Note: The Consistory of Westside Reformed Church encouraged the congregation to fast on May 6, 2021, the National Day of Prayer. This document was circulated beforehand and is presented below in a slightly-modified form.
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 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.
4. We humble ourselves when we fast.
As in the aforementioned text from Zechariah 7, Isaiah 58:3-6 tells us that the Jews were perplexed as to why the Lord was not answering their fasts and prayers. The Lord replied that their humility was only external. They pursued their own pleasure on their days of fasting and indulged in wicked speech and the oppression of the lowly. The Lord commanded them to fast from wickedness. Sharing bread with the lowly is more pleasing to the Lord than refraining from bread. Clothing the lowly is more pleasing to Him than going about in sackcloth. In other words, if true humility of life is neglected, fasting is nothing more than outward theater that the Lord disdains.
But this shouldn’t cause us to avoid fasting. There were times when the Lord withheld food from the Jews, something of a “forced fast,” because He wanted to humble them. In Deuteronomy 8:3, the Lord told Israel that He let them go hungry in the wilderness (he humbled you and let you hunger) in order to teach them that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.
Our chief example of personal humility in fasting is that of Jesus Christ. As He embarked upon His public ministry, the Lord drove Him into the wilderness to fast for forty days. His faithfulness in the midst of humility and hunger provides the antithesis to Israel, whose forty years in the wilderness were characterized by grumbling (Matt. 4:2, see also Luke 4:2). Of course, the humiliation of Christ only continued in His earthly ministry, as He went from the actual wilderness to the spiritual wilderness of the crucifixion and wrath of God.
5. Fasting is fitting for times of repentance.
Each year, the Jews would fast for the Day of Atonement. It was so etched into their minds that it could simply be called “the Fast” (Acts 27:9). The Old Testament doesn’t indicate this explicitly, but the Jews understood that fasting was intended when they were told to afflict (or humble) themselves in preparation for that momentous occasion. After all, on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. The Jews brought food and drink offerings to the Lord while they abstained from food and drink themselves. The clear inference is that fasting was an avenue for the Jews to humble themselves due to their sins, as they repented and sought forgiveness from the Lord.
But a corporate act of repentance was not reserved only for the Day of Atonement. Joel’s prophecy, which may have been a liturgical form, provides guidelines for how Israel should have responded to famine in the land of Canaan, because this was an indication of God’s judicial curse. To undertake corporate repentance, Joel declared, consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly. They should fast, weep, and mourn their sins and return to [the Lord]. This should not be merely outward repentance, but also inward: rend your hearts, and not your garments (Joel 2:12-16, see also Neh. 1:4; 9:1f.).
Fasting was also appropriate for an individual who was repenting for sins. We could turn to King Ahab, who humbled himself in repentance for the death of Naboth. The Lord was pleased with Ahab’s response of repentance to that wicked situation (1 Kings 21:9-27). Daniel is another individual that undertook a fast before the Lord. In Daniel 9:3, we read that he realized that the seventy years of exile would soon come to an end, so he prayed earnestly with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes. He interceded for Israel and for the Temple, confessing his own sins and those of the nation and their forefathers. He pleaded for forgiveness.
6. Fasting embodies our spiritual desperation.
Imagine the physical desperation someone experiences when they cannot find food or water. They will do almost anything to escape that situation. When a Christian brings this upon oneself, it is for the sake of embodying one’s spiritual desperation.
When the Jews were desperate for the Lord to provide them with direction, they fasted, prayed, and offered sacrifices (Judges 20:26). When the Jews were desperate for salvation from the sword of their enemies, they fasted, confessed sin, prayed, and offered sacrifices (1 Sam. 7:6; 2 Chr. 20:3). When David saw his son approaching death, he fasted in desperation for the Lord’s salvation (2 Sam. 12:16-23). When Ezra realized their desperate need for protection on a journey, he proclaimed a fast (Ezra 8:21-23). When King Ahasuerus issued a decree that all Jews be put to death, the Jews responded by fasting, weeping, and lamenting. They turned to the Lord in their desperation and asked Him to save. The royal psalmist, fulfilled in Jesus Christ, prayed for His enemies with fasting, asking the Lord to deliver them from illness and misery (Ps. 35:13).
7. Fasting is suitable for times of grief and lament.
There are also instances where God’s people respond to a death with fasting. It is not because they are attempting to raise the deceased from the dead. But fasting gave expression to their grief and misery. At the news of King Saul’s death, soldiers fasted for seven days (1 Sam. 31:13; 1 Chr. 10:12). David and his men observed a fast, as well, when they heard of Saul’s death (2 Sam. 1:12).
8. Fasting is not meritorious.
The Lord gives us good and appropriate religious practices, like fasting. But, in our sin, we take the best of things and corrupt them. We might think of how the hypocrites corrupted prayer, as they stood on the street corners and “showed off,” in order that everyone could see their piety (Matt. 6:5), how the Pharisees boasted of their knowledge of the Scriptures, or how hypocrites corrupted the giving of alms to the poor (Matt. 6:2). They turned good practices into merit badges to stroke their self-righteousness. The problem was not with the practice, but with personal sin that corrupted the practice.
The same can be said of fasting. Abuses of fasting are noted in Scripture, e.g., the aforementioned 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.
As we have noted, we would encourage you to consider fasting on the Day of Prayer. Our authorities have asked us to pray for our nation, and, knowing the true and living God, we of all people should respond. But how might we go about this?
1. Pray for our nation with humble, desperate prayers.
Everyone knows that our country is in a difficult place. Surely, we differ as to the underlying reasons for this. We desire similar things, but achieving those ends seems impossible. Let us pray fervently for the Lord to restrain His hand of judgment and bring peace and blessing to our country.
2. Confess your sins and those you see around you.
We may be prone to see only the sins of those that are on the other side of the political aisle. In fasting, we should, first and foremost, humble ourselves. We begin by confessing our own sins. Only then do we acknowledge and confess the sins we see around us.
3. Refrain from food for a significant period of time. Perhaps refrain from drink.
We are not encouraging you to put yourself in a situation where you will pass out from lack of food or drink. Oftentimes, the Jew would spend the day of fasting in one place, work being set to the side. You need to think about this with respect to the nature of your work. Perhaps it would be perfectly safe for you to spend 24 hours without food, or maybe you just skip lunch. Perhaps you cannot completely refrain from food, so you confine yourself to salads. There are various ways to go about this. The thing we seek is to be physically humbled by our abstinence, in order to embody and encourage spiritual humility before the Lord.
4. Remember that physical humility can lead to spiritual humility.
Our culture is very concerned about being inauthentic. Of course, we must avoid hypocrisy, but we often overreact to this fear by imagining that our heart always leads our bodies. Therefore, if our heart isn’t in a particularly humble position, we conclude that we shouldn’t humble our bodies: “Wouldn’t that be hypocritical?” We need to understand that what is physical also affects what is non-physical. What we do with our body affects our heart and soul. You may begin the Day of Prayer without feelings of desperation and humility on behalf of our country, but our bodily practice of fasting can help you end the day with this realization. What we do with our bodies matters, and fasting is one area where this reality comes to bear upon us.