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Like sacrifices, offerings and incense offerings, fasting is also seen as a way of approaching God, and is usually in the context of prayer.

The Bible doesn’t clearly identify the purpose of fasting. It does, however, indicate that fasting is often associated with sustained communion with God and with urgent need or grief. It is also obvious that fasting also involves self-denial and humility. It is not to be pursued for its own sake, nor to gain merit or be used as a bribe, nor to create a personal, spiritual ‘high’. It is a focused expression of the supplicant’s commitment to and dependence on God and his mercy, and urgency/helplessness/sincerity in petition.

In the Bible we find:

Fasting is an expression of deep grief and/or helplessness
The Bible reports various people or groups of people fasting as they prayed to the Lord in physical situations of deep grief and helplessness:

The Israelites, not knowing how to proceed during a conflict with the Benjaminites [Judges 20:26];

David, when Saul and Jonathan died [2Samuel 1:12];

David while his small son was sick [2Samuel 12:16-23];

Jehoshaphat and Judah, when Jerusalem was under attack [2Chronicles 20:2-13];

Nehemiah, on hearing of the condition of Jerusalem [Nehemiah 1:4].

Fasting is associated with repentance and confession of sin
In situations of spiritual grief and spiritual helplessness, fasting is associated with repentance and confession of sins, and expressed deep humility in the presence of God:

The Israelites, under Samuel’s direction, returned to the Lord with fasting and confession [1Samuel 7:3-6].

Ahab fasted, humbling himself before God [1Kings 21:27-29].

Ezra proclaimed a fast for the exiled Jews. This fast was an expression of humility before God and dependence on him [Ezra 8:21-23].

Nehemiah’s fasting and prayers included confession of sin [Nehemiah 1:4: 9:1].

David humbly interceded for his enemies with prayer and fasting [Psalm 35:13].

Daniel prayed on behalf of his people with fasting and confession of sin [Daniel 9:3].

Fasting is associated with worship
In both of the above fasting and prayer acknowledged God as the one source of mercy and help in times of both physical and spiritual desperation – whether that desperation was due to personal grief or physical circumstances. Thus fasting is a form or expression of worship:

The fast reported in Nehemiah 9 included the reading of the Word of God for a quarter of a day and worshipping God for a quarter of a day. The content of their corporate worship is reported in 9:5-37.

Luke 2:37 reports that Anna ‘worshipped night and day, fasting and praying’.

Fasting and commission/commitment
Also connected with dependence on God and our human need for his merciful intervention, fasting is reported on three occasions on which human beings were about to engage in a dangerous commission on God’s behalf:

Esther, planning to enter the king’s presence unbidden, called upon her people to fast [Esther 4:16].

Jesus fasted for forty days at the commencement of his ministry [Matthew 4:2].

The church at Antioch fasted when they commissioned Paul and Barnabas for missionary work [Acts 14:23].

Descriptions of unacceptable fasting
Fasting itself has no intrinsic merit. It is not automatically acceptable to God. If the self-denial exhibited in fasting is not also exhibited in our real life relationships, fasting is pointless [Isaiah 58:1-5]. If the ‘religion’ expressed in fasting is not also found in the heart, fasting is pointless [Jeremiah 14:12]. If the humility characteristic of true fasting is contradicted by a self-promoting manner and method of fasting, fasting is pointless [Matthew 6:16-18]. Fasting as a mere religious ritual or exercise is not acceptable.

True fasting
Having described unacceptable fasting in 58:1-5, Isaiah then describes acceptable fasting in verses 6 to 14. Fasting is never self-validating. It is valid only if it is accompanied by true religion. Fasting is acceptable to God only if those who fast habitually practise the same kind godly concern and compassion for others that Micah described in his summary of ‘what is good’ [Micah 6:8] and that James termed ‘religion that God our Father accepts’ [James 1:2]. Although true fasting is thus accompanied by focus on others, fasting itself is directed towards God alone, and never practised with a view to impressing others [Matthew 6:16-18].

© Rosemary Bardsley 2017