restraint with regard to all our fundamental drives. Since food has the pervasive place it does in our lives, the effects of fasting will be diffused throughout our personality. In the midst of all our needs and wants, we experience the contentment of the child that has been weaned from its mother’s breast (Ps 131:2)” (Willard 167-8).

“Self-indulgence is the enemy of gratitude, and self-discipline usually its friend and generator. That is why gluttony is a deadly sin. The early desert fathers believe that a person’s appetites are linked; full stomachs and jaded palates take the edge from our hunger and thirst for righteousness. They spoil the appetite for God.” (Cornelius Plantinga)

Fasting teaches us how to suffer happily and feast on God.

"Fasting helps to express, to deepen, and to confirm the resolution that we are ready to sacrifice anything – to sacrifice ourselves – to attain what we seek for the kingdom of God." (Andrew Murray)

Fasting is where we meet Jesus. Fasting is feasting on the Lord.

“We learn that we too have meat to eat that the world does not know about (John 4:32, 34). 

Fasting unto our Lord is therefore feasting—feasting on him and on doing his will” (Willard, 166).


  1. Check with your doctor if you have questions about your health. 
  2. Start with one meal. 
  3. Drink lots of water.
  4. Anytime hunger arises take the opportunity to turn to Jesus and confess your complete dependence on him. Let thoughts of food prompt thoughts of God.
  5. Pray and meditate on Scripture during your meal times (e.g. Ps 63; Matt 4:4).
  6. Try beginning a fast after dinner. Fast until dinner the next day.
  7. Don’t break your fast with a huge meal. Eat small portions of food. The longer the fast, the more you need to break the fast gently.
  8. Attempt to practice it “well enough and often enough to become experienced in it” (Willard 168).
  9. Don’t call attention to yourself about it.

“The only ones who should know you are fasting are those who have to know. If you call attention to your fasting, people will be impressed and, as Jesus said, that will be your reward” (Foster 57-8).

  1. Don’t beat yourself up if you fail to keep your fast. Let it remind you that you are a flawed, imperfect human being who is beloved by God and in need of his grace. And don’t let failure keep you from pursuing and making progress toward your goal.


John Piper sums up what we've learned about fasting in this beautiful section in A Hunger for God, 

One might think that those who feast most often on communion with God are least hungry. They turn often from the innocent pleasures of the world to linger more directly in the presence of God through the revelation of his Word. And there they eat the Bread of Heaven and drink the Living Water by meditation and faith. But paradoxically, it is not so that they are the least hungry saints. The opposite is the case. The strongest, most mature Christians I have ever met are the hungriest for God. It might seem that those who eat most would be least hungry. But that’s not the way it works with an inexhaustible fountain, and an infinite feast, and a glorious Lord.

When you take your stand on the finished work of God in Christ, and begin to drink at the River of Life and eat the Bread of Heaven, and know that you have found the end of all your longings, you only get hungrier for God. The more satisfaction you experience, while still in this world, the greater your desire for the next. For, as C.S. Lewis said, “Our best havings are wantings.”

The more deeply you walk with Christ, the hungrier you get for Christ... the more homesick you get for heaven…the more you want “all the fullness of God”…the more you want to be done with sin…the more you want to see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ penetrate the darkness of all the unreached peoples of the world…the more you long for every wrong to be made right and the justice and grace of God to fill the earth like the waters cover the sea.

If you don’t feel strong desires for the manifestation of the glory of God, it is not because you have drunk deeply and are satisfied. It is because you have nibbled so long at the table of the world. Your soul is stuffed with small things, and there is no room for the great. God did not create you for this. There is an appetite for God. And it can be awakened. I invite you to turn from the dulling effects of food and the dangers of idolatry to say, “This much, O God, I want you" (A Hunger for God, 23).