Fasting is becoming very popular, but it’s not a new practice, in fact it dates back to pre-biblical times. I’ve read over 90 research studies on Intermittent Fasting and written about it in Intermittent Fasting for Women Over 40 and described how it is used during cancer treatment and as part of cancer prevention in How to Starve Cancer. This blog post turns my attention to Biblical Fasting.
After reading all of the medical research on fasting, I was intrigued with the history of fasting. While fasting exists in many spiritual texts and historical accounts, in this post, I’m going to focus on biblical fasts, including old and new testament fasting. I used my family bible to reference the scriptures, which is a Catholic bible.
To give a personal perspective on Christian based fasting, I interviewed Andrew H. and you’ll find his interview included at the end of this post.
You can use this Table of Contents to navigate this post
Types of Fasting in the Bible
Biblical fasting is mentioned in both the old testament and the new testament. I’ve divided the post up into old testament fasting and new testament fasting. Both fasting and abstinence are mentioned in the bible. According to Apostolic Constitution, these are the guidelines around fasting and abstinence (1);
Fasting Versus Abstinence
- Obliges those between ages 21 and 60 and restricts the amount of food
- Fasting days are Ash Wednesday and all Fridays of Lent including Good Friday
- Allows only one full meal a day, but does not prohibit some food in the morning and evening, observing local custom for quantity and type of food
- A biblical fast is a form of penance imposed by the Church on certain days called Fast Days
- Restricts only the kind of food taken, forbidding all meat, and is for those aged 14 and older
- Abstinence forbids the use of meat, but not of eggs or the products of milk or condiments made of animal fat
Abstinence used to be every Friday for Catholics, which for most households meant that only fish was eaten, but not meat – as a reminder that Jesus was crucified on a Friday and also that on the fifth day of creation, God created the animals. But in 1966, meat was allowed on Friday except for during Lent (Pope Paul VI,1966) .
This is a fast before receiving holy communion. Traditionally, it is observed by not taking any food, drink or medicine from midnight until after Holy Communion. In cases like midnight mass, the obligation is to fast for three or four hours before receiving.
Reasons for Fasting
The reasons for fasting mentioned in the bible include for forgiveness, also called atonement or reparation. Fasting for devotion, or to strengthen your commitment, fasting for grief and fasting for an intention or special request. Following are the verses that mention fasting as they appear in The Holy Bible, the Catholic Press, 1950 (2).
Old Testament Fasting
Before Moses received the ten commandments from God, he fasted 40 days and 40 nights.
And the Lord said to Moses: Write thee these words by which I have made a covenant both with thee and with Israel. And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights: he neither ate bread nor drank water, and he wrote upon the tables the ten words of the covenant.
when I went up into the mount to receive the tables of stone, the tables of the covenant which the Lord made with you: and I continued in the mount forty days and nights, neither eating bread, nor drinking water.
The 40 days and nights will be seen again in the New Testament fasting as well. Some fasts in the old testament are appointed as fast days for abstinence from certain foods:
Leviticus 23:23-25 (first day of the seventh month)
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying; Say to the children of Israel: The seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall keep a sabbath, a memorial, with the sound of trumpets, and it shall be called holy. You shall do no servile work therein, and you shall offer a holocaust to the Lord.
This holiday is still celebrated by observant Jews and is Rosh Hashanah or the biblical name Yom Teruah (the Day of Shouting/Shofar Blasts). It is a high holy sabbath day, that is the beginning of the new year. While fasting isn’t part of Rosh Hashanah, in addition to the usual kosher dietary laws there is an abstinence from nuts and grapes or at least sour or black grapes by some (3, 4).
Leviticus 23:26-27 (the tenth day of the seventh month)
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Upon the tenth day of this seventh month shall be the day of atonement, it shall be most solemn, and shall be called holy: and you shall afflict your souls on that day, and shall offer a holocaust to the Lord.
This day is Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. This is also a high holy sabbath day and it is a fast day. Observers will begin their fast the night before and fast until evening of the Yom Kippur day, thereby fasting for 25 hours. Unlike fasting done for health reasons, that encourages water, this is a dry fast, in which no food or water is allowed. The fasting is meant to aid in your reflecting and repenting for your sins. Yom Kippur is the holiest day in the year in the Jewish religion.
Like Moses, when receiving instructions from the Lord, Jeremias the prophet and his scribe Baruch read out the prophesies to the people on a fasting day.
Jeremias 36:9 (Baruch reads the prophecies in public)
And it came to pass in the fifth year of Joakim the son of Josias king of Juda, in the ninth month, that they proclaimed a fast before the Lord to all the people of Jerusalem, and to all the people that were come together, out of the cities of Juda to Jerusalem. And Baruch read out of the volume the words of Jeremias in the house of the Lord.
Public Calamity, Recognition of Private Griefs and Misfortunes
Other fasts, were extraordinary and observed at times of public calamity and in recognition of private griefs and misfortunes. Here are some examples;
Judges 20:26-29 (The Israelites consult the Lord)
Wherefore all the children of Israel came to the house of God, and sat and wept before the Lord: and they fasted that day till the evening, and offered to him holocausts, and victims of peace offerings, and inquired of him concerning their state.
1 Kings 14:24- 26 (Jonathan violates Saul’s oath)
And the men of Israel were joined together that day; and Saul adjured the people, saying: Cursed be the man that shall eat food till evening, till I be revenged of my enemies. So none of the people tasted any food. And all the common people cam into a forest, in which there was honey upon the ground. And when the people came into the forest, behold the honey dropped, but no man put his hand to his mouth. For the people feared the oath.
2 Kings 12:16 (The child dies)
The Lord also struck the child which the wife of Urias had borne to David, and his life was despaired of. And David besought the Lord for the child: and David kept a fast, and going in by himself lay upon the ground. And the ancients of his house came, to make him rise from the ground: but he would not, neither did he eat meat with them.
Later when the child dies, David breaks his fast, which confuses his servants…
2 Kings 12:21-23 (David breaks his fast)
And his servants said to him: What thing is this that thou hast done? Thou didst fast and weep for the child, while it was alive, but when the child was dead, thou didst rise up, and eat bread. And he said: While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept for him: for I said: Who knoweth whether the Lord may not give him to me, and the child may live? But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Shall I be able to bring him back any more? I shall go to him rather: but he shall not return to me.
We also see fasting in the Old Testament to mark a significant day;
3 Kings 21:11-12 (Naboth is treacherously slain)
And the men of his city, the ancients and nobles that dwelt with him in the city, did as Jezabel had commanded them, and as it was written in the letters which she had sent to them they proclaimed a fast and made Naboth sit among the chief of the people.
2 Paralipomenon 20:1-4 (Enemies approach)
After this the children of Moab, and the children of Ammon, and with them of the Ammonites,were gathered together to fight against Josaphat. And there came messengers, and told Josaphat, saying: There cometh a great multitude against thee from beyond the sea, and out of Syria, and behold they are in Asasonthamar, which is Engaddi. And Josephat being seized with fear betook himself wholly to pray to the Lord, and he proclaimed a fast for all Juda. And Juda gathered themselves together to pray to the Lord: and all came out of their cities to make supplication to him.
Fasting is also done, when one has a difficult decision to make and is seeking guidance. This is the example with Esdras.
1 Esdras 8:21-23 (Esdras proclaims a fast)
And I proclaimed there a fast by the river Ahava, that we might afflict ourselves before the Lord our God, and might ask of him a right way for us and for our children, and for all our substance. For I was ashamed to ask the king for aid and for horsemen, to defend us from the enemy in the way: because we had said to the king: The hand of our God is upon all them that seek him in goodness: and his power and strength, and wrath upon all them that forsake him. And we fasted, and besought our God for this: and if fell out prosperously unto us.
Fasting for Healing
Fasting along with prayer and charity is confirmed by the angel Raphael to have achieved healing.
Tobias 12:8-15 (The Angel Raphael reveals his identity)
Prayer is good with fasting and alms: more than to lay up treasures of gold: for alms delivereth from death, and the same is that which purgeth away sins, and maketh to find mercy and life everlasting. But they that commit sin and iniquity, are enemies to their own soul. I discover then the truth unto you, and I will not hide the secret from you. When though didst pray with tears, and didst bury the dead, and didst leave thy dinner, and hide the dead by day in thy house, and bury them by night, I offered thy prayer to the Lord. And because thou wast acceptable to God, if was necessary that temptation should prove thee. And now the Lord hath sent me to heal thee, and to deliver Sara thy son’s wife from the Devil. For I am the angel Raphael, one of the seven, who stand before the Lord.
Fasting for Gratitude
1 Machabees 3:46-47 (Prayer and fasting for the victory)
And they assembled together, and came to Maspha over against Jerusalem: for in Maspha was a place of prayer heretofore in Israel. And they fasted that day, and put on haircloth, and put ashes upon their heads: and they rent their garments;
Fasting for Forgiveness
Asking for mercy and forgiveness is another reason for fasting as seen in this text regarding Judas’ assault on the enemies’ camp.
2 Machabees 13:12
So when they had all done this together and had craved mercy of the Lord with weeping and fasting, lying prostrate on the ground for three days continually, Judas exhorted them to make themselves ready,
How to Fast
The spirit in which fasting must be done in order for it to be acceptable to God is indicated by the prophets Isais;
Isais 58:3-5 (Mere externalism condemned)
Why have we fasted, and thou hast not regarded: have we humbled our souls, and thou hast not taken notice? Behold in the day of your fast your own will is found, and you exact of all your debtors. Behold you fast for debates and strife, and strike with the fist wickedly. Do not fast as you have done until this day, to make your cry to be heard on high. Is this such a fast as I have chosen: for a man to afflict his soul for a day? Is this it, to wind his head about like a circle, and to spread sackcloth and ashes? Wilt though call this a fast and a day acceptable to the Lord?
Isais 58:6-7 (True idea of fasting)
Is not this rather the fast that I have chosen? Loose the bands of wickedness, undo the bundles that oppress, let them that are broken go free, and break asunder every burden. Deal thy bread to the hungry and bring the needy and the barborless into thy house: when thou shalt see one make, cover him and despise not thy own flesh.
Many of the old testament fasting practices are still observed today by Jewish people. Let’s look now at what the New Testament says about fasting.
Fasting in the New Testament
We learn from the Gospels that the Pharisees fasted, as did the disciples of Saint John the Baptist.
And the disciples of John and the Pharisees were fasting. And they came, and said to him, “Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, whereas thy disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast as long as the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast. But the day will come when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day. No one sews a patch of raw cloth on an old garment: else the new patch tears away from the old, and a worse rent is made. And no one pours new wine into old wine-skins; else the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is spilt, and the skins will be ruined. But new wine must be put into fresh skins.”
This same exchange is described by Luke as well;.
Luke 5:33-35 (The question of fasting)
Now they said to him, “Why do the disciples of John fast often and make supplications, and likewise those of the Pharisees, whereas thy disciples eat and drink?” He said to them, “Can you make the wedding guests fast as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the day will come – and when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, then they will fast in those days.”
Matthew also describes how to fast:
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, who disfigure their faces in order to appear to men as fasting. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward. But thou, when thou dost fast, anoint they head and wash thy face, so that though mayest not be seen fasting by men, but by thy Father, who is in secret: and thy Father, who sees in secret, will reward thee.
The apostles learn about fasting from Jesus.
Matthew 17:18-20 (Why the disciples could not cure a boy)
Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could not we cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith; for amen I say to you, if you have faith like a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Remove from here’: and it will remove. And nothing will be impossible to you. But this kind can be cast out only by prayer and fasting.”
In imitation of the example of the Jesus, the Apostles fasted before making important decisions, and greatly commended the practice of fasting as an important part to Christian living, as evidenced in these verses;
St. Paul mentions fasting in his list of tribulations, hardships and distresses in writing to the Corinthians, and urges patience in these circumstances.
2 Corinthians 6:3-10 (A life of zeal)
We give no offence to anyone, that our ministry may not be blamed. On the contrary, let us conduct ourselves in all circumstances as God’s minsters, in much patience; in tribulations, in hardships, in distresses; in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults; in labor, in sleepless nights, in fastings; in innocence, in knowledge, in long-sufferings; in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in unaffected love; in the word of truth, in the power of God; with the arbor of justice on the right hand and on the left; in honour and dishonour, in evil report and good report; as deceivers and yet truthful, as unknown and yet well known, as dying and behold, we live, as chastised but not killed, as sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor yet enriching many, as having nothing yet possessing all things.
Paul lists all of his labours and sufferings in the letter to the Corinthians and includes fasting among them;
2 Corinthians 11:27
In labor and hardships, in many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, in fasting often, in cold and nakedness.
Acts of the Apostles 13:2-3
Now in the Church at Antioch there are prophets and teachers, among whom were Barnabas and Simon, called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manahen the foster-brother of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. And as they’re ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Saul and Barnabas unto the work to which I have called them.” then, having fasted and prayed and laid their hands upon them, they let them go.
40 Days Fasting
The 40 day fasting in the desert have Jesus fasting, as he prepares for the His public ministry. Jesus fasting 40 days in the desert is the most well known of all the fasts in the new testament.If you recall from the Old Testament, Moses also fasted 40 days and 40 nights while preparing to receive the ten commandments. Today, those who observe Lent, will have 40 days of abstinence along with fasting on Fridays and Ash Wednesday to prepare for Easter.
Matthew 4:1-4 (the first temptation)
Then Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit, to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If though art the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” But he answered and said, “it is written, ‘Not by bread alone dose man live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.;”
Mark 1:12-13 (the temptation)
And immediately the Spirit drove him forth into the desert. And he was in the desert forty days and forty nights, being tempted the while by Satan, and was with the wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.”
Luke 4:1-4 (the fast of forty days)
Now Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit about the desert for forty days, being tempted the while by the devil. And he ate nothing those days; and when they were completed he was hungry. And the devil said to him, “If though art the Son of God, command that this stone become a loaf of bread.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Not by bread alone shall man live, but by every word of God.'”
The section of the bible called the Acts of the Apostles, is written by St. Luke and they describe the history of the primitive church, it records the important events in the early church, the mass conversions, the persecution by Herold, the conversion of St. Paul and his three missionary journeys and his arrest and final trip to Rome. Fasting is mentioned a couple of times also.
Acts of the Apostles 13:1-3
Now in the Church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers, among whom were Barnabas and Simon, called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manahen the foster-brother of Herod the tetrarch and Saul. And as they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Saul and Barnabas unto the work to which I have called them.” Then, having fasted and prayed and laid their hands upon them, they let them go.
Acts of the Apostles 14:20-22
The next day he (Paul) set out with Barnabas for Derbe, After preaching the gospel to that city and teaching many, they returned to Lystra and Iconium and Antioch, reassuring the disciples and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and reminding them that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed presbyters for them in each church, with prayer and fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
Prayers for Fasting
As you can see from the above scriptures that fasting in mentioned many times in the bible in both the old and new testaments. This might encourage you to dedicate your fasts or to combine your fasting with prayer. Your prayer may include help with a decision or clarity around a situation, prayers for grief and loss, a special intention or request of healing for yourself or others.
To do this, you may choose the read the scriptures about fasting, or you may decide to add your own prayer. Here are some examples of prayers for fasting that you could say or modify to suit your needs while fasting. You can also read my interview with Andrew H. below and see how he uses fasting as part of his spiritual practice.
Prayer for Good Health
Dear God, I dedicate my fast today for my good health. Please grant me mercy and restore my body to wholeness and bring me to good health and vitality. You gifted me with this body and as the steward of this body, I am fasting to allow disease to leave and good health to return. Please assist me in my efforts to have a strong and vital body and to be free of _________.
Prayer for Decision Making
Dear God, I am dedicating my fast today to bring clarity to my life. I am at a crossroads with a decision I must make and I am seeking your guidance and a safe path forward for myself and my loved ones. Help me to quiet my mind and the conflicted voices there so that I may feel the deep inner knowing that is within my body so that I am proceed forward with confidence that the decision I make is the right one and is the best decision for everyone concerned.
Prayer of Confession
Dear God, I dedicate my fast today in reparation of my sins. I have ________________, and for this I am deeply sorry and I ask for your forgiveness and for the forgiveness of _________________. I offer of this fast as a sign of my repentance.
Prayer for Someone Who Passed Away
Dear God, I dedicate my fast today for ___________, who has left his/her body on this earth and gone to join you in heaven. I pray that they may soon be with You and that they mind find peace. I dedicate my fast also for the family and friends of ________, so that they may find comfort in knowing that _____is now free from pain and suffering and with You in heaven.
Prayer for Special Intention
Dear God, I dedicate my fast today for _____________. Please look with mercy on my special intention and grant me the best possible outcome regarding my request. I know that it is only through your mercy that I find myself on the threshold of receiving this gift and I hope that through prayer and dedication of my fast today that I may be granted further blessings and abundance.
Archangel Rafael Prayer
Dear Rafael, one of the seven, who stands before the Lord. As you taught in Tobias chapter 12, verses 8-15, I offer my prayers, fasting and alms for my special intention of ____________. Please intercede on my behalf and offer my prayers to the Lord. If is is necessary that temptation should prove me worthy, then I have fasted for this purpose. I prayer that the Lord may send you to heal/help/aid _________________ as you did for Sara.
Of course, you are welcome to dedicate your fasting for any number of special requests. You may find that when you you get hungry during your fast, reminding yourself of your special dedication may help to strengthen your resolve and achieve your fasting goal for the day. To read more about the health effects of fasting, read the blog posts Intermittent Fasting for Women over 40 and How to Starve Cancer. To make sure you don’t miss upcoming blog posts then subscribe to my email list.
Interview with Andrew H.
Q. As a practising Christian, what does fasting mean for you?
A. Fasting for me, and many Christians is about connecting with God. Fasting allows us to remove the distractions of the flesh and focus on God. We don’t fast expecting to receive something physical, but I have always received spiritual guidance and provisions to do His will in my life when fasting.
References for Biblical Fasting
- Pope Paul VI. Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini of the supreme pontiff Paul VI on fast and abstinence. Feb 17, 1966. Accessed Aug 9, 2020.
- O’Connell Rev John. , editor. Holy Bible. The Catholic Press, Chicago, U.S.A, 1950.
- . Stuckrath, T. Rosh Hashanah – A Food Primer – Shanah Tovah! Thrive meetings & events. Oct 4, 2016. Accessed Aug 7, 2020.
- Nussbaum, Z. Which Foods Should One Avoid Eating on Rosh Hashanah? Shailah of the Week. Sept 18, 2019. Accessed Aug 7, 2020
- Chabad.org. Tisha B’Av (Fast). Accessed Aug 7, 2020.