It’s my impression that for most Christians the practice of fasting poses many questions. Some might even argue based on Lk 5:33-39 that Christians should avoid fasting. (I understand that passage as placing a moratorium on fasting while Jesus was living, but that the practice recommenced after his death, which is why we have examples of fasting in the early church, eg. Acts 13:2-3; 14:21-25.) If you’re from a Church of Christ background you know that it’s not one of the “Five Acts of Worship”, yet I don’t know how else to think about it than as an act of worship.
We have a difficult time understanding fasting because the Bible doesn’t give a lot of teaching on the topic. It would be helpful to have spelled out for us how to fast in a manner that God finds meaningful. Cain missed out on God’s blessing because he sacrificed fruit rather than meat. Does it make a difference to God if I fast from facebook instead of food? Or is only food acceptable?
It would also be helpful if the Bible clearly explained the purpose of fasting, and the appropriate occasions to fast. Instead we’re left to draw conclusions from examples and indirect teaching on the subject, and to learn from the experiences of ourselves and others.
Instead, Jesus’ teachings on fasting focus on attitude. Fasting is a private practice between an individual and God (except on occasions when the whole church participates) and should not be used as a means of gaining additional street cred in religious society. (Matt 16:16-18; Lk 18:9-14; cf Zech 7:5)
I’d like to suggest several purposes for fasting:
- Fasting makes a statement to God, and ourselves, that He is our #1 priority. When we fast we say that we would rather spend time with God, than eat.
- When we fast because of a particular need or crisis in our life, or the church, we add emphasis to the prayer.
- The hunger pangs during a fast can serve as a reminder to again pray for the particular concerns prompting the fast.
- When we fast we take a small step toward imitating the example of Christ in Phil. 2:1-11. Christ humbled himself leaving behind the glories of heaven to take on the form of a man and becoming obedient, even unto death. Although all Christians leave stuff behind at baptism, fasting allows us to recreate this experience, remind ourselves of the sacrifices of Christ, and actively work on developing a character of humility.
- Prayer should always accompany fasting. But the benefit of combining the two is NOT that God listens to us extra closely when we fast. Rather, through fasting we create space in our lives that better allows us to listen to God. We create space to have conversations with God that the busy-ness of our lives often prohibits.
Richard Foster, in his classic work Celebration of Discipline, states that, “Fasting must forever center on God. Every other purpose must be subservient to God.” (3rd ed, 1998, p54) I also found it interesting to learn that,
“John Wesley sought to revive the teaching of the ‘Didache’ and urged early Methodists to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. He felt so strongly about this matter, in fact, that he refused to ordain anyone to the Methodist ministry who did not fast on those two days.” (Foster, 51)
- Have you made fasting a regular part of your relationship with God? When your answer’s “no”, what has stopped you?
- Have you experienced additional benefits, beyond those I’ve listed, from fasting?
- Since fasting isn’t commanded in the New Testament, how important do you think it is for Christians? Should it be a regular discipline, or reserved for special needs?