LCN Article
How to Fast

September / October 2023

Jonathan McNair

For a follower of Christ, studying the Bible is crucial, and spending time communicating with God in prayer is vital. But there is another essential practice that we should not ignore. In fact, this component of the Christian’s life enhances and increases the effectiveness of both prayer and Bible study. The Bible refers to it as fasting. 

Although fasting is not a common practice for most people today, Christ anticipated that His followers would fast. We read that Christ was questioned about fasting, and why His disciples were not practicing it. His questioners asked, “Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?” Jesus replied, “Can the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.” But then Jesus added, “But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days” (Mark 2:18–20). There is a purpose for fasting, and faithful followers of Christ will make this practice a part of their lives.

But why is fasting important? And how should we fast? Is there a right way and a wrong way? What are we trying to accomplish when we fast? How can we fast effectively? And how do we get started?

Fasting and the Day of Atonement

For the typical person called into the Body of Christ, the Day of Atonement is an introduction to the practice of fasting. We are told that “the tenth day of this seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement. It shall be a holy convocation for you; you shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire to the Lord” (Leviticus 23:27). Over the next few verses, the term “afflict your souls” is repeated two more times. 

How did they afflict their souls? David wrote, “I humbled myself with fasting” (Psalm 35:13). The Hebrew word David used, translated in the NKJV as “humbled,” is the same word that is translated “afflict” in Leviticus 23. In David’s case, however, he simply states what was understood to be the way to accomplish this action of afflicting or humbling oneself—fasting.

Much later, Isaiah quoted the Israelites’ complaint against God. Collectively, the nation of Israel said, “Why have we fasted… and You have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls, and You take no notice?” (Isaiah 58:3). Isaiah went on to berate them for the fact that their show of humility lacked substance. But, again, we see that fasting was understood to humble oneself before God.

But how, exactly, should we fast?

The Physical Aspect

Strictly speaking, a complete fast involves abstaining from both food and water. This is how Moses described his 40-day fast. “When I went up into the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant which the Lord made with you, then I stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights. I neither ate bread nor drank water” (Deuteronomy 9:9). Esther asked her fellow Jews to fast for three days and nights as she prepared to face the king. She said, “Go, gather all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me; neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will fast likewise” (Esther 4:16).

Esther and her compatriots fasted for three days. Moses, Elijah, and later Jesus Christ fasted for 40 days. But except for the Day of Atonement, when we are specifically commanded to fast for one day, the length of the fast is not defined for us. What matters is the way we fast.

Afflicting Ourselves

In the account of the showdown between Elijah and the priests of Baal, we read that the priests inflicted pain upon themselves. “So they cried aloud, and cut themselves, as was their custom, with knives and lances, until the blood gushed out on them” (1 Kings 18:28). There are a variety of explanations as to why they did this, all centered on pleasing their god. This practice of self-brutalization has continued through the centuries, even becoming part of the practices of counterfeit Christianity. Self-flagellation, self-castration, and even self-crucifixion have been done under the misguided notion that such actions would be pleasing to God. But this is not what God expects of us, and it is not what fasting is about.

So, what is the point of fasting?

God designed our bodies to need a regular intake of both food and water to function well. Food gives us energy, builds our cells, and maintains the complex system of our human body. Water is an essential substance for life, and the most important building block of cells. On average, the human body is more than 50 percent water, and we need water to live. Yet our bodies can survive for some time without eating or drinking. But it is not pleasant. 

When we go without food and water, we are uncomfortable. When we don’t eat, our energy sags. We become weak and listless, and we are physically humbled as our body weakens. This humbling, an experience we willingly and purposefully endure, helps to teach us—not punish us or inflict intentional pain. In fact, unlike self-torturing behaviors, well-attested findings affirm that reasonable fasting helps our bodies in a variety of ways. 

And under the effect of fasting, we begin to feel weak. That’s where the spiritual connection comes in.

The Spiritual Aspect

If we take a step back, we’re reminded that one of God’s primary goals in working with us is to help us to grow in spiritual humility. When He worked with ancient Israel, God plainly included this as part of His “mission statement.” We read that He reminded the Israelites that “you shall remember that the Lord your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not” (Deuteronomy 8:2). He reminded them that He was the One “who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers did not know, that He might humble you and that He might test you, to do you good in the end” (Deuteronomy v. 16). 

Later, He inspired Isaiah to write, “For thus says the High and Lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, with him who has a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones’” (Isaiah 57:15).

Plainly, God wants us to develop a mindset of humility. But why? 

Humble people have a willingness to learn what they lack. They see their shortcomings. They see that everything doesn’t revolve around them, their point of view, their opinion, or their comfort. Humility is an antidote to selfishness, and a mindset of humility is a mindset of reality. 

When with purposeful intent we choose to abstain from food and drink for a period of time, we cannot help but feel weaker physically—we are reminded of our vulnerability and our need for nourishment. And, as we go through this process, God can help us to recognize our spiritual need as well. We need God’s words to strengthen us. We need God’s Spirit to guide us. And we need communication with God to help us. As James wrote, “He gives more grace. Therefore He says: ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’… Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up” (James 4:6, 10).

The Right Attitude for Fasting

Ironically, the practice of fasting can lead to the very attitude that fasting is meant to help us overcome. 

Christ gave a parable with an important warning: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess’” (Luke 18:10–12). The grand irony in this parable is that the Pharisee saw his practice of fasting as a mark of his goodness instead of learning the lesson of humility. He missed the point of fasting. 

We find the same malady in God’s rebuke of ancient Israel and Judah. Isaiah reproved people who fasted to appear righteous, not to grow in humility before God. He wrote:

In fact, in the day of your fast you find pleasure, and exploit all your laborers. Indeed you fast for strife and debate, and to strike with the fist of wickedness. You will not fast as you do this day, to make your voice heard on high.... Would you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord? Is this not the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isaiah 58:4–7).

Their practice of fasting was an empty show. Instead of fasting in humility to take on the mind of God, their actions showed that they had very little respect for God. Even His Sabbath day was treated with carelessness and disdain (cf. vv. 13–14). 

What is the danger of fasting? That it becomes a mark of vanity, instead of a vehicle for learning humility.

How to Fast

Fundamentally, to fast is to abstain from ingesting food or liquids for a period of time. Modern health experts often advocate “intermittent fasting” or “juice fasting,” or other variations of fasting. These certainly may be beneficial in terms of improving our physical health, but that is not the point of a fast that is intended to draw us closer to God in humility. If we simply abstain from food or drink for a day and do not spend a significant portion of that day in prayer, Bible study, and meditation, then we might improve our physical health, but we have done nothing to improve our relationship with God.

Here’s how Dr. Roderick Meredith explained it:

Prayer and fasting go together. There was a time when the prophet Daniel really, desperately wanted to know what would happen in the future: “Then I set my face toward the Lord God to make request by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes” (Daniel 9:3). Prayer always goes along with fasting.

Daniel went on: “And I prayed to the Lord my God, and made confession, and said, ‘O Lord, great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant and mercy with those who love Him, and with those who keep His commandments, we have sinned…’” (vv. 4–5). Notice he did not say, “Oh, we’ve been good, and we’ve done no wrong, and You don’t have any right to punish us.”

Rather, he told God he was sorry, and that “we have sinned and committed iniquity, we have done wickedly and rebelled, even by departing from Your precepts and Your judgments…. Lord, righteousness belongs to You, but to us shame of face” (vv. 5, 7) (“By Prayer and Fasting…,”, February 16, 2017).

As Dr. Meredith explained, Daniel wholeheartedly sought God through a combination of prayer and fasting. For us, taking a day to devote ourselves to really digging into God’s word, praying, and meditating, while abstaining from food and drink, can be energizing. It can give us spiritual strength that we desperately need to confront life’s challenges. Fasting for a day on a regular basis over the course of the year can be a real tonic for our Christian development. 

What about fasting on the Sabbath? There is no specific command against it—and, of course, when Jesus, Moses, and Elijah each fasted for 40 days, those periods had to include some Sabbaths. At the same time, when we consider the larger purpose of the Sabbath, making that day our “regular” fast day presents challenges. The time we spend traveling, sitting in services, and fellowshipping, as we should on the Sabbath, can take away from the focus of our fast—and we certainly won’t be able to accept or offer any invitations to “break bread” after services. While an occasional fast on the Sabbath can be fine, we should be wary of making it our habitual “go to” fast day.

From time to time, our Presiding Evangelist will call a Church-wide fast—much as Esther asked of her brethren—and often uses the Sabbath for this purpose. In these cases, the benefit of hearing a common message and fellowshipping with others who are fasting for the same purpose outweighs other concerns and makes the day an ideal choice.

What about a water fast? Again, generally speaking, a true fast is abstaining from food and drink, including water. Yet there is some debate as to whether every instance of fasting in the Bible included abstinence from water. In a 1948 coworker letter, Mr. Herbert Armstrong acknowledged that a fast in which only water was consumed could be appropriate, particularly if the fast lasted longer than one day.

Finally, what about health concerns? Some people have conditions that cause them to question whether they can do a fast, such as those with blood sugar problems, mothers who are pregnant or nursing, or those who need to take regular medication. When needed, wise measures can be taken while still preserving the spirit and intent of the fast. Your local pastor will be happy to counsel with you about such circumstances.

Creating a Mindset for Growth

Setting our mind to spend a day fasting—alongside our prayer, Bible study, and meditation—is a commitment that requires us to sacrifice our time and our effort. But isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing? This is what the Apostle Peter exhorted his audience. He wrote, “Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble” (2 Peter 1:10). He then wrote later in the same letter, “Therefore, beloved, looking forward to these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless” (2 Peter 3:14).

Diligence, effort, sacrifice—these are what we must practice if we seek to follow Christ.

In preparation for facing Satan, the ruler of this world, Christ fasted for 40 days—certainly longer than any of us have ever fasted. As the Son of God, He recognized the importance of fasting to draw close to His Father. He knew that having His Father’s strength was imperative for His success. Are we willing to focus our attention on drawing closer to God by dedicating a day from time to time to afflict our bodies through fasting—supplemented by prayer, Bible study, and meditation? If we follow in the footsteps of Christ, we will be.