The story is told of a financially depressed American couple living in Switzerland. They were involved in a program of study that lasted three years. No grants or scholarships existed to fall back on if they ran out of money.
Then, they learned of an Asian student in the theological study facing greater financial difficulty than they were. He was on the verge of abandoning his studies and leaving Switzerland. They decided to gather support from the American community and even contributed themselves. When asked how they would do it, they answered, “We’ll just fast one day a week.”
Mahatma Gandhi was famous for fasting. He fasted to get a raise for Indian textile workers. He fasted in the fight for Indian independence from Britain. His fasts, however, were fasts unto death. It was amazing how this unimportant man could bring owners and governments to their knees when it appeared he would die.
Most of us probably have enough for our needs and could not even relate to the first story. In fact, financial considerations are not even under consideration when fasting is spoken of in the Bible. Yet, the Bible speaks of fasting on many occasions.
For many Christians, fasting seems unnecessary. We can identify with giving and praying. Fasting means to abstain from eating food for a period of time with the purpose of gaining some spiritual result.
Fasting is spoken of in the Old and New Testaments. Jesus did it and probably assumed his followers would. Jesus said, “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting … But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others, but by your Father who is in secret.”
But Jesus also corrects the meaning of fasting as he did with many other things. Many practiced it in hypocritical ways and for bragging purposes. Many just wanted to be seen and praised by others.
Giving Up in the Old Testament
Many believers in the Old Testament fasted. Moses, Samson, Samuel, David, and Elijah are examples. Fasting was not commanded except on the Day of Atonement, which was once a year. All Israel was to abstain on that day.
Fasting in the Old was different than in the New Testament. In the Old, it was for mourning and repenting of sin. It took place by the whole nation on the Day of Atonement. The practice spread to fasting when a national disaster took place or for other reasons.
The story of Jonah includes an example of fasting. God told him to go to Nineveh and preach against its wickedness. The Bible records the Ninevites’ reaction: “The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth” (Jonah 3:5). A national disaster was about to take place.
The death of Saul and Jonathan also involves fasting. Saul was the first king of Israel and was in a battle with the Philistines. Saul and his sons were killed on Mt. Gilboa. Men from Jabesh Gilead retrieved their bodies, and the Bible says, “Then they took their bones and buried them under a tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and they fasted seven days” (1 Samuel 31:13).
And then, there is John the Baptist. He prepared the way for Christ and fasted. His disciples came to Jesus to ask why Jesus’ disciples didn’t fast. Fasting implied sorrow, but Jesus’ disciples were not sad. He was with them.
Fasting had been perverted by the time of Jesus. It had become a ritual to gain praise from others and to gain God’s approval. Many religious leaders fasted on the second and the fifth days of the week, claiming these were the days Moses made his trips to get the Ten Commandments. They also fasted on the major days of the Jewish market. Doing this gave them a larger audience to see their fasting. They put on old clothes, messed their hair up, used makeup, and covered themselves with dirt and ashes.
Such fasting was a sham and a mockery. They received praise from no one but the onlookers. Ceremonial fasting meant nothing to God.
John Calvin said, “Many for want of knowing its usefulness undervalue its necessity. And some reject it altogether as superfluous, while on the other hand, where the proper use of fasting is not well understood, it easily degenerates into superstition.”
Fasting was only significant when it involved mourning over sin.
Pagans believed demons could enter a person through food. If they felt they were under attack, they abstained from food. But in the Old Testament, fasting was always over sorrow for sin.
Giving Up in the New Testament
In the New Testament period, the meaning of fasting changed. Early Christians fasted, but not over sin in their lives. They did it to set aside normal daily distractions to get clear direction from God. A person waited for God to reveal his will.
Such as when the Gospel came to the Gentiles by Cornelius through Peter’s ministry. This happened because of a vision from God. Peter went to Cornelius’ house. It was while he Cornelius was fasting that the word of God came to him and told him to send for Peter.
The beginning of Paul’s missionary journeys was connected with fasting. While the church at Antioch fasted, the Spirit gave them instructions to set apart Paul and Barnabas. “And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away” (Acts 13:3).
In the New Testament, fasting was a personal exercise between a person and God. They sought God’s presence, and he revealed his will.
Giving Up in the Present
Christians are not commanded to fast, but neither are they forbidden. It can be appropriate if God leads us to it.
Instances when fasting may be appropriate include times of sorrow (David when he learned his child was ill), times of danger (Israel when threatened by enemies), times when confession and mourning over sin is needed, times when we are searching for God’s will, times when we are about to begin an important task or new ministry (Jesus before he was tempted and began his public ministry), and times when we are making plans and need God’s direction.
Fasting must be linked to prayer and a sincere heart. We can also fast from things other than food. We can fast from things that crowd our life and take away God’s time. This lends time for prayer and Bible study where God can speak to us.
One wrote, “Fasting is not confined to abstinence from eating and drinking. Fasting really means voluntary abstinence for a time from various necessities of life, such as food, drink, sleep, rest, association with people and so forth…Fasting in the Christian sense does not involve looking upon the necessities of life, which we have mentioned, as unclean and unholy…Fasting implies merely that our souls at certain times need to concentrate more strongly on the one thing needful than at other times, and for that reason we renounce for the time being those things which in themselves, may be both permissible and profitable.”
David Wilkerson’s story is told in The Cross and the Switchblade. It was fasting from entertainment that led him to see God’s will. He pastored a small church in Pennsylvania. The church was growing, but he was restless. While watching the Late Show, he thought about how he might better spend his time in prayer. He decided to put an ad in the paper to sell the television. He asked God to let a buyer appear right away if this was his will. Twenty-five minutes after the paper was out, a buyer called. In fifteen minutes, he had sold his television. God led David to work with teenage gang members in New York City.