Am I Called to Fasting?

Published 6/01/2020

The crisis our world currently faces is challenging Christians in many ways. The routine of life that was comfortably rolling along has become mired in danger, uncertainty, and anxiety. In response leaders and organizations urge people to fast and pray, such as The Gospel Coalition’s day of prayer and fasting on April 4. Without question, God’s people throughout history would fast by abstaining from eating food for a period of time for a spiritual or ceremonial purpose. The Bible gives evidence of fasting by the Israelites in the Old Testament, Jesus and his disciples, and the early church after Jesus ascended to heaven. Why haven’t the leaders of our church called us to do the same?

Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:16–18 help us understand several things about fasting. First, he says “when you fast.” Fasting was not an unusual, foreign practice to Jesus’ audience. Jesus knew that they would be fasting. People often fasted to show their deep sorrow and mourning (2 Samuel 1:12). They also fasted to demonstrate their repentance from sin while they called out to God begging for his mercy (Jonah 3:6–10). When the leaders of the church in Acts 13 commissioned Paul and Barnabas as the first missionaries, they did so through their prayers to God accompanied by fasting.

Second, Jesus says, “do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.” Hypocrisy in fasting was not unusual and Jesus warned his followers that they must not fast as a show, to be praised by people. How tempting it is to use your physical appearance to let others know how much you are suffering! Jesus said that kind of fasting receives nothing from God.

Third, Jesus says that fasting is a private matter between the believer and God, “your Father who sees in secret.” Twice in Acts we find church leaders fasting and praying about pressing situations, but according to Jesus’ instruction, the normal practice of fasting was personal and private.

How, then, should you think about fasting in your own life? If you are deeply burdened by a particular sin or need or weighty decision, you should be seeking the Lord’s mercy, help, and wisdom through prayer. You may make prayer such a priority that you choose to remove any interruptions, even eating. Fasting can help you focus on the issue at hand. We must be careful to not allow fasting to become a badge of spirituality or a standard by which we judge the spiritual maturity of other believers. But at the same time, you should consider the role fasting might have as you seek to pray earnestly to your Father in heaven without distraction.

This applies to an organization, convention, or leader calling upon Christians to fast and pray. You may choose to participate because you want to devote yourself to serious prayer. However, the Scriptures do not give pastors or other leaders the authority to require a believer to participate. Neither Jesus nor the Apostles ever commanded or even suggested that God’s people should fast in the dire situations they faced. The two examples of fasting in Acts were leaders in a local church context praying and fasting as they commissioned men for service as pastors or missionaries. There is no indication that the congregations were called upon to join with them. While Paul called upon churches to voluntarily participate in giving to relieve the distress of believers in Jerusalem who were living through the crisis of a severe famine, he did not call on them to fast and pray about that situation.

The Apostles regularly and repeatedly taught that Christians should be people of prayer. We must not think that we can gain a more favorable response from God because we couple our prayer with personal deprivation or suffering (as the pagan worshippers did in 1 Kings 18:26–28). It is the prayer of a righteous person that can accomplish much (James 5:16). Practice fasting according to your conscience, but do not let the outward action become the focus over seeking God’s face with intensity.