What follows was written in response to a dear friend who wrote me about fasting as a Christian discipline.
Thank you for your questions about fasting. It is an honor to be asked, and a privilege to answer your questions. For many years I was a member of a church which encouraged regular fasting for spiritual renewal, sensitivity, overcoming sin, and various other very desirable results. I fasted regularly, usually twice per week, and there were times I fasted for a week or two weeks at a time. I once tried fasting for an entire month, but a 19-year-old male dock worker’s metabolism did not permit such sacrifices. I am no stranger to fasting, nor to claims regarding its benefits.
Fasting in the Old Testament
However, my thoughts about fasting were challenged when I did a Bible study on the subject. I discovered that there were no commands to fast in all of the Law of Moses, from Genesis to Deuteronomy. I found it interesting that instead of demanding fasting, God instituted seven feasts for His people to come together and eat. I also saw that the normal reason why someone did not eat was because they were grieving, usually as a result of sin (Daniel 9.3; 10.3). It was for this purpose that God decreed a fast for the people of Israel in Joel 1.14, 2.12 and 2.15. However, this forgoing of food because of repentance was not a part of Israel’s regular worship, but a response to God’s chastisement of sin. Others fasted for other reasons, such as when Hannah fasted due to her infertility (1 Samuel 1.7-10), at a time when the rest of Israel was feasting at Shiloh (1 Samuel 1.9). David fasted for the life of his son with Bathsheba after the Lord struck the child with illness (2 Samuel 12:15-16). On the other hand, Saul decreed a fast in order to try to curry God’s favor and win a battle, which almost cost himself both the battle and the life of his son. God condemned the fasting of the Jews in Zechariah 7.1-7, and refused to honor their fasting in Jeremiah 14.9. Most telling of all are the words of God in Isaiah 58.6-8, regarding the kind of fasting God does desire:
6 “Is this not the fast which I choose,
To loosen the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the bands of the yoke,
And to let the oppressed go free,
And break every yoke?
7 “Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry,
And bring the homeless poor into the house,
When you see the naked, to cover him,
And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
8 “Then your light will break out like the dawn,
And your recovery will speedily spring forth,
And your righteousness will go before you,
The glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Fasting in the New Testament: Didn’t Jesus Fast?
When we look at the New Testament, we find it records two occasions when Jesus fasted: 1) when He spent forty days in the wilderness in preparation for his ministry, a reenactment of Moses’ and Elijah’s experiences, and 2) when the ministry was so pressing that Jesus and His disciples had no time to eat. I do not see either example as being a pattern that we are to follow.
Jesus was Infamous for Not Making His Disciples Fast.
Instead of being famous for fasting, when we look at Jesus’ life and ministry, He was infamous for not requiring His disciples to do so. Here is the conversation:
Matthew 9.14 Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?” 15 And Jesus said to them, “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. 16 But no one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and a worse tear results. 17 Nor do men put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out, and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.”
Note that Jesus was famous for not imposing fasting on his disciples, unlike the Pharisees and the disciples of John. Instead of fasting, Jesus was feasting! This story occurs in Matthew 8-10, the section in which Matthew is demonstrating the power and authority of Jesus Christ as the Messiah, and what the Messiah does (8.18-21) and does not (9.9-17) demand of his disciples. Jesus does not demand that His disciples avoid either sinful people or food in order for them to be more holy.
But someone will say, “Did not Jesus indicate that fasting would be reintroduced after his death, when he 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’ (9.15)?” However, this objection does not “obtain” (prove the point). When was Jesus taken away from his disciples? During his time in the tomb, and believe me, they were in mourning. No one felt like eating. This was not a religious observance, but the natural result of grief. But after the Resurrection, whether with the disciples in the upper room or with the disciples from Emmaus, one of the first things Jesus did was to eat! One of His last activities on earth was to prepare and eat a meal of broiled fish with the Apostles. And notice how the book of Matthew ends: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age!” The Lord is with us, and His presence in our lives is a motivation for joy, and the symbol of His presence is the Lord’s Supper, not sorrow and fasting.
Returning to the story about Jesus and fasting in Matthew 9.16-17, it is very important to note how the story ends, with Jesus’ parable about wineskins. In the context, the “old wineskins” are the practice of fasting, and the new wine is the celebration of spiritual life in Jesus, a decisive rejection by Jesus against imposing fasting upon His disciples. This story is contained in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, an indication of how important the Apostles felt this teaching was for the life of the Church.
Didn’t Jesus Command that We Fast?
Someone may object that Jesus commanded His disciples to fast in Matthew 6.16-18. However, I would respond that in Matthew 6, Jesus was addressing the way in which the Jews of His day were performing specific acts of “righteousness” (6.1). What Jesus commanded was not that these acts be performed, but that they were performed in such a way as to not call attention to oneself. For example, the Jews took their giving for the poor (“alms”) to the temple, and some called attention to themselves while doing so. When the Jews of Jesus’ day brought their charitable contributions to the temple, they were fulfilling the demands of the Law in Deuteronomy 26.12-14 (cf. Malachi 3.5-12). But is this a model for us? Are we going to say that the only way we can give to charity is through the temple? Are our places of worship even parallel to the Jewish temple? I think not. But what Jesus did command was that we not give in such a way as to call attention to ourselves; this is certainly legitimate for His Gentile disciples. The same is true in Matthew 6.16. Jesus did not order people to fast, although fasting was indeed a regular part of the Jewish religion of Jesus’ day. Rather, Jesus’ command was not to fast in such a way that no one could tell, and to anoint their heads with oil and wash their faces so that no one would perceive that they were fasting. These are the only “imperatives” (commands) in the text. I wonder how many people who fast today anoint their heads with olive oil, and wash their faces as a part of their fasting?
It is also important to understand the differences between the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The Gospel of Matthew was written in the early 50s to Jews, by a Jew, about a Jew, in order to explain two things. First, how could Jesus be the Messiah if His promises about the Kingdom (cf. Matthew 5.1-11) were not fulfilled? Second, what did Jesus expect of His disciples? The Gospel of Luke, however, was written during AD 57-60, by a Gentile, for Gentiles, explaining what Jesus expected of His Gentile disciples. Consequently, Luke left out content from passages like the Sermon on the Mount which did not apply to Gentiles. I suggest that is why he did not include Jesus’ orientation about fasting in his version of the Sermon on the Mount, in Luke 6.20-49.
Did not Jesus Say Fasting Was Necessary to Cast Out Certain Demons?
In the King James Version, Mark 9.28-29 reads: “And when he was come into the house, his disciples asked him privately, Why could not we cast him out? And he said unto them, This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting.” However, the words “and fasting” do not appear in most modern versions, because they do not appear in the oldest and most reliable Greek manuscripts. They were added later, even if very early. The highly respected New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger wrote in his Texual Commentary (p. 85): “In light of the increasing emphasis in the early church on the necessity of fasting, it is understandable that καὶ νηστείᾳ (and fasting) is a gloss (a later addition) that found its way into most witnesses. Among the witnesses that resisted such an accretion are important representatives of the Alexandrian and the Western types of text.” If we think about it, how much time did Jesus have to fast before casting out this demon? (Note: The words in italics above, and fasting and a later addition, are glosses which I have added to Metzger’s text!)
Jesus’ Parable about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
In Luke 18.9-14, Jesus contrasted the worship of two men at the Temple in Jerusalem: an arrogant Pharisee, and a humble tax collector. One of the marks of arrogance of the Pharisee was that he fasted twice each week. Do we have any inkling that Jesus was approving of the fasting of the Pharisee? In contrast, the tax collector expressed his repentance by his humility, confession and plea for mercy. Which one was praised by Jesus?
A Look at the Epistles.
The epistles by James, Peter, John (and Jude) were written for Jews, in fulfillment of the call of God upon their lives as Jesus’ messengers to the Jews, and in keeping with the agreement they made with Paul in Galatians 2.7-10. We call these the “General Epistles,” but in reality they are the New Testament letters which were written specifically to Jews. In spite of fasting being an important activity for 1st century Jews, and the purpose of these letters being to instruct Jews on Christian living, we do not find fasting mentioned in any of them.
What about the epistles of Paul? The only time Paul mentions that he went without food, he said it was because he had nothing to eat! (2 Corinthians 11.27) But no where in Paul’s letters do we find him teaching Gentiles Christians to fast. Rather, we find Paul writing very much to the contrary, verses which directly attack the idea of avoiding food in order to be godly.
In the spring of AD 57, when Paul and and his fellow workers left Corinth to travel to Jerusalem by way of Macedonia (Acts 20.3-4), he ordered Timothy to stay in Ephesus (1 Timothy 1.3), and then wrote a letter to this young pastor with instructions on how to care for his first church. First, he ordered Timothy to deal with leaders in the church who were teaching the heresy that Christians needed to keep the Law of Moses (1 Timothy 1.3-11; cf. Acts 20.28-30). Later, in 1 Timothy 4, the Apostle dealt with a similar but different heresy, the heresy of asceticism, the demonic doctrine that Christians must avoid marriage (sex) and food if they wanted to be truly holy. It was in chapter four that Paul wrote about fasting.
“1 But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, 2 by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, 3 men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods, which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude; 5 for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer. 6 In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following. 7 But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; 8 for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”
Asceticism is the idea that if we forego sleep, food, or sex, we will be more holy people. That’s why hermits lived in the desert, and why men and women lived in monasteries, and they all practiced fasting. Paul wrote that these practices are demonic in origin, violate the principle that God made everything, and that food is to be shared and eaten freely. The “bodily disciplines” mentioned in verse eight are not going to the gym, or doing sit-ups. In the context, it is “disciplining the body” through avoiding sex and food. Note that modern authors who promote fasting, such as Don S. Whitney, Adele Calhoun and Richard Foster, consider fasting one of the “Christian disciplines”. Paul, however, considered that these “physical disciplines” are of little value.
We find similar instructions in a letter which Paul wrote to the church of the Colossians, probably in AD 61, during his first imprisonment in in Rome:
16 Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day – 17 things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement (the purpose for fasting) and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, 19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God. 20 If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 21 “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” 22 (which all refer to things destined to perish with the using) – in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? 23 These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.
Paul specifically addressed people who were telling the Colossians that they would be more holy people if they fasted, and we can see Paul’s opinion of this practice in verse 23: such practices are of no value in dealing with the desires of our fallen nature. They are on the level of telling young men to take cold showers!
Fasting in the Book of Acts
What about fasting in the book of Acts? We do find Christians fasting for religious purposes twice in the book of Acts: the leadership of the church in Antioch fasted when appointing Paul and Barnabas as missionaries (13.3), and Paul and Barnabas fasted when appointing elders in the churches they had planted (14.2). I do not know of any Protestant church which calls its leadership to fasting before ordaining pastors, missionaries or elders, but perhaps there something here that we need to think about when we are ordaining someone to ministry! These verses are the only indications of fasting in the book of Acts, and they seem to be in very specific circumstances.
What we do not find are any other references to fasting in the rest of the book of Acts: not in the upper room after Jesus’ resurrection, nor before ordaining Matthias (2.16), nor in the description of the activities of a healthy, growing apostolic church in Acts 2.43-47, nor in the Apostles’ decrees to Gentiles about morality (Acts 15). For me, it is very telling that Luke, instead of registering that the early church fasted, recorded that they were “breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart.” A mark of a healthy church is that the members eat together! Now someone may say that this is an argument from silence, but I would answer that one of Luke’s purposes in Acts is to explain how a healthy church functions, and it is significant that he does not include fasting anywhere except in Acts 13.2-3 and 14.23. Those who promote fasting then need to explain how we can fit these two texts into the rest of the the book of Acts, rather than force the book of Acts to conform to these two texts.
So, my dear sister, this would be my response to the question of “what does the Bible teach about fasting?” Fasting was not imposed either by Moses upon the Jews, nor by Jesus upon the Apostles, nor by the Apostles upon the Church. That is why we do not find it imposed by the writers of the Epistles, and why we do not find the Church engaged in ritual fasting in the book of Acts.
Finally, I find no basis in Scripture for “targeted fasting,” giving up something specific, unless it would be 1 Corinthians 7.5-6: “Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again lest Satan tempt you because of your lack of self-control. But this I say by way of concession, not of command.” We must observe, however, that Paul declared he was not ordering married couples to abstain from sex; he was only making a concession to the Corinthian ascetics who written, asking whether a man could even touch a woman (1 Cor. 7.1). Paul’s apostolic command was that physical oneness is a vital part of marriage, and married couples were to stop depriving each other of sex as a means of being more “spiritual.” To refrain from having sex in order to pray was not a command, but a concession!
What I do not see is that this text is a justification for giving up chocolate, or television, or something else in order to be more holy. I think we need to recognize that this idea originated, not with Paul, but with “giving up something for Lent” among the Roman Catholics. In the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic church forbid sex and meat during Lent, under pain of death. The modern practice of “giving up something for Lent” is, in my opinion, merely a more palatable expression of the same misplaced understanding of what we must do to be more holy.
Is There A Place for Fasting?
In spite of my rejection of fasting as a regular spiritual discipline, I believe there remains a place for fasting in the life of the believer today. Biblical fasting is a sign of sorrow and humbling, either for a grief which had occurred (Hannah’s sterility), or a sin which needed to be repented of and forgiven (Nineveh), or in intercession for ones nation (as per Daniel and Esther). Though I no longer engage in ritual fasting, there have been pivotal moments in my own life when I fasted. One of those moments was when I was deeply grieved over spiritual failure in my own life, and was seeking God’s face to such a degree that I did not even want to eat. On two other occasions, I fasted for my country during national elections. I did not fast to impress God. I did not fast so that God would hear my prayers. I fasted out of grief and love for my country. Instead of the desire to eat, I was consumed with the desire to pray. Were I to find myself in either of these circumstances again, I have no doubt that I would do so again.
Dear sister, the bottom line is that your relationship with God is a very private and personal affair. Far be it from me to tell you that you cannot forego eating or doing something similar as an expression of your commitment to Jesus Christ. What I can tell you is that fasting is not commanded in the New Testament as a spiritual discipline necessary to become a more godly Christian.
 All quotes in this article are from the New American Standard Bible, 1977.