“Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16, esv).
Why fast? Fasting might seem archaic. Just thinking about skipping a meal might make us think we’re hungry. But fasting does something powerful. Fasting can ignite our hunger for God.
Key word: can. Fasting isn’t a magic fix. You can fast for wrong reasons or in wrong ways. God told the prophet Zechariah to deliver this message: “Say to all the people of the land and the priests, When you fasted and mourned in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted” (Zechariah 7:5)? The people fasted, but it wasn’t for God. They had their own selfish motivations, and God wasn’t impressed.
When we fast, is it for Him? How quickly we warp the idea of fasting. Someone might say, “Yes, fasting! That’s how I’m going to get my weight under control.” Another might reason, “This fasting thing will help me waste less money on food.” It’s possible to forego eating for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with God. That’s dieting, and it has no spiritual benefits.
Some turn fasting into a legalistic stick to beat other people up or measure their own spiritual superiority. When you fast, you may want some accountability, but it should be with a few, select people you can trust not to be overly impressed with your progress but to keep encouraging you when you falter or fail.
Fasting can certainly be misplaced and misused, and maybe those are reasons it hasn’t had a healthy emphasis among believers. But in wanting to avoid legalism, we may have forsaken the biblical teaching on fasting. Let’s survey four kinds of fasts described in the Bible.
1. Normal fast. To abstain from food for spiritual purposes. While normal fasts often include avoiding specific beverages that can become habitual (like coffee, tea, or carbonated drinks), fasting does not usually mean abstaining from water. You can live without food for weeks; going without water will kill you in a matter of days. The Bible doesn’t include many how-to details about fasting, because it was common knowledge to the people then. They knew how to fast; we’ve forgotten the basics.
2. Partial fast. To abstain from selected items that represent areas of struggle or danger. Daniel wrote, “I ate no delicacies, no meat or wine entered my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, for the full three weeks” (Daniel 10:3). Years earlier, in his youth, Daniel and his friends had adopted a largely vegetarian diet, rejecting the unlimited buffet of royal delicacies available to them. For them, every meal was a tangible reminder that though they worked for the king, they were actually servants of the King. In a partial fast, one might abstain from sweets or dessert; drink only juices; or fast from news, entertainment, or phone. Partial fasts can help us discover what we are allowing to consume our limited appetites, crowding out our hunger for God.
3. Absolute fast. To abstain for a relatively short time from all food and water. After Saul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, he was struck blind and then fasted: “And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank” (Acts 9:9). When Ezra mourned over the exiles, “he spent the night, neither eating bread nor drinking water” (Ezra 10:6). An absolute fast should include a doctor’s advisement and be limited to a brief period of time.
4. Corporate fast. To fast according to one of these methods but in agreement of purpose with other believers. A church facing a clear, present crisis might declare a fast for the whole church. When Queen Esther was preparing to risk her life to intercede for the Jews, she wrote to Mordecai, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do” (Esther 4:16). Throughout history, when the going got tough for God’s people, the tough started fasting.
Why fast? Because it can ignite our hunger for God. How to fast? As the Bible prescribes and with a dose of common sense. But will you fast? That question is yours alone.
Lord God, fasting was common in Bible times but feels foreign and unfamiliar now. Yet it’s a powerful spiritual discipline. I sense how much I defer to my own appetites and let them crowd out my hunger for You. In the stories of the Bible, I see that fasting weakens the body yet strengthens the soul. And that I need. Do You want me to fast? Will You teach me to fast? Will You ignite my hunger for You? I love You, and I need You. In Jesus’ name, amen.