What is Fasting?

There is a saying in business circles that serves as a warning against doing business with people solely based on an appearance of faith. There are several colorful iterations of the saying but it basically says if you want a bad experience, pick up that business card with the cross or fish on it.

Putting a Christian symbol or a Bible verse on your card or website should put people at ease. That’s the goal but it isn’t often the reality. Your true witness should be in your work ethic.

Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters.

Colossians 3:23 (NRSV)

There are several verses in scripture that echo the same message to work as if you are working for God. Sometimes, it’s hard to focus on God when society embraces anything but Jesus.

A few years ago, far more than I care to admit, I managed a business that focused on faith-based clients. One of my clients was getting overwhelmed and, dare I say, bitter about his business.

One day he came to me complaining that his sales were down and his debt was really high. I asked what he was doing to meet new clients and increase his sales. His response was fluent Christianese.

“I’m fasting a lot,” he said. It’s as if he believed refraining from food and drink was a substitute for actual faith and actual work. Who are the pastors leading people astray down this path?

“But are you being obedient,” I asked.

A few months later, my client closed his business and sent a passive aggressive email to me informing me he wasn’t planning to pay any of my invoices.

He left me holding about $12,000 in unpaid services. That Christian business card and all of the fasting certainly didn’t help much.

Christianity is a practical faith. By that, I mean it is something you can, and must, put into practice before it becomes effective. That’s a blog post for another day.

Fasting with purpose

Fasting is mentioned several times in The Bible but it isn’t always in a favorable context. Christians often forget the importance of context.

In Matthew 6, we find several guidelines for practical faith. When we give to the poor, when we pray and when we fast, we are to do so in private. Far too many people put their faith on a pedestal like an idol to be admired by others.

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Matthew 6:16-18 (NRSV)

Fasting is certainly scriptural but it isn’t a magic trick used to compel God to act in your favor. Does any Christian think that is a good approach?

Fasting has a purpose. It is a time of devotion to prayer, of focus on God, and a time of humility and reflection. Even for those of us who enjoy the church practice of Lent, fasting isn’t about temporarily ceasing bad habits you should give up anyway. Fasting is about creating better practices.

Christianity is a practical faith. There, I said it again.

In Isaiah 58, reading several translations offers a broad perspective on the topic of fasting. In different translations, verse 5 says people were “going through the motions” and “showing off humility” and “afflicting” their souls.

I’m not even sure how one “shows off” humility. It sounds antithetical. Perhaps that is why the chapter in Isaiah starts off with the words “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”

Isaiah 58 does offer some insight into God’s desire when we fast.

“The kind of fasting I want is this: remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor. Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear, and do not refuse to help your own relatives.”

Isaiah 58:6-7 (Good News Bible)

When you fast, if you choose to fast, do it in private to be pleasing to God. Your faith is not a symbolic gesture to be admired by others. Whether you refrain from food or drink for a hour or a day, God knows.

Use the time to fellowship with God, to improve your prayer practice and to serve others. That is God’s desire.


I loved this scene from The Chosen where Jesus discusses fasting. Although I chuckled when he said he fasted overnight, eight hours, the lesson from Matthew 6 emerges in the discussion around the table.

He tells the disciples that they are to enjoy their time in his presence and fast when he is gone.

Jesus is always with us but, sometimes, we let the world take our focus off of that and we are not always with him.

When we use fasting correctly, we strengthen our faith, grow in our prayer life, and create a life of service to others. When we fast correctly, Isaiah says we will find healing, we will be restored in God’s presence and his light will shine on us like the sun.

Go buy some sunglasses!







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