What Is Fasting?
Last month, the OPC’s General Assembly (the annual meeting of ministers and elders from the whole denomination) called for a special “day of prayer and fasting” this month on Saturday, August 21st. Over the next three weeks, I’d like us to take the opportunity to study what the Bible teaches about fasting, which will help us prepare to participate in this important shared moment in the life of our broader church. First, we’ll look primarily at the Old Testament to answer the introductory question, “What is fasting?” Next week, we’ll look to the New Testament to answer the question, “Should Christians fast?” Then, the week before the 21st, I’ll offer some practical suggestions on “How to fast” to help you and your family plan what to do that Saturday. Lastly, we’ll compare the biblical themes of fasting and feasting ahead of our church picnic the following weekend.
What Fasting Is
In its most basic sense, fasting is simply not eating food. We eat “break-fast” in the morning because we haven’t eaten all night. These days, fasting has actually become trendy—you probably know someone who eats on an “intermittent fasting” schedule as a health and wellness regimen. People fast for many reasons, and fasting appears as a religious practice in many different religions. Many Christians have a general idea that fasting is a good thing but perhaps feel vaguely guilty for not practicing it more regularly, if at all.
In the Bible, fasting is a form of self-denial intended to embody spiritual humility and dependence on God as God’s people grieve great losses, repent of great sins, or ask God for great help, either individually or corporately.
First, fasting can express great grief. David, his men, and the people of Jabesh Gilead fasted when Saul and his sons were killed on Mt. Gilboa (1 Samuel 31:13; 2 Samuel 1:12); when Nehemiah heard about the pitiful ruined state of Jerusalem, he “sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven” (Nehemiah 1:4). Fasting, then, can be a way of mourning—an expression of sorrow.
The deepest grief for God’s people always ought to be over our sin. So, it is natural that fasting in the Bible often accompanies repentance. When Jonah preached, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” the Assyrian king famously decreed, “Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with 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.” And “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” (Jonah 3:7b-10). Similarly, the prophet Joel, after painting a grim picture of the impending day-of-the-Lord judgment that Israel deserved, offered a ray of hope: “‘Yet even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.’ Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.”
Third, we find God’s people fasting in the Bible when they are seeking God’s help in some time of extraordinary need. When a vast army of enemies marched against Jerusalem, King Jehoshaphat “was afraid and set his face to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah,” then led the people in praying, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (2 Chronicles 20:3, 12b).
Finally, fasting in the Bible is sometimes individual, but very often corporate. It is common to find the leaders of Israel calling God’s people to fast together to humble themselves and express their shared dependence on the Lord for forgiveness, help, and protection (see Ezra 8:21).
What Fasting Is Not
That’s what biblical fasting is. Here are a couple of things it is not:
First, fasting is not a rejection of the body. In some religions, people fast to train themselves to ignore, overcome, or transcend their bodies in order to attain a higher spiritual plane. This is not a Christian way to think about fasting. God made you a whole person, body and soul, and your body is a very important part of God’s plan for both creation and redemption. Christian fasting is actually a way of integrating body and soul, bringing together the physical and spiritual aspects of our lives. It helps us experience our dependence on God in a whole-person way.
Second, fasting is not a good work that earns you spiritual points with God. The physical act of fasting all by itself has no intrinsic value. Isaiah rebukes those who fast outwardly but otherwise keep seeking their own pleasure and sinning the same as before; “Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high,” he says (Isaiah 58:4b).
Grace-Based Action Point
We must never fast to try to get God’s attention or think that when we fast God owes us something in return. Again, in true biblical fasting the physical and spiritual dimensions of human life harmonize. True fasting is an expression of, not a substitute for, the heart-reality of humility, sorrow, repentance, and petition. When God’s people fast, we recognize that we cannot help ourselves, but depend on God alone for forgiveness and help in our time of need.
Yours in Christ,