Abuses of fasting are noted in Scripture, e.g., Isa. 58:3-6. Jesus knew of these abuses and the sinfulness of the human heart; yet, He still said, when you fast. He directed us away from the abuse and clarified how to fast appropriately. Instead of displaying our fast for everyone to see, we should conceal it, in order that it is between God and us. Instead of boasting with the Pharisee, I fast twice a week and tithe faithfully!, we should beat our breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”Fasting earns us nothing. It is supposed to declare the exact opposite by embodying our humility before the Lord.
We have spoken in recent weeks about the significance of feasting and how it is a key metaphor for helping us understand what true, abundant life is all about. But there is also another biblical concept that we want to address, and that is fasting. There are a few reasons for this. First and most importantly, the Bible teaches us that fasting is an appropriate Christian discipline. Secondly, we expect that this is neglected in our church; to our shame, your officers see this in their own lives. Thirdly, there are particular instances in the Bible when fasting is especially appropriate and an example of this is approaching, the National Day of Prayer.
In what follows, we provide a brief overview of the biblical teaching on fasting. Then, we provide some practical guidance.
1. What, exactly, is fasting?
In his first book, Internalizing the Faith, Pastor Brandon provides a helpful definition:
“Fasting is abstaining from food or some enjoyment for a period of time for spiritual concerns, focusing on Christ and His purposes in the world.”
Most often, the Bible tells us that a fasting person abstains from food. At other times, abstention from water is explicitly noted. We might think, as well, about other forms of bodily enjoyment that could be laid aside. Daniel avoided applying oil to his body, something that both cleansed and revitalized a person (Dan. 10:3). He also avoided culinary delicacies like meat and wine. Uriah refused to lie with his wife, due to the dire situation facing Israel, the ark, and the armies of God (2 Sam. 11:11). In 1 Cor. 7:5, Paul instructs married couples that they may agree to abstain from intimacy for a time in order to devote themselves to prayer. There are also instances where fasting includes abstaining from sleep, e.g., Anna the prophetess (Luke 2:37) and King Darius (Dan. 6:18).
2. Fasting is appropriate under the new covenant.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus provides instruction to His blessed kingdom. He takes up fasting in Matthew 6:16-18, saying when you fast. Clearly, Jesus expected that fasting would be practiced by His disciples. This is supported by the fact that fasting is one of three acts of piety He was addressing in that context. First, Jesus spoke of giving to the poor: when you give to the needy (twice in Matt. 6:2,3). Second, He said when you pray (three times in Matt. 6:5-7). Third, He said, when you fast (twice in Matt. 6:16-18). It is undeniable that caring for the poor and prayer are essential to new covenant Christianity. Fasting falls into that category.
Jesus also helps us understand that fasting is appropriate for us when He answered the disciples of John and of the Pharisees (Matt. 9:14-15, see also Mark 2:18,19,20 & Luke 5:33,34,35). They asked, Why don’t your disciples fast? By using the metaphor of the bridegroom to refer to Himself, Jesus explained that it was impossible for His disciples to fast while He was with them. But that the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. Our bridegroom is absent from us, having ascended to heaven; therefore, it is appropriate that we fast and mourn His absence.
The Acts of the Apostles tells us twice that Christians spent time fasting. Both of these instances related to the ordination and appointment of church officers: Acts 13:2-3 and Acts 14:23. Fasting accompanied their worship and fervent prayer.
3. Christian fasting is an act of piety toward the Lord.
As health fads come and go, it is common to hear of different sorts of fasts and detox regimens. While there may be health benefits to fasting, that is not the purpose of Christian fasting, since it is directed toward the Lord, not toward oneself. We undertake it for spiritual health and spiritual concerns, not for bodily health. Recall the teaching of Christ with respect to the bridegroom. We will feast one day, when He is present. For now, we fast because He is absent. Fasting has respect to Christ; it revolves around His Person.
Anna the prophetess also demonstrates this Christ-centered approach to fasting. She spent much of her life living inside the Temple, praying and fasting. She was praying for the deliverance of Israel, and Luke’s Gospel presents the infant Jesus as the answer to her prayers. The redemption that she longed for, embodied in prayer and fasting, had finally arrived in the Person of Christ.
In the prophecy of Zechariah, we read that fasting is not acceptable before the Lord if it is not directed toward Him. The Jews had wondered why the Lord was not answering their prayers and fasts. He answered by asking the rhetorical question, “Was it for me that you fasted?” (Zech. 7:5) The implication is that they had so corrupted fasting that it was self-serving. The verses that follow indicate that the Jews persisted in disregarding the teaching of God’s law. They were full of pride while they fasted before the Lord.