What We Mean When We Talk About Fasting

Leslie A. Wicke
Monday, April 22nd 2019

Every spring the Lent debate erupts anew in Protestant circles, and we go another round arguing about the church calendar and the utility of spiritual disciplines.[1] The Daniel Fast, and Rick Warren’s looser Daniel Plan for dieting, are regular guests in the fasting discourse as well.[2] More recently, intermittent fasting diets have entered the public consciousness.[3] Everybody’s got something to say about fasting.

The Christian confronting these practices is probably aware that the Bible talks about fasting. Too often, however, that’s where the popular discourse ends, leaving the category of “Christian fasting” an empty vessel into which each individual pours their own meanings. If we’re serious about being ruled by God’s revelation in Scripture, we shouldn’t give up our inquiries. Fasting is in the Bible, yes; now, what kind of fasting is it, what are its goals, and how does God’s Word direct and exemplify its practice?

Popular sources of news and opinion relevant to Christian living tend to feature two types of arguments. First: Lent is beneficial, not harmful, so we should do it.[4] Second: since fasting is mentioned in Scripture, Christians should fast, ergo Lent (or whatever style of fast the author prefers).[5] Both of these arguments rely on superficial and experiential analyses.

When we look at books, the arguments are more nuanced but not always more rigorous. An often-recommended resource on spiritual disciplines is Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster, a contemporary Quaker theologian. Foster focuses on Christ’s words in the Gospels, arguing that Jesus expected Christians to fast and going on from there to prescribe the specifics of regular fasting.[6] But Foster emphasizes experience and tradition, showing little interest in our question—what is fasting in the Bible?

John Piper tackles this question in A Hunger for God. He is anxious to understand what specifically Christian fasting might mean. Fasting, Piper argues, is the Christian’s way of declaring “This much, O God, I desire you!”[7] He sees this as Christian because it is not about self-atonement or woe, but about our desire for the justice, mercy, and experience of God.[8]

Scot McKnight has also undertaken this topic in Fasting, and like Piper he frames fasting as an expressive activity. McKnight insists that fasting is not goal-oriented, and defines it as “the natural, inevitable response of a person to a grievous sacred moment in life.”[9] One useful distinction that McKnight makes is between fasting and abstinence. McKnight’s abstinence encompasses things that the contemporary church often lumps into fasting, such as withdrawal from social media. He notes that we have scant evidence that the Biblical authors saw this as fasting.

That the Reformers took aim at practices like Lent is a commonplace, but we usually think of this in terms of the church calendar and church tradition. John Calvin, as it turns out, had plenty to say about fasting more generally. Calvin describes three purposes for fasting: subduing the flesh, preparation for prayer, and demonstrating our “self-abasement before God.”[10] He directs his attention to the latter two purposes, however, and draws from both Old and New Testament examples for these practices. Based on these examples, he describes fasting as an occasional rather than habitual activity. It is “especially intended for times of calamity.”[11]

A survey of Scripture makes clear that yes, fasting is well-attested—provided we are clear what we mean by “fasting.” We can group Biblical testimony about fasting into five categories: repentance fasts, mourning fasts, petition fasts, forty-day fasts, and instructions about fasting.

Repentance fasting is a response to egregious, usually corporate sin. A yearly repentance fast is mandated in Leviticus as part of the Day of Atonement, and both prophets and kings of Israel called special repentance fasts. Examples include Samuel calling for a fast in I Samuel 7, as the Israelites have been practicing idolatry and false worship. Joel also calls the people to fast as they repent of their neglect of true religion (Joel 1:14, 2:12), and Nehemiah fasts in both grief and repentance for the sins of Israel (Nehemiah 1:4).

Mourning fasts are less explicitly religious than the other categories, although the theme of mourning appears in other types of fasts. Thus Nehemiah describes his fast as not just repentance but mourning. Mourning fasts are also a response to death and calamity; in 1 and 2 Samuel, Saul’s men and David’s men mourn the death of Saul and Jonathan with fasting. Daniel describes his own fast (the inspiration for “Daniel Fasts”) as one of mourning (Daniel 10:2-3).

Piper wants to draw a distinction between these Old Testament examples of repentance and grief, and New Testament fasting. However, Christ’s words in Matthew 9:14-17 (Piper’s source for the distinction) complicate matters. Jesus draws a parallel between the fasting appropriate to His church and the fasting that accompanies grief. He asks “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?” The clear implication is that when the bridegroom departs, his people will be fasting to express their mourning. While Piper, in particular, prefers to recast this in terms of hungering for God or longing for Christ’s return, this doesn’t capture the funeral language Christ uses.

Petition fasts also overlap with repentance fasts, as God’s people plead with Him for mercy. In the Old Testament we see David fast as he pleads with God for the life of his and Bathsheba’s child (2 Samuel 12:15) and Jehoshaphat proclaiming a fast to seek help from God in the face of the Moabites and Ammonites (2 Chronicles 20:1-4). In all cases, the fast again expresses the seriousness of the petition.

Petition fasts are not limited to the Old Testament, either. This concept of fasting to express serious need in prayer makes sense of Anna’s fast (Luke 2:37), the fast of the elders before deciding to commission Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:2-3), and Paul’s fast as he prays for the elders of newly-established churches (Acts 14:23).

There are also the forty-day fasts. These deserve consideration as a separate category, given their extraordinary length and role in prophetic ministry. Moses (Exodus 34:28), Elijah (1 Kings 19:8), and Jesus (Matthew 4:2) all spent forty days going without food (and sometimes water). Each of these fasts came at a critical juncture in ministry—Moses when receiving the Law, Elijah when he was prepared to abandon prophetic ministry and even life, and Jesus near the outset of his active ministry.

It’s tempting to see these fasts as an example for all believers. However, their association with three great prophets (including Christ here as the “prophet greater than Moses”), and their physical impossibility absent God’s direct intervention suggest that we should not jump to this conclusion. It’s more likely that these fasts are meant to equip prophets for their unique, divinely-sanctioned task. Trying to construct our own modified, non-miraculous forty-day fasts takes us outside the clear testimony of Scripture and into the realm of speculation.

God has also provided us with instruction about fasting. In Isaiah 58:5-6, for example, the prophet informed Israel that the reason God took no notice of their fasts is that they fasted only to oppress their workers, seek pleasure, and fight. He goes on: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6). From this we might speculate that believers ought to donate whatever they would have spent on food to charity, to “fast” by giving time and money to good causes, or not to let hunger make them snippy. These are all undoubtedly good ideas, but let’s not get distracted: the big story is that that there is no virtue in fasting when the rest of your life expresses rebellion against God.[12] Isaiah insists that an act meant to demonstrate our sincere response ought to be—well, sincere.

In the New Testament there are only two passages that directly address fasting. One, in Matthew 9, we have already discussed in the context of mourning fasts. The other, Matthew 6:16-18, contains Christ’s admonition against ostentatious fasting in order to be seen by others. Jesus is not advocating a strict policy of fasting secrecy, given that he has already told us to pray secretly (Matthew 6:6) while himself praying publicly (Matthew 14:18). That much is clear. However, the phrase “When you fast” has been claimed as evidence for habitual fasting. McKnight and Piper both make the point that in the Judaism of Christ’s day, regular or stationary fasts were commonplace. Pious Jews fasted twice a week, as the Pharisee in Christ’s parable boasts (Luke 18:11-12). With little evidence of habitual fasting elsewhere in Scripture, however, we are ourselves making an assumption when we conclude that Jesus must have meant habitual fasts, rather than the occasional fasting the Bible showcases throughout the Old and New Testaments. This is not to say that regular fasts expressing, for instance, our grief at Christ’s physical absence are wrong, but that we should be careful not to make laws where Scripture has given us liberty.

Where the apostle Paul discusses fasting, it is obliquely, and his words in 1 Corinthians 7 and Colossians 2 suggest caution when we are tempted to multiply the instances for a fast, or to get hung up on sub-biblical notions of fasting in order to feel closer to God.

One thing seems clear: none of the Biblical examples show fasting as a technique to increase one’s spirituality or spiritual maturity. About the closest we can get is when Paul discusses mutual abstention from sex for the purpose of focusing on prayer. Even here, there’s nothing about growth in spirituality—and this is likely a reference to the petition fasts well-attested elsewhere in Scripture. We might, with care and humility, find such fasts useful in our private piety; there is evidence for such effects in church history. But we must be clear that this is not what the Bible has in view when it commends fasting.

It’s easy to see how things like the Daniel Plan and intermittent fasting differ from the Biblical sense of fasting. These are diet techniques, not spiritual practices, and don’t bear on the question of whether and how Christians are obligated to fast. It can be more difficult to preserve the distinction between other types of fasting and abstinence that may be spiritually beneficial, but fall short of what Scripture makes clear is to be the ordinary practice of the believer.

In certain forms, fasting is a Scriptural practice that, at the proper occasions, Christians ought to take up. In other forms, it’s a mental, physical, and even religious discipline that Christians are free to attempt. What we must guard against, however, is putting unbiblical burdens on the conscience by failing to be clear what we mean when we talk about fasting.

Leslie A. Wicke graduated with a degree in history from Patrick Henry College. She is a writer and artist whose work can be found at and She and her husband currently live in Virginia.

[1] Brian Lee, “Repent of Lent: How Spiritual Disciplines Can Be Bad for Your Soul,” The Federalist, March 5, 2014, (accessed April 15, 2019); Todd Peperkorn, “Why Lent Should Matter to Everyone,” The Federalist, March 5, 2014, (accessed April 15, 2019).

[2] Olga Khazan, “The Diet from God,” The Atlantic, November 26, 2013, (accessed April 15, 2019).

[3] A. J. Willingham, “Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey is into intermittent fasting. What is it?,” CNN, April 11, 2019, (accessed April 15, 2019).

[4] Kevin De Young, “Why You Should Consider a Social Media Fast,” The Gospel Coalition (blog), November 28, 2012, (accessed April 15, 2019); Erik Raymond, “A Beer-Only Fast During Lent,” The Gospel Coalition (blog), April 29, 2011, (accessed April 15, 2019).

[5] Amy Julia Becker, “In Defense of Lent: Five reasons to fast and feast until Easter arrives,” Thin Places blog, Christianity Today, February 25, 2014, (accessed April 15, 2019); Aaron Damiani, “What’s the Deal with Lent?: Skepticism about this season is based mostly on myths and misconceptions,” Christianity Today, March 29, 2017, (accessed April 15, 2019).

[6] Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins, 1998), 47-61.

[7] John Piper, A Hunger for God: Desiring God through Fasting and Prayer, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 25.

[8] Piper, 40-44.

[9] Scot McKnight, Fasting, Ancient Practices Series (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2009), xx.

[10] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.12.15.

[11] Calvin, 3.3.17.

[12] Piper, 123.

Monday, April 22nd 2019

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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