This was first published under the title ‘The Christian Duty of Fasting’. Sensible feedback from more level-headed friends led me to change the name in order that I not be misheard as wanting to bind anyone’s conscience. I remain a keen advocate of the practice, however, and the text below remains unchanged. (3/12/20)
— For the first Sunday of Advent
‘But when you fast…’
— Matthew 6v17
Happy new year! Though the Christian year begins in a spirit unlike the calendar year, in a spirit of penitence and expectant longing. Though Lent is now the period of the liturgical year associated with fasting, Advent was also a period of fasting from the 5th Century, though was relaxed in the Anglican Lutheran churches, and is no longer an obligation on Roman Catholics, though the Fast of the Nativity is still observed in the Eastern Churches. (As an aside, when first instituted, the fast began on St. Martin’s day, the 11th of November, and finished at Epiphany, but this was later shortened to just the Advent season.)
The question is, however, what is fasting for? Why fast at all? It is awkwardly acknowledged among many evangelicals that perhaps we ought to, since our Lord did say ‘when you fast’, rather than ‘if you fast’, but since we’re all supposed to be top secret about it anyway, maybe we can all get along without it. No one would know that we’re not fasting, and if they did, sure that would be proof we were doing it wrong. There are plenty of other good resources on fasting out there, here are a few quick thoughts. I hope this also offers something of a counterweight to my previous article on feasting.
‘There is a time for everything’: We fast to express our grief
Just as feasting is the appropriate way to celebrate, fasting is the appropriate way to mourn. This may be seen throughout the Old Testament: the Israelites weep and fast when cut down by the Benjaminites (Judges 20v26); they fast to mourn the death of Saul (1 Samuel 31v13), as does David (2 Samuel 1v11-12); Nehemiah fasts to mourn the destruction of Jerusalem’s wall (Nehemiah 1v4); the Israelites fast when they hear of Haman’s plan to destroy them (Esther 4v3). Fasting is appropriate when you’re mourning.
And mourning is appropriate as well. The Preacher says that going to the house of mourning is better than the house of feasting (Ecclesiastes 7v2), and James says mourning is part of the process of humbling oneself and drawing near to God in repentance (thanks to Ronnie Collinson for these particular references). Advent is an appropriate way to start the Christian year because it mirrors the way in which we start the Christian life: mourning for sin as we prepare to face God, waiting for his word of grace and forgiveness to be spoken to us in Christmas.
‘And on that day they will fast’: We fast to remember what time it is
When Christ was asked by the Pharisees why his disciples did not fast, he did not comment on whether fasting was appropriate, but rather when fasting was appropriate. Fasting is not appropriate when the bridegroom is present, but is appropriate when the bridegroom is taken away. Fasting in this instance is a sign of mourning, and here has an eschatological aspect to it: we fast to remember what time it is. Were Jesus with us, it would mean that he has returned, and we were in the New Jerusalem, at the great feast, the marriage supper of the lamb. Since he is not, we fast in mourning and in expectation of his return. We fast to make sure that we don’t confuse this current world with our eternal hope. We have not reached the resurrection and the great feast, so let’s not eat like we already have.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness’: We fast to remember our true needs
We do not need to eat three times a day. To do so is a luxury. We do, however, need righteousness In voluntarily waiving our right to eat whenever we feel like, we can train ourselves, mind, body, and soul, to remember the things that are truly necessary. Hungering and thirsting for food is a physical survival instinct. Hungering and thirsting for righteousness is a spiritual survival instinct. Thirsting for God is an image used by David and the Sons of Korah (Psalms 42, 63), Isaiah offers the invitation to the hungry and thirsty, not those sated already (Isaiah 55), and Jesus offers his living water to the thirsty (John 4, 7). Of course, these are spiritual, not physical needs, but the Scriptures are consistent in warning those who are rich that they are in greater danger of going through life without recognising their spiritual needs. Fasting is a means of remind ourselves and showing God that he is our greatest need and desire.
Or to look at it from a public, global angle, rather than private: the beatitude for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness could as legitimately be translated ‘blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.’ In a world of rampant injustice and inequality, in which millions upon millions of the world’s poor go without sufficient food while developed nations have crises of obesity and its associated diseases, fasting adds earnestness to our prayers for justice (more below).
‘Whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly’: We fast to starve false gods
This is the other side of the coin in the above point. We fast to give strength to our spiritual life, remembering that seeking the Kingdom of God and its righteousness is our greatest need, and at the same time we fast to weaken the flesh. Paul keeps his body disciplined (1 Corinthians 9v27), knowing that the desires of the flesh grow when they are fed. Or to take another image, the gods of the pagans were often worshipped in rites involving food, in which food offerings were brought to the deity. If your god is your belly, as Paul says of those who walk as enemies of the cross (Philippians 3), then perhaps you should go a day without food to weaken its power. Same logic for other gods: if your god is your wallet, give money away. If your god is your work, take a day off. Starve your idols.
‘Who knows? The LORD may be gracious to me’: We fast to show our our earnestness in prayer
After David’s son, conceived through his adulterous union with Bathsheba, fell ill, David fasted and prayed. ‘David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and spent the nights lying in sackcloth on the ground’ (2 Samuel 12v16). When the people of Judah were opposed by the Moabites and Ammonites, Jehoshaphat commanded that they fast and call upon the LORD for help (2 Chronicles 20v3-4). When Daniel understood that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years, he ‘turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes’ (Daniel 9v3). When the Jews are about to return to Jerusalem, Ezra proclaims a fast as they pray to the LORD for safe travel (Ezra 8v21-23).
Yet fasting is not a means of twisting God’s arm. It is not the fee we pay to make sure God does what we want. There is a form of fasting that displeases God and makes sure our prayers are not heard (Isaiah 58), and fasting does not mean that God will automatically hear our prayers, regardless of our sins (Jeremiah 14v12). Rather, fasting that flows out of true grief for sin and expresses true delight in God does give power to our prayers, for it focusses us on what we ask for.
‘While they were fasting, the Holy Spirit said’: We fast to hear God
Who will hear the voice of God? To whom will God reveal himself? To the one who earnestly seeks Him, and desires him above all earthly things. Anna, the prophet, remained in the Temple, worshipping and fasting and praying, and she was among the first to see the Christ in his infancy (Luke 2v36-38). The Church in Antioch worshipped God and fasted, and they heard the word of God as the Holy Spirit told them to set aside Barnabas and Saul for the work to which God had called them, and with fasting and prayer they sent the apostles to conquer the Mediterranean coast in the name of Jesus (Acts 13v1-3).
Fasting is not a burden, but a gift. A means by which many things may be done in us, through us, and for the Lord. As we prepare ourselves in Advent for the coming of the Lord, perhaps we may do so with fasting as well, in order to put off the works of the flesh, and prepare ourselves for the season of eternal feasting at Christ’s return.
ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.