This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 2 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Perhaps I should begin with a confession. For the vast majority of my Christian life, I have neglected the spiritual discipline of fasting. As with anyone who has read through or studied the Scriptures, I was well aware of the numerous references to this discipline but never seriously considered putting it into practice. Thus, today as I write, I do so as a novice; a novice now committed to fasting as a normal part of my spiritual journey.
Considering the subject of fasting from food, I cannot help but think of one of the most wicked cities of antiquity. Its wickedness so pronounced it had become a stench in the nostrils of the Almighty. Thus, God commissioned the prophet Jonah to go to Nineveh, diamond of Assyria, embedded in the golden arc of the Fertile Crescent, midway between the Mediterranean and Caspian seas. There he proclaimed that the great city would be overthrown. Read utterly destroyed.
In sober response, the Ninevites “declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth” (Jonah 3:5).1 Imagine. A prostituted pagan city fasting in sackcloth and ashes. “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened” (3:10).
And the great Assyrian city is not alone. Twelve centuries before Christ, Samuel, the last judge of Israel, assembled the Israelites at Mizpah for a national day of fasting. There they poured out water upon the earth and begged the Lord to forgive their idolatry and wash away their sins (1 Sam. 7:6). In the days of Nehemiah, the seed of Israel separated themselves in the sanctuary and renounced their heathenism, “fasting and wearing sackcloth and putting dust on their heads” (Neh. 9:1).2 Joel, who likens the invasion of foreign hordes that plundered Jerusalem and left her desolate to an apocalyptic army of locust, likewise consecrated a sacred fast in Jerusalem. There the people of the promise begged the Lord to forgive their iniquities, “with fasting and weeping and mourning” (Joel 2:12).
The most exceptional fasting account in the whole of the Old Testament took place at the time of the Exodus. Not an ordinary fast. An extraordinary one. A fast from food and water for forty days and forty nights. And not just once but on three separate occasions and over a relatively short period of time. A total of one hundred and twenty days and nights without food and water! Even more amazing is that the one fasting was already in his eightieth year of life.
The story, of course, is that of Moses who climbed up to the top of Mount Sinai and was absorbed into the cloud of God’s glory. There he experienced God as the archetypal source of life and living. On the mountaintop, Moses was permitted to experientially “know that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word proceeding from the mouth of God” (Deut. 8:3 SAAS). He was not kept alive by bread and water but by being interpenetrated by uncreated energy — a life-source not physical but manifestly divine in origin.
Had Moses not participated in the divine nature, he would have most certainly died. Humans can abstain from food for forty days but not from water. Within a week’s time, death becomes unavoidable. Yet Moses did not die. Nor did he grow weary. After forty days and forty nights without food and water, he traversed Mount Sinai from top to bottom and watched in horror as the children of Israel, engorged on food and drink, worshiped a golden calf fashioned of their own earthly possessions. With supernatural energy, he ground the detestable idol into dust and then fell prostrate before the LORD for yet another forty days and forty nights, during which he “neither ate bread nor drank water” (Deut. 9:9 SAAS). On top of all of that, Moses ascended Mount Sinai fasting yet again for forty days and forty nights. And in this instance, when he came down from Mount Sinai, his face literally glowed with the glory of the Lord.
This account of fasting is of course miraculous. Not in the sense of a momentary disruption of natural law; rather, in the sense of the divine disclosure of another reality. Moses had stepped through the wardrobe into Narnia and encountered a world in which the ingestion of food and water was superfluous.
And Moses was not alone. Elijah the prototypical prophet likewise fasted forty days and forty nights. Thereafter he too experienced the graces of God. Not in a cloud of glory, nor in a fiery vision, but in the “sound of a gentle breeze” (1 Kings 19:12 SAAS).3 Jesus likewise abstained from food. As the new Moses leading us into a better covenant, He fasted forty days and forty nights in the wilderness. Israel murmured against God in the midst of wilderness manna. Immanuel did not. He cherished the manna from heaven more than life itself. His rebuke of Satan says it all: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4 NKJV).
The normal human mode of existence depends on the ingestion, digestion, and the metabolism of food and water. As Jesus makes plain, however, there is an alternate energy supply. This He referred to when He spoke to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well: “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst” (John 4:13–14 NKJV). Shortly thereafter, “His disciples urged Him, saying, ‘Rabbi eat.’ But He said to them, ‘I have food to eat of which you do not know’” (John 4:31–32 NKJV).
This was the way of the Master. Communicating spiritual realities by means of earthly, empirically perceptible realities — what might best be described as living metaphors. The disciples understood food and water. Jesus desired for them to understand nourishment on a higher plane. They were acquainted with the energy that is derived from food; Jesus acquainted them with the energy that comes from the Father.
Jesus weaves fasting together with prayer and almsgiving as a cord of three braids connecting us to our Father who is in heaven and to our own flesh and blood who are on the earth (Matt. 6:1–18). “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isa. 58:6–7).
When we fast in such a way, our prayers will rise up as a sweet-smelling savor. “Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I” (Isa. 58:8–9). The genuine love of God will inevitably stimulate a reciprocal love for needy human beings who bear His image and likeness upon the earth. When this is so, God will infuse you with His uncreated energy. Though your stomach may be empty, your spirit will be fully satisfied. You will experience the life of God springing up within you like a river of living water. Says Isaiah, “The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail” (58:11).
Wherever fasting takes you — perhaps even toward a forty-day mountaintop experience — it is crucial to remain mindful of the purposes for practicing abstinence. May four immediately spring to mind: forgiveness, almsgiving, supplication, transformation.
Forgiveness: as we fast, we are continually to seek forgiveness from sin. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Almsgiving: in fasting, we intuitively consider the needs of others — and our responsibility to give alms to the poor. “I tell you the truth,” said Jesus, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40).
Supplication: as almsgiving is inextricably woven together with fasting, so too are our prayers and supplications. “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us — whatever we ask — we know that we have what we asked of him” (1 John 5:14–15).
Transformation: finally, we fast so that we might be transfigured in the manner of Peter, James, and John. As St. Basil so wonderfully exhorted, “Anoint your head with a holy oil, so that you may be a partaker of Christ, and then go forth to fast.”4 Or in the words of St. Paul, “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory” (2 Cor. 3:18).
Appetites pleasure the body; abstinence gives wings to the spirit so that we may ascend to the mount of transfiguration and there discover communion with God as the apex of life and living. Consider your laptop computer. It has a limited supply of energy. Left to its own devices, the screen will quickly fade to black. But when you plug in, it will shine again like the face of Moses after his encounter with God on Mount Tabor.—Hank Hanegraaff
Hank Hanegraaff is president of the Christian Research Institute and host of the Bible Answer Man daily broadcast and the Hank Unplugged podcast. Hank has authored more than twenty books, including The Complete Bible Answer Book — Collector’s Edition, revised and updated (Thomas Nelson, 2016) and M-U-S-L-I-M: What You Need to Know about the World’s Fastest-Growing Religion (Thomas Nelson, 2017).
- Unless noted otherwise, Scripture quotations are taken from NIV 1984.
- NIV 2011.
- Also known as 3 Kingdoms 19:12 SAAS.
- “St. Basil the Great’s First Homily on Fasting,” in Kent D. Burghuis, Christian Fasting: A Theological Approach (n.c.: Biblical Studies Press, 2003).