As I travel, teach, and preach, I am often asked, “What does it mean to fast? What is the purpose of fasting, and how does one go about it?”
In more than 50 references to fasting in the Old and New Testaments, with the exception of the Day of Atonement, there is no specific command to fast. In the New Testament, however, it was assumed that fasting would be part of the believer’s normal devotional life.
About fasting, Jesus said: “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full” (Matt. 6:16).He also said: “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” (Matt. 9:15).
These verses indicate that fasting should be a normal discipline in the church. It must, however, be God-centered, God-intended, and God-ordained as an expression of grief, distress, or repentance; as preparation for God’s guidance and renewal (Ex. 24 and Dan. 9); to reveal things that hinder our intimacy with God; to remind us that we are sustained by “every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4), and to help keep our lives in balance.
Going without food and sometimes water, generally for religious purposes, is the basic concept of fasting. But it should be voluntary when practicing any of these four types of fasting referred to in the Bible and the writings of Ellen White:
Normal fasting: going without food for up to 40 days (Ex. 34:28; Dan. 6:18; Luke 2:37; Mark 2:18; Matt. 4:2; Acts 13:2, 3; 14-23, and others).
Partial fasting: abstaining from certain foods (Dan. 10:3).
Absolute fasting: going without food or water for up to three days (Esther 4:16).
Voluntary group fasting: for a specific reason by a specific group of people (Ezra 8:21, 23; 1 Sam. 7:6; 2 Chron. 20:3; Jonah 3:5; and others).
The practice of fasting can be experienced as:
Occasional fasting: eating a light meal (fruit, vegetables, yogurt, etc.). One can skip two or three meals and drink lots of water. When it’s time to break the fast, do so with fruit juices followed by a light meal. Avoid oils, dressings, and starch for a couple meals.
Regular discipline of fasting: Begin slowly with a partial 24-hour (two meals) fast once a week over several weeks. During this time, drink fruit juices. After succeeding with this for several weeks, one can move to a 36-hour (three meal) fast. Such fasts should be broken with a light meal of soup, fruits, and/or vegetables.
Optional fasting: If skipping meals is not possible, one should try fasting from certain food types (sweets, soft drinks, etc.) or leisure activities (TV, sports, shopping, etc.).
Regardless of how you choose to fast, remember to: (1) monitor your inner thoughts and maintain a worshipful attitude; (2) be careful not to call attention to what you are doing; (3) devote this fasting time to devotional activities, such as praying, reading devotional materials, and studying special topics in the Bible; (4) seek the Lord.
Consult your physician regarding extended fasting (up to 40 days), and remember that the major work of scriptural fasting is in the realm of one’s spirit.
As our church struggles with many complicated issues, I urge our members to fast and pray. Here is a statement from Ellen White that I find most helpful:
“I was shown that advocates of truth should not seek discussions. And whenever it is necessary for the advancement of the cause of truth and the glory of God that an opponent be met . . . with heart-searching, confession of sin, and earnest prayer, and often fasting for a time, they should entreat that God would especially help them and give His saving, precious truth a glorious victory, that error might appear in its true deformity and its advocates be completely discomfited.”*
* Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 1, p. 624.