Fasting: Receipt through abstention
Guest Writer: Joe Beery
Sanctify a fast...and...say, Spare Thy people, O Lord, and give not Thine heritage to reproach...Then will the Lord...answer and say...Fear not, O land; be glad and rejoice: for the Lord will do great things" (Joel 2:12-32)
When I was at a music festival in high school, I heard a speaker say that, “fasting was like pouring gasoline on the fire of your prayers.” Being the 16-year-old pyromaniac that I was, this image was burned into my memory. That story jumps to my mind often, and I share it with people at least once every few months. And yet—I suck at fasting. I don’t have anything close to a schedule that I follow, and I’ll usually only remember that I should fast when I want God to give me something or when I feel like the world’s crashing down around me.
I’m also pretty sure that I’m not alone on this one. I contend that most Christians in the West today only think of the discipline of fasting when they’re considering a fad diet. (And that’s not to let my Eastern brothers and sisters off the hook; I’m only speaking for what I know). This isn’t a dig on the health benefits of fasting—often God’s commandments prove to beneficial to our bodies and our souls. But the abandonment of such a powerful discipline is concerning: more than begrudgingly turning the discipline into a ritual (like prayer) or failing to follow the discipline but recognizing that it should be done (like giving sacrificially), fasting seems to have fallen totally off the radar.
Scripture provides a 3-chord understanding of the practice in the form of answering 3 “W” questions.
1. What is fasting?
In more vivid colors, the question reads, “Is fasting purely an abstention from food, or are there other manifestations of this practice?” The typical biblical fast is certainly one from food; there are also instances where God’s people engage in absolute fasts, abstaining from food andwater. Furthermore, there are some examples of abstaining beyond food and drink; for example, Paul encourages married couples to abstain from giving their bodies to one another for a season of spiritual formation, and then to come together again.
One of the most important take-aways here is that fasting is not abstaining from sin. The joining of a husband and wife, or the taking in of food for sustenance, are both high-order goods. These are gifts from God. You don’t “fast” from porn or from gluttony—you mortify these sins through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Fasting is something else entirely. In order to “discipline the flesh” and “make it a slave,” (i Cor. 9:27), we are called to spend time denying ourselves goodthings that werightlydesire for a season as a reminder that they are not ultimatethings. This discipline has been furniture in the house of Orthodoxy since the earliest days: Tertullian wrote a treatise on the subject in A.D. 210. In it, he defended fasting as a better aid to religion than feasting. Polycarp, the disciple of John, urged fasting upon the saints as a powerful aid against temptation and fleshly lusts in A.D. 110.
2. Who should fast?
When reading about the biblical description of fasting, it should be immediately apparent how counter-cultural this discipline is. We live in the midst of a call to hedonism— “happiness” and “pleasure” are the ultimate aims of society. Spiritual formation as counter cultural isn’t unique, though. Jesus laid out the three essential components to Christian living that likely struck the same recalcitrance in His audience that it strikes in us: prayer, alms-giving, and fasting.Christ’s command is, of course, backed by his practice—before beginning his ministry, Jesus fasted forty days and nights in the desert, enduring our temptation (Matt. 4:1–11). There’s no wiggle room: both Jesus’s actions and his teaching indicate the essential nature of fasting in the Christian life.
There are also only one circumstance that the Bible says is not a time to fast: when the incarnated Logos is bodily with you (Mk. 2:19). Jesus, then says, once He’s departed, then his disciples will fast (Mk. 2:20). Essentially every other circumstance is demonstrated to be one where fasting is warranted. Mourning? “[The Israelites] mourned and wept and fasted till evening for Saul and his son Jonathan, and for the army of the LORD and for the nation of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword.”Worshipping? “While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”In a season of preparation? “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me … When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”Old? “Anna … was very old … She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.”
3. Why should we fast?
When Jesus teaches on fasting, there’s a promise linked with the commandment—as Paul reminds us in Eph. 6:1–3 (discussing obedience to parents), we should always be mindful of promises linked with commandments because God does not lie; His promises can be relied upon. Therefore, when Christ says in v. 18 that “your Father who sees [you fasting] in secret will reward you,” we can rely on that promise.
Furthermore, we should fast for the very reason that I was told to fast at the music festival all those years ago: fasting is gasoline on the fire of our prayers. Historically, when men and women have linked fasting with prayer, they have witnessed the Shekinah glory—God’s manifest presence. From John Wesley to John Calvin, regular practices of fasting has led to revival, reconciliation, and reformation as the eyes of God’s people are lifted from the ordinary and set on the extraordinary.
Consider the words from Joel at the head of this blog: “Sanctify a fast...and...say, Spare Thy people, O Lord, and give not Thine heritage to reproach...Then will the Lord...answer and say...Fear not, O land; be glad and rejoice: for the Lord will do great things." This is an interpolation of a passage instructing the Israelites in pleading with the Lord for mercy and for the presence of God. We mustfast because we’re called to fasting; we must fast because we live in world woven through with the curses of Genesis 3, the “sin that so easily ensnares us,” with “an enemy that prowls like a hungry lion, seeking to devour us”; we must fast because the Church has been given a way to conform our hearts with the heart of our Creator, and to create immeasurable intimacy with Him. “Why should we fast?” Why wouldn’t we?
i Cor. 7:5. It is debatable whether this call to abstain from intimacy is “fasting” in the purest sense of the word, however the heart motive appears to be the same—denying that which is not forbidden in order to further commit oneself to God.
2 Samuel 1:12.