The Day of Atonement is perhaps the most unusual holy day of the year. Why? Because it is the one 24-hour period in which God commands His people to “afflict your souls” (Leviticus 23:26-27, 32). The words afflict and fast are interchangeable (Ezra 8:21; Isaiah 58:3, 5).
Just what is fasting? What is its specific purpose?
Let us consider some basic truths on the subject and understand the significance of fasting.
According to the Bible, to fast means to deny yourself food and water for a certain period of time (Jonah 3:5-7).
Jesus Christ, in both the Old and the New Testament, commanded His people to fast (Leviticus 23:29; Matthew 6:16-18). He, as our great Creator, knows that fasting is good for us. God made it possible for us to survive without food and water for at least one day. Indeed, our bodies are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).
Fasting for spiritual reasons can help get us into a humble attitude and draw us closer to our Maker. This unique spiritual tool—fasting—aids us in overcoming carnal nature and shows God that we’re totally dependent upon Him for all our physical and spiritual needs.
Each of us obviously relies on food and water. When we become hungry and thirsty, we are sharply reminded that we are just like worms (Job 25:6)—puny, insignificant creatures. Though we are created in God’s own image and likeness, we have only a temporary, physiochemical existence. We are mere mortals, made from the dust of the ground, and destined to die (Genesis 2:7; Genesis 3:19; Ecclesiastes 3:19; Ezekiel 18:4, 20; 1 Corinthians 15:22-23).
Consider how fragile and frail we are without physical sustenance—and then think about how utterly helpless and hopeless we are without spiritual sustenance! To grow spiritually, and to experience a life of truly abundant living, we absolutely must be nourished “by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).
Intellectually, we may confess to God that we are weak, sinful and desperately in need of His strength, guidance and correction. But saying something in prayer and actually understanding it to the depths of our being are two different things. That’s why the deep spiritual lessons that fasting can teach us simply are not learned any other way.
God understands us. And fasting helps us to understand who and what we are in relation to our heavenly Father. When we experience the dry mouth, bad breath, hunger pangs, lightheadedness and weak knees often associated with fasting, we begin to appreciate our inadequacies. When we are in a humble state of mind, we can actually begin to gain a better perspective of the God Family vision! Think on that a while.
The Right Way to Fast
From antiquity, fasting has been an essential part of religious observance. Most, however, have been misled or confused about the right way to fast.
Pagans associated fasting with penance and self-punishment. First-century Judaism turned it toward ritual and public display. Modern Christianity, for the most part, considers fasting unimportant or unnecessary.
Though people have fasted for many reasons, there is only one motive God accepts. That is to “[b]e afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up” (James 4:9-10).
Our purpose in fasting must be to humble and submit ourselves more fully to God.
The entire fourth chapter of James links the process of drawing closer to God with the need to fast.
The book of Isaiah also emphasizes the importance of becoming humble and submissive to God. In the final chapter of that book, God says, “For all those things hath mine hand made, and all those things have been, … but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word” (Isaiah 66:2). This locks in with Christ’s promise to us in Revelation 3:21.
In Luke 18:10-14, Jesus told a parable of a Pharisee that fasted weekly with a wrong attitude. This religious man fasted with the intent of exalting himself in his self-righteousness. But his fasting was purely an act of pride, intended to impress others with his suffering for “righteousness” sake.
This Pharisee thought God would be pleased if he made himself suffer and would therefore grant him his will. However, as lesson 48 of the 1967 edition of the Ambassador College Bible Correspondence Course explains, “Fasting in order to drive a ‘bargain’ with God—fasting in order to try to bend God to your way of thinking, in order to get your own way or your own will about some matter—is an abomination to God! It is absolutely wrong!”
It is of no use to fast just to get God’s attention (Isaiah 58:3-4). Fasting is not some kind of a hunger strike intended to force our will on God or other people. That is the way Mohandas K. Ghandi fasted as he led civil disobedience campaigns against the British in India during the 1930s and early 1940s.
Jesus explained the great purpose for fasting in Matthew 9:14-15: “Then came to [Jesus] the disciples of John, saying, Why do we and the Pharisees fast oft, but thy disciples fast not? And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast.”
While Jesus was with His disciples in bodily form, He was their actual, physical “Comforter.” For about 3½ years, the Holy Spirit had been dwelling with the disciples in the person of Christ. His disciples—most notably John, the disciple “whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23)—enjoyed close, daily communication with Him. His teaching, inspiration and encouragement were readily available.
After Jesus’s death and ascension, however, it became more difficult for the disciples to be in sync with His thinking and will. That’s why Christ foretold their need for diligent fasting. Fasting, coupled with prayer and study of the Scriptures, provided the disciples the closeness and understanding they had had when Jesus had been with them in person.
We should fast for the same reason. It is appropriate that we are instructed to fast on the Day of Atonement, which pictures the time when Christ and all His disciples will finally be brought together in complete harmony (at-one-ment).
Other Reasons for Fasting
Of course, there are a myriad of other reasons to fast. The Prophet Daniel did it to attain a deeper repentance and more godly understanding. Both King David and the Apostle Paul fasted for relief from various trials. The first-century evangelists and ministers fasted before reaching important ecclesiastical decisions (Acts 13:1-3; 14:23). Likewise, Mr. Armstrong often fasted to learn God’s will regarding certain decisions and judgments in the Church. Mr. Flurry follows in Mr. Armstrong’s footsteps today.
Many times in our lives we are faced with making important decisions—decisions that not only affect our lives but possibly the lives of others. There is safety in a multitude of counselors (Proverbs 11:14; 15:22), and God is our greatest Counselor. We should diligently seek Him for answers in the decisions we face—and fast especially in the case of major decisions.
No matter what the specific reason for fasting, we should never forget its ultimate purpose: to humble us so we might refocus our energies spiritually to draw closer to God.
Fasting Brings Results!
God hears all our prayers, but He especially notices when we fast. Our fasting demonstrates to God that we are in earnest about seeking Him. We show Him that nothing will stand in the way of our relationship with Him—not even what sustains our physical being! When we acquire a right attitude through fasting, He does respond!
Some of the most outstanding leaders known to mankind fasted, and records of these fasts and the results have been preserved for you in your Bible. Not as mere historical facts but as living examples! These men of character went through experiences as examples for Christians today (1 Corinthians 10:11).
Let’s notice some historical examples of fasts that brought results.
When the Prophet Daniel determined to chasten himself before God and fast for understanding, God sent the mighty archangel Gabriel to reveal to Daniel some of the most vital prophecies of the Bible (Daniel 10:2-3, 12). Daniel had to fast for 21 days before receiving an answer, but Gabriel assured him that his petition had been considered from the very beginning of his fast (Daniel 9:23).
After receiving a warning message from God’s Prophet Jonah, the people of Nineveh believed God and declared a city-wide fast. Every man, woman, child and beast in the city fasted. The leaders of Nineveh decreed that every citizen should “cry mightily unto God” (Jonah 3:8). Because of their humble, repentant attitude, God changed His mind and spared the city.
The course of human history was changed because the people of Nineveh humbled themselves through fasting. Fasting can change the course of events in your life too!
The Bible shows that God also heard and granted favor to wicked King Ahab when he humbled himself before God with fasting and prayer (1 Kings 21:17-29). Likewise, evil King Manasseh, who led the nation of Judah into sin and captivity, spent a great deal of time fasting before the Eternal God (2 Chronicles 33:1-15). God heard and accepted the humble supplications of the repentant king—and delivered him and his people from the cruel Assyrians.
It’s never too late for even the extremely wicked to turn to God if they sincerely want to. But they must take positive, repentant action as Ahab and Manasseh did!
Another example of how fasting brings results is that of Jehoshaphat, another of Judah’s kings. When a huge heathen army menacingly approached Jerusalem to do battle, Jehoshaphat immediately responded by proclaiming a fast throughout his kingdom (2 Chronicles 20:1-24). He didn’t trust in his own military might or prowess, as the United States or Britain would do if attacked today. Rather, he and his people beseeched God with fervent, sincere prayer and fasting. Once again, fasting accompanied by heartfelt prayer brought results! God heard and miraculously crushed several mighty armies by causing them to fall upon each other and destroy themselves!
In the New Testament, we see the example of Cornelius, a Gentile who lived such a life of service and overcoming that God considered it important enough to send the Apostle Peter to preach to him the gospel of the Kingdom of God and to baptize him and his family. It is significant that Cornelius had been praying and fasting when God elected to send Peter to him (Acts 10:30).
Fasting shows God that we, like those who fasted with results down through history, are willing to rely on His strength and not our own physical resources, because we realize that our own resources will quickly fail us.
When was the last time you fasted? If you only fast on the Day of Atonement when God commands it, you are not as spiritually strong as you could or should be.
Know this: The longer you go without fasting, the further away you tend to drift from the reality of God and His awesome power—and the weaker you become spiritually!
Do you want God to help you through your trials? Do you desire to have greater spiritual power and impact in your life? And do you really yearn to have a close, intimate relationship with your heavenly Father, who bestows every good and perfect gift—and who wants to make you a part of His divine Family?
Then realize the significance of fasting. Follow the examples set for you in God’s Word! Seek God by chastening and humbling yourself before Him with fasting! If you do, you’ll be rewarded beyond your wildest imagination. You’ll enjoy an abundant life—a life filled with spiritual blessings!
“Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the Lord shall be thy rereward …. And the Lord shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not” (Isaiah 58:8, 11).
Guidelines for Effective Fasting
• Fast often. The Apostle Paul fasted often (2 Corinthians 11:27), and so should we. Remember that “practice makes perfect.” When we fast often, our bodies get more accustomed to going without food for a period of time. That doesn’t mean we should become self-righteous and set a rigid, unyielding schedule for ourselves (Luke 18:9-14). Though we should strive to fast regularly—perhaps 10 times a year, or about once a month—the number of times or when we fast is not as important as our attitude when we fast.
•Be balanced in fasting. One day is usually an acceptable length for a spiritual fast, although more time—such as two or three days—may be appropriate on occasion. Some, however, mistakenly equate the length of a fast with spirituality. They cite the examples of Moses, Elijah and Jesus, all of whom fasted 40 days. But these were exceptional individuals in exceptional circumstances. You should not attempt extremely long fasts such as these men did, and you should seek wise counsel for anything longer than a three-day fast. Remember that God is most concerned about our attitudes—He is not impressed by feats of physical endurance. It’s best to fast from evening to evening, if possible, as is the prescribed manner for keeping the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:32); but fasts may begin and end at other times, depending on the situation.
• Expect physical discomfort. You might naturally expect to feel hungry during a fast, but realize there are other side-effects too. The body also uses a time of fasting to eliminate toxins and wastes. This can cause bad breath, dizziness and even a headache. Severe headaches can come from withdrawal from the stimulants we may overuse on a daily basis—coffee, tea, soft drinks and the like. The day before a fast, cut out all such beverages. Drinking plenty of pure water the day before fasting will help in cleansing the body during a fast. Do not eat heavily immediately before or after a fast.
• Be discreet. Jesus commanded that we not make it known publicly when we fast (Matthew 6:16-18). Dress and groom yourself appropriately, as you normally would during that time. Because of the physical effects of fasting, it is wise to bathe before (or some time during) your fast, and to wear deodorant. It is also important to brush your teeth and tongue. Remember not to swallow when you rinse out your mouth!
• Choose your fasts wisely. The time we choose for a fast could be set apart strictly for fasting, but more often it will be combined with daily duties. Sometimes it is necessary to work during a fast, but we should try to keep the time as free as possible. For many, Sundays are the best days to schedule a fast. Usually, a Sabbath is not the best time for a fast; the Sabbath is technically a feast day and is to be considered a “delight” (Isaiah 58:13). However, the Sabbath may be the only day available to be included in a two- or three-day fast. On other rare occasions a Sabbath fast is permissible—especially if you’re fasting about an urgent spiritual problem. But beware resorting to fasting only in times of emergency or desperation, as that could be a sign that we’re more interested in getting what we want from God than in drawing closer to Him.
• Use the time profitably. Remember why you decided to set aside time to fast—for spiritual renewal. Don’t fritter away the time with everything else but Bible study, meditation and prayer. Follow the pattern of God’s end-time Elijah, Herbert W. Armstrong, who divided time spent fasting into three segments: study, meditation and prayer. First, let God talk to you through His Word; then think about how what you’ve read applies to your life; then talk to God in prayer about the circumstances of the fast. This method guarantees results!