Eating is the strongest desire we have! God created man in His own image and likeness, but with a temporary, chemical existence (Genesis 2:7). That brief existence is sustained by blood, breath, and constant refueling through food and water. Without refueling, the body deteriorates rapidly.
You might be surprised at how many Bible stories revolve around food. It was food that appealed to the lusts of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:1-6). Esau was so hungry he sold his birthright for a bowl of soup (Genesis 25:27-34). When the Israelites “fell a lusting,” it was for food (Numbers 11:4-6, 32-33). In the New Testament, Paul said there were enemies of the cross of Christ “whose God is their belly” (Philippians 3:18-19).
Today, people feel it is perfectly fine to eat whatever they desire and how much they desire. What we eat and how we eat truly is one of mankind’s greatest sins.
And yet at the other end of the pendulum swing, and also found in the Bible, are numerous instances where people of God have gone without food and drink. Servants of God have always fasted—regularly.
Moses fasted for 40 days when he went up the mount to receive the Ten Commandments on tables of stone (Deuteronomy 9:7-9). Elijah, filled with so much remorse that he wanted to die, fasted for 40 days and was rejuvenated spiritually (1 Kings 19:4-8). Before leading the Jews back to Jerusalem with great riches, Ezra led the people to fast for God’s protection and guidance (Ezra 8:21-23). Esther led the Jews on a three-day fast for protection because of a decree to kill all Jews (Esther 4:16). Daniel fasted for three weeks to seek God’s understanding and forgiveness (Daniel 10:2-3). When struck down by God, Paul immediately began fasting three days (Acts 9:9). After the attorney general led the state of California in an attack on God’s Church in 1979, Mr. Armstrong declared a Church-wide fast on Jan. 27, 1979. In like manner, the Philadelphia Church of God banded together in fasting because of the court battle over God’s inspired truth in Mystery of the Ages. Indeed, God’s people have always been men and women who fast often!
So why do we hear so little about fasting in society today? You might occasionally hear of “religious” people who say they fast—but usually that means going without certain foods for a period of time. The mainstream media might occasional report on a fast—but that usually involves a radical protester who fasts to receive attention or for political activism.
The overwhelming majority of people in this world and even in Laodicea will say fasting is radical—ultraconservative—even self-righteous. But what does God say on this subject? What is the purpose of fasting for Christians today? How do we fast? What kind of results does fasting produce, if any?
Jesus Commanded Fasting
Before being tempted by the devil, Jesus Christ fasted (Matthew 4:1-2). For someone who never sinned, who always submitted to God’s government, wasn’t this a bit extreme? Not if we understand that Christ could have given up and sinned! Jesus Christ knew He had to be close to God in order to overcome the devil!
“And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread” (verse 3). Notice Satan’s first temptation. It revolved around food! Christ’s physical strength was almost gone. But spiritually, He was stronger than ever.
“But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (verse 4). We see that with God, there is something far more important than the physical food we eat to sustain human life. More on this later.
Christ was the victor of this titanic battle for world rule. And like Christ, we also must overcome Satan if we are to be used within the government of God when Christ returns. To overcome, we must follow in Christ’s footsteps. He fasted to draw closer to God for divine strength. So must we.
Yet there are those who sometimes reason that fasting is nowhere commanded in the Bible. Even some commentaries insist that Christ Himself never appointed a fast. Scholars fail to realize that it was actually Christ who appointed the Day of Atonement as a day of fasting (Leviticus 23:27).
The Day of Atonement, however, is not the only fast Christ appointed. In Matthew 6:7, Jesus said, “But when you pray ….” What follows is a prayer outline after which we are to pattern our prayers, because without prayer we will not make it spiritually!
In verse 16, Jesus said, “When you fast ….” This means there are times, in addition to the Day of Atonement, when Christians should fast.
Notice Matthew 9:14-15: “Then came to him the disciples of John, saying, Why do we and the Pharisees fast oft, but thy disciples fast not? And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast.” Another indirect command to fast. Since Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, was in their midst, it was not necessary that they fast to draw closer to God. But after Christ left, the disciples did fast to draw closer to God! A spiritual fast is one that draws us closer to God. As God’s disciples today, we need this tool to draw us closer to God from time to time.
How to Fast
When Moses fasted, it says he “did neither eat bread, nor drink water” (Deuteronomy 9:18). We are to fast in the same manner.
Let us continue in Matthew 6: “Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward” (verse 16). Going without food and water does afflict our soul. We get hungry! But Christ instructed us to not make a point to look like we are fasting.
That doesn’t mean if someone finds out you are fasting that you are self-righteous. But we can fast out of self-righteousness if we do it like the hypocrites. Their reward is that everyone sees them fasting which makes them feel righteous.
“But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face” (verse 17). Clean up and act as though it is a normal day. “That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly” (verse 18). Fasting is between you and God. The spiritual dimension behind the tool of fasting is most important. We are to go without food and water and then clean up and wash ourselves the day we fast. But even after fulfilling those requirements, fasting can be of no use if done in a wrong attitude.
How Fasting Draws Us Closer to God
Notice Isaiah 66:1: “Thus saith the Lord, The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: where is the house that ye build unto me? and where is the place of my rest?” That last part is the critical question. Where is God going to reside?
“For all those things hath mine hand made, and all those things have been, saith the Lord: but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word” (verse 2). God resides with the humble! In order to draw closer to God, we must be humble. In this verse “poor” means meek, and “contrite” means broken and smashed.
In Isaiah 57:15, God says He dwells in the “high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.” God has great regard for the humble. He thinks so highly of the humble, that He will actually look to them!
Throughout the Bible, you will see that God consistently rewards the humble and resists the proud. God says, “By humility and the fear of the Lord are riches, and honour, and life” (Proverbs 22:4).
But people are simply not naturally humble! (See 1 Kings 8:38; Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 8:7; James 4:5.) For us to draw closer to God, we must become humble. This is where fasting becomes such a powerful tool.
David became humble through fasting. In Psalm 109:22-23, David said, “I am poor and needy, and my heart is wounded within me. I am gone like the shadow when it declineth: I am tossed up and down as the locust.” Notice what helped David reach this state of mind: “My knees are weak through fasting; and my flesh faileth of fatness” (verse 24).
In Psalm 35:13, David said, “But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth: I humbled my soul with fasting; and my prayer returned into mine own bosom.”
Like David, we must humble ourselves through fasting. In the Bible, fasting is often synonymous with humility. Concerning the Day of Atonement, God instructs us to afflict our souls (Leviticus 16:29-31; 23:27-32). The Hebrew word for “afflict” means “to abase, to chasten, to submit, to humble self.” Fasting, when done properly, will humble you every time.
When you deny yourself of the strongest desire you have, you are making quite a statement to our Father. Proper fasting reveals your willingness and desire to totally and completely rely on God. During a fast, we deny the self for God’s sake.
Fasting in a Wrong Attitude
The wrong kind of fast, however, can in fact be damaging. In Luke 18, Christ compares the attitudes of a Pharisee and a publican. The Pharisee thanked God that he was not like other men. He fasted twice a week and tithed on everything he possessed.
“The publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13).
Obviously, it was the publican who was close to God. Christ went on to say “for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (verse 14). The Pharisee did not fast to draw closer to God, but to be seen of men.
Zechariah 7 tells the story of a how the Jews fasted once during the fifth month and seventh month after the destruction of the first temple. They did this for 70 years so that God might enable them to build another temple. Notice verses 4-5: “Then came the word of the Lord of hosts unto me, saying, Speak unto all the people of the land, and to the priests, saying, When ye fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh month, even those seventy years, did ye at all fast unto me, even to me?”
They had been fasting all those years for themselves. They mourned the loss of the first temple but failed to consider why it was destroyed in the first place!
There is a similar example in Isaiah 58. Ancient Israel failed in being a national example and in warning this world (verse 1). It was because of their attitude. They asked God, “Why have we fasted, and thou seest it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and thou takest no knowledge of it?” (verse 3; Revised Standard Version.)
God answers: “Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high” (verses 3-4; Revised Standard Version). They were not seeking God’s will in their fast. This kind of fast would not help them proclaim God’s message. Verse 1 typifies the Philadelphia work. Notice the connection between crying aloud with God’s message and humbling ourselves before God! We cannot be effective tools for God without utilizing the power of proper fasting.
In verse 5, God says, “Fasting like yours today will never bear your prayers on high. Would I choose such a fast, such penances?” (Moffatt translation). The Israelites were fasting for penance. God wasn’t in their fast.
For our fasts to be effective, first of all, God must choose them. There may be times when you simply need to fast immediately, because of some trial or test. But for regular fasting, be sure to plan it in advance, at least a few days ahead of time. Be careful not to stumble into a fast just because you realize you missed your last meal. Set aside the time for God. If you do, then God will do His part.
A Proper Spiritual Fast
Let’s continue from Isaiah 58: “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?” (verse 6). During a fast, God wants us to see ourselves for what we are—shackled by bands of wickedness. Fast to change the self! Verses 7-11 reveal how powerfully God acts when we fast in a right attitude.
In the book of Joel, God addresses a similar theme—first turn to him in humility, then deliver His message. “Gird yourselves, and lament, ye priests: howl, ye ministers of the altar: come, lie all night in sackcloth [humble yourselves], ye ministers of my God: for the meat offering and the drink offering is withholden from the house of your God” (Joel 1:13). We have a message to deliver to a rebellious people and Church. God wants our hearts to be right first.
Verse 14: “Sanctify ye a fast, call a solemn assembly, gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land into the house of the Lord your God, and cry unto the Lord.” “Sanctify” means to set apart. Once you plan ahead and set aside a time for fasting, God will sanctify it—set it apart for a special time between you and Him.
It also says to “cry unto the Lord” when we fast. Fasting without prayer is of no spiritual value. In order to cry aloud with God’s message to this world, we first have to cry aloud to God in fasting and prayer.
Joel continues the theme in chapter 2. “Therefore also now, saith the Lord, turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning: And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil” (verses 12-13). God does not want us to just put on a show of fasting. He wants us to turn our hearts to Him. Fasting in a right attitude does that.
The real purpose for fasting is to humble ourselves—to see ourselves for what we really are—so that we might draw closer to God.
Again in verse 15 it says “sanctify a fast.” Sometimes it is even necessary to set aside a time for fasting for the entire congregation (verse 16).
When Mr. Armstrong set aside Jan. 27, 1979, for a Church-wide fast, he said that it was not only for the Work and Church, but so that each member might be brought closer to God. He knew that the only way the Church would prevail against the state of California was if each member’s heart was turned to God.
As Joel confirms, once our hearts are right, then we can properly cry aloud and blow the trumpet of alarm. “Blow ye the trumpet in Zion, and sound an alarm in my holy mountain: let all the inhabitants of the land tremble: for the day of the Lord cometh, for it is nigh at hand” (Joel 2:1).
Fasting Brings Results
The purpose for fasting is to draw closer to God. That is the best result we can ever hope to attain with this powerful spiritual tool. Once we draw closer to God, then even more blessings and answers to prayer will follow. But be careful not to fast to get something. Follow in the example of Mr. Armstrong. He fasted to change his attitude. He fasted because his prayers were not being answered and he knew it was his fault—not God’s. Even though Mr. Armstrong and his family needed a lot of things, he spent the time during his fast asking God to show him why his prayers were no longer being answered.
There are a variety of reasons why we might schedule a fast. Daniel did it to acquire a deeper repentance—not as penance—but to change his attitude. He also fasted for deeper understanding. David and Paul fasted to be released from certain trials. The New Testament apostles fasted before important decisions, like ordinations. But no matter what the specific reason for fasting, never forget its ultimate purpose—to humble us so that we might refocus our energies spiritually to draw closer to God. Forsaking the desires of the flesh and setting aside a certain time for God reminds us just how much we need God.
It is the attitude one can acquire through fasting which God responds to—not merely the act of fasting. The example of the Pharisees proves that God does not respond to a fast unless it is sanctified—unless we are in a right attitude.
Study the example of Nineveh’s repentance in the book of Jonah. After receiving a warning message from God’s prophet, the people of Nineveh believed God and proclaimed a citywide fast. Everyone in the city fasted—even the beasts of the field went without food! The king told his people to “cry mightily unto God” (Jonah 3:8). Because of their humble, repentant attitude, God changed His mind and spared the city. The course of human history was altered because these people humbled themselves through fasting.
God wants to turn our lives around too if we would just turn our hearts to Him in the same way. Fasting will change the course of events in your life!
Notice how it altered the course of Ahab’s life in 1 Kings 21. Ahab was an arrogant, evil king. No one exceeded his wickedness. So God sent Elijah to him with a message that he was going to die because of his rebellion. “And it came to pass, when Ahab heard those words, that he rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth, and went softly” (verse 27). Ahab believed God and then humbled himself through fasting. Notice how it changed his attitude. It says he went softly! The Moffatt translation says he became submissive. He went into the fast to change his attitude and God responded.
“And the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, Seest thou how Ahab humbleth himself before me? because he humbleth himself before me, I will not bring the evil in his days: but in his son’s days will I bring the evil upon his house” (verses 28-29). God responds to those who humble themselves. The punishment was postponed because Ahab, the most wicked man on Earth, humbled himself. Again, the course of history changed. If God responds this way to a wicked king who fasts, just think about how He will respond to your fast. Fasting, coupled with prayer, can literally change your life!
Food Sustains Life!
Physically, a fast demonstrates how reliant we are upon food and drink. You will grow physically weak through fasting. But don’t give up because you feel bad or because you have a headache. David said his knees were weak because of fasting. God uses that physical discomfort to prove an important point.
Paul wrote, “For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy [Spirit]” (Romans 14:17). God’s Kingdom is not about physical food and drink. God wants us to use the tool of fasting to learn a spiritual lesson. Jesus said, “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled” (Matthew 5:6). God’s Kingdom will be composed of righteousness! To be a part of it, we have to hunger and thirst for that righteousness now, while in the flesh. And nothing drives that spiritual lesson home more than fasting. During a fast, we realize just how strong we hunger for physical nourishment. God wants us to know that we need spiritual nourishment far more if we are to ever survive spiritually. Without physical food, we will die physically. Without spiritual food, we will die spiritually.
We often review John 6 during the Passover. In that passage, Christ expounded upon this subject of spiritual food. Anciently, God provided a continual supply of manna, physical nourishment, to the Israelites. For us living according to the Spirit, Jesus said, “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). This is the only kind of food that will ever really satisfy. This kind of food will truly keep us full—living an abundant, joyous life. This kind of food will also provide everlasting life. “I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever” (verse 51). God wants us to eat to live forever!
Paul continued in Romans 14, “For he that in these things serveth Christ is acceptable to God, and approved of men. Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another” (verses 18-19).
Let’s all learn the valuable lesson proper fasting teaches. Man’s biggest problem is in trusting man. Yet fasting teaches us that we are nothing but dust without God. Be afflicted and humble the self toward God in prayer and fasting. That’s when God can really use us. That’s when God will begin to answer our prayers in the most powerful way. That’s when we will finally be filled and satisfied. Hunger and thirst for righteousness so that we might all live forever, teaching others how to use the valuable tool of fasting!