“Then I proclaimed a fast … that we might humble ourselves before our God to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our possessions. … So we fasted, seeking this from our God, and it was granted” (Ezr 8:21, 23).
Fasting has been a time-honored practice from the early days of Israel. The practice, which Jesus followed as an observant Jew, was picked up by the early Christians and is still practiced by Christians today, mostly during the season of Lent.
Many passages in the Bible show why we should fast. The first is atonement, when we ask God’s forgiveness for what we have done or failed to do.
The Jewish high holy day of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) is such a day of fasting (see Lv 23:26-32).
Joel illustrates this idea: “Yet even now … return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, weeping and mourning. Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God. … Perhaps he will again relent and leave behind a blessing” (Jl 2:12;14).
This is also seen in Jonah 3:5-10 when the king of Nineveh declares a fast with the hope that God will relent from his anger and not destroy the nation.
The second is to prepare ourselves for an intense period of time, as when Jesus went into the desert and fasted for 40 days as he prepared for his ministry (see Mt 4:1-11) or as Moses fasted for 40 days when he received the Ten Commandments (see Ex 34:28).
The third reason people in the Bible fasted is as part of an intense prayer, as is seen in the passage from Ezra 8 above. Another example of this is found in Psalm 35:13, “Yet I, when they were ill, put on sackcloth, afflicted myself with fasting, sobbed my prayers upon my bosom.”
People also fasted as a way to remember a significant event, as when Paul and Barnabas appointed leaders for Christian communities. Acts 14:23 notes that they “commended them (the leaders) to the Lord” with prayer and fasting (see also Acts 13:2-3).
Nehemiah wept for several days, “fasting and praying before the God of heaven,” when he learned the fate of Jerusalem following the exile (Neh 1:4). Zechariah 8:19 lists four days when Jews are to fast to remember significant events in Jewish life.
In several Bible passages, prophets describe the fast that God desires. The most powerful of these is Isaiah 58:3-7 where God says omitting food or drink is not enough. In addition, God calls for the unjustly bound to be released, the oppressed set free, the hungry fed, the afflicted nurtured and the immigrant given shelter.
Jesus also addressed how we are to fast. In Matthew 6:16-18 he tells us to look happy and not make it a big deal. It’s enough for God to know that we fast.
Mulhall is a catechist who lives in Louisville, Ky. Eugene Fisher, professor at St. Leo University, assisted with this article.