“Do you have a hunger for God? If we don’t feel strong desires for the manifestation of the glory of God, it is not because we have drunk deeply and are satisfied. It is because we have nibbled so long at the table of the world. Our soul is stuffed with small things, and there is no room for the great. If we are full of what the world offers, then perhaps a fast might express, or even increase, our soul’s appetite for God. Between the dangers of self-denial and self-indulgence is the path of pleasant pain called fasting.” – John Piper
A while back on our Facebook page, we urged readers to give us topic suggestions.
Originally, I was going to reply to a different topic that was given but today I’ve decided to talk about fasting. The request was this:
“I think it was either on one of your personal pages or on here, but did one of you post something about fasting not too long ago? I can’t find it now, but the emphasis was on how Jesus said “WHEN you fast,” not “IF you fast.” I’d like to see a follow-up blog on that post since we also have examples of Paul and the early church fasting.”
Fasting is an intriguing topic to me because it’s so simple, yet I almost never hear sermons, conversations about, or have studies focused around it. And when you look at the scriptures, I think it’s fairly clear that fasting is such a good and natural thing for a Christian to do, so it’s surprising that it sometimes isn’t given much attention.
Now, I’m speaking mostly of my immediate group of friends and conversations we’ve had. I know that, given the wide audience of this blog, there are many reading this who probably do practice fasting and have learned about it’s importance from their pulpits.
So, this will just be a refresher for some.
And immediately I can hear the first objection about addressing whether or not we should and any assumptions I have about whether or not Christians are fasting:
“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.” – Matthew 6:16-18
I am not assuming that Christians today don’t fast based on the fact that I don’t see it, so don’t worry. I think it’s something that should be addressed based on these experiences:
1) our reader asked
2) I’ve never heard a sermon, bible class or study about fasting
3) I’ve had several conversations with friends simply about whether or not we ought to, followed by confessions from all (myself included) that we just haven’t really included it in our own lives.
So, my line of thought is that it’s just a neglected topic, which leaves some of us wondering how fasting should fit into our lives today. At the same time, I don’t doubt that many, many Christians do fast. I just wish there was more teaching on the practice, since it’s very easy not to give it a second thought. I understand the suspicious line between teaching on something and using that opportunity as a platform for self-promotion. I’ve heard that concern when we bring up our responsibility to give to those in need or do good deeds and serve others. But that doesn’t mean we simply don’t teach those topics. It means we put in that extra effort and take care to assess our hearts and guard our words as we talk to others concerning what scripture says.
Okay. So, there’s the introduction ;)
Do I think fasting is a command? No. That’s the black-and-white answer. Do I think Christians should? Well, let’s look it over together.
Our question starts with Matthew, where Jesus plainly says “when” you fast, rather than “if”. I think we can easily extract from that wording that fasting is a normal and assumed part of following Christ. But there is a line between saying it’s assumed and commanding, or binding it. It is natural and it is certainly a sign* (Matt 23:27, 28 comes to mind here) of a pure, convicted heart that is concerned for the will of God,
but I don’t know that we can say it is a requirement.
Jesus spoke similarly about praying, but how do we know that praying is a requirement of the faith? We know praying is commanded because of the many verses that outline not only examples and how and why but when and how often we should pray; the direct instructions to pray. There was only one commanded fast for the Day of Atonement in the Old Testament. Since Christ fulfilled that, and gave us no further direction aside from how to fast should we do it, we can’t step in and bind where He did not bind in the name of debatable wording. Furthermore, Colossians speaks about the regulating of such external disciplines:
“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” – Colossians 2:20-23
The Pharisees took many godly signs, like prayer and fasting, and turned them into expected, show-cased tradition topped with self-righteousness and pride. What this passage isn’t saying, however, is that Christians shouldn’t fast or that it isn’t profitable. It’s saying we shouldn’t bind or judge a person’s spirituality based on it. We shouldn’t measure our own holiness by externals. And it’s saying no amount of reliance on self-discipline will save our souls or perfect our godliness. That comes from Christ and devotion and prayer, not just trying harder.
Nevertheless, Jesus’ wording “whenever you fast” should absolutely give us pause, but not just so we can debate whether or not we have to. If fasting hasn’t been on our minds before, this verse should prompt some further study and consideration of our own hearts and lives.
What does the Bible say about fasting?
The Old Testament shows that God’s people sincerely fasted in times of need and suffering, war, sickness or for God’s forgiveness. I’d like to just share some of the descriptions from the OT:
David “humbled [his] soul” with fasting in Psalm 69:10
“I afflicted myself with fasting; I prayed with head bowed on my chest.” Psalm 35:13
“Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning…” Joel 2:12.
“I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven” Nehemiah 1:4.
“Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.” Daniel 9:3
“Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey” – Ezra 8:21
“So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.” – Ezra 8:23
I like these examples because they really paint a picture of the heart of fasting. Fasting was serious prayer, imploring God, mourning, weeping, humbling themselves, seeking God. They fasted to know God’s will, to make great decisions, to seek His counsel. There are also many examples of people fasting as a collective for some purpose, so it isn’t even always an individual thing. When the people of Nineveh were convicted by Jonah’s preaching, together they fasted in repentance.
With all the humanity shown in the Old Testament and all the great mistakes and rebellion, there is also such an intensity demonstrated by the people of God when they did seek to comprehend God’s will. We often pray, even fervently, but are we so utterly desirous of God and desperate for His help or His forgiveness or His comfort that we accompany that persistent prayer with fasting? Maybe it’s something to consider.
Jesus said that it would be appropriate for people in our time to fast. We’ve seen the examples of those before Christ, then Christ came and we see Him fasting personally, and then He says:
“Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.” – Mark 2:18-20
And certainly, we do see His disciples and those early Christians continuing the practice:
“While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting…”- Acts 13:2
“And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” – Acts 14:23
Paul said he fasted often in 2 Corinthians 11. And he also said to imitate him as he imitated Christ, both of whom fasted.
And of course, as we’ve touched on, Christ gave instructions for fasting:
“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
Judging by the examples of collective fasting, both in the Old and New Testament, it would be entirely appropriate to participate with others in fasting for a specific purpose. What we need to be careful of is our heart. If we fast individually, we shouldn’t look for praise or acknowledgement. No one by looking at us should think we are fasting, and we shouldn’t be fishing for ways to let them know.
Fasting is about prayer and humility. Whenever we fast, or give up food, we should replace that with purposeful, dedicated prayer. As we’ve seen from the texts, we might choose to fast in light of a big decision, or starting a new venture or ministry, requests that are near to our heart, when we’re suffering or in mourning, for forgiveness and repentance, to humble ourselves, to better strengthen our walk with God or if we just plain need divine help.
I’d like to end with a final thought, though.
Just as prayer without repentance or godly living is unprofitable, fasting without these things is just as empty and will not be heard. The ultimate fasting one can do in service to God is to give up our will, replace our being, our core, our minds and hearts and actions with Christ and consequently act out His will and His love. Worthy fasting is only on top of a life of service and justice, love for others and fear of God. And so I leave you with this humbling passage:
“Yet they seek me daily
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that did righteousness
and did not forsake the judgment of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments;
they delight to draw near to God.
‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
and oppress all your workers.
Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to hit with a wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
will not make your voice to be heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
and a day acceptable to the Lord?
“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressedgo free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
And the Lord will guide you continually
and satisfy your desire in scorched places
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail…” – Isaiah 58:2-11
Have a topic you’d like to hear about? Let us know!