A reader asks:
"Is fasting important and necessary? Or is it a man-made law?"
Many religious organizations will, on occasion, require their adherents to "fast" for a certain amount of time.
In Buddhism, monks are instructed to abstain from food every day after noon, while "lay" buddhists are trained to fast in this manner roughly once a week (see Bodi, 8.43; 3.70).
The Roman Catholic Church requires its adherents to abstain from meat during certain "holy" days "established by the Church" (see Catholic Church, 2043).
Mormons, who fast at least once a month (on "Fast Sunday"), Hindus, who fast weekly, and Muslims, who fast during Ramadan, each place great emphasis on this ancient practice, for various reasons.
Examining this subject from a Christian perspective will prove illuminating, especially since many present-day Christians have all but eliminated this word entirely from their vocabulary.
What Is Fasting?
Hebrews conceived fasting as the "affliction of the soul or self;" that is, the "practice [of] self-denial" (see Orr, 1099). This may include the abstention not only of food or drink, but also of other predilections (e.g., sleeping, bathing, etc.).
In the Bible, however, fasting usually involves the voluntary abstinence from all or some kinds of food or drink, especially with religious intentions (though secular fasts are also common).
Some fasts were absolute in their extent, requiring the complete avoidance of all food (cf. 1 Sam. 14.24f; 2 Sam. 3.35; Acts 9.9; Esther 4.15-16). Other fasts were only partial, restricting abstinence to certain kinds of foods, whereas other types of foods could still be consumed (cf. Dan. 10.3; Dan. 1.12-16).
Many suggest, since the Bible mentions Jesus' hunger, but not his thirst, that the forty-day fast in which he participated in the wilderness was a food-fast only (not a drink-fast). Although, hunger, may sometimes be employed metonymically to include "thirst" (cf. Isa. 44.12; 58.10-11; 1 Cor. 9.7 ["eat...milk" ASV, KJV]; Prov. 19.15), the context of the wilderness-temptation does seem to support the food-only theory (cf. Lk. 4.1-13, esp. vv. 2-4; Mt. 4.1f).
Occasions For Fasting
(1) Fasting is sometimes the natural response to personal sorrow or affliction.
While Hannah remained childless, her rival teased her "year after year," causing Hannah to weep and "not eat" (1 Sam. 1.7).
Nehemiah fasted as he mourned the dilapidated condition of Jerusalem (Neh. 1.4).
When Naboth refused to give Ahab his property, Ahab, "sullen and displeased," buried his head into his bed and "would eat no food" (1 Kngs. 21.4).
(2) Occasionally, fasts were proclaimed on a national scale, particularly during times of significant, life-changing events.
The people of God fasted during a time of civil war (cf. Judges 20.19-26), as well as in times of war against the surrounding Gentiles (cf. 2 Chron. 20.1-3).
During a time of great famine and pestilence, Joel called upon his people to "consecrate a fast" (1.14).
When the Lord gave the Old Law to his people, Moses "neither ate bread nor drank water" for forty days and nights (Ex. 34.28).
In memory of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, God's people began fasting during four months of the year (cf. Zech. 7.1-5; 8.19). In all likelihood, each fast respectively commemorated the breaking-up of the city (4th month fast; cf. Jer. 52.6-11), the destruction of the temple (5th month fast; cf. Jer. 52.4-5, 12f), the murder of the Governor (7th month fast; cf. 2 Kngs. 25.24-25), and the initial siege of the city, engineered by Nebuchadnezzar (10th month fast; cf. Jer. 52.4-5).
(3) Fasting may also be done with view towards fine-tuning self-discipline, especially when one is striving either to repent of sin, or to resist the temptation to sin.
In recognition of their sins, the children of Israel determined to fast (1 Sam. 7.5-6).
During the days of the restoration, the people famously "assembled with fasting, in sackcloth, and with dust on their heads" so as to renew their dedication to the Lord and admit their transgressions (Neh. 9.1-3).
Daniel also used fasting as a means of self-discipline, consecrating himself to the will of Jehovah (Dan. 9.3).
Most fasts only lasted for a single day, or for a portion of the day (cf. 2 Sam. 1.12; 3.35). Some lasted for an entire week (cf. 1 Sam. 31.13), while others lasted much longer (cf. Ex. 34.28; 1 Kngs. 19.8; Dan. 10.3).
Biblical Parameters For Fasting
The careful student of the Bible must recognize the following points pertaining to fasting.
First, fasting is permissible for the Christian.
Our Lord, the ultimate example of spiritual excellence (1 Peter 1.21-25), abstained from food for long periods of time (cf. Mt. 4.1-2). He even predicted that his own disciples would be inclined to fast upon his departure (Mt. 9.14-15).
Cornelius, a righteous man, was prone to fasting (Acts 10.30-31).
Paul and Barnabas frequently engaged in fasting, accompanied by prayer (Acts 14.23). In fact, when Paul was attempting to vindicate his spiritual reputation in the eyes of the Corinthians, he twice mentioned the fact that he engaged "in fastings often" (2 Cor. 6.5; 11.27).
Second, fasting can be spiritually helpful for the Christian.
When our Lord fasted, his spiritual devotion was enhanced — all earthly matters became subsidiary (Mt. 4.4).
When Cornelius fasted, the Lord delighted in his faith so much that he sent Peter to him to preach the words of everlasting life.
On the question of marriage, Paul said to the Corinthians:
"Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control" (1 Cor. 7.5).
Although Paul was here speaking by "concession, not as a commandment" (v. 6), he nonetheless hinted at the fact that both fasting, prayer, and marital union assist the Christian in developing self-control.
Hence, fasting can indeed be helpful — especially when accompanied by prayer and meditating on the will of God.
Third, fasting is not essential for the Christian.
There are no passages in the New Testament that ever make fasting a moral or religious requirement. In other words, while you are allowed to fast, and while it can indeed be spiritually helpful to fast, your salvation will not be in jeopardy if you choose not to fast.
Fourth, to require others to fast — whether individually or as a church — is a man-made law. We should never bind what God has not bound. Any person or church that requires others to fast is sinning presumptuously.
The fact is, eating is just as pleasing to the Lord as not eating (cf. Acts 27.33-36; 1 Tim. 4.4-5). When a church instructs its membership to fast/abstain from food, they, like the Pharisees of old, step beyond their purview, and nullify God's law in order to keep their tradition (Mark 7.1-15). Paul wrote of such lawless fiends in this fashion:
"Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron, forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth" (1 Tim. 4.1-3).
Note that those who "commanded" people to "abstain from foods" (i.e., to fast) are called liars, teaching "doctrines of demons."
Those who ignore fasting altogether are not less holy than those who choose to fast.
Yet, the Bible certainly provides encouragement to fast — at least on occasion. Those who have never considered fasting will be greatly benefited by the experience, even if only performed at intermittent intervals.
However, we can never require others either to eat or to fast, without sinning. The Lord leaves such matters for us to decide, for it is one of our God-given, Christian liberties.
Bodi, Bhikkhu (translator). The Anguttara Nikaya. Wisdom Publications, 2012. Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. Vatican: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 1997. Orr, James, Ed. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 4. Grand Rapids, MI: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986.