In his book Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian Life, Donald Whitney offers a helpful list of different types of fasting that I found particularly helpful. I have distilled Whitney’s comments down here in hopes of giving a basic framework for understanding the variety of fasting seen in the Scriptures.
- Normal fast – abstaining from all food, but not water (Matt 4:2; Luke 4:2)
- Partial fast – abstaining from some food; a limitation of diet (Daniel 1:12; Matt 3:4)
- Absolute fast – abstaining from all food and water (Ezra 10:6; Esther 4:16; Acts 9:9)
- Supernatural fast – an absolute fast that surpasses normal human limitations; this requires God’s supernatural intervention (Deut 9:9; 1 Kings 19:8)
- Private fast – a personal pursuit of God that is hidden from or not noticed by others (Matt 6:16-18)
- Congregational fasts – gathering as a local group of believers in order to see God (Joel 2:15; Acts 13:2)
- National fasts – gathering as an entire nation to seek God (2 Chron. 20:3; Jonah 3:5-8)
- Regular fasts – specific days scheduled at regular times, such as the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:29-31) or monthly fasts (Zech 8:19); Lent (the 40-day period from Ash Wednesday to Easter) is traditionally seen as a time for fasting for Christians
- Occasional fasts – seasons of fasting established by leaders in response to specific situations or cataclysmic events (see Esther 4:16 and 2 Chron 20:3)
The bottom-line is that while fasting is, as Whitney says, “a Christian’s voluntary abstinence from food for spiritual reasons,” there are a variety of ways that this is worked out.