Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast;
call a solemn assembly; gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged;
gather the children, even infants at the breast.
Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride.
Although fasting is one of the most repeated commands in the Bible, I failed to fast for most of my life and ministry. I now believe that I have been spiritually poorer for that failure. But I rationalized not fasting by pointing to monks who lived hundreds of years before me, who were overly ascetic in their fasting. Add to that the fact that I am a Baby Boomer raised on the pabulum — “If it feels good, do it!” — I had plenty of excuses for not fasting. Being immersed in a culture devoted to the pursuit of pleasure and satisfaction of every human desire, fasting felt so out of step for me. I could have even mustered theological excuses for me not to fast.
But no longer! No more! The serious problems facing our nation, the church in the West, and my own spiritual poverty, compel me to go back and take a new look at fasting.
As a child of the Protestant Reformation that meant first going back and looking at the Reformers positions on fasting. I was surprised to see that John Calvin had a lot to say about fasting in his magisterial The Institutes of Christian Religion. Words such as the following from Calvin convicted me:
“As the observance of this part of discipline [fasting] is useful, so it was always used in the church, even from the days of the apostles.” (4.12.14)
“When pestilence begins to stalk abroad, or famine or war, or when any other disaster seems to impend over a province (Esther 4:16), then also it is the duty of pastors to exhort the Church to fasting.” (4:12.17)
As for fasting in response to public crisis or emergency, Calvin pointed to numerous examples from Scripture and asked: “What reason is there why we should not do the same?” (4.12.17)
As a young monk Martin Luther had abused his body by excessive fasting, vainly trying to earn salvation. But later, as Luther passed from legalism into grace, he understood fasting in a Biblical way: “It was not Christ’s intention to reject or despise fasting…it was His intention to restore proper fasting.” (Quoted by Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline)
John Wesley, founder of Methodism, also endeavored to restore the proper practice of fasting, reasoning: “Is not the neglect of this plain duty (I mean, fasting, ranked by our Lord with almsgiving and prayer) one general occasion of deadness among Christians?” (Collected Works of John Wesley, Vol. 03) More recently, I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s powerful book, The Cost of Discipleship, in which he points to the obvious: “Jesus takes it for granted that his disciples will observe the pious custom of fasting.” (Dietrich Bonhoffer, The Cost of Discipleship)
Richard Foster maintains, “Fasting can bring breakthroughs in the spiritual realm that will never happen in any other way…Like prayer, fasting is NOT to manipulate God to do what we want! It is humbling, submitting and positioning ourselves to be in a position to allow God to do what He wants.” (Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline)
Biblical fasting is abstaining from food for spiritual purposes. In the Bible we see a Normal Fast, a Partial Fast, and an Absolute Fast. A Normal Fast is abstaining from all food, solid or liquid, but not from water. A Partial Fast is abstaining from certain foods such as John the Baptist (Matthew 3:4), and Daniel did (Daniel 10:3). Then there is the rare Absolute Fast, which was abstaining from both food and water (Deuteronomy 9:9; I Kings 19:8; Esther 4:16; Acts 9:9) The Absolute Fast usually came at a clear command from God.
I have started fasting with a Normal Fast from sunrise to sunset once a week. I have discovered this is the kind of fast most often practiced by Christians from Biblical times onward. I also realized that this was a form of fasting I could easily take up. Some people find it helpful to begin with a ‘Short Fast’ of skipping a meal or two.
In the end, fasting is not just about abstaining from food. It is about exchanging the needs of the physical body for those of the spirit. In fasting we discover that we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from God’s mouth! (Matthew 4:4). We experience that it is God who sustains us, and not food.
Next week I’ll share some thoughts about fasting from things other than food. I have a lot more to learn about fasting, but am glad to be taking a first step!
Grace and peace