I signed up to do a teaching on fasting as part of a series on Spiritual Disciplines at Christ the Redeemer. The Bible Study in preparation for it was greatly clarifying for me and prompted the following essay:
As we go through Lent, there is a lot of discussion around fasting. Given that it is a fairly foreign practice to most of us, much of it centers on the perceived benefits of fasting, which offer our skeptical culture a rationale for taking on this discipline. The positive results listed are incredibly diverse. Some people speak of the health benefits. Elsewhere, fasting is seen as a spiritual discipline that helps us gain mastery over our appetites, submitting the flesh to the spirit. In this light, some emphasize the broader growth in self-control that can come through learning to say “no” to one specific desire. It is also treated as a means of setting right priorities; in our hunger and thirst for righteousness, we set aside even something as important as food for a time as we pursue something greater. Other circles focus on gaining clarity and power in our prayers through fasting. Those concerned with social justice see fasting as a way of identifying with the hungry, or as enabling us to give our food (or the means by which we would have acquired it) to those who have none. We could go on.
Many of the themes above are not directly connected with fasting in the Scriptures. This is not a criticism. Biblical discussion on fasting is not prescriptive, made up of commands to fast and specific instructions and rationale. Rather, it is descriptive and corrective. Scripture describes the fasts undertaken by a wide variety of people throughout the Scriptures, with only brief commentary occasionally added to the narrative. Direct teaching is generally reserved for corrections to bad attitudes and practices of fasting. However, because the Church has always fasted, extended positive discussion around the practice has naturally grown up in the history of Christian thought; we are seeking language to describe our experiences.
The difficulty comes when our development of thought loses its coherence, becoming so diverse that we lose the ability to communicate with one another. It would be helpful to have a central unifying concept from which our many points of discussion can fan out like spokes in a wheel. I believe that an examination of the descriptive and corrective passages of Scriptures does lead toward such a starting point.
In looking at Scriptural examples, I am intentionally leaving out the 40-day fasts of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. While they seem to relate to these topics in certain ways, they introduce other themes outside of our scope.
Fasting as Self-Abasement
In most Scriptural examples , fasting is an act of self-abasement, often corresponding with bowing, weeping, sackcloth and ashes. Through these external means, Biblical characters intentionally humble themselves to enter into fully-embodied mourning, repentance, grief, or desperation. Rather than trying to “hold it all together,” those who fast allow themselves to be brought low.
Self-abasement is fairly unattractive to us; in fact, we often connect such acts with a weak grasp of the gospel of grace, with people punishing themselves for sins for which Christ has freely paid, or with people standing before God as frightened subjects rather than adopted children.
Yet we must humble ourselves. St. James writes, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” The Magnificat tells us that “He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek,” and then parallels the humble with the hungry. “He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.” Everywhere we look, we see that God pays attention to humility; it is part of his nature to lift up those who are bowed down.
Fasting, and all other acts of self-humiliation (ie. bowing, weeping, sackcloth and ashes) are ways by which we intentionally lower ourselves so that God can lift us up. In the context of grief, despair, repentance, or fervent prayer and intercession, we fully enter into that lowliness, recognizing that we are not competent and able people simply needing a slight boost from God, but that we have been brought low and desperately need Him to lift us up.
Fasting in Descriptive Passages of Scripture
Perhaps the easiest way to approach fasting is through its connection with mourning. David and his men (2 Sam 1:12) “mourned and wept and fasted until evening for Saul and for Jonathan his son and for the people of the LORD and for the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword.” This is within many of our experiences; in times of intense loss, it seems inappropriate to eat, as if casually enjoying a meal would fail to take seriously the intensity of the pain that we feel. A “business as usual” act like eating does not honor the true life-disrupting gravity of our loss.
Esther also connects fasting with true despair. When news of a royal decree ordering the extermination of the Jewish people is made known (4:3), “there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and many of them lay in sackcloth and ashes.” Again, life is profoundly disrupted by this terrible news. The Jews did not just internalize their grief and move on with life; they were literally laid low by it with their entire beings.
It is also clear from Esther that fasting was seen as an effective instrument of change. When Queen Esther agrees to intercede with the king regarding this decree (4:16), she calls upon all the Jews in Susa to “hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.” Neither the name of God nor prayer are mentioned in Esther, but it seems that Esther expected God to look at these fasting people in their distress and humility and would move to help them. As they humbled themselves in this way, God swiftly moved and exalted them.
It is also common for penitents to fast. When we truly see our sins, we enter into a sort of despair and grief. The disastrous consequences of our sin come home to us, as does our grief over having committed such evil. The king of Ninevah, upon hearing the words of Jonah’s prophecy (3:5-10), “arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” Then he commanded all people and even animals to fast and wear sackcloth, “and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” By humbling themselves in this way, they correctly hoped that God would spare them. “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.” Likewise, even when a wicked man like Ahab afflicts himself with sackcloth and fasting, the Lord shows mercy (1 Kings 21:27-29). “Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days; but in his son’s days I will bring the disaster upon his house.”
Fasting in repentance is not just done in response to individual sins, but even for corporate sins. Daniel, in preparing to make confession of the sins of his people (9:3-4), turned his “face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.” Here we see the “us” in “Have mercy upon us.” This is quite challenging for us; do we have a privatized approach to sin, or do we whole-hearted grieve not only our own sins but the sins of our nation?
When fasting corresponds with prayer, prayer is offered not only for oneself, but for somebody else. Psalm 35:13-14 reads, “When they were sick, I wore sackcloth; I afflicted myself with fasting; I prayed with head bowed on my chest. I went about as though I grieved for my friend or my brother; as one who laments for his mother, I bowed down in mourning.” This is an incredible evidence of love. The Psalmist has so expanded his heart that the plight of another affects him deeply. Fasting, prayer, bowing, lamentation, and sackcloth all appear over somebody else’s problem. Fulfilling the call to “grieve with those who grieve,” he is laid low by the pain of this friend.
These descriptions, along with many that correspond to them, together paint a picture. Fasting, along with other acts of self-abasement, is a part of a holistic act of humility. The gnawing hunger and physical weakness that correspond with fasting help us to respond with our whole being to those things that disrupt our lives and lay us low, that showcase our powerlessness. God pays attention to fasting, coming to the aid of those who have humbled themselves.
Fasting in Corrective Passages of Scripture
While these and many other Biblical descriptions of fasting provide a general picture of is purposes and its efficacy, there are some wonderful texts that teach directly on fasting, correcting wrong practice or thinking around the discipline.
First, they teach us that fasting is not good in itself; it must emerge from and result in true humility for God to pay any attention. Jesus warns (Mat 6:16-18) against making an external show of fasting, intentionally putting on a dejected expression so that others will see you are doing it. If our goal is to impress others, rather than to humble ourselves before God, then we have already received our reward; they are impressed. Jesus is not here condemning the public fast, in which people corporately humble themselves, as this is commanded elsewhere in Scripture (ie. Joel 2) and is carried on in the early Church (Acts 13:2, 14:23). Rather, he strikes against that bizarre desire we have to impress others with our acts of “humility,” thus making them acts of pride and vanity instead. In calling for secret fasting, he is telling us to intentionally draw attention away from our “acts of righteousness,” but to do them to the glory of God alone.
In this connection, we see that God doesn’t accept mere ritual and ceremonial humility. In Isaiah 58, the prophet tells the people why God is ignoring their fasting. They are going through all the ritual, but are continuing in lifestyles of violence and oppression. “Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the LORD?” None of this in itself is sufficient. The prophet describes “the fast that I choose,” as including acts of generosity, hospitality, and justice. These actions will naturally flow from one who has not only gone through ritual acts of humility but has humbled his whole person before the one who “hath exalted the humble and meek” and “hath filled the hungry with good things.” By identifying ourselves with the humble, meek, and hungry, we take up the call to join God in his impulse to raise them up. This true fasting, accompanied by generosity and justice, will not be ignored.
Other corrections are given about legalistic approaches to fasting. We are to fast because we are being drawn (for one of many reasons) into a season of whole-bodied humility, not simply because it happens to be a fasting day or fasting season. Zechariah (7:3) was approached by people who were wondering whether they should continue a fast on the fifth month. This fast has become customary since the destruction of the temple had occurred in this month. With the temple having been rebuilt, should this fast continue? The response comes in two parts. First, as in Isaiah, there is a call for true fasting (and feasting), marked with justice. Second, the LORD announces (8:19) that this and other fasts would become times of feasting because of the restoration of God’s people; fasting should not continue when all is made right. In short: there is a time for fasting and there is a time for feasting. Jesus touches on this as well. He is asked (Mat 9:14-15) why his disciples do not fast like the disciples of John and the Pharisees. He responds, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?” In Christ, the long-desired messianic age has finally arrived. It is inappropriate to go through a ritual of self-abasement in such circumstances.
However, Jesus continues by saying that “the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” This brings us to our current situation; we find our lives a mixture of feasting and fasting. Until Christ returns and this world is completely renewed, we will fast. Yet, in the face of the resurrection, we also must celebrate. This is why the Church sets aside times for both feasting and fasting throughout the year. In Lent, a time of self-examination and repentance, and on Fridays, the day on which humanity committed the ultimate crime in killing our Lord, we fast. On special celebrations, particularly the weekly celebration of the Resurrection on Sundays, we feast. These rhythms draw us into the tension of this “already but not yet” age in which Christ has won the great victory over sin and death but in which we still wait for the consummation of all things. It is right and good to enter into these seasons of feasting and fasting to be drawn fully into the tension of our current Christian experience, but it is utterly meaningless to fast merely “because it’s Lent.”
Christians are often tempted into one of two opposite errors. One is to enter into a disembodied Christian experience in which we focus so much on the internal disposition of the heart that we ignore the role of our bodies in worshipping God. Sometimes this is described as trying to be “a soul without a body,” a thoroughly un-Christian concept. A survey of Biblical examples of fasting shows something markedly different: through fasting and other acts of self-abasement, God’s people humble their entire person, body and soul, in their expression of repentance, grief, or need.
The other error is to let the external acts connected with piety continue without any connection to the internal disposition of our hearts. This can be called “ritual without reality,” and is corrected in the didactic passages surrounding fasting. Just as the Word who became flesh does not allow our worship to be disembodied, so the one “to whom all hearts are open” is not satisfied with a mere external show of piety. True Biblical fasting meets both of these challenges.
This theme of whole-bodied humility, when used as a common starting-point, opens the door to other aspects of Christian thought on fasting. We can speak of fasting helping us to grow in mastery over our appetites, since through it we are submitting our bodies as well as our souls to God. We can speak of hungering and thirsting for righteousness, as fasting lays us low amidst the evils at work within and around us, eagerly waiting for God to intervene. We can speak, along with Isaiah, about the connection of fasting with justice and mercy, as through it we align ourselves with the weak and hungry. We could, in fact, connect fasting with almost any aspect of the Christian life, because it draws us more perfectly into one of the central mysteries of the Christian faith: the exaltation of humility.
It is my hope that this meditation will bring a bit of coherence into the wonderfully rich Christian conversation surrounding fasting.