‘Fasting is something that helps you contemplate spirituality and reminds you that material objects are not the most important thing in life.’
‘Fasting helps you attain a spiritual connection to God.’
‘In my faith, fasting is an obligation, a pillar to show my devotion to and gratitude for God. I fast because I love God.’
FASTING is a practice common to many of the world’s religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, and Judaism. Many people believe that abstaining from food for a certain period of time draws one closer to God.
What do you think? Should you fast? What does God’s Word, the Bible, have to say on this subject?
Fasts in Bible Times
In Bible times, people fasted for various reasons that met with divine approval. Some fasted to express extreme sorrow or repentance for sins (1 Samuel 7:4-6), to implore God’s favor or seek his guidance (Judges 20:26-28; Luke 2:36, 37), or to sharpen one’s concentration while meditating.
The Bible, however, also refers to fasts that God did not view with favor. King Saul fasted before consulting a spirit medium. (Leviticus 20:6; 1 Samuel 28:20) Wicked people, such as Jezebel as well as the fanatics who planned to kill the apostle Paul, proclaimed fasts. (1 Kings 21:7-12; Acts 23:12-14) The Pharisees were well-known for their regular fasting. (Mark 2:18) Yet, they were condemned by Jesus, and they failed to impress God. (Matthew 6:16; Luke 18:12) Likewise, Jehovah ignored the fasts of certain Israelites because of their bad conduct and wrong motives.
These examples show that it is not the act of fasting in itself that pleases God. However, many sincere servants of God who did fast met with divine approval. So should Christians fast?
Is Fasting Obligatory for Christians?
The Mosaic Law ordered the Jews to “afflict [their] souls,” that is, to fast, once a year on Atonement Day. (Leviticus 16:29-31; Psalm 35:13) This was the only fasting that Jehovah ever commanded his people to do.* Jews who lived under the Mosaic Law would have obeyed that command. But Christians are not required to observe the Mosaic Law.
Although Jesus did fast as the Law required, he was not known for this practice. He told his disciples how they were to act if they chose to fast, but he never commanded that they fast. (Matthew 6:16-18; 9:14) Why, then, did Jesus say that his disciples would fast after his death? (Matthew 9:15) This was not a command. Jesus’ words simply suggest that at his death his disciples would feel deep sorrow and would lose the desire to eat.
Two Biblical accounts of early Christians who did fast show that if with good motive a person chooses to abstain from food, this is acceptable to God. (Acts 13:2, 3; 14:23)* Christians, then, are under no obligation to fast. Yet, a person who chooses to do so should be alert to certain dangers.
Beware of the Pitfalls
One pitfall to avoid regarding fasting is self-righteousness. The Bible warns against adopting “mock humility.” (Colossians 2:20-23) Jesus’ illustration of the proud Pharisee who felt morally superior to others because of his regular fasting leaves no doubt that God rejects such an attitude.
It would also be a mistake to publicize the fact that you fast or to fast because another person tells you to do so. According to Matthew 6:16-18, Jesus counseled that fasting should be a private matter, between you and God, and that you should not announce it to others.
One should never think that fasting somehow compensates for sinning. To be acceptable to God, a fast must be accompanied by obedience to his laws. (Isaiah 58:3-7) Heartfelt repentance, not the act of fasting itself, is what leads to the forgiveness of sins. (Joel 2:12, 13) The Bible emphasizes that we receive forgiveness by Jehovah’s undeserved kindness expressed through the sacrifice of Christ. It is impossible to earn forgiveness through any works, including fasting.
Isaiah 58:3 illustrates another common error. The Israelites suggested that Jehovah owed them something in return for their fasting, as if by fasting, they were doing God a favor. They asked: “For what reason did we fast and you did not see, and did we afflict our soul and you would take no note?” Many today likewise think that because of their fasting, they can expect God to perform some favor for them in return. May we never imitate such a disrespectful and unscriptural attitude!
Others believe that it is possible to earn merit by submitting the body to discomfort through fasting, whipping themselves, or the like. God’s Word condemns this notion, showing that “a severe treatment of the body” is “of no value in combating” wrong desires.
A Balanced View
Fasting is not obligatory; nor is it wrong. It may be beneficial in some circumstances if the dangers mentioned above are avoided. Fasting, however, is not the focus of acceptable worship. Jehovah is “the happy God,” and he wants his servants to be happy. (1 Timothy 1:11) His own Word says: “There is nothing better for them than . . . that every man should eat and indeed drink and see good for all his hard work. It is the gift of God.”
Our worship should be characterized by joy, but the Bible never associates fasting with happiness. Moreover, if abstaining from food were to affect our health adversely or sap our energy for the joyful work that our Maker has entrusted to true Christians
Whether we choose to fast or not, we should avoid judging others. Among true Christians, there should be no controversy over this subject, “for the kingdom of God does not mean eating and drinking, but means righteousness and peace and joy with holy spirit.”
Esther’s fasting was not commanded by God, though it seems that her fasting met with his approval. Today, the Jewish Festival of Purim is traditionally preceded by the Fast of Esther.
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The Pharisees displayed mock humility when fasting
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“The kingdom of God does not mean eating and drinking, but means righteousness and peace and joy”
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What About Lent?
The 40-day fast of Lent is said to commemorate the 40-day fast of Christ. Yet, Jesus never commanded his disciples to commemorate his fast, nor is there any evidence that they did so. The first reliable mention of the 40-day fast before Easter is thought to be in letters of Athanasius, dated 330 C.E.
Since Jesus fasted following his baptism and not before his death, the fact that some religions observe Lent in the weeks preceding Easter may seem strange. However, a 40-day fast in the early part of the year was common among ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, and Greeks. The “Christian” custom was evidently borrowed from them.