What is the connection between prayer and fasting?

I write a quarterly column for Preach magazine, in which I explore a significant word or phrase in the Bible, or a theme or section of Scripture, and the ideas that it expresses. At the end of this piece I list the previous articles I have written for them. Here I explore what Scripture says about fasting in relation to prayer.

Prayer and fasting are often closely associated within the disciplines of Christian spirituality. This association finds its roots in Jesus’ teaching in the new Testament. In Matthew 6 part of what is known as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus closely associates the disciplines of prayer, giving, and fasting under the umbrella title “acts of righteousness”.

When you give to the needy…when you pray…when you fast… (Matt 6.2, 5, 16).

Rather than propose the idea, Jesus appears to simply assume that these three disciplines are a regular part of life for his Jewish listeners. And Matthew, in recording them, assumes they will continue to be a natural part of life for all those who follow Jesus, both Jew and Gentile.

The association between the two in the early Church was strong enough for references to fasting to be added into some early manuscripts. In Mark 9.29, in response to the disciples’ question as to why they couldn’t deliver the unclean spirit from a boy, Jesus replies “this kind can only come out with prayer”. Some early copyists have added in the reference to fasting (you can see this in the footnotes to most English Bibles) and others have added the double reference to prayer and fasting in the parallel account in Matthew 17.21.

Fasting in the Old Testament

Fasting is portrayed as an intense form of devotion at various points in the Old Testament, either as a regular but occasional act, though mostly in response to some kind of crisis.

The only positive mention of fasting is the first one. When Moses goes up Mount Sinai to be in the presence of God and receive the Ten Commandments, he fasts for 40 days and nights (Exodus 34.28)—an antecedent to Jesus’s fasting in the desert, which we often miss. (There is a remarkable Jewish tradition which says that when Moses previously went into the presence of God with 70 elders, “they saw God, and they ate and drank” (Exodus 24.11) means that they actually fed on the presence of God himself. Perhaps this is what Moses was doing during those 40 days!)

The only mandatory period of fasting set out in the Torah is connected with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement:

The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. Hold a sacred assembly and deny yourselves, and present a food offering to the LORD (Lev 23.27).

The phrase “deny yourselves” has been consistently interpreted as a reference to fasting, and this sets up the connection between fasting and repentance or mourning over our sins. More broadly than, fasting becomes a sign of grief and regret.

And so the people of Israel fast in repentance and grief when Samuel points out their sin (1 Sam 7.6) as well as when Saul and Jonathan are killed (2 Sam 1.12). Later in the narrative, King David fasts in repentance at his adultery and murder (2 Sam 12.16).

In exile, Daniel fasts and prayers at his grief for the sin of his people (Dan 9.3). In the face of an unnamed sin and disaster, Joel calls the people to ‘fasting with weeping and mourning’ that they might again know God’s blessing (Joel 2.12–13). And when Esther decides to risk her life by pleading with the king for her people, she entreats all the Jews in the city to fast and pray on her behalf (Esther 4.16).

Fasting is an occasional sign of intense prayer, grief, and longing for God to act.

Fasting in the New Testament

But by the time that we reached the New Testament, things seem to have radically changed. We can see the transition in the intertestamental period, in the book of Tobit (third or second century BC):

Prayer is good when accompanied by fasting, almsgiving, and righteousness. A little with righteousness is better than much with wrongdoing. It is better to give alms than to treasure up gold (Tobit 12.8)

Fasting has become a regular habit during this period, just at the time when messianic expectation was also growing—the hope that Israel would be delivered from its enemies, set free to worship in holiness, the people would be purified, and God would once again visit his people (Luke 1.74–75).

The regularity of fasting, and its association with messianic expectation, is confirmed in the gospels, especially the gospel of Luke.

Early on his ministry, Jesus and his disciples are criticised for not fasting in the same way that both the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist fast. In Mark 2.18, the accusation is a general one, but in Luke’s gospel, the issue becomes clearer:

John’s disciples often [Greek: pukna, frequently] fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking (Luke 5.33).

Luke goes on to tell us what “often” actually means; in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, we hear the Pharisee both proudly “I fast twice a week” (Luke 18.12). And from an early Christian teaching document, the Didache, we even know which day the Pharisees fasted on!

Chapter 8: But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and fifth day of the week [Monday and Thursday]. Rather, fast on the fourth day and the Preparation [Wednesday and Friday].

In response, Jesus makes it clear that fasting is a sign of longing for the Messiah; now that he is with them, they can enjoy feasting! But when he is gone, and they long for his return, that is the time to fast again.

We are therefore not surprised to find that fasting regularly accompanies prayer amongst the early Jesus followers, not only as a routine part of their devotion, but also in preparation for particular times of ministry (see for example Acts 13.1–3). And this practice of regular, intermittent fasting has continued in the life of the church. John Wesley would not ordain anyone who didn’t follow the practice set out in the Didache of fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays.

Fasting and feasting

Fasting from food was not unknown in the ancient world—but this pattern of intermittent feasting and fasting seemed very strange to them.

For Christians, ‘feast’ days celebrated a world made by God and all the good in it; alongside this, ‘fast’ days signify repentance, mourning and longing for deliverance—just the sort of practice you might adopt if you were awaiting the coming of a Messiah and the hope of the age to come. Intermittent fasting is the dietary expression of the ‘now and not yet’ of the kingdom of God (or, to use a theological term, the ‘partially realised eschatology’) we find in the New Testament.

We do not fast from things that are wrong; these call for repentance. Instead we fast from the good things God has given us, because we know there is better to come. We fast in anticipation of an answer to the prayer: ‘Your name be hallowed, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’! On that day, we will feast in the very presence of God himself.

My previous articles have been on the themes of:

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30 thoughts on “What is the connection between prayer and fasting?”

  1. A good and helpful summary, thank you.
    I have often thought that the feelings of hunger that arise in fasting are a way of reminding us to be hungry for God who supplies all our needs, a bodily reminder of our dependence on Him.
    Hunger is not a real prospect for most people in the west today (quite the reverse, obesity is the leading health problem today), and our culture is built largely on the satisfaction of our physical needs – or cravings.
    The self-imposed hunger of fasting can remind us of our need to live not by bread alone but by the Word of God.

  2. Thank you Ian. Good timing! Fasting is a very much neglected spiritual discipline, for me personally and I know from experience, corporately in the church, especially in the west. Over the past couple of weeks I came across 4 of the best sermons I have ever heard on fasting in 40 years of following Jesus. John Mark Comer, Teacher in Residence at Vintage Church, Santa Monica recently did a sermon series on ‘Fasting’. Changed my life and practice. Thank you Ian. Good timing!

  3. A brief reading of the references of fasting in the Scriptures indicate that there is a right and wrong way to fast: indeed there is ritual fasting that God takes absolutely no notice of. Jer 14:12.
    Isa 58:4
    Yes, Wesley followed the Jewish model but on different days, perhaps due to his High Church leanings.
    Yes fasting is known to have physical health benefits as well as psycho – social benefits
    [i.e. one restrains oneself from thoughtless selfishness]
    The same benefits are gained for some on Spiritual Retreats.
    The extent of the understanding of fasting for many is limited to a few days before Easter
    Where one gives up chocolate or red wine for a month.

    There also seems to be a mixture of the OT concept and a vague understanding of the NT concept of Fasting as well.

    Luke 5:39 is a fascinating commentary on the nature of the reception of the new age in Christ: “And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, ‘The old is good enough’”. On an initial reading, one might think that this is making a positive statement about old wine, since fine wine is generally aged. But there is a danger in loving old wine too much. The new wine may be better, but because of satisfaction with the old, the pseudo-aficionado might not bother. “The old is good enough,” he says.

    With reflection on Jesus’ use of irony here, one is forced to ask: “Is the old good enough?” Is it better than the new outpouring offered by Christ? After all, there is a mark of fasting in both eras. But indeed, the new is much better. The old is not bad, but it must be drunk in its own context (the old wineskins). The new wine of Christ’s teaching and Spirit ministry will burst the categories of the old contexts of the law and the all too limited expectation of the messiah. The new righteousness of the garments of Christ cannot be a suitable patch for the old era; it must be a new garment all of its own. The new cloth will cause the old to tear—far better to rend one’s own garments in repentance and accept the new era’s new garment intact, without patching a piece of the new to the old, thereby destroying both.

    {Jesus} First, when fasting, look normal—and cheerful! “… put oil on your head and wash your face …” is of a vastly different order to the OT
    We do not fast to impress people or to demonstrate our piety or our zeal; we do not fast to get something from God. Its central motive is fellowship with God.
    Fasting is seen as a part of worship [Ministering to God. KJV] and waiting ON God and FOR God. Act 13:2

  4. Interesting to note that Religious fasting is practiced by people of many faiths, including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism, as well as Hinduism, Judaism, and Taoism. Such fasting is also linked with the adoption of healthier, more equitable, and sustainable lifestyles. The world religions have things to teach and learn from each other in this area.

    The BBC has a very interesting series of programmes called Pilgrimage and the latest series, based around the pilgrims way in North Wales. features 3 of the pilgrims fasting – prompted by the practice of the Jain member of the group. As with Gareth Malone’s wonderful Passion series it is very good to see Christian spirituality in such a thoughtful way addressed in mainstream media.

    • Ramadan “fasting” is largely about group identity and control. I remember our black English tour agent in Tunisia (not Muslim) telling us he “fasted” in Ramadan, which meant eating too much at nightfall. Hard to see what spiritual benefit accrues from this. The Muslim schoolgirl who instigated (with her parents) the action against Michaela School was among those trying to compel Muslim children (and others) to fast, as well as pray and wear the hijab. The power of group coercion can be quite frightening, and not just for children. Muslim men taking over London streets for “prayer” is a growing sign of the demographic changes in the city I once lived in for years and where my children now live.
      I have followed the Michaela School with interest since the school was founded and was dismayed when Islamists (with public money) tried to impose themselves on it. I am glad for Katherine Birbalsingh and I pray often that she will herself come to faith in Christ. There are fascinating interviews with her on YouTube on the Triggernometry channel and with the Anglican John Anderson, former Deputy Prime Minister of Australia.

          • Those wouldn’t make any sense unless for the incarnation. But of course they are of the utmost significance. But if I had to pick one thing – which I thought Jock was asking – it would be the incarnation. But it’s a huge topic, as I say.

        • Andrew – yes – agreed – God in the flesh and dwelling among us (the incarnation), crucifixion, resurrection. Off-topic for this thread (appearing tangentially, because – yes – Muslims also fast), but I’m keenly interested in how to explain (in a nutshell) to those following Islam, Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Judaism or Taoism (or any other religion) the vital piece that is missing and how it is met in the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection.

          • Hi Jock,
            Jesus’ regular meals and haircuts ended the day he came up out of the Jordan. From there on in regularity gave way to spontenaity until His mother and brothers felt the need to march Him home for a wash, haircut and a good feed. He became a Nazarite simply because He was too preoccupied with his mission. If we truely followed Him the same would happen to us. As I’m not ‘sold out’ completely I have time for haircuts, regular meals and showers every day. Consequently I have no time to play piety by instituting fast days on myself or letting my hair and beard grow to appear holy.
            To sum up: Forget all that stuff about Celtic Christianity, discipline, self flagelation… just get on and find something to do, and if you get engrossed in it you might find you’ve missed luncheon.

        • But before the incarnation is the Trinity, which is the eternal identity of the True God.
          Islam denies the Trinity along with the Incarnation of God.
          Hinduism is either polytheistic or monistic pantheism (Brahma), so it denies the Trinity as well. Some think of Jesus as an avatar of Vishnu.
          Buddhism is atheistic.
          So the true and eternal identy of God is the real difference.

          • The Trinity is not a biblical doctrine, indeed it is an anti-biblical doctrine, since it denies that Jesus was and is the Son of God. It’s also irrational, since logically you can’t be the son of your ‘father’ if co-eternal with him. In that respect Islam and the modern Church’s ‘orthodoxy’ (the Trinity was not the teaching of the early Church) are bedfellows. Islam is right to deny the Trinity, wrong to deny that God had a son (but at least it understands that that is what the NT teaches). Indeed one could argue that Islam was a reaction against the neo-polytheism represented by trinitarianism, which had become the dominant form of Christian theism long before the 7th century. Had the Christian religion remained true to the shema, to the NT (e.g. I Tim 6:16, Heb 1:5, 13, 2:6-7, 11-12, Rev 3:14, Col 1:15, I John 2:22), and to the teaching of Christ himself (e.g. Matt 28:18, John 5:19-22, 26-27, 20), Islam might never have arisen.

          • @Steven Robinson,
            The Triunity of God is neither anti Biblical, illogical, nor denies God, as Father, God as Son, God as Holy Spirit, co–eternal, One God, with the attributes of God.
            But this unique Christian God, and doctrine always gets your goat.
            And without which covenants, creation, redemption, incarnation, the cross, resurrection, ascension, salvation, sanctification, union with God, born again, sin, death, life, judgment, and new heavens, new earth, return, have no reality, meaning, understanding.

  5. Au contraire Andrew [April 18, 2024]
    “Interesting to note that Religious fasting is practiced by people of many faiths, including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism, as well as Hinduism, Judaism, and Taoism. Such fasting is also linked with the adoption of healthier, more equitable, and sustainable lifestyles. The world religions have things to teach and learn from each other in this area”.
    This I suggest is an example of “old wineskins”
    Paul describes such practices as “will worship” not commensurate with NT thinking:
    These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom… but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh: We might regard this as the greatest indictment against legalism in the Bible. At the bottom line, legalism’s rules have no value in restraining the indulgence of the flesh. Col.CH.2.
    These are not the things that matter most; these are not the ultimate realities.” All such legalistic rules may have an appearance of wisdom, but they have no real value. Legalism doesn’t restrain the flesh; it feeds the flesh in a subtle, powerful way. “In fact, the most rigorous asceticism can coexist with insufferable spiritual pride, one of the subtlest and most intractable of the ‘works of the flesh.’” (Bruce)
    Self-imposed religion is man reaching to God, trying to justify himself by keeping a list of rules. Christianity is God reaching down to man in love.

    For a NT view of fasting might I suggest reading Colossians Chapter 2 which is quite plain;
    and perhaps /enduringword.com/bible-commentary/colossians-2/for some interesting insights.

    • Agreed. Human religion (or religiosity) is very often the enemy of the faith that comes from the Word of God because human religion is not based on the grace of Christ and the mercy that flows from the Cross. If you look at outward practices, religions seem pretty much the same, like jars of chemicals in a lab. It’s what’s inside them that makes all the difference.
      This includes turning Christianity into works-legalism.

  6. I think that the psalmist ably expresses the NT concept of fasting in Psalm 63
    63:1 O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee: my soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longs for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is;
    63:2 To see thy power and thy glory, so as I have seen thee in the sanctuary.
    63:3 Because thy lovingkindness is better than life, my lips shall praise thee.
    63:4 Thus will I bless thee while I live: I will lift up my hands in thy name.
    63:5 My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness; and my mouth shall praise thee with joyful lips:

    All of which chimes with Gods promise in Zechariah 7.
    Zech 7:5 Speak unto all the people of the land, and to the priests, saying,” When ye fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh month, even those seventy years, did ye at all fast unto me, even to me? ACTS 13:2
    Zech 8:19 Thus saith the LORD of hosts; The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be to the house of Judah joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts; therefore love the truth and peace.
    Along with: –
    Ps 30:11 Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing: thou hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness;
    Luke 15:25 Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard music and dancing.

  7. Years ago, I bought and read and put into practice some of the things written in, “God’s Chosen Fast”, by Arthur Wallis.
    I’ve not read it since.
    Churches I’ve been part of have called for prayer and fasting for particular times and reasons, as recent as last year, though in recent years I’ve not come across any biblical teaching.

  8. Indeed Geoff.
    There has been a paucity of Bible teaching, the mode now is to discuss it.
    Truly the times of “not giving heed to sound doctrine” are upon us.

    That there are times of distress and overwhelming conditions is a fact in the NT. Both Jesus, the Apostles and early and late church
    Were/are subject to days of darkness and travail. The Church tries every device and programme to turn the tide.
    All kinds of prayers and self-denials, all kinds of attractions to entice the people [Some places have turned their “sanctuary” into a circus ground! Displaying colourful flags. Paul seems always to be in travail for the perfecting of the saints, his prayers are indicative
    As He prayes that God will enlighten His people to establish them and perfect them.

    The Psalmist well understood both real prayer and fasting as expressions of faith.
    Psalms 4:6 –
    There be many that say, “Who will shew us any good? LORD, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon us.
    Psalms 80:1-3
    Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, thou that leadest Joseph like a flock; thou that dwellest between the cherubims, shine forth. Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh stir up thy strength, and come and save us. Turn us again, O God, and cause thy face to shine; and we shall be saved.
    ALSO Psalms 80:7 and 19

    To what purpose does this constant cry ascend? Psalm 67
    67:1 God be merciful unto us, and bless us; and cause his face to shine upon us; Selah.
    67:2 That thy way may be known upon earth, thy saving health among all nations.
    67:5 Let the people praise thee, O God; let all the people praise thee.
    67:6 Then shall the earth yield her increase; and God, even our own God, shall bless us.
    There will be both temporal and spiritual increase.
    67:7 God shall bless us; and all the ends of the earth shall fear him.

    Paul seems always to be in travail, especially for the perfecting of the saints, his prayers are indicative
    as He prays that God will enlighten His people to establish them and perfect them and cause them to flourish.He is always praying that God will “lift up the light of His countenance” that His way might through the Church be known for its blessing.

  9. The Orthodox have a good perspective on this, and fasting is a significant part of their practice. The point they make is that fasting is not an end it itself, or a rule per se, but rather an opportunity. The point is to discipline yourself and, by neglecting your body to an extent, you are better able to attend to your soul.

    Hence, the Orthodox will tend to point to Isaiah 58 as a key text for understanding what fasting is all about, and how people get it wrong. If the point is to attend to your soul and renew your spirit, then it makes no sense to exploit your workers, get into arguments, start fighting, or treat it as a wholly temporary thing which does not change you afterwards. Instead of seeing fasting a negative (I stopped eating xyz), there ought to be an accompanying positive (and I did abc).

    And of course no discussion on fasting is quite complete without noting Christ fasted when he went into the wilderness for forty days to pray (Matthew 4 and Luke 4).

  10. We appear to be in a time of travail currently. Wicked and foolish leaders, people calling good as evil and evil as good… a time to fast, mourn and prayer.

  11. Am I the only one who finds praying extremely hard, never mind fasting? Hard to motivate.

    I would be genuinely interested if others could share some of their own prayer life, ie how often, how does it work practically for you, mainly you talking? etc etc

    Also have you seen significant outcomes, or do you just let it go regardless.


    • Catching up late here.

      Spiritually I am a bit of a 747: takes me a long time to get off the ground. Fasting (when I think to) at least forces me/reminds me/gives me the space where I can’t kid myself that I have something better to do (because the time would have been for a meal).

      I find going out for a walk helps – just sitting there I’m more likely to nod off.

      That said, it’s good if it’s a known itinerary with not too many distractions 🙂

        • You’re welcome.

          I notice I didn’t answer your last question. My brain might have filtered it out.

          Significant outcomes as in dramatic answers? I hesitate to say. I prayed pretty hard at points last year where I, or people close to me, were in a scrape. And the situations mostly sorted themselves out. But would they have done so had I not prayed? No idea.

          I guess one significant outcome is that when I pray, I feel less guilty about not praying 🙂

    • Hi Peter,

      been thinking about how to reply to this for a while.

      I’ve strongly disliked praying for a long time. I attribute it to having a very difficult time with prayer in my youth (pray away the gay etc.) which was probably the most corrosive thing my faith has ever encountered. And I find group prayers where you’re led by someone easily feel like a performance, or uncomfortably irreverent, and for that reason I myself won’t lead.

      What has helped me enormously has been to dock into some of the more traditionalist Catholic and Orthodox ideas about prayer. I forget about trying to have some freeflowing conversation with God, and instead run with set-piece prayers. What got me into it was that when my vicar organises bible studies or topic discussions in the evenings he will finish off with the group going through the Compline service of evening prayer which is all written out for you. It takes all the pressure out of it – what to say has been written down by someone else, and is pretty good. So what I do in my personal life is stick to two very basic and traditional prayers – the Lord’s Prayer, and the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner) – which I know off by heart, and can say anytime anywhere. Although I’m not one for going round the rosary or prayer beads, I will (especially in Church) have a rosary or prayer beads with me, because I find it useful to have something physical to hold onto in prayer and focus me. We’re physical beings, and shouldn’t be too surprised if doing things physically helps us.

      I’ve come to think that we can easily miss the point of prayer. It’s not really about asking God for things. He knows what we need (and what we want, and when those things are different). Prayers aren’t a magic spell that can compel God (we say Amen not Abra-ca-dabra), not do I think God withholds his gifts because he thinks we didn’t pray hard enough for them. Enough faithful Christians have faced painful illnesses and tragic deaths for us to know this. Jesus, in Luke 18, tells us that God is not like the judge who gives justice because he is pestered about it. The point really is to help us to be grounded and orient ourselves towards God. For some people an open-form freeflowing conversational prayer style does that. For me, set-piece formulaic prayer is what works.

      Hope that helps.


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