Mark 9 contains a story I’ve read a zillion times before. Jesus and His inner circle were coming down from the mountain where they had experienced the transfiguration, and they were making their way toward joining the other disciples.
While Jesus, Peter, James, and John were up on the mountain, the remaining disciples had an encounter with a heartsick daddy and his demon-possessed boy.
“Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” (Mark 9:17–18)
It was during this encounter that the dad prayed one of my favorite prayers in all of Scripture, “I do believe; help my unbelief!” (v. 24). Jesus cast the demon out of the boy, and he stood up cleansed and healed in front of his dad.
After the dust cleared the disciples asked an important question: “Why could we not cast it out? (v. 28).
Jesus replied, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer [and fasting]” (v. 29).
For me, the two words found inside the brackets of the text are like a gold nugget of truth I’d never noticed before.
“This one can only be driven out by prayer and fasting?”
If that was true for a child afflicted by demons and his desperate daddy, is it true for something in my life? What about the things that seem to throw me to the ground or toss me up against the ropes? Can they only be dealt with through prayer and fasting? What about when I’m in the fire like this boy was? Is prayer and fasting the only way out? What about those things that I’ve tried and tried to fix and cannot? Is fasting the key that unlocks the remedy?
Those questions nudged me to run to God’s Word looking for answers to this big question, “Should I be fasting?” Here’s what I found.
Good Reasons to Fast
Fasting is a theme throughout all of Scripture. Fasting is never commanded for all believers, but the Bible does give us lots of good reasons to fast including:
- Fasting before making an important decision (Acts 13:2, 14:23).
- Fasting to overcome addiction (Isa. 58:3–7).
- Fasting for God’s intervention (2 Sam. 12:15–17).
- Fasting to show humility (Ps. 35:13).
- Fasting in response to grief or mourning (Ps. 35:14, Est. 4:3).
- Fasting to request God’s protection (Est. 4:15–16, Ezra 8:21–23).
- Fasting to set apart leaders for Christian service (Acts 13:2–3).
- Fasting with repentance (Joel 2:12–15).
- Fasting as a leader who desires God to work amongst your people (Jonah 3:6–10).
Fasting in Good Company
I can find plenty of good reasons to fast from that list. Scripture also shows us that many of the superheroes of our faith, including Jesus, fasted.
- Moses fasted before receiving the Ten Commandments (Deut. 9:9–18).
- David fasted to mourn his child’s illness and ask God to intervene (2 Sam. 12:1–23).
- Ezra fasted to mourn the sins of his people (Ezra 10:6–17).
- Esther fasted for the safety of the Jews (Est. 4:15–17).
- Daniel fasted for an answer to prayer (Dan. 10:1–3).
- The elders of the church in Antioch fasted before sending out missionaries (Acts 13:1–3).
- Jesus Himself fasted before starting His ministry (Matt. 4:1–2).
These are the people I want to be like when I grow up. I want Moses’ power. David’s passion for the Lord. Esther’s courage. Daniel’s boldness. The church in Antioch’s gospel focus. Above all things, I want to be like Jesus. If Jesus fasted, I want to follow His example.
If we are looking to the Bible for good reasons to fast, there are plenty of them. But the Bible also offers a few bad reasons to fast.
3 Bad Reasons to Fast
Not all fasts are God-honoring. Here are three bad reasons to fast.
1. To twist God’s arm.
The people described in Isaiah 58 were regular fasters, but they got miffed when God didn’t seem to notice (v. 3). God took the opportunity to teach His people about true and false fasting. What’s the bottom line? Fasting is about positioning our own hearts, not twisting the arm of God. It is not a transaction where we fast and God gives us what we want. (That would make Him a pretty small God, no?) It is a gift He gives to us, not a gift we give to Him.
2. To gloss over our sin.
The Pharisees were regular fasters too, but they were also very good at missing the point. In Luke 18:9–14, Jesus blasts a Pharisee who publicly declared that he fasts twice a week while simultaneously glossing over his own sin. Fasting is not a substitute for repentance.
3. To show off.
Jesus said we should pray in secret. It’s not because fasting is shameful or something to be covered up, but because it is private—it’s between you and God. If your motivation for fasting is to impress others, to make them see you as super spiritual or extra holy, go ahead and have the cheeseburger, sista, 'cause that is not what fasting is really about.
Is God Calling You to Fast?
I told you God’s Word has a lot to say on the subject of fasting! And I’m just getting warmed up. There’s still so much to discuss. Be sure to hop back on the blog tomorrow for a follow-up post, “A Modern Woman’s Guide to Fasting,” for some practical helps for how to fast.