Christian Living,  Church

Does God Command Believers to Fast?

I remember listening to a sermon one time and the preacher was telling us that he would fast to reprioritize his life. He said that one time he experienced a fast for 30 days, leading to a tremendous religious experience. In relating this story, he seemed to imply that we ought to fast in order to experience that as well.

photo of food not to eat during a fast

This kind of belief is not uncommon. In fact, with simple searches you can find guides on Christian fasting. Of course the assumption is that this is something we should intentionally be pursuing. However, I am convinced that the church is not commanded to fast. Rather, fasting is a natural consequence of sinners living in a fallen world.

New Testament Commands to Fast?

The first observation that supports this argument is that there is no command in the New Testament to fast. Although the word for fasting is used twenty times in the NT, it is never used with imperatival force. In fact, when Jesus teaches on fasting, he describes it as an assumed reality.

Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do… But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.

Matt 6:16-18 (Emphasis added)

Notice that Jesus does not command the saints to fast, but rather assumes they will experience fasting circumstances. In fact, later when questioned about why the disciples did not fast, Jesus said, “The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Matt 9:15). The assumption is that after Jesus would leave the world, then the disciples’ lives would naturally include the need to fast.

Fasting in the Old Testament

This picture of fasting is supported by the Old Testament’s view of fasting. In the OT, the only commanded fast was on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:29-30; 23:27-31; Num 29:7). The phrase, “afflict yourselves” appears to be a Hebrew idiom to fast. Other than this, there are no commands to fast in the OT.

But that does not mean people did not fast in the OT. On the contrary, fasting occurs throughout the OT. The verb and the noun used for fasting in the OT are used forty-seven times combined. If you examine the context, you will see that each occasion for genuine fasting is accompanied by despair, sorrow over sin, or anguish over one’s circumstance. Note the following examples from the OT:

  • 2 Sam 12:16 – David fasts when his child is about to die.
  • Joel 1:14; 2:12, 15 – Joel preaches repentance and encourages fasting in conjunction with sorrow over their sin.
  • Jonah 3:5 – The people of Nineveh are sorrowful over their sin and impending destruction so they fast.
  • Psalm 35:19 – David’s care for his enemies is evidenced by his fasting when they are sick.
  • Daniel 9:3 – Daniel realizes that God promised to bring Israel out of captivity and is prompted into deep prayer and fasting.

As these examples illustrate, in the Bible fasting seems to be a response to one’s circumstances, and not a spiritual  restorative or stimulant. In fact, I encourage you to do a search on Bible Gateway and look at the circumstances in the Bible which involve fasting. Fasts are prompted by things like sorrow over sin, dire circumstances, and harsh oppression.

Fasting as a Believer

This leads to an application. I believe the reason we don’t fast much in North America is because we are plump and filled. We have no big needs. Few of us are wondering if we will eat tomorrow, we have few medical emergencies, and we have lacked significant persecution up to this point. Why should we fast when we have no circumstances that press us into a state of fasting?

On the other hand, there are those in the world who fast because they are so burdened by their sin that all they can do is cry out to God. There are others who fast because there are family members in a critical medical condition and they are so busy crying out to God that they don’t have time to eat. This seems to be the biblical nature of fasting. Rather than being a command or a “spiritual discipline,” fasting is a Spirit-enabled response to emotional conditions which prompt a deep communion with God.

It seems that the reason we don’t fast much as Christians is because we are full, and the things of God don’t interest us that much. Don’t let that be the commentary on your life!

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He is a husband, father, and sports enthusiast.

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