A Brief Account of Fasting in the Bible

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As the scope of this pandemic broadens, spiritual leaders around the world have called their followers to observe special days of fasting. But for many of us, fasting is one of those rare spiritual disciplines that we have been quite content to ignore. After all, how does giving up food really change anything?

Others of us are pretty convinced that fasting is just for the spiritual elite, like prophets or apostles. We can admire people who fast without considering that we could fast too. Occasionally, we might even wonder, “Is fasting biblical? Isn’t it just a human invention to try to show God that we’re really, really sorry?” 

When taking a closer look, we see that the biblical narrative tells quite a few stories that involve fasting. While not intended to be exhaustive, the list below contains nine aspects of fasting found in the Bible. As you read through this summary list, let me encourage you to also set aside time to wonder how these stories might inform how and when we practice fasting today. 

Extended fasting to meet with God: The Bible tells stories about fasts that lasted 40 days and 40 nights. The first is when Moses meets God on Mt. Sinai. Another is when Jesus spends time in the wilderness immediately following his baptism. Both situations mark significant moments in redemption history. The 40 days of Lent are, in part, based on these stories of intense, extended meetings with God.    

In times of great crisis: Esther and Daniel both fasted in times of great crisis. Daniel’s fast is personal, while Esther’s fast involves the broader community of God’s people. They recognize a significant threat to God’s people and seek God’s intervention and divine deliverance. A similar theme is reflected in Psalm 35 and Psalm 109

Grieving over sin: As he grieves over his personal sins of raping Bathsheba and killing Uriah, David fasts, pleading that God would spare their newborn son. 

Leaders abusing a fast: The stories of Queen Jezebel and King Ahab stealing Naboth’s vineyard and of Jehoiakim refusing to believe God’s word through Jeremiah and Baruch (Jeremiah’s scribe) show how times of fasting can be abused and manipulated by wicked leaders. 

Fasting as acting justly and with mercy: Isaiah and Zechariah both confront God’s people for expecting God to reward them for their religious fasting. Both prophets reframe fasting in terms of acting justly and with mercy toward others.  

Rend your hearts: The prophet Joel calls God’s people to repentance that involves a complete change of heart. This echoes the Ninevites’ repentance in response to God’s message through Jonah and Saul’s conversion after meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus, both of which involve several days of fasting.  

Jesus’ teaching about fasting: On a few occasions, Jesus teaches directly about fasting. In one situation, Jesus urges his followers to make sure that their fasting is done for God and not for public attention or approval from religious leaders. At another time, Jesus says that his disciples will fast after he is taken from them

Waiting for God’s redemption: Jesus’ birth narrative is followed by Anna’s story, as one who was waiting for God’s redemption. Her waiting is shaped through decades of continual prayer and fasting in the temple. 

Setting apart leaders: The book of Acts recounts a few instances when the church fasted in connection with setting apart church leaders. During a time of prayer and fasting, the church in Antioch sets apart Barnabas and Saul for mission work. As they establish new churches, Barnabas and Saul also set apart new leaders in each community. 

Questions for Our Discernment

Here are a few questions to assist us in wondering how we might respond to these biblical examples of fasting:

  • In what ways do our religious practices get in the way of us responding to the suffering of others? How could fasting help us see the ways we fail to extend justice and mercy to others? (Isaiah/Zechariah)  

  • How can fasting be an appropriate response in times of great crisis? (Esther) 

  • In what ways could regular fasting shape and deepen a lifelong desire within us for God’s redemption? (Anna)

  • How might communal times of prayer and fasting shape our trust in God’s leading during the selection of elders, deacons, and other leaders? (Acts)

  • Why do you think confession of our sins and big conversion moments often involve fasting? (Nineveh, David, Saul)  

  • In a pandemic like COVID-19, in times of war, or in natural disasters, how might the practice of fasting provide space for our anger, doubt, and grief to become the content of our prayers before God? (Psalms)

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