Have you ever considered the fact that fasting is something Christians do in the New Testament? We often associate fasting with the Old Testament since it had periods of required fasting. The New Testament commands no such observances, but we find fasting listed along other traditions of worship we are familiar with.
Acts 14:23 says:
When they had appointed elders in every church and prayed with fasting, they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
This is toward the end of Paul’s first missionary journey, and it gives us an apostolic example of early Christians participating in fasting. In this case it’s coupled with prayer. Acts 13:2 – 3 contains similar language: “They were worshipping and fasting,” and, “After fasting and praying.” The apostles obviously had a tradition of fasting before important spiritual decisions or events.
Jesus also fasted. In the beginning of Matthew 4, we can read that Jesus fasted for forty days and nights prior to facing Satan. I’ve often heard this taught as Satan approaching Jesus at His weakest, but have you ever considered the fact that Jesus might have fasted to prepare for this encounter. Just as the apostles would later fast before important events, here we see Jesus possibly doing the same.
When to Fast
When is it appropriate for Christians to fast? While there’s no hard-and-fast “on the first day of the week” passage for fasting like there is for the memorial, I believe we see evidence that fasting can be done individually or collectively. Both examples in Acts see Paul and his friends fasting together. Just as we can pray both individually and collectively, we can fast alone or together.
Also based on these examples, there’s no prescribed time for fasting. Paul and the apostles did it prior to some big undertakings. Jesus fasted before facing Satan. Individuals in the Old Testament also fasted in times of mourning and repentance. Fasting is an opportunity to grow closer to God, so the best time to fast is when you need that closeness most. That’s why prayer and fasting go hand-in-hand. It’s an act of removing something you take for granted or rely on and replacing that thing with God.
What to Give Up
When I think of fasting, I most often think of food. I think you can make the case, however, that fasting isn’t limited to eating.
I Corinthians 7:4 – 5:
A wife does not have the right over her own body, but her husband does. In the same way, a husband does not have the right over his own body, but his wife does. Do not deprive one another sexually — except when you agree for a time, to devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again; otherwise, Satan may tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
When Paul says, “Do not deprive one another…except when you agree for a time to devote yourselves to prayer,” it certainly seems like a form of fasting. In this case, the couple fast from physical intimacy for a time.
The point is that fasting requires a serious commitment. It’s not about giving up something trivial for a week; it’s about disciplining yourself by removing something meaningful and important. Like the monetary offerings we see in the New Testament, what you give up is between you and God. Maybe one person will give up all social media for a period of time while another takes their fast more literally and gives up food.
How to Fast
Jesus and Paul both have some guidelines for us when it comes to fasting. For example, Paul warns against self-denial for the sake of false holiness in Colossians 2:18 – 23:
Let no one disqualify you, insisting on ascetic practices and the worship of angels, claiming access to a visionary realm and inflated without cause by his unspiritual mind. He doesn’t hold on to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and tendons, develops with growth from God. If you died with the Messiah to the elemental forces of this world, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations: “Don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch”? All these regulations refer to what is destroyed by being used up; they are commands and doctrines of men. Although these have a reputation of wisdom by promoting ascetic practices, humility, and severe treatment of the body, they are not of any value in curbing self-indulgence.
Basically, Paul is saying that fasting of any sort should not be outwardly enforced, nor does it serve as evidence of holiness in and of itself. I Timothy 4:1 – 5 makes a similar claim, that we should be careful of anyone regulating specific foods from which to abstain. These things can feel pious, but Paul says they’re not.
Jesus says, in Matthew 6:16 – 18:
Whenever you fast, don’t be sad-faced like the hypocrites. For they make their faces unattractive so their fasting is obvious to people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! But when you fast, put oil on your head, and wash your face, so that you don’t show your fasting to people but to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
The idea here is the same as Jesus’ teachings on prayer and benevolence. When you fast, it’s between you and God, not between you and everyone else. When you fast, it’s not my business what you are giving up, unless you need me to know so I can support and encourage you. In fact, Jesus says that no one should even be able to tell we’re fasting based on appearance or behavior.
So What About Lent?
At this point, Lent becomes an elephant in the virtual room. Should Christians observe Lent? My only response is that it’s between you and God. That comes with a caveat: that we all understand that Jesus nor His apostles command the observance of Lent in the New Testament. Then we can apply Romans 14:5 – 8:
One person considers one day to be above another day. Someone else considers every day to be the same. Each one must be fully convinced in his own mind. Whoever observes the day, observes it for the honor of the Lord. Whoever eats, eats for the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; and whoever does not eat, it is for the Lord that he does not eat it, yet he thanks God. For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.
If your conscience moves you to observe Lent, then do so in the ways we see Paul and Jesus observe and teach about fasting. If your conscience steers you away from Lent, then abstain. Do not judge the brother or sister who does observe, nor should the one who observes judge the one who does not. Both are acceptable to God as long as their motivations and conduct remain pure.
Fasting, Spirituality, and Self-Discipline
I Corinthians 9:24 – 27:
Don’t you know that the runners in a stadium all race, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way to win the prize. Now everyone who competes exercises self-control in everything. However, they do it to receive a crown that will fade away, but we a crown that will never fade away. Therefore I do not run like one who runs aimlessly or box like one beating the air. Instead, I discipline my body and bring it under strict control, so that after preaching to others, I myself will not be disqualified.
To me this is the at the heart of fasting. It is an act of self-discipline that trains us to be self-disciplined in the Lord. The act of giving something up that is meaningful to you takes self-discipline. Sticking to it for a predetermined period of time takes self-discipline. If you are able to keep your fast quiet, that takes self-discipline. If you’re not letting a fast affect your behavior, that takes self-discipline. All of this helps us bring ourselves under control so that we will exercise self-control in all of our conduct.
Fasting can also bring us closer to God if we really are giving up something meaningful and replacing it with study and prayer. It puts us in a place to turn to God when we might most miss something of this world, and it helps put the things of this world in perspective. Whether you are giving up meals for a couple of weeks or turning off all screens for a month, fasting helps remind all of us that we need God more than we need the things of this world.