Why do people fast? There are several reasons–public disasters (1 Samuel 31:11-13); private emotions (1 Samuel 1:7); grief (2 Samuel 12:16); anxiety (Daniel 6:18-20); approaching danger (Esther 4:16); national repentance (1 Samuel 7:5, 6); sad news (Nehemiah 1:4); sacred ordination (Acts 13:3). Fasting is usually accompanied by prayer, confession, mourning and humiliation. It is the results of divine guidance (Judges 20:26-28) and victory over temptation (Matthew 4:1-11).
Fasting is not to be used for display as the Pharisees were guilty of. Jesus said: “Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward” (Matthew 6:16).
God pointed out to the people of Israel what true fasting is all about. It should not done to impress Him. The people were saying: “‘ Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and You have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls, and You take no notice?’ ” (Isaiah 58:3). The fasting that pleases Him is: “ Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;
When you see the naked, that you cover him,
And not hide yourself from your own flesh?” (Isaiah 58:6, 7).
The Pharisees fasted twice a week but Jesus did not support their type of fasting which was legalistic and for public display. They wanted to impress others while Jesus Himself fasted privately (Matthew 4:2) He taught people what was the proper way to fast: “But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matthew 6:17, 18).
In the book of Zechariah we read that obedience is better than fasting. “Say to all the people of the land, and to the priests: ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months during those seventy years, did you really fast for Me—for Me? When you eat and when you drink, do you not eat and drink for yourselves? Should you not have obeyed the words which the LORD proclaimed through the former prophets when Jerusalem and the cities around it were inhabited and prosperous, and the South and the Lowland were inhabited?’” (Zechariah 7:5-7).
David fasted for the following reasons: grief (2 Samuel 12:16); to humble himself (Psalm 35:13); to chasten his soul (Psalm 69:10). Others who fasted for various reasons were Moses, Samuel, Elijah, the Ninevites, Nehemiah, Anna the prophetess, early Christians, the apostles and Paul.
Jesus’ disciples were criticized because they did not fast and pray religiously like the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees. It is possible that John’s disciples were fasting because he was in prison or it was a practice among them as an expression of repentance. We know that two of John’s disciples joined Jesus’ group of followers–Andrew was one of them (John1:35-40). So they were now among those disciples who were eating and drinking.
Jesus’ response to the criticism was: “Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them; then they will fast in those days” (Luke 5:34, 35). Jesus used the analogy of a wedding where He was the Bridegroom and the disciples were the friends of the Bridegroom. A Jewish wedding was a joyous occasion and the celebration often lasted a week. It did not make sense that the guests would fast during the festivities and fasting was usually associated with sorrow. As long as Jesus was with them, the disciples had no reason to fast. When He left them first by His death on the cross and then His ascension to heaven, they would then be inclined to fast.
Jesus then told a parable. “No one puts a piece from a new garment on an old one; otherwise the new makes a tear, and also the piece that was taken out of the new does not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine will burst the wineskins and be spilled, and the wineskins will be ruined. But new wine must be put into new wineskins, and both are preserved. And no one, having drunk old wine, immediately desires new; for he says, ‘The old is better’” (Luke 5:37-39). Jesus used this parable to point out the unwillingness of some people to change from their traditional religious ways and try something new–like the Gospel. The Pharisees were set in their ways. They were rigid. They felt that their way was the only way and anything else was wrong.
There are some churches who worship God in the traditional way–singing hymns as they sit in the pews while there are other churches where the members stand on their feet, arms waving as they raise their voices to songs of praise. Both are acceptable forms of worship but I have seen the Christians from the old school look down on the other churches who have a more modern approach of worship. To God as long as we worship Him in truth and in Spirit that is all that matters.
No everyone fasts but those who fast ought to do it with the right spirit–not to impress others or God. I know of people who fast and it is always for spiritual benefit. They do it because they want to have a deeper connection to God and to learn His will about something that they need answers for. Fasting is a time for self-denial, humility and repentance for sin. It is not a time for hypocrisy, pride or condemning others. This kind of fasting is a hindrance to a person’s prayer life. God does not respond to this kind of fasting.
As Paul said, “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).