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Are Christians Required to Fast?

This week on the podcast, I want to talk about the issue of fasting and whether it is required as a practice for Christians. Do Christians have to fast? Must they do that? Before we can answer the question, are Christians required to fast? We need to first be sure we know what we’re talking about. An easy, simple definition of fasting is that it is the practice of intentionally abstaining from food for spiritual reasons. Of course, there are other kinds of fasting, a technology fast, you can do a phone fast, and there are all sorts of other kinds of fasting. But in the main in the Bible, fasting is intentionally abstaining from food for spiritual reasons. It’s not just abstaining from food, but it’s for spiritual reasons. You can abstain from food for health reasons; you can abstain from food for surgery reasons. I had to abstain from food before all of the surgeries that I’ve had. You can abstain from food for dietary and weight loss reasons. All of those reasons might have their time and their place, but fasting in the Bible is when you abstain from food for spiritual reasons. That is for the purpose of prayer for the purpose of drawing nearer to the Lord. And the question is, is that practice required for Christians?

Here’s what I would say. I would say that the New Testament makes clear that fasting is assumed for Christians. But that’s a little bit different than saying it’s required for Christians. The New Testament, when it talks about the issue of fasting, assumes that Christians are going to do this, but that’s a little bit different than requiring it. Let me explain what that means with a text or two. In Matthew 6:16-18, Jesus says, “And when you fast, do not look gloomy, like the hypocrites for they disfigure their faces and that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others, but by your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Another place in the New Testament and another place in the teaching of Jesus is in Matthew 9:14, it says “the disciples of John came to him saying, why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast? And Jesus said to them, can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” We see in both of those teachings an assumption about fasting but not a command to fast. Jesus, in Matthew 6, says when you fast, that’s an assumption that you will. It’s not necessarily a command. In verse 17, it says, “When you fast.” The commands that Jesus gives are about how to fast. You can’t be showy, you can’t look gloomy, because then you’re going to get your reward. The command about fasting is how to do it, not that you would do it. That you would do it is assumed, not required.

Fasting is the Means Not the Goal

Here is why this is important. The reason it’s important to say it’s assumed and not required is because it helps us to remember that fasting is the means, not the goal. Fasting, in and of itself, is not a good thing. Fasting is a means to achieve the good thing. What is the good thing? Matthew 6:18 talks about your fasting, not being done to be seen by others, but that your father would see it in secret. And when he sees it in secret, he would reward you. The goal is that we would grow in our relationship with the Lord. The goal is that we would grow in our knowledge of the Lord. The goal of fasting is that I would have an encounter with the Lord, that I would take away some of the gifts that God gives, like the good gift of food, to pursue a relationship, an exclusive relationship with the giver alone. When I take away his gifts, even a good and necessary and important gift like food that would maximize my joy in the giver, not the gift. The goal of fasting is not to go without food. That is to say, when you stop eating for a season, you have not yet received what fasting is supposed to give. When you stop eating, the purpose is for prayer, the purpose is to pursue the Lord. And the goal is the Lord, not the absence of food. So the assumption of fasting rather than a requirement of fasting reminds us that fasting isn’t the goal. The Lord is the goal. And fasting is just one means that it’s possible to use to pursue that goal.

Here’s another reality behind the assumption of fasting rather than a requirement of fasting. The assumption means most people who are walking with the Lord are going to do this, we do not have the bridegroom, he is in heaven, and we are apart from him until he comes back, or we go to be with him in our own death. The assumption of Matthew 9 is when you don’t have the bridegroom; you’re going to fast some. Well, that assumption that we will do it is something different than a requirement, and that is important because it is a gracious provision for many of you listening who physically cannot abstain from food. For example, there are a lot of people listening to this who are diabetic. If you tried to go without food beyond any kind of regular season, you would enter yourself into a medical problem. I think Jesus is giving a gracious provision to his followers, who are created human beings who are dependent on food for their own physical sustenance. And for many people who cannot go without it for very long for really serious health reasons. Jesus is giving a gracious provision so that those who are not physically able to fast, are not consigned to the category of disobedience. We should see this assumption rather than a requirement as creating a general expectation for most Christians but not creating a burden on every Christian that is impossible to sustain. So is fasting required? Well, not exactly. It’s assumed in the New Testament because what is required is that we would know the Lord and His Son Jesus Christ, and it is assumed in the New Testament as a gracious provision for those who want to know the Lord and need to know the Lord but will need to pursue their relationship with the Lord for physical reasons in a way apart from fasting.