The Bible’s answer
In Bible times, fasting was acceptable to God when it was done with the right motive. But when it was done for the wrong reasons, it brought God’s disfavor. However, the Bible neither commands nor forbids fasting for people today.
Under what circumstances did some in the Bible fast?
When seeking help and guidance from God. The people journeying to Jerusalem fasted to show their sincerity in asking for God’s help. (Ezra 8:21-23) Paul and Barnabas at times chose to fast when appointing congregation elders.—Acts 14:23.
When focusing on God’s purpose. After his baptism, Jesus fasted for 40 days to prepare himself to do God’s will during his coming ministry.—Luke 4:1, 2.
When demonstrating repentance over past sins. Through the prophet Joel, God told unfaithful Israelites: “Return to me with all your hearts, with fasting and weeping and wailing.”—Joel 2:12-15.
When observing the Day of Atonement. The Law that God gave to the nation of Israel included a command to fast on the annual Day of Atonement.* (Leviticus 16:29-31) Fasting was appropriate on this occasion because it reminded the Israelites that they were imperfect and needed God’s forgiveness.
What are some improper motives for fasting?
To impress others. Jesus taught that religious fasting should be a personal and private matter between an individual and God.—Matthew 6:16-18.
To prove oneself righteous. Fasting does not make a person morally or spiritually superior.—Luke 18:9-14.
To try to compensate for a deliberate practice of sin. (Isaiah 58:3, 4) God accepted only fasts that were accompanied by obedience and by heartfelt repentance for any sins committed.
To carry out a religious formality. (Isaiah 58:5-7) In this respect, God is like a parent who is displeased when his children express love for him merely out of obligation, not from the heart.
Is fasting required for Christians?
No. God required the Israelites to fast on Atonement Day, but he eliminated that observance after Jesus permanently atoned for the sins of repentant people. (Hebrews 9:24-26; 1 Peter 3:18) Christians are not under the Mosaic Law, of which Atonement Day was a part. (Romans 10:4; Colossians 2:13, 14) Therefore, each Christian may decide for himself whether to fast.—Romans 14:1-4.
Christians recognize that fasting is not the focus of their worship. The Bible never associates fasting with happiness. In contrast, true Christian worship is marked by joy, reflecting the personality of Jehovah, “the happy God.”—1 Timothy 1:11; Ecclesiastes 3:12, 13; Galatians 5:22.
Misconceptions about the Bible’s view of fasting
Misconception: Christians should fast when commemorating Jesus’ death.
Fact: Jesus did not command his disciples to fast when commemorating his death. (Luke 22:14-18) While Jesus said that his disciples would fast when he died, he was not issuing a command but merely stating what was going to happen. (Matthew 9:15) The Bible instructed Christians who were hungry to eat at home before observing the Memorial of Jesus’ death.—1 Corinthians 11:33, 34.
God told the Israelites: “You should afflict yourselves,” or “afflict your souls,” on Atonement Day. (Leviticus 16:29, 31; King James Version) This expression is understood to refer to fasting. (Isaiah 58:3) Thus, the Contemporary English Version uses this rendering: “You must go without eating to show sorrow for your sins.”
See A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, by Bruce M. Metzger, Third Edition, page 554.
Regarding the history of the 40-day fast of Lent, the New Catholic Encyclopedia states: “In the first three centuries, the period of fasting in preparation for the paschal [Easter] feast did not exceed a week at the most; one or two days was the usual limit. . . . The first mention of a period of 40 days occurs in the fifth canon of the Council of Nicaea (325), although some scholars dispute whether Lent is meant there.”—Second Edition, Volume 8, page 468.