Fasting is one of the things Christians are supposed to do. And it’s something I’ve never done except on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) when it’s strictly commanded. I’ve never even studied it because I didn’t want to be convicted on the subject (a rather embarrassing admission, but an honest one). But faithful followers of God fasted in the past, it’s counted right alongside prayer as a way of drawing nearer to God, and I suspect I should take it more seriously.
One of the churches I attend with recently called a church-wide fast, which had me thinking on the subject again. In this church, it’s generally accepted that “fast” means abstaining from food and drink for 24 hours (unless you have a medical reason you can’t do a full fast). In my Messianic group, though, I’ve heard people talking about different kinds of fasts using phrases like “full fast” and “Daniel fasts.” Having avoided studying the subject in the past, I had no ready answers for the questions this brought to mind about whether or not there really are different types of fasts and what sort of fasting God expects. Hence, this Bible study.
Types of Fasting
The Hebrew words for “fast” are tsum (H6684) and its derivative tsome (H6655). The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament defines it as “depriving the body of nourishment.” In Greek, the basic word for “fast” comes from a compound of ne (not) and estho (to eat). Spiros Zodhiates says nestis (G3523) means “not having eaten” and its derivatives nesteuo (G3522) and nesteia (G3521) mean “to fast or abstain from eating.”
There are three main types of fasting that Christian groups as a whole typically recognize. They all involve not eating food for a set period of time. Some churches/writers also add a fourth kind of fast for abstaining from certain activities (such as watching TV or having sex, which they get from 1 Cor. 7:3-5).
- A “full,” “absolute,” or “dry” fast means no food or drink.
- A “normal,” “regular,” or “liquid” fast means no food, but you can drink water or sometimes juice (some incorrectly refer to this as a “full fast”).
- A “partial” or “Daniel” fast involves abstaining from a specific meal or certain types of food.
These are also the types of fasts that secular resources discuss when they talk about fasting for health reasons. But does the Bible support these distinctions in fast types?
One-size-fits all is one rule we cannot apply to Biblical examples of fasting. Fasts in the Bible vary greatly in length and people fasted in a variety of ways for many different reasons. Some fasts lasted “until evening” (Jud. 20:26; 2 Sam. 1:12), others a single day (1 Sam. 7:6), three days (Est. 4:16), seven days (1 Sam. 31:13; 2 Sam. 12:16-20), or even 40 days (Ex. 34:28; Matt 4:2).
Sometimes the text makes it very clear it was a full fast from food and drink (Est. 4:16; Acts 9:9), others times it’s not specified and we just know for sure that they didn’t eat (the fact that it’s necessary to specify that someone fasted and neither ate nor drank leads me to believe “fast” doesn’t always mean not drinking). For the yearly fast on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the specific instruction is to “afflict your souls” and it’s typically interpreted as a full fast for either 24 or 25 hours (Lev. 16:29, 31; 23:27-32).
Aside from the command to fast on Yom Kippur, when to fast is up to us. The Bible offers several reasons why we might chose to fast:
- Mourning. Typically, the mourning fasts were for national calamities or big sins. See 2 Sam. 1:12; Ezra 10:6; Neh. 1:4; Est. 4:3; Dan. 10:2-3. Note: Daniel mourning by abstaining from certain food is the only partial fast recorded in scripture and it’s not called a “fast” in the text.
- Repentance. When a sin is revealed in your life, repentance is the appropriate response and it may be accompanied by fasting. See 1 Sam. 7:6; 1 Kings 21:27-29; Ps. 69:10; Neh. 9:1; Jonah 3:5-9.
- Asking for something. Several people in the Bible fasted when making special requests of God. See 2 Sam. 12:16-23; 2 Chr. 20:2-3; Ezra 8:21-23; Est. 4:16; Ps. 35:13; Matt. 17:19-21.
- Seeking God. This type of fast can involve repentance and requests, but seems more open-ended. You fast and seek God to see how He responds. See Dan. 9:3; Acts 13:2-3; 14:23.
- In obedience. The only fast strictly commanded in the Bible is the Day of Atonement. There were other fast days called intermittently and if the fast is called for the right reasons it’s perfectly acceptable, and encouraged, to fast with groups. See Jer. 36:6-9; Zech. 8:19; Joel 1:14; 2:12-16.
How To Fast
We’ve already covered the most basic “how to fast:” don’t eat food and often avoid drink as well. But in this, as in most other things, God is concerned with the spiritual as well as the physical. Probably the best known passage on fasting is found in Isaiah 58. It starts out with God answering Israel’s complaint that He doesn’t pay attention when they fast. He responds by telling them that’s because
“in the day of your fast you find pleasure, and oppress all your laborers. Behold, you fast for strife and contention, and to strike with the fist of wickedness. You don’t fast today so as to make your voice to be heard on high” (Is. 58:3-4, WEB).
If we want God to look kindly on our fast, we can’t just go about doing whatever we want. Seeking God’s face must involve seeking God’s ways. And so God asks these people a series of questions.
Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord? (Is. 58:5, KJV)
Based on the verses we’ve looked at so far, I’d answer “yes” if I didn’t know this passage is part of God telling Israel they’re doing something wrong. Afflicting the soul is the same phrase used in Leviticus 23:29. The bowing down in sackcloth and aches is associated with mourning, and we’ve seen examples of that type of fast. So what’s wrong with it?
Isn’t this the fast that I have chosen: to release the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Isn’t it to distribute your bread to the hungry, and that you bring the poor who are cast out to your house? When you see the naked, that you cover him; and that you not hide yourself from your own flesh? (Is. 58:6-7, WEB)
The main difference between the two descriptions of fasts is that the unacceptable one is focused on self while the other is focused on how fasting can transform a person so they can do good for others. It seems the people had started fasting for show and/or as if the act of fasting made God owe them something. But that’s not how it works. God responds to heart-change and humility, not demands. He’s concerned with our motivations as much as our actions. By the time Jesus arrived on earth, the most pious Jews were fasting twice a week (Luke 18:12). But it was how they fasted that He talked about.
Moreover when you fast, don’t be like the hypocrites, with sad faces. For they disfigure their faces, that they may be seen by men to be fasting. Most certainly I tell you, they have received their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face; so that you are not seen by men to be fasting, but by your Father who is in secret, and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you. (Matt. 6:16-18, WEB)
If you’re fasting for human attention, then all you’re going to get out of it is human attention. The kind of fasting that interests God is the kind that’s about connecting with Him in a humble, seeking attitude. If we choose to fast, it should be about something bigger than ourselves.
When asked why His disciples didn’t fast as often as the other Jews, Jesus said they will fast “when the bridegroom shall be taken from them” (Matt. 9:15, KJV). We’re in a time now when our Bridegroom isn’t here on earth with us. In addition to the commanded yearly fast on Yom Kippur, we should be fasting other times as well. It’s at least something to pray about and ask God for direction in when and how you can fast to honor and draw closer to Him.