Why fast? Fasting means not eating and can include not drinking (Esth 4:16; Zech 7:5). In the Scriptures, some fasted with prayer to show humility and reliance on God (Psa 35:13; Ezra 8:21–23). In the Old Testament, fasting was sometimes an emotional reaction of sorrow — a lack of eating because of stress (2 Sam 16:21–23; Neh 1:4; Psa 69:10). Many times in the Old Testament, some decided to fast for a specific time for mourning . The prophet Ezra proclaimed a fast to humble his people and to entreat God for their protection in travel to Jerusalem (Ezra 8:21–23). Ezra did this to rely on God and present his God as the true God before the Persian king, Artaxerxes, rather than request his protection. Our prayers with fasting show our faith in God. Fasting does not replace obedience, and fasting does not make up for disobedience.
By the time of Jesus, fasting had become a religious tradition for the Jews who would fast in specific months and some fasted twice a week (Zech 8:19; Luke 18:12). Some applied fasting to the affliction of the soul in observing the Day of Atonement (Lev 23:27). Moses fasted for forty days when he received the covenant — the ten commandments (Exod 34:28). Jesus also fasted for forty days (Matt 4:2; cf. Deut 18:15). The Spirit lead Jesus into the wilderness by God’s Spirit where Satan tempted Jesus in His fasting.
Should Christians fast? Must Christians fast? While Jesus walked the earth, the scribes of the Pharisees asked Jesus about why His disciples did not fast (Mark 2:18–20). Christ responded,
Can the friends of the bridegroom 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 will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days. (Mark 2:19–20)
Jesus said that His disciples will fast, but not while He is with them (Luke 5:33–35; cf. Matt 15:32; Mark 8:3). Jesus stated that it was not fitting to keep such traditions as the Jews did (Matt 9:14–17). God declared that He would bless the remnant of His people, so that their fasting would become joy and gladness with cheerful feasts (Zech 8:19). On another occasion, Jesus taught His disciples that praying with fasting was necessary to cast out certain evil spirits and to have such faith that moves mountains (Matt 17:21; Mark 9:29). Notice that these prayers were with fasting showing humility and great faith in God.
When reading the New Testament, Christians did fast. After the establishment of the church, Christians practiced prayer and fasting, but there is no command in Scripture. Unlike the Old Testament, the scriptural examples of Christians fasting have no specific reference to mourning.
When Cornelius was praying and fasting, an angel told him to send for the Apostle Peter who taught him the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name by baptism through faith (Acts 10:30; 11:43, 47–48). Even though Cornelius’ fasting was before he became a Christian, God recognized His prayers and fasting when the New Testament was already established by Christ’s death.
When the Holy Spirit sent Barnabas and Saul for the launch of their missionary journeys, they and those with them had fasted with prayers (Acts 13:1–2). After more fasting and prayer, the other ministers laid hands on Saul and Barnabas sending them away to their great work (Acts 13:3). From this example, Christians demonstrated their reliance upon God’s guidance and their earnest commitment to pray to God by humbling themselves with fasting. In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas continued in their work appointing elders in every church, which they did with prayer and fasting (14:23). Again, Paul and Barnabas with these elders showed their humble faith in God by prayer with fasting. By Christ’s Spirit, the apostle Paul instructed that a married couple is not to “keep back” their marital affections from one another unless they both agree to give themselves to prayer and fasting (1 Cor 7:5). What might this couple be praying for? This example of the marriage shows that this couple committed to relying on God.
Must Christians fast? No. Can and should Christians fast? Yes. The examples of the New Testament encourage and permit Christians to fast. Christians are left to determine when they should do so in prayer. Christian fasting was always done with prayer. Notice that Jesus’ instruction for fasting in Matthew 6 followed His instruction for prayer. Prayer and fasting are always connected in the New Testament Scriptures. Like positions of prayer, fasting is a position of prayer. In fasting, we present our humble commitment to faithfully rely on God for our needs recognizing that if we seek first the kingdom of God then all our most basic needs will be given to us (Matt 6:33).
Considering that fasting is an act of humility, Jesus taught against making a show out of fasting (Matt 6:16–18). Christ also taught not to love praying by standing in a gathering or on the street corners for others to see (Matt 6:5). Christians should not make a show out of any form of worship. God asked the remnant of Judah about their captivity “did you really fast for Me — for Me? When you eat and when you drink, do you not eat and drink for yourselves?” (Zech 7:5; cf. Jer 14:12). Be sure that your fasting is for God to humble oneself.
Note that some have redefined “fasting” to include refraining from certain habits and recreations of life. This is not the fasting found in the Bible. Fasting is neither for neglecting the flesh with its lust nor for an act of asceticism. Christ’s Spirit instructed through the apostle Paul in Colossians 2:15–23 that the substance is of Christ and not in regulations. Paul instructed Christians not to delight in false humility whether in refraining from tasting or any neglect of the body, which is of no value toward the indulgence of the flesh (Col 2:17–23). Fasting to humiliate the flesh is pointless. This will not conquer the desires of the flesh, but fasting with prayer will help. Be aware of such commands and doctrines of men as self-imposed religion, which this would be more likely to separate one from Christ than help. Instead, let your fasting be a part of your prayers.
As the scriptures teach, the Scriptures permit Christians to fast. Fasting is a position of humility for prayer. Disciples of Christ do so when they commit to affirming our reliance in prayer to God. In lowliness, Christians fast in our dependence on God recognizing that He is giver of all our blessings and the supplier of all our needs when we seek first the kingdom of God (Matt 6:33).
Also, see another relevant article for such devotion, “Discover Jesus’ Personal Devotions”.
(1) Judg 20:26; 1 Sam 7:6; 31:13; 2 Sam 1:12; 12:16, 21–23; 1 Chr 10:12, 2 Chr 20:3; 1 Kings 21:9; Neh 9:1; Esth 4:3, 16, 9:13; Psa 109:24; Isa 58:3–6; Jer 36:6, 9; Dan 9:3; Jon 1:14; 2:12, 15; 3:5; Luke 2:37.
**Other scriptures: Acts 27:9, 21, 33, 2 Cor. 6:5, 11:27