Both Muslims and Christians fast, but their purposes for fasting differ. In order to keep one of the Five Pillars, a Muslim is obligated to fast during Ramadan.
The Bible teaches that fasting merits neither God’s favor nor a place in paradise. Christians may fast for one of the following reasons:
• To demonstrate their satisfaction in God (Matthew 4:4)
• To humble themselves before God (Daniel 9:3)
• To request God’s help (2 Samuel 12:16; Esther 4:16; Ezra 8:23)
• To seek God’s will (Acts 13:2-3)
• To turn from sin (Jonah 3:5-10)
• To worship God without distractions (Luke 2:36-38)
At the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, before His great miracles and teaching, He fasted forty days. Afterwards, the devil tested Jesus while He was weak with hunger: “And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. . . . Again, the Devil took Him up into a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to Him, ‘All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Go, Satan! For it is written, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.”’ Then the Devil left him. And behold, angels came and ministered to Him” (Matthew 4:2, 8-11).
Although Satan tempted Jesus to sin, Jesus remained perfect, unlike all other human beings in history.
Jesus’ warning against prideful fasting
The religious leaders of Jesus’ day prided themselves in fasting twice a week, but Jesus challenged their sincerity.
• Don’t fast to appear religious before men
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18).
• Don’t fast to earn forgiveness of sin
(A Pharisee is one who belonged to a religious, fundamental sect of the Jews.)
“The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:11-14). Jesus taught that we cannot earn entrance to paradise through fasting. Our sin renders even our best religious deeds unworthy (Isaiah 64:6).
Jesus’ transformation of fasting
Jesus taught that following God’s will brings more satisfaction than eating: “. . . His disciples were asking Him, saying, ‘Master, eat.’ But He said to them, ‘I have food to eat which you do not know.’ Therefore the disciples said to one another, ‘No one brought Him anything to eat?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to finish His work’” (John 4:31-34).
What is God’s will? “And Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes on Me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you also have seen Me and do not believe. All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will in no way cast out. For I came down from Heaven, not to do My own will but the will of Him who sent Me. And this is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all which He has given Me I should lose nothing but should raise it up again at the last day. And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes on Him should have everlasting life. And I will raise him up at the last day’” (John 6:35-40).
Just as we will die if we don’t eat bread, we will die (i.e., be separated from God eternally in hell) if we don’t receive Jesus, the Bread of Life. Because He came “down from heaven,” born of a virgin, Jesus called God His Father. Jesus proved by His perfect life, death, and resurrection that He is divine, the Son of God. Jesus fulfilled His Father’s will: saving believing sinners by taking their punishment for sin on the cross. By raising Jesus from the dead, God showed that He accepted Christ’s sacrifice.
How do you receive the Bread of Life? You must turn from sin and trust in the Lord Jesus’ death and resurrection to save you—not your own goodness through works such as fasting.
After saving you from sin, the Lord will give you the desire and strength to glorify God through good works—even fasting: “But now, being made free from sin, and having become slaves to God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:22-23).
A personal testimony of fasting
A wise man, who spent years of his life serving Muslims in the Middle East, shares his reasons for fasting.
I want fasting to be . . .
• an honest statement of what is most important to me. I want this simple act (going without food for a while) to remind me that spiritual, eternal things are more important than temporal things.
• a symbol of the satisfaction I’m finding in God Himself: loving Him, learning of Him, doing His will.
• a celebration of God’s setting me apart, granting me forgiveness through the Lord Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and rescuing me from the sinful habits that were enslaving me.
• a time of gladness, praise, and intercession on behalf of my family and friends in many countries.
• a means of deeper contentment in the Lord. Thus, I will be more motivated and better able to share my material and spiritual gifts with others. The Lord Jesus said, “And your Father . . . will reward you” (Matthew 6:18b).