The Discipline of Fasting

Matthew 6:16-18
P.G. Mathew | Sunday, August 03, 1997
Copyright © 1997, P.G. Mathew

When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

(Matthew 6:16-18)

When was the last time you heard a sermon on fasting? In this passage Jesus addressed the biblical discipline of fasting, which applies to those of us who are his disciples. But I doubt if many of us have heard sermons on this topic. Why do you think we don’t want to discuss fasting? Because in a country like ours, which has an abundance of so many things, including food, we would rather indulge than fast. We prefer to gratify every desire rather than exercise discipline in our bodies and souls. We tend to eat too much, and we even waste about twenty-five percent of our food every day. Ours is a country that teaches indulgence, and as a result we are flabby and weak, unable to say “No” and make it stick. We do not like self-discipline and self-control. But here in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught about fasting, and as his disciples, we must examine this passage to see what God wants us to do.

Acts of Righteousness

In Matthew 5:20 Jesus said that the righteousness of his disciples must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. And in Matthew 6 Jesus spoke of three “acts of righteousness.” These were works which the Pharisees did publicly for the praise of men, but that Jesus said his disciples should do privately for the glory and approval of God.

The first act of righteousness Jesus spoke about was giving alms to the poor. We must understand that we have a relationship with society. If we call ourselves lovers of God, we must evidence that by loving our fellow man. It is our Christian duty to engage in helping the poor.

The second act of righteousness Jesus spoke about is prayer to God. We are not only to make contact with people but we also must make contact with our heavenly Father through vital, regular prayer.

The third act of righteousness that Jesus dealt with is fasting. Through fasting we deal with ourselves by engaging in personal discipline for spiritual purposes. Through fasting we exercise discipline in our bodies and souls.

What Is Fasting?

Fasting is abstinence from food for some spiritual purpose. It may even be defined as abstinence from anything that is legitimate in and of itself for the sake of some spiritual purpose. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion , John Calvin wrote, “Holy and lawful fasting has three objectives. We use it either to weaken and subdue the flesh that it may not act wantonly, or that we may be better prepared for prayers and holy meditations, or that it may be a testimony of our self-abasement before God when we wish to confess our guilt before him” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. II, edited by John T. McNeill, translated and indexed by Ford Lewis Battles, [Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960], 1242).

I was brought up practicing this habit of fasting in my home. Whenever my family faced serious difficulties, we fasted and sought the Lord in humility and repentance. We thus experienced God’s deliverance through fasting.

Calvin wrote about this aspect of fasting: “Again, if either pestilence, or famine, or war begins to rage, or if any disaster seems to threaten any district and people–then also it is the duty of the pastors to urge the church to fasting, in order that by supplication the Lord’s wrath may be averted” (Institutes , Vol. II, 1243).

From What Do We Fast?

As I said, fasting may be defined as abstinence from anything that is legitimate in itself for the sake of some spiritual purpose. For example, sleep is a good and legitimate thing, but sometimes we are led by the Holy Spirit to fast from sleep and give ourselves to prayer instead. This is called watching. Jesus spoke about watching in Matthew 26:41, and Paul referred to it in 2 Corinthians 6. And in the gospel accounts we read how Jesus himself prayed all night at times.

What about sex? Sex is good and legitimate within marriage, but in 1 Corinthians 7:5 we read that fasting from sex can be proper. If a couple desires to spend some time in prayer, they may go without sex by mutual consent for a period of time.

We can also fast from legitimate physical sustenance. Food and drink are good and legitimate; yet, at times we are led to go without eating or drinking or both for spiritual purposes.

Examples of Fasting

Fasting is for Christians, and we find examples of it throughout the Bible. In Old Testament times members of the entire nation of Israel were required to afflict their souls once a year by fasting on the tenth day of the seventh month, the Day of Atonement, as we read in Leviticus 16. In Acts 27 this annual affliction was called a fast.

During the time of Jesus the Jews fasted more than once a year. Some Pharisees, such as the one who prayed to himself in Luke 18:12, fasted twice a week. Every Monday and Thursday they would refrain from eating, drinking, and sex. On those days they would not bathe or anoint their heads with oil; rather, they would put on ashes, wear rough clothing, and go out barefoot. Mondays and Thursdays were market days and these Pharisees would also go to the market in this gloomy and miserable condition. Why do you think they did that? So that everyone could see how pious and righteous they were. They were fasting to be seen and praised by people, not God.

Not only did the Pharisees fast, but John the Baptist and his disciples also fasted. We read about that several times in the gospel accounts.

When to Fast

In the Old Testament we find people fasting on occasions other than the Day of Atonement. People would fast, pray and seek God when there were wars or serious disasters like long-term droughts or plagues.

For instance, in Judges 20 we read about people fasting because of a serious tragedy. The tribe of Benjamin was engaged in a civil war against all the other tribes of Israel. Forty thousand people were killed, and in the midst of this great tragedy, the people fasted and prayed.

You find many other examples in the Old Testament. In 1 Samuel 31 we read that people fasted on hearing of the tragic death of Saul and his children. Nehemiah fasted when he heard of the deplorable condition of the city of Jerusalem and the disgraceful circumstances of the people of God living there. And in 2 Chronicles 20 we see Jehoshaphat calling for a fast when a large army came to fight against him. And as he and his people fasted and prayed, God provided deliverance.

In the book of Joel there was a locust plague and Joel called upon his people to fast and pray. In 2 Samuel 12 we read about David fasting because his son was sick. I am sure he thought that maybe God would change his mind and spare the child, but, of course, that didn’t happen and the child died. You notice that David fasted and prayed when the child fell ill, and it is proper to act like this when sickness comes.

In Acts 13 and 14 the apostles fasted and prayed for guidance before they sent out Paul. Jesus himself fasted forty days in preparation for his ministry. So, then, fasting is proper in all of these occasions.

Christians Fast

We must realize that in this passage Jesus was not condemning fasting as a practice. Rather, he was condemning fasting that is done hypocritically only to be seen by men. He condemned such fasting just as he condemned the other “works of righteousness”–the prayers and almsgiving–practiced by Pharisees for the purpose of being seen by men.

Notice, Jesus said, “When you fast,” not “If you fast,” in the same way he said, “When you pray,” not “If you pray.” Jesus anticipated that his disciples would fast just as he had anticipated that his disciples would pray.

Jesus also prophesied that his disciples would fast. In Matthew 9:14-15 we read, “Then John’s disciples came and asked him, ‘How is it that we and the Pharisees fast but your disciples do not fast?'” What did Jesus tell them? “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.” Jesus was speaking about the period between his ascension and his second coming. Thus, Jesus was prophesying that the church would individually and corporately fast now when the bridegroom is away from us.

We also learn from ancient sources that members of the early church fasted. The Didache , a Christian document of the second century, spoke of Christians fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays. So fasting is a biblical, Christian discipline.

Christian Fasting

How should Christians fast? First, we must recognize that fasting is voluntary and private. We should fast as we are led by the Spirit of the living God, and, thus, our fasting ought not to be mechanical and Pharisaical. Fasting is not an end in itself. It is a means to accomplish spiritual purposes. We should never fast in order to be seen and applauded by men. Fasting should be prompted by God and done to be seen only by God.

So Jesus instructed his disciples that when they fast, they ought not to appear sad and gloomy. No dressing in sackcloth and ashes or disfiguring their faces. No ostentation, hypocrisy, and playing up to the gallery. The Pharisees did all these things, but Jesus wanted his disciples to fast differently. He told them to wash their faces and anoint their heads with oil. When Christians are guided by the Holy Spirit to fast, they must appear normal. They should not call attention to themselves in any way. They should let God alone see their fasting, knowing that he alone would reward them.

Let me repeat, fasting is not meritorious. There are some religious groups who see fasting as a meritorious act, but this is definitely not the Christian view. Our salvation is by grace, not by works, and Christians can never put pressure on God and force him to act favorably to us by fasting. Fasting is designed to change us, not God.

In 2 Samuel 12 we read how David fasted and prayed when his son was dying. Why did he do so? He thought the Lord might be gracious and let the child live. But it was God’s will that David’s son die and he died. David himself was changed, but fasting does not change God’s unchanging purposes.

Spiritual Activities During Fasting

Christian fasting must be accompanied by certain spiritual activities. First, there must be much Bible reading. I was speaking to a young woman the other day. Her father is a minister and she goes to an evangelical church, but when I asked her about the gospel, I was amazed to discover that she had absolutely no understanding of what Christianity is about.

We need to get into the Bible and see what it says. Why? Because the Bible will tell us something about ourselves, about God, about sin, and about salvation. So when we fast, there should be a commitment to read and study the Bible.

Second, fasting should be accompanied by confession of sins. In 1 Samuel 7:6 we read how the Israelites fasted and confessed their sins before the Lord. “We have sinned against the Lord,” they said.

What about us? Let me tell you, we have a lot of sins, but we don’t always see them. But when we are fasting and praying, God gives us some insight into all of our sins.

Third, fasting should also be accompanied by mourning and grieving. Ezra fasted and wept for the unfaithfulness of Israel, as we read in Ezra 10:6, “Then Ezra withdrew from before the house of God and went to the room of Jehohanan son of Eliashib. While he was there, he ate no food and rank no water, because he continued to mourn over the unfaithfulness of the exiles.” There is a mourning, a grieving, because we feel that we have offended God.

Fourth, when we fast, we must humble ourselves. In Psalm 35:13 we read, “Yet when they were ill, I put on sackcloth and humbled myself with fasting.” Notice, this is vicarious fasting. David was fasting, not for himself but for other people. When people in the church have trouble, we should humble ourselves on their behalf and fast and pray that God may help them. David continued, “I went about mourning as though for my friend or brother. I bowed my head in grief as though weeping for my mother” (v. 14). And in Ezra 8:21 we notice Ezra calling a fast so they could humble themselves before the Lord and pray. So fasting is not an end in itself. We fast for the spiritual purpose of humbling ourselves and we can do it vicariously, in behalf of others. We must fast, as we read in Ezra 10:6 and Psalm 35.

Sixth, fasting must also be accompanied by serious prayer. We see this in Ezra 8, Psalm 35, and Acts 13. Fasting must be accompanied by worship and prayer. (PGM) We see that aspect of fasting in the life of the prophetess Anna, who lived in the temple precinct where she habitually worshiped, prayed and fasted for many years (Luke 2). And, finally, fasting should be done in the context of loving God and his people. We are to help the poor, cover the naked, practice justice and mercy, and so on, as we read in Isaiah 58.

Prayer During Fasting

When we fast, we pray for certain things. First, we pray for those who are ill. We already said that David prayed God would heal his sick child. In that situation it was God’s will not to heal, but it is absolutely proper for us to pray where there is sickness in the family. I grew up in a home where we never sought medical care. Whenever there was sickness, we prayed and fasted and called upon God. No one in my family–my parents, my siblings or myself–ever went to a hospital. We are proof that God answers prayer. That does not mean God does not work through medical science. He does, and I believe medicine is God’s way too. But I am saying that it is proper to fast and pray when there is sickness.

What else do we fast and pray for? Revival. We read about that in Ezra 10, Nehemiah 1, and Daniel 9. Have you ever prayed, “O God, the state of your church is so cold, so frozen. And not only that, your people are glorying in their frozen condition. O God, have mercy upon your church!” We must pray for revival with fasting.

We should pray with fasting for guidance. When we fast and pray, saying, “O God, I don’t know which way to go. Do I turn to the left or to the right? I do not know. O God, help me,” God will guide us in the way we ought to go. The New Testament church engaged in this activity of prayer and fasting before they sent out missionaries, as we read in Acts 13 and 14. Are you wondering if you should marry one person or another person, or get married at all? You had better fast and pray to find out what God has to say. He will guide us.

We are to fast and pray for deliverance from our enemies. In the book of Esther we see that the enemies of God’s people were trying to destroy the Jewish people throughout the world. In chapter 4 we read that Mordecai, Esther, and others fasted for seventy-two hours without eating or drinking, and God brought about great deliverance. We see a similar situation in 2 Chronicles 20. When a great army came to war against Jehoshaphat, he called for a fast and God delivered Israel.

What else should we pray for? The salvation of our loved ones. Don’t you think it is a good idea to get up in the morning and pray for the salvation of your children, your wife, your husband, or your neighbors? My mother used to pray like this. She prayed not only for the salvation of her children but also for the salvation of the neighbors, and God heard her prayers.

How to Fast

Perhaps you are wondering how long you should fast. You could start by skipping one meal or fasting for one day. You could start fasting for a night or for three days. The Bible speaks about fasting for three days, seven days, twenty-one days, and forty days. But start with a very short period.

You can fast from food and drink, if God guides you. Moses fasted for forty days, during which time he did not eat or drink. But he was in the very presence of God and God sustained him. In Acts 9 we read that Paul fasted three days without eating and drinking. Esther, Mordecai, and those with them also fasted for seventy-two hours without eating or drinking.

You can just fast from food. It seems Jesus fasted from food for forty days, as we read in Matthew 4 and Luke 4. Or you can fast from rich food, as Daniel did in Daniel 10. It is good also to fast sometimes from the television, radio, newspapers, and magazines.

Let me encourage you: If you begin this habit of fasting, you will be in good company. Moses, David, Daniel, Jesus, Anna, Paul, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and Whitefield all fasted.

Beginning Your Fast

Would you like to start this discipline of fasting? Let me give you some counsel. First, if you have any kind of physical problems, you should consult with your doctor before you begin to fast. That is very important. If you have diabetes, high blood pressure, or any other physical condition that would affected by fasting, you should not begin to fast without medical advice.

Second, you should have a list of objectives. We must pray for something, and it is good to begin with our own needs. Tell God how oblivious you are to your own sins and needs and ask him to reveal them to you. You should pray for the needs of your family and the needs of the church. You should pray for the needs of our nation and the world.

Third, when you decide to fast, be sure to persevere in it. We are not used to fasting, and we may experience headaches or other discomforts that make us want to quit. But we should persevere as we seek God.

Fourth, eat lightly before and after fasting. Eat fruits and light foods rather than heavy foods like steak. You want to ease your body into the fast and break it gradually. I have personally not done so and felt terrible afterwards. So I encourage you to eat lightly before and after you fast.

Fifth, drink lots of fluids–water and juice–during your fast.

Sixth, repent, confess, pray, and intercede for others during the fast.

Seventh, avoid showmanship when you fast. Look normal and don’t call attention to your fasting.

Why Fast?

Why should we fast? Remember, one of the major problems in our country is that we have such an abundance of everything. We are an indulged society.

Jesus warns us about the dangers of living in a society such as ours. In Luke 21:34 he said, “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap.” He was speaking to the church. What was he warning them about? Dissipation. Surfeiting. Eating and drinking more and more and more.

In Titus 1:12 we read that the Cretans were known as lazy gluttons. It is quite easy to practice gluttony in our society. But have you ever thought that gluttony is a sin? The Scripture prohibits and forbids it.

In Philippians 3:19 Paul writes of some people, “Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach.” We live in an age of gluttony, in the age of the belly-god. Here we can eat again and again, even in the middle of the night. And we eat even when we are not hungry. Have you ever noticed how, when you are watching a movie or television program in which people are eating, all of a sudden you will go into the kitchen to find something to eat even when you are not hungry? This is our problem, and the spiritual discipline of fasting will help us to learn and exercise the self-control we need.

Benefits of Fasting

What, then, are the benefits to be gained from the practice of fasting?

  1. Fasting for spiritual purposes teaches us self-discipline. Jesus said to deny ourselves, meaning we must say “No” to the demands of our flesh. We are to say “No” to illegitimate demands as well as to certain legitimate ones. Fasting enables us to have self-discipline so that we can say “No” and make it stick. And it trains us to say “Yes” to God in terms of prayer, confession, and doing what is right.
  2. Fasting helps us to understand how much we depend on God. When we stop eating, what happens? We experience pain and trouble. We may even think we are about to die. When we fast, we begin to understand that we need God to give us daily bread, and that realization should give us a little humility. We realize that we live, move, and have our being in God.
  3. When we fast, there is more time to seek the kingdom of God . There is no cooking, no eating, and no washing of dishes. A lot of time is released so that we can really engage in spiritual activity.
  4. Fasting enables us to endure suffering and sympathize with others. As we feel pain from fasting, we can better sympathize with others who are suffering.
  5. Fasting generates money. When we fast, we save money that would otherwise be used for food. In the second century the church used such money for the relief of the poor.
  6. Fasting contributes to spiritual and mental alertness. When we fast, our minds and perception get sharper because we are focusing less on temporal things and more on eternal realities. We are not rushing through our prayer. We are really thinking things through. Our souls become more alert.
  7. Through fasting we are telling God that we are earnest in our prayer. Fasting signals earnestness and urgency. Those who come to God must believe that God exists and that he is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him. People come to me with their problems and ask if I have a way to solve them. I say to such people, “Why don’t you fast and pray? How serious are you in getting deliverance from your problems? Prove yourself by serious fasting and prayer, and see whether or not God will help you.” Fasting demonstrates our earnestness, urgency, and diligence.
  8. Fasting enables us to perform true self-examination. We are a generation that is steeped in the philosophy of self-esteem. We dislike the concept of sin and are always whitewashing ourselves. But when we fast and pray, God shows us in increasing degrees our own corruption. And when that happens, we are enabled to confess and forsake our sins.

Strength through Fasting

In conclusion, I encourage us all to read Isaiah 58 and 2 Chronicles 20. These chapters illustrate true biblical fasting and we will do well to study them and meditate upon them.

God has looked with favor upon us in his Son in grace. And this grace of God that brings salvation teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions and to say “Yes” to the demands of the kingdom of God, as we read in Titus 2. But we must also recognize that we are a people who have a great need for self-control and discipline, especially in this country where there is so much abundance. We must confess that we have become flabby, weak and self-indulgent. We must, therefore, learn what it means to deny ourselves, even of things that are legitimate, and to learn self-discipline, that we may be strong enough to say “No” to sin and “Yes” to God.

May God help us to learn self-control through this discipline of fasting. May we, by the help of his Holy Spirit, abstain from things that are legitimate in themselves that we may seek the kingdom of God and its righteousness and be strong, fit, disciplined, and self-controlled soldiers of Jesus Christ. Amen.