Of all the different aspects of Christianity, there may well be nothing more unfamiliar to the twenty-first-century church than the practice of fasting. In my experience, such a practice is simply not on the radar screens of most people in the church today. Maybe this is because we are not preaching and teaching about fasting as much as we should be. Maybe it is because we are not modeling it in our congregations. Maybe it is because people are not reading their Bibles as much today as they did in previous generations, so they are not seeing evidence for fasting in the Bible as much as they used to. But there may also be a more fundamental reason why fasting is so unfamiliar today. Fasting is, and has been for some time, countercultural. It goes against the grain of the Western world. It requires self-denial and sacrifice. It is inconvenient and uncomfortable. It is not fun, laid back, or relaxing—qualities that seem to be valued above all others in the West today.
Fasting is completely out of step with the way the West approaches Christianity (and religion as a whole), and, because the world has so penetrated the church, this may well be the primary reason why fasting is so unfamiliar to Western Christians in the twenty-first century. But it has not always been so unfamiliar. We know from Scripture that Jesus Himself fasted (e.g., Matt. 4:1–4) and that He clearly indicated that fasting would be a part of the lives of each of His disciples. In Matthew 9:14–15, for instance, Jesus promised that His disciples would engage in fasting once His earthly ministry came to a close. And in Matthew 6:16, He said to His disciples: “When [or as often as] you fast.” He did not say, “If you fast.” In phrasing His comments this way, Jesus was assuming that His followers would be fasting, just as He previously assumed that they would be giving to the poor (6:2) and praying (6:5–7).
But we need to remember that Jesus is not interested in Christians’ simply going through the motions. He is not looking for mere rote performance of fasting, any more than He would be looking for mere rote performance of giving or praying or anything else. God wants obedience in the Christian life, to be sure. But He wants obedience that comes from a heart that loves Him, that longs to be in communion with Him, and that wants to please Him out of gratitude for what He has already done. That means that when Jesus assumes that His followers will be fasting, He is assuming that their fasting will flow from hearts that love God and long to obey everything He has asked them to do.
As we begin to think through the subject of fasting more deeply, a good place to do so is by considering two questions: What is fasting? and, Why should we be doing it? In answering the first of these questions, we can say that biblical fasting is a sacrificial, voluntary abstaining from food (and sometimes from drink) for a definite period of time for a spiritual purpose. It rarely, if ever, occurs in the Bible as a standalone endeavor. In other words, it is not a practice that God’s people engage in all by itself but something that they do in conjunction with prayer. Some fasts in Scripture are total abstentions, where both food and water are avoided (Est. 4:16). Others are partial abstentions wherein certain aspects of a normal diet are avoided for a period of time (Dan. 1:15; 10:3). Sometimes fasts in the Bible last for many days in a row (Deut. 9:9–29; 10:1–11; Est. 4:16; Matt. 4:2), but sometimes they only last for a portion of a day (Judg. 20:26; Dan. 6:18). The point is not so much about what we abstain from or how long we abstain from it but about denying ourselves in some way and, correspondingly, devoting ourselves to prayer. It is about using the time, energy, and focus that we would have used in eating (and/or drinking) to prayerfully seek the Lord.