Fasting, ‘Daniel Fasts’ & Lent
Fasting and prayer are frequently associated in the Bible. Prayer and fasting often preceded super-natural spiritual manifestations. In the Old Testament, fasting is primarily part of exhibiting distress either for recognized sin (usually on a national level), or for deliverance from a threat such as a foreign army or divine judgement. The New Testament church practiced prayer and fasting when making church leadership decisions, occasionally during worship and once prior to receiving instructions from the Holy Spirit1.
In the Bible, fasting was usually performed for one of three reasons:
1) a critical situation (national crisis, intercession, repentance, etc.)
2) religious ritual
Critical Situation Fasts
Crisis of circumstance is the most common type of fasting in the Bible with many examples.
-The Israelite army fasted and confessed (1 Samuel 7:6)
-David fasted for his infant (2 Samuel 12:16-17)
-Jehoshaphat feared war and called the nation to fast (2 Chronicles 20:3)
-Ahab fasted at Elijah’s prophecy for Jezebel (1Kings 21:27-29)
-Jews fasted over edict of King Xerxes (Esther 4:3)
-Ezra proclaimed a fast for protection (Ezra 8:21)
-Ezra the priest fasted because he was mourning over the peoples’ faithlessness (Ezra 10:6)
-Israel fasted, mourned and confessed their sins and those of their forefathers. (Nehemiah 9:1-2)
-The Israelites fasted after hearing Jeremiah’s words (Jeremiah 36:9)
-Nineveh fasted—even the animals—for repentance (Jonah 3:7)
-Paul fasted after he met Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:9)
-The ship’s crew and passengers fasted for two weeks during a storm (Acts 27:33-34)
Most of these fasts were of relatively short duration with the exceptions of the two week fast of the crew in Acts who were not praying to God but were fasting out of fear and anxiety, and David’s unsuccessful fast for Bathsheba’s child at seven days. Set fasts like Esther’s were for three days. Fasts combined with prayer for a specific answer or outcome received the response in less than three days.
The religious sects of the Old and New Testaments fasted regularly as part of their tradition under the law. A ritual of scheduled fasting was intended to produce holiness and maintain deprivation of the flesh; unfortunately, it often produced attitudes of piousness and self-righteousness. Matthew 9:14; Mark 2:18; Luke 5:33; Luke 18:12; Matthew 6:16; Jeremiah 36:6; Zechariah 8:19
Jewish religious tradition called for fasts on Mondays and Thursdays; in order to differentiate themselves from non-Christian Jews, early Christians who still wanted to adhere to some religious rituals fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays.
There are only two recorded instances of fasting as part of worship in the Bible—the prophetess Anna and the prophets at the church in Antioch.3 Aside from being gifted with prophecy (a gift which Paul instructs believers to seek4), each of these prophets had communication with the Holy Spirit for a specific situation. However, many prophets have no documented practice of fasting
Extended absolute fasts such as those of Moses, Elijah and Jesus4 will not be covered in this article. Fasts like these that preclude all food and liquid for more than a couple of days should only be undertaken with the leading of the Holy Spirit. Fasts lasting longer than 21 days can cause excessive ketosis, muscle loss, compromised organ function and other serious effects and should not be undertaken lightly. Therefore any instruction here is unwarranted and counter-productive.
Fasts in the Bible were not like modern fasts where participants ‘give up’ something like R-rated movies or chocolate for a period of time, drink only juices or abstain from meat. Biblical fasts would call for no food or drink, including water, until sundown. If the fast was called for a specific reason, such as Esther’s fast for the survival of the nation, the duration might be modified; in Esther’s case, the fast lasted for three days and nights. David fasted for seven days and nights until his infant died. There does not seem to be a rule and it can be inferred that most of the Old Testament crisis fasts were one to four days.
Fasts and feasts were often rituals dictated by the Levitical laws and tradition. The spontaneous fasts in time of crisis—especially those that included repentance and mourning over sin—are recorded likely due to the resulting miraculous intervention of God. However, repentance and/or mourning over sin without fasting also has merit as does prayer of the righteous without fasting (see Joshua 7:6-15; 2 Kings 19/Isaiah 37; 2 Kings 20:2; 2 Chronicles 12:6-7; 2 Chronicles 32:26; 2 Chronicles 33:12-13; 2 Chronicles 34:6-7/2 Kings 22:19; Acts 2; Acts 8:15-17; Acts 9:40; Acts 14:23)
Examples of Non-Spiritual Fasting
1 Samuel 1:7-8 – Hannah wept and refused to eat due to her distress
1 Samuel 20:34 – Jonathan did not eat out of anger and distress
1 Samuel 28:20-23 – Saul went without eating while he called up Samuel through the witch of Endo
2 Samuel 1:12 – David and his men fasted as they mourned Saul’s death
1 Kings 21:12 – Jezebel used a religious fast to murder Naboth
Isaiah 58:3-5 – Fasts with a hardened heart towards fellow man
Daniel 6:18 – Darius fasted in distress while Daniel was in the lions’ den
Fasting That Pleases God
Joel 1:13-14 -- Put on sackcloth, you priests, and mourn; wail, you who minister before the altar. Come, spend the night in sackcloth, you who minister before my God; for the grain offerings and drink offerings are withheld from the house of your God. Declare a holy fast; call a sacred assembly. Summon the elders and all who live in the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord.
Joel 2:12-13 - “Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Isaiah 58:6-7 -- “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? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh and blood relatives?”
Matthew 6:16-18 – “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
Should You Fast?
Fasting in the church age is less pronounced, partially due to the diaspora of the church. While fasting was not mandated under the law, it was practiced in times of national crisis and, late, the elite religious sects fasted specific days each week. The crisis for the New Testament church was real, as the early church was severely persecuted. Christians continue to be the most persecuted population in the world along with Jews. The Christ of Christianity—Jesus—along with all of the original disciples (with the likely exception of John the Beloved) and many of the second generation leaders died martyrs’ deaths for their proselytizing. Jesus was criticized for not fasting and not making His disciples fast (Matthew 9:14-15; Mark 2:218-19; Luke 5:33-34) and His response, specifically in Luke’s record, implies that fasting is part of the tradition of the law which the Pharisees are not willing to relinquish for the grace imparted in Jesus. The response in Matthew and Mark indicates that fasting is not warranted when in the presence of Jesus, leaving the ten day period after His ascension and before Pentecost for fasting.
Clearly, Paul and Barnabas prayed and fasted as they appointed leaders and committed them to the Lord in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch (Acts 14:23), which was in keeping with the format established in Paul and Barnabas’s own appointment (Acts 13:3). There is no specific instruction to the Gentile converts on the practice of fasting but there are prolific instructions and examples of prayer. Paul’s epistles are liberally sprinkled with prayers and instructions on prayer. To practice the Pauline example, an active and diverse prayer life may benefit from fasting with respect to church leadership appointments or possibly other decisions, but the very active prayer life was his non-negotiable starting point.
Times of fasting sometimes occur naturally in response to a crisis, but more often it is a planned event, either a corporate fast planned by a church or other organization or a personal fast. Fasting for spiritual reasons should be specific--an answer to a problem or a need for guidance in a specific area. It is helpful to write down the goals of the fast so you can keep this in mind during your prayer time and in the future you can look back and see God’s faithfulness. Pray about undertaking a fast, the goals and length. Starting with small fasts—skipping one or two meals or going for twelve hours or so—is a good way to begin, especially if you are unable to schedule longer periods of solitude.
When fasting for a specific need, you may feel like you need to continue the fast until you get an answer. If this is your intended plan, make sure you will have time without interruptions from commitments. It is important that you give yourself plenty of private prayer and study time if you plan to fast until you receive an answer. You will want to have a Bible, and possibly a good lexicon; online sites like Biblehub.com or Biblegateway.com offer a vast array of resources for study if you can resist the opportunity to get distracted by other on-line sites.
If you feel compelled to fast, try to plan it for a time when you can spend your time privately in prayer and worship. Fasting can be challenging, so planning can be very helpful. Planning your fasting time with specific activities like worship and prayer time will help you get the most benefit from your fast. Not planning can cause your fast time to get frittered away with household chores, email, phone calls or other time consuming activities. Not planning your fast can also make the fast more difficult and less private; ideally, a fast should not be made public—no selfies posted to Facebook, no overt declarations or dramatic declining of meal invitations. Remember Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 6:16-18 and seek a better reward than public acknowledgement of your empty stomach.
A broken and contrite heart, with or without fasting, pleases God (Psalm 51:17, Psalm 34:18, Isaiah 66:2, Jeremiah 44:10.) However, it is not uncommon for deeply penitent people to weep, mourn and even fast as an outward expression. Often the repentance is accompanied or immediately followed by a hunger for the word and spiritual instruction or guidance. This may also be an appropriate time for fasting.
Fasting should never be exhibited or exercised as a sign of piety, nor should it be an effort to ‘score points’ with God. Fasting does nothing for God or to move God; fasting is entirely for the person fasting. It might change your heart toward God, but an external act does not change God’s heart toward us. The internal ‘circumcision of the heart’ is the condition God is seeking, and if fasting is a catalyst or result of that condition, it is beneficial. Fasting should always be conducted privately, even if done as part of a corporate fast. True fasting is not a club activity or group support program like weight watchers. Resist any temptation to call someone and commiserate about the challenges of abstaining from food or other difficulties or effects that may be experienced. Remember, “your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” This is the goal.
Seeking God’s guidance and/or consecration through fasting are Biblical objectives but action should be prompted by the Holy Spirit, not a legalistic effort to win favor with God. God’s word provides instruction for the Christian walk and any additional insight gained through prayer and fasting will never contradict the Bible. The indwelling Holy Spirit given at Pentecost is our Guide and Teacher6; fasting to focus on the Holy Spirit’s leading and asking for an inner witness is a valid objective.
Fasting for spiritual gain should not be mixed or combined with weight-loss or health cleansing motives. Abstaining from food for a couple of days or ingesting only juices and/or vegetables do provide a variety of health benefits, but motive is important to God. This point is something you should be very clear about before you start a fast of any type. Set clear goals and search your heart motive; if your motive or goals are not clear and in-line with scripture, reconsider the fast.
The whole point of fasting is to connect with the Father and Holy Spirit. If you have difficulty fasting privately, take it up with God in prayer. Ask Him for wisdom and thank Him for the answer and the promise for that wisdom (James 1:5-6); thank Him for His Spirit and glory and ask Him to show you how to magnify Him in your everyday life (Acts 2:38; John 17:24.) Pray the Holy Spirit would make His love in you be visible to others (Romans 5:5) and show you ways to bring glory to the Son and Father (John 11:4; John 14:13.) Focus on the point of the fast, not the activity of fasting.
Biblical Instructions on Prayer
- 1 Corinthians 14:15, Ephesians 6:18 – Pray both ways: with the Spirit and also pray with understanding pray with all kinds of prayers and requests; pray for the saints (for additional help with 'praying in the Spirit', see the article by that title.)
- Philippians 4:6, Colossians 1:3, 1 Timothy 2:1, Ephesians 1:16 – Pray with thankfulness
- Matthew 6:6 – Pray alone, not publicly for show, no excess words of eloquences
- Luke 18:1 – Pray persistently, don’t give up
- 2 Thessalonians 1:11, 5:25 – Pray for each other and for civic and religious leaders
- Luke 21:36, Romans 12:2, Acts 6:4, 1 Thessalonians 5:17, Colossians 4:2 – pray continually, devote yourselves to prayer
There is no shortcut to prayer, but there are scriptural instructions to pray effectively and principles that illustrate ineffective prayers. Fasting is not a shortcut nor can it replace prayer. Praying scripturally requires some knowledge of the scriptures, knowledge of God—His character, His intentions toward mankind, His power, and some knowledge of our position with God. Wrong thinking becomes incorrect praying and produces little result.7 Asking for things in prayer that go against what you say or do when not in prayer is double-mindedness, and will not produce results (Mark 11:23, James 1:8.) This is faithless prayer. Faith is produced by exposure to the Word of God (Romans 10:17), and when the mind is renewed through the Word, it fills the heart with faith and this will be reflected in speech and action (Luke 6:45 et al.) Then the believer can begin to receive from God: the indwelling Holy Spirit, power, wisdom, instruction, gifts and fruit of the Spirit (Habakkuk 2:4, Romans 1:17, Hebrews 10:38, Hebrews 11:6, Galatians 3:11, 2 Corinthians 5:7.)
Daniel Fasts & Lent
Many churches ask their congregations to embark on some type of fast for the forty days preceding the Easter holiday. There is no Biblical precedent for this. Partial or limited fasts like those practiced during Lent in some denominations are meant to help the practitioner identify with the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness at the leading of the Holy Spirit or some other time period in His life or death. Once again, this is no more scriptural than is self-flagellation to identify with Jesus at the whipping post. Self-imposed sacrifices deny the completeness and exclusive, God-ordained role of Jesus’ as the only atoning sacrifice for mankind; they create the illusion that we can identify with Him in ways God never intended, and make light of what He endured. Pretending to pay a price that has already been paid simply denies and attempts to diminish the reality of the payment, and the often trivial items that are ‘denied’ during Lent belittle Christ’s great sacrifice in laying aside His rightful position to appear in the flesh. Jesus’ atonement cannot be ‘added to’ nor can favor with God be curried—His love for humanity is already complete (John 3:16) and His grace is received only through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). The sincere Lent practitioner would be well served to spend time in Bible study and prayer, thanking God for His plan, Jesus for His obedience and seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Obedience is better than sacrifice (1 Samuel 15:22).
Daniel prayed multiple times each day and fasted at times and experienced a life of favor, visions, prophetic messages, interpretations and super-natural deliverance5. The so-called ‘Daniel’ fasts are based on Daniel’s account in Daniel 10:2-3; he went on a more-or-less bread-and-water diet and used no perfumes or lotions for three weeks. He did this because he was ‘mourning’ over of a vision of war he had been given and his desire to understand it (Daniel 10:1, 12). An angel appears and tells Daniel that the moment he prayed, determined to gain understanding and exhibiting humbleness, his words were heard in heaven and the response was immediately dispatched. The angel makes no mention of the external behavior of deprivation, only the internal condition of Daniel’s will, mind and emotions.
Daniel’s plain diet in chapter 10 is sometimes confused with his request to eat only vegetables and water—no meat or wine from the kings table—in chapter 1. Daniel and his three friends made this request not as a desire to fast in any way; rather they understood how the traditions of presenting food and drink to idol-gods and then eating that food honored the pagan gods. Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah chose to remain obedient to their Hebrew God and did not want to defile themselves with food offered to idols. This same act of obedience was reiterated by Paul, Silas and the other church leaders to the Gentile believers in Acts 15:29: You must abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality. Daniel’s all-vegetable diet was less about diet than it was about obedience and being free from even the appearance of worshipping any god other than Jehovah. God honored this act of obedience according to Luke 16:10.
1. Acts 10:30, Acts 13:2, Acts 14:23
2. Luke 2:37; Acts 13:2
3. Luke 2:37, Acts 13:2; 1 Corinthians 14:1-5
4. Deuteronomy 8:18, 25-26; 10:10; 1 Kings 19:7-8; Matthew 4:1-2
5. Daniel 6:10; Daniel 2:19, Daniel 8:1, Daniel 10:7; Daniel 6:22, Daniel 9:3
6. John 14:26, 1 John 2:27
7. Hosea 4:6; Matthew 22:29, Mark 12:2; Numbers 13:33; Matthew 25:24; Luke 15:29-30; Jeremiah 29:11, Deuteronomy 28:2-14; 2 Corinthians 1:20, Luke 11:13, Matthew 7:11