Are we supposed to fast? If so, how, when, why? If not, how to defend scripturally?
Scriptures regarding fasting
One thing that did surprise me as I went to study the answer to this question is the number of times fasting is mentioned in the scriptures. Let us note some of them quickly. Acts 10:30, in regard to Cornelius, “So Cornelius said, “Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing,” Acts 14:23, “So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” 1 Corinthians 7:5, in speaking about marriages, “Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” 2 Corinthians 6:5, Paul speaking about all that he had gone through, mentions “in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fastings;” Mark 9:29, an important verse about having great faith says, “So He said to them, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.” So we see that fasting does have a significant place in the New Testament. What were the reasons for fasting? We some of the reasons from the passages we have just looked at.
Reasons for fasting
There are many reason found in the Bible for fasting. Sorrow for and confession of sin (Lev 16:29-34; Num 29:7-11; Deut 9:18; Dan 9:3,4). Lamentation and grief (Judg 20:26; 2 Sam 1:12; Esther 4:3; 9:31). Earnestness of the prayer request (Acts 10:30). This is usually the connection that we see in the New Testament when talking about prayer and fasting. Fasting was thought to strengthen prayer by demonstrating how serious was the supplicant’s approach.
There is also sometimes a question about what is fasting. What is eaten and what is not eaten. From what I can tell, the Greeks understood fasting as total abstinence form food for a certain time. So this apparently did not include liquids. Clarke made this statement that “abstaining from flesh, living on fish and vegetables, is no fast.” So we seem to refer then to total abstinence from food and this is the implication we receive when reading of Jesus fasting in the wilderness in Matthew 4:2. It says there that Jesus was hungry. If fasting entailed eating fish and vegetables and other foods, then why was Jesus hungry?
How, when, and why
So the question goes, is it commanded? If we perform, how, when, and why. First, I could not find any place that fasting is commanded. It was commanded under the Law of Moses in connection with the day of atonement. But the new covenant has no such requirements. However, we have already noted that we see many examples of it. Jesus spoke about what to do when fasting in Matthew 6:16-18. We see that the Pharisees were fasting more for the glory of men than in dedication to the Lord. It seems from Luke 18:12 that it was the custom of the Pharisees to fast twice a week, but we do not read about its duration. Of course, in this passage we see that the Pharisee was using fasting and tithing as ways of self-righteousness before God. But notice more information that Jesus gives in Matthew 6:18. This is something to be before each individual person and God himself. This is not to be something for the knowledge of others and the glorification of self. So it seems that it is up to each person to use his or her discretion as to when to fast and for how long. Fasting can be used to refocus one self upon the spiritual things and meditation on God. We see this implied in 1 Corinthians 7:5 as the reason for prayer and fasting. It can be used to help practice self control and keep oneself from dependence upon physical things, and reestablish ourselves as dependent only upon God. Fasting can be used as earnest appeal to God. Just as we sometimes get down on one knee to pray to show our earnest desire in prayer, so fasting can have the same symbol in prayer. I believe that fasting should be treated like prayer positions. We see people praying prostrate and on their knees. We see people praying standing and sitting. We see people repenting and sometimes we see repentance in sackcloth and ashes. We see people praying and fasting. We are given the choice by appropriateness as to how we make our appeals to God. Sometimes we choose to pray in bed, sometimes we pray on our knees. Sometimes we pray without fasting, sometimes we pray while fasting. We need to remember that this is another way to approach God.