What is fasting?
One of my favorite ways of describing fasting is to say, fasting is abstaining from something I normally do, in order to give attention to something I don’t normally do (or don’t do enough!). Two well-known authors on spiritual disciples have defined fasting a bit more formally, in his excellent book, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, Dr. Donald Whitney describes fasting as “a Christian’s voluntary abstinence from food for spiritual purposes.” Dr. Richard Foster has defined fasting as “the voluntary denial of a normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity.”
Why should I fast?
To strengthen prayer (Ezra 8:23; Neh. 1:4; Dan. 9:3; Joel 2:12; Luke 2:37; Acts 13:3; 14:23), seek God’s guidance (Jud. 20:26-28; Acts 13:2-3; 14:23), protection (Ezra 8:21; Est. 4:16), or deliverance (2 Chron. 20:3; Matt. 17:21). Fasting can be a way of expressing grief (1 Sam. 31:13; 2 Sam. 3:35), or repentance (1 Sam. 7:6; Jon. 3:5-8; Joel 2:12). Before we begin fasting, we should make sure we understand why we plan to fast. What is our motive in fasting? Probably the most common motive is to strengthen prayer. The sense of physical hunger is a reminder to hunger for and seek the Lord.
What kind of fast should I do?
A normal fast is abstaining from food, but still drinking water or fluids (Luke 4:2). A partial fast– is abstaining from some but not all food or some but not all beverages (Dan. 1:12; 10:2-3). For example, many fast from eating out or from alcohol during the Lenten season. An absolute fast is abstaining from food and water (Ezra 10:6; Est. 4:16; Acts 9:9). Before embarking on an absolute fast, you should consult your physician, as this can be a health risk for some individuals.
How often should I fast?
Judaism required an annual one day fast on the Day of Atonement (Ex. 20:10; Lev. 16:1-34: 23:26-32; 35:9; Num. 29:9-11). By the time of Christ, four more fast days were commemorated (Temple destruction, murder of Gedaliah, breaking the Law tables, Est. 9:31). We also read in the New Testament how the Pharisees fasted on Mondays and Thursdays (Luke 18:12). In the early church, baptismal candidates commonly fasted one or two days before being baptized. Fasting on Wednesday and Friday was common by 100 A.D., and during Lent by 390 A.D. Fasting on Sunday, the day Christians meet for worship and to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, was considered a sin for which clergy or laity could be punished. While some fasted on a regular schedule (Matt. 9:14; Luke 2:37; 18:12) others fasted in response to specific situations. (Mark, by J. Edwards, p. 87-89; Dictionary of NT Background, p. 782-786; Didache. c. 80-140 A.D., Apostolic Constitutions. c. 390 A.D.).
How long should I fast?
There is a great variety here, fasts in Scripture were anywhere from part of a day to 1, 3, 7, 14, 21, or 40 days (Matt. 9:14-15; Luke 2:37; Acts 13:2-3; 14:23).
Should I fast by myself or in a group?
In Scripture, we see individuals fasting (Matt. 4:1-3; Luke 2:37), groups fasting (Acts 13:2-3; Matt. 9:14), and nation’s fasting (Jon. 3:5-8; 2 Chron. 20:3). The most common fasting in the Bible, is probably individuals fasting privately (2 Sam. 12:16; Neh. 1:4; Matt. 4:1-3; 6:16-18; except Dan. 9:1-27). When groups or nations are fasting, it is often public and included sackcloth and ashes (2 Sam. 3:31-35; Ezra 9:3-7; 10:1, 6; Neh. 9:1; Est. 4:3; Jon. 3:6; except 2 Chron. 20:3; Acts 12:2-3). There are examples of repentance, sackcloth, and ashes (Gen. 37:34; 2 Sam. 13:19; Job 2:12-13; 42:6; Is. 58:5-14; Jer. 6:26; Lam. 2:10; Matt. 11:21) where fasting is not explicitly mentioned, but was likely. Individual fasting seems personal in nature (i.e. seeking God), group fasting seems publicin nature (i.e. expressing group solidarity in repentance, grief, etc.). In our day of privatized and quick fix religion, a group expressing public repentance for a day or more is especially powerful (i.e. the corporate witness of millions receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday).
I hope this little survey of fasting helps guide you as you seek to draw near to our Lord during Lent.