In brief

Fasting is going without something (usually food) for the sake of spiritual purposes. Jesus expects His followers to fast. Done rightly, it can refocus our hope on God and bring about amazing change.

In depth

Jesus discusses fasting in Matthew 6:16-18 and mentions it as an activity that He expects His followers will do, just as we are to give to the needy (verse 2) and pray (verse 7). All three activities are introduced “when you...”. There are numerous examples of people fasting in the Bible, including Jesus Himself (Matthew 4:2). So, why did they do it and why should we?

Fasting isn't about physical health, even though some fasts may do you good physically and emotionally. King David wrote that he fasted to humble himself (Psalm 35:13, NASB translation), and it is the humble who have the precious promise of God’s attention (Isaiah 66:2) and therefore His involvement. This process is demonstrated in Ezra’s story when he and the exiles he led were facing a dangerous journey:

“Then I proclaimed a fast… that we might humble ourselves before our God… So we fasted and implored our God for this, and He listened to our entreaty” (Ezra 8:21,23)

Two other examples of fasting being part of a prayerful response of desperate determination are found in 2 Chronicles 20:1-30 and Esther 4:16-5:3. In both of these stories, the very survival of God's people was in peril, so they fasted in the hope that He would intervene.

Fasting is hard work, and it is meant to be. It is commonly associated with mourning (as feasts are with celebrations), and word used in the Old Testament is often translated "affliction" (Psalm 35:13). The point of a fast is that our discomfort forces us to come to God ragged and relying only on Him. It is a physical response to what's happening, or not happening, it's a full-bodied cry that "Your Kingdom come".

John Piper writes:

“If there is anything that signifies seriousness, it is when you want something so badly that you will stop eating in the pursuit of it, or when the absence of something in your life or in the church or in the world grieves you so badly that you give up eating to express your humiliation and your longing to see it come.” ("Revival and Fasting")

The expectation that fasting will make a difference is emphasised by Jesus: “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:18).

All this suggests that abstinence is not the same as fasting: people "giving up" something like chocolate for Lent isn't what the Bible means by fasting as that is usually done for their own benefit. Fasting is also not primarily about disciplining your body and mind to not be driven by unhealthy desires for food or other things, though it can help with that (see 1 Corinthians 6:12, 9:24-27 for the importance of this).

The Bible doesn't give us specific instruction for considering other practicalities such as "How long for?" or "How often?" The likely answers to these questions for most western Christians are "Longer than you'd like" and "More often than you'd think". Building a regular fast into our lives could bring great benefit to your praying, even if it as a little as one meal missed in a week, or one day in a week avoiding doing something. In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster gives a helpful description of how to progress in fasting. 40-day fasts are exceptional in the Bible and shouldn't be considered without the medical advice and the counsel of mature Christians.

For those for whom going without any food could put their health at risk, alternative fasts could include certain types of food (such as luxuries or simply more than you truly need, as in Daniel 10:2-3), or non-food fasts such as avoiding entertainment or social media or the company of others. Paul suggests that married couples could fast from sex “for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer” (1 Corinthians 7:5). Find something that will humble you and – this is important – that will create time for you to pray.

To end, a warning. In Isaiah 58:1-14 we witness a furious argument between God and His people. They complain that He is not responding to their fasts; He replies that He is not a cash machine that gives out to anyone who knows the right combinations. Their hearts were far from Him, their fasts were a cause of boasting, and injustice was rampant throughout the land. He would not allow that to stand. He told them that they should fast by being just and generous, rather than seeking their own good.

A similar conflict occurs in Matthew 6, where Jesus says that some people fast in order show how "holy" they are and with no intention that others be blessed; this is exactly the opposite of God’s purpose for it. Those who are motivated by pride, Jesus says, will get the meagre reward of a shallow crowd’s admiration but nothing from God. True fasting has far greater rewards.

In God's Word

The first fast recorded in the Bible was done by Moses in preparation for receiving God’s Law, Exodus 34:28.

Israel had one day of commanded fasting, the Day of Atonement: Leviticus 16:29-34. (Zechariah 8:19 records the establishment of other fasts after the exile.)

Examples of fasts in response to catastrophe (or trying to ward off disaster and/or God's punishment): 2 Samuel 12:15b-23, 2 Chronicles 20:1-30, Jeremiah 36:9, Joel 2:11-17, Jonah 3:4-10, Esther 4:16-5:3.

Jesus fasted and stated that His followers would do also whilst He was away from them: Matthew 4:2, 6:16-18, 9:14-17. It’s worth noting that Jesus was known more for feasting than fasting: Matthew 11:19.

New Testament fasts to prepare for significant Kingdom advance: Matthew 4:2, Acts 13:3, 14:23.

N.B. Matthew 17:21 doesn't appear in most modern translations of the Bible as the earliest known manuscripts do not include Jesus saying that certain exorcisms can only be achieved by prayer and fasting. The parallel phrase in Mark 9:29 is also a later addition.

Jesus and Paul both warn against fasts done for external show rather than inner change: Matthew 6:16-18, Colossians 2:16-23.

In others' words


"How To Fast", Pete Grieg, The Prayer Course.

"Fasting for Beginners", Dave Mathis, Desiring God, 26th August 2015.

"Is God Calling Us To Fast?", part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, Phil Moore, Think Theology, May 2020.

"Revival and Fasting", John Piper, Desiring God, 6th June 1986.


The Common Rule, Justin Whitmel Earley, IVP, 2019.

Celebration of Discipline, revised edition, Richard Foster, Hodder & Stoughton, 2008.

A Hunger for God, redesigned edition, John Piper, Crossway, 2013.


"Feasting and Fasting", Tim Mackie, Exploring My Strange Bible, 11th September 2017.

"Does Your Fasting Have A Point?", Don Whitney and hosts, Quick To Listen, 9th March 2017

Preaching & Teaching

"Fasting for the Father's Reward", John Piper, 5th February 1995.


“When manifestations of the divine anger appear as pestilence, war, and famine, the sacred and salutary custom of all ages has been for pastors to exhort the people to public fasting and extraordinary prayer.” (p.819, John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge, Hendrickson, 2008)

“Fasting is bizarrely countercultural because it runs the opposite direction of the American dream. In pursuit of the dream, we tell each other that we can move upward in the world through sheer individual effort and that we’re going to be finally happy when we get there. In fasting, we deliberately move downward into emptiness – and even more, we admit that we can’t eat or work our way to happiness. We need God for that.” (p. 130, Justin Whitmel Earley, The Common Rule, IVP, 2019)

“When the disciples brought lunch to Jesus, assuming that he would be starving, he declared, ‘I have food to eat of which you do not know… My food is do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work’ (John 4:32, 34). This was not a clever metaphor, but a genuine reality. Jesus was, in fact, being nourished and sustained by the power of God. That is the reason for his counsel on fasting in Matthew 6. We are told not to act miserable when fasting because, in point of fact, we are not miserable. We are feeding on God and, just like the Israelites who were sustained in the wilderness by the miraculous manna from heaven, so we are sustained by the word of God.” (p.68, Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, revised edition, Hodder & Stoughton, 2008)

“Fasting can bring breakthrough in the spiritual realm that will never happen in any other way. It is a means of God’s grace and blessing that should not be neglected any longer.” (p.73, Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, revised edition, Hodder & Stoughton, 2008)

"Instead of taking an hour for lunch I use the time to go to a prayer room... There I spend my lunch break in fellowship with God and in prayer. And I have learned a very personal dimension to what Jesus declared, 'I have had meat to eat ye know not of.'" (Carl Lundquist, quoted by John Piper, "Fasting for the Father's Reward")

“It was not Christ’s intention to reject or despise fasting… it was His intention to restore proper fasting” (Martin Luther, quoted p.65, Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, revised edition, Hodder & Stoughton, 2008)

"It is better not to fast, and be thereby humbled, than to fast and be self-satisfied therewith." (Blaise Pascal, Pensées, exact reference unknown)

“Our seasons of fasting and prayer at the Tabernacle have been high days indeed; never has Heaven's gate stood wider; never have our hearts been nearer the central Glory.” (Charles Spurgeon, exact reference unknown)

"Fasting is not a hunger strike. It’s not trying to bend God’s arm. It’s coming to Him with real intention where faith can grow and promises like ‘the fervent effectual prayer of a righteous man avails much’ are outworked." (Terry Virgo, "Constant and Diverse Prayer".)

“First, let [fasting] be done unto the Lord with our eye simply fixed on Him. Let our intention herein be this, and this alone, to glorify our Father which is in heaven.” (John Wesley, quoted p.67, Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, revised edition, Hodder & Stoughton, 2008)



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