SHOULD WE FAST?
by Shawn Brasseaux
“Should we fast in this the Dispensation of Grace? Is fasting encouraged or discouraged in Paul’s epistles?”
Friend, during this the Lenten Season, we are hearing much about fasting. Your question is most definitely pertinent to this time on the religious calendar. Right now, some professing Christians are fasting. Instructed by their denominational hierarchy, they are “doing penances” (suffering for their sins to receive God’s favor). That is, they have temporarily abstained from “guilty pleasures” during Lent, showing “remorse” for overeating and misbehaving on Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras). They refuse to eat meat on Fridays during Lent. In addition, they deprive themselves of other favorites such as sugary foods, beer, social media, cigarettes, carbonated beverages, profanity, and chocolate.
All the religiosity aside, is fasting necessary for us today? Does God require we Christians fast? What does the Bible say? We will look into the Scriptures for answers. By the way, if you want, friend, you may go immediately to the end of this study for the summary, and then come back to re-read from the beginning. I decided to include all 65 references to fasting in the Scriptures just so we could establish a biblical portrait of what it entails. Fasting is a personal choice, not explicitly commanded in Paul’s epistles (unless in the case of marriage, which we will see later).
The King James Bible makes at least 65 direct references to the practice of fasting (giving up food and/or drink for a time). One thing before we begin looking at all those verses. Please notice how fasting and prayer are often linked together in Scripture. Fasting was a religious duty in Israel, who you will (hopefully) recall was functioning under Old Testament Judaism. You will also see that fasting was often prevalent in times of distress (sadness, depression) and peril (danger). Now, beloved, we get to those verses so the Holy Spirit can enlighten us!
- Judges 20:26: “Then all the children of Israel, and all the people, went up, and came unto the house of God, and wept, and sat there before the LORD, and fasted that day until even, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the LORD.”
- 1 Samuel 7:6: “And they gathered together to Mizpeh, and drew water, and poured it out before the LORD, and fasted on that day, and said there, We have sinned against the LORD. And Samuel judged the children of Israel in Mizpeh.”
- 1 Samuel 31:13: “And they took their bones, and buried them under a tree at Jabesh, and fasted seven days.” 1 Chronicles 10:12: “They arose, all the valiant men, and took away the body of Saul, and the bodies of his sons, and brought them to Jabesh, and buried their bones under the oak in Jabesh, and fasted seven days.”
- 2 Samuel 1:12,16: “ And they mourned, and wept, and fasted until even, for Saul, and for Jonathan his son, and for the people of the LORD, and for the house of Israel; because they were fallen by the sword….  David therefore besought God for the child; and David fasted, and went in, and lay all night upon the earth.”
- 2 Samuel 12:21-23: “ Then said his servants unto him, What thing is this that thou hast done? thou didst fast and weep for the child, while it was alive; but when the child was dead, thou didst rise and eat bread.  And he said, While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept: for I said, Who can tell whether God will be gracious to me, that the child may live?  But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.”
- 1 Kings 21:9,12,27: “ And she wrote in the letters, saying, Proclaim a fast, and set Naboth on high among the people:…  They proclaimed a fast, and set Naboth on high among the people….  And it came to pass, when Ahab heard those words, that he rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth, and went softly.”
- 2 Chronicles 20:3: “And Jehoshaphat feared, and set himself to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah.”
- Ezra 8:21,23: “ Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river of Ahava, that we might afflict ourselves before our God, to seek of him a right way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance….  So we fasted and besought our God for this: and he was intreated of us.”
- Nehemiah 1:4: “And it came to pass, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned certain days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven,”
- Nehemiah 9:1: “Now in the twenty and fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, and with sackclothes, and earth upon them.”
- Esther 4:3,16: “ And in every province, whithersoever the king’s commandment and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, and fasting, and weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ashes….  Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day: I also and my maidens will fast likewise; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law: and if I perish, I perish.”
- Esther 9:31: “To confirm these days of Purim in their times appointed, according as Mordecai the Jew and Esther the queen had enjoined them, and as they had decreed for themselves and for their seed, the matters of the fastings and their cry.”
- Psalm 35:13: “But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth: I humbled my soul with fasting; and my prayer returned into mine own bosom.”
- Psalm 69:10: “When I wept, and chastened my soul with fasting, that was to my reproach.”
- Psalm 109:24: “My knees are weak through fasting; and my flesh faileth of fatness.”
- Isaiah 58:3-6: “ Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not? wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge? Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact all your labours.  Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness: ye shall not fast as ye do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high.  Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD?  Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?”
- Jeremiah 14:12: “When they fast, I will not hear their cry; and when they offer burnt offering and an oblation, I will not accept them: but I will consume them by the sword, and by the famine, and by the pestilence.”
- Jeremiah 36:6,9: “ Therefore go thou, and read in the roll, which thou hast written from my mouth, the words of the LORD in the ears of the people in the LORD’S house upon the fasting day: and also thou shalt read them in the ears of all Judah that come out of their cities….  And it came to pass in the fifth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah king of Judah, in the ninth month, that they proclaimed a fast before the LORD to all the people in Jerusalem, and to all the people that came from the cities of Judah unto Jerusalem.”
- Daniel 6:18: “Then the king went to his palace, and passed the night fasting: neither were instruments of musick brought before him: and his sleep went from him.”
- Daniel 9:3: “And I set my face unto the LORD God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes:”
- Joel 1:14: “Sanctify ye a fast, call a solemn assembly, gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land into the house of the LORD your God, and cry unto the LORD,”
- Joel 2:12,15: “ Therefore also now, saith the LORD, turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning:….  Blow the trumpet in Zion, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly:”
- Jonah 3:5: “So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them.”
- Zechariah 7:5: “Speak unto all the people of the land, and to the priests, saying, When ye fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh month, even those seventy years, did ye at all fast unto me, even to me?”
- Zechariah 8:19: “Thus saith 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 joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts; therefore love the truth and peace.”
- Matthew 4:2: “And when he [Jesus] had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred.”
- Matthew 6:16-18: “ Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.  But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face;  That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.”
- Matthew 9:14-15: “ Then came to him the disciples of John, saying, Why do we and the Pharisees fast oft, but thy disciples fast not?  And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast.” Mark 2:18-20: “ And the disciples of John and of the Pharisees used to fast: and they come and say unto him, Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but thy disciples fast not?  And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them? as long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.  But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days.” Luke 5:33-35: “ And they said unto him, Why do the disciples of John fast often, and make prayers, and likewise the disciples of the Pharisees; but thine eat and drink?  And he said unto them, Can ye make the children of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them?  But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days.”
- Matthew 15:32: “Then Jesus called his disciples unto him, and said, I have compassion on the multitude, because they continue with me now three days, and have nothing to eat: and I will not send them away fasting, lest they faint in the way.” Mark 8:3: “And if I send them away fasting to their own houses, they will faint by the way: for divers of them came from far.”
- Matthew 17:21: “Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.” Mark 9:29: “And he said unto them, This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting.”
- Luke 2:37: “And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day.”
- Luke 18:12: “I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.”
- Acts 10:30: “And Cornelius said, Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and, behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing,”
FASTING IN PAUL’S MINISTRY, DISPENSATION OF GRACE, AND BODY OF CHRIST
- Acts 13:2-3: “ As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.  And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.”
- Acts 14:23: “And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.”
- Acts 27:9,33: “ Now when much time was spent, and when sailing was now dangerous, because the fast was now already past, Paul admonished them,….  And while the day was coming on, Paul besought them all to take meat, saying, This day is the fourteenth day that ye have tarried and continued fasting, having taken nothing.”
- 1 Corinthians 7:5: “Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency.”
- 2 Corinthians 6:5: “In stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labours, in watchings, in fastings;”
- 2 Corinthians 11:27: “In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.”
So, a quick review of these references…. Of the 65 fasting references in the Bible, only eight are found in Paul’s ministry (five in the Book of Acts, once in 1 Corinthians, and twice in 2 Corinthians). Three of those references in Paul’s ministry apply to church leaders and/or the local church assembly (Acts 13:2; Acts 13:3; 2 Corinthians 6:5). Seven references apply specifically to Paul’s personal fastings (Acts 13:2-3; Acts 14:23; Acts 27:9,33; 2 Corinthians 6:5; 2 Corinthians 11:27). Only one reference is written particularly to individual members of the Church the Body of Christ—namely, married couples (1 Corinthians 7:5).
CONCLUSION: SHOULD WE FAST IN THE DISPENSATION OF GRACE?
As mentioned earlier, in Christendom today, we hear so much about fasting—particularly during the time of Lent (40-day period between Mardi Gras/Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday). With all of that religious talk, you would almost think that it would be a sin for a Christian not to fast. However, there is no explicit command in the Bible that all Christians “must” fast in the Dispensation of Grace. Yes, Paul and his ministry coworkers did it from time to time (Acts 13:2-3; Acts 14:23; 2 Corinthians 6:5; 2 Corinthians 11:27). That fasting, along with prayer, was involved with major ministry undertakings. It was a time of intense preparation and focus.
Most definitely, we can find the Israelites fasting in the Scriptures. Yes, even the Lord Jesus fasted 40 days and 40 nights before He began His earthly ministry (Matthew 4:2;cf. Luke 4:2). However, their program is not our pattern! Just because the Jews did something, we are not necessarily to do it. (Are we going to offer animal sacrifices and kill people who work on the Saturday Sabbath as the Jews did in Scripture TOO?) Saint Paul is our apostle, as he declared by the Holy Spirit: “For I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office” (Romans 11:13). Paul is the Lord Jesus Christ’s spokesman to us Gentiles. In that body of Pauline truth—“the Dispensation of the Grace of God” (Ephesians 3:2)—we find God’s instructions to us today. That would be the 13 Bible Books, Romans through Philemon.
The Apostle Paul never tells us that we must fast (no, that would be religion that makes such demands). Saint Paul does instruct that husbands and wives who have agreed not to be intimate for a time, are to “give [themselves] to fasting and prayer” (1 Corinthians 7:5). Why would this be necessary? Remember, the verse continues, “and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency [lack of self-control].” One of God’s designs in marriage is to fulfill the natural sexual urge (libido). If sexual intercourse is lacking in the marriage relationship, Satan can eventually use this to his advantage. Those desires, if not satisfied by the spouse, can lead to extramarital affairs. Self-control will be gone. Recall that fasting and prayer were done in Scripture during times of peril (danger) or distress (sadness, depression). A marriage without intimacy is vulnerable to Satan’s attacks, and people physically separated from their spouses are (or at least should be!) missing them. Evidently, prayer and fasting are the means whereby God strengthens (“self-controls”) Christians who cannot be (or have agreed not to be) intimate with their spouses for a specific period. The Pauline doctrine on marriage (1 Corinthians chapter 7) will equip the married saints praying that doctrine. God’s Word will effectually work in them that believe, 1 Thessalonians 2:13 says.
Except if that reference above in 1 Corinthians 7:5 describes our situation, fasting is a personal choice that God will not make for us. Again, there is no direct command in Paul’s epistles not to fast. Save in the case of marriage, there is no direct command to fast in Paul’s epistles. Again, it is a personal choice that you must decide for yourself. Is fasting appropriate for you? Should you choose to go without food for a time, while you are in prayer, in distress, or in depression? (Certainly never deprive yourself of water!) I will not tell you what to do. The Bible does not tell you what to do. If you want to fast, fine. If you do not want to fast, fine as well. BUT, please hear this word of caution.
Matthew 6:16-18, which we saw earlier: “ Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.  But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face;  That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.”
Do you see how Jesus exposed fasting as the blind ritual that Judaism had made it? Do you see how Jesus wanted His Little Flock to fast without doing it as a “show?” I am afraid that many “Christian” people today have drawn too much attention to themselves because they have “fasted.” Again, they boast about how they have “given up” “worldly pleasures” (certain foods or bad habits, for example) during Lent, the 40 days prior to Easter Sunday. They do “penance,” suffering for their sins. They want to show God “just how ‘sorry’ they are for their sins committed on Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras)” and “just how ‘dedicated’ they are to living ‘strict, godly’ lives until Easter Sunday.” Of course, some never make it all the way through the 40 days without reverting to their “relinquished pleasure!”
If you noticed in verses we presented earlier, fasting in Judaism eventually became a worthless religious practice. The Lord Jesus lamented that some people no longer fasted in faith. They just did it just to feel religious, stroke their egos, to show off, and to brag to others, “Look at how faithful I am to God! I am so holy and pious because I fast often!” Notice how the Pharisee bragged, “I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess” (Luke 18:12). The fasting here was not done in faith. It was just some mindless religious ritual performed so one could then boast of his “faithfulness” and his “holiness.” We want to avoid this should we choose to fast.