Should I Fast?
“And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth. . . . Neither man nor beast, herd nor flock tasted anything” (Jon. 3:5, 7). We might feel that the fasting of Nineveh is a telltale sign of a primitive culture. Fasting might be good for people who wrote by pressing wedges into soft clay and served food to carved images of their deities, but it surely can’t be suitable for modern people.
Is fasting finished? Or is our disinterest in fasting a modern blind spot? Might we need fasting as much as, if not more than, “primitive” people?
By fasting—or temporarily abstaining from life’s blessings—we better feel our need for God’s help.[i] For this reason, the Christian church throughout the ages has practiced fasting as an aid to heartfelt prayer. Today fasting is foreign to many believers. It “is, and has been for some time, countercultural. It goes against the grain of the Western world.”[ii] But we can’t ignore how often fasting is practiced and commended in God’s word.
A Case for Fasting
Fasting Was a Component of Biblical Piety
In the Old Testament God’s people fasted on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29–31), during extraordinary times of meeting with God (Deut. 9:9), appalling instances of national sin (v. 18), and excruciating uncertainty (Esth. 4:15–16). In the New Testament Jesus fasted (Matt. 4:2), he expected his disciples to fast (Matt. 9:15; Mark 2:18–20), and chastened them when they did not (Mark 9:29). Early Christians naturally fasted in the face of critical decisions (Acts 13:2–3; 14:23; cf. 1 Cor. 7:5; 2 Cor. 6:5). Scripture nowhere suggests that fasting is finished.
The Christian Church Continued Fasting
How can we sum up the historic Christian approach to fasting? “In the grand sweep, the observance of fasts flowed from Judaism into early Christianity, evolved and flourished during the Middle Ages, and then underwent close scrutiny and modification during the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Still, Protestant theologians and ecclesiastical authorities did not abandon the fast.”[iii] John Calvin criticized institutionalized fasts that failed to connect to the organic circumstances of God’s people. However he insisted that fasting “has not been abolished by the gospel.”[iv] The Westminster Larger Catechism even codified “religious fasting” into the lives of Presbyterian believers.[v]
Within a few centuries of the reformation fasting had nearly faded from protestant communities. Seventeenth-century Dutch pastor Wilhemus à Brakel wrote, “It is sad—a sign of great decay in the church—that so little work is made of fasting.”[vi] In the nineteenth century Abraham Kuyper noted that there are very few “among the godly who fast . . . We have become estranged from fasting, and we do not count it among the means of edification.”[vii]
Why Don’t We Fast?
Perhaps fasting suffers from perceived connection to more mystical traditions, and the real possibility of legalism (Is. 58:4; Matt. 6:16–18). But mostly, it is just hard! I know. Even when not fasting, I wake up in the morning famished. I think about eating all the time. Fasting is truly extreme. Thankfully, fasting “is not a daily activity such as prayer, reading, thanksgiving and singing,” but “is practiced at special seasons of need.”[viii]
But both Scripture and the Christian tradition promote fasting as a God-honoring physical act that can result in deeper communion with God, contentment in God’s providence, (Esth. 4:3; Ps. 35:13–14; 69:10; Ezra 9:2–5), and clarity in decision making (Acts 13:2). Fasting can help us confess our sins, and curb our flesh. Fasting with other believers can also cultivate community (Esth. 4:15–17). À Brakel testifies to these results of true fasting: the Lord “will increase your light, and strengthen your heart in faith; you will be nearer to God in your walk, and lead a life which is more sober and thoughtful; and your conscience will be more tender. You will have more strength against sin, and receive more comfort from the Lord.” True fasting will never be regretted.[ix]
A Plan for Fasting
Those convinced by the biblical practice of fasting can follow three simple steps for beginning the habit.
We can prepare to fast by answering important personal questions. What can I cut to gain time in order to commune with God? From what can I abstain to better realize that God has met all my needs? Could I pray more if I fasted from digital entertainment? Could I replace with prayer some of the time I spend playing on my phone? What if on my commutes I took a partial (or complete!) break from media in order to have a time of quiet reflection with God? What are those blocks of time that I typically squander with insignificant activities? One historic confession summarized fasting—which “is to be observed by one and all”—as moderate consumption of food “and sobriety and temperance.”[x] In what ways might you express your dependence on God by greater moderation?
God’s people fast because pleasant circumstances do not evoke the serious prayer demanded by life’s often hidden urgencies. Peace-time prayers lack war-time passion. Fasting creates a time of self-imposed frailty in which to seek God’s might. This was Paul’s experience in connection with his thorn in the flesh. When Paul felt weak, he “pleaded with the Lord.” In weakness Paul better felt the power of Christ rest upon him (2 Cor. 12:8–9). Pray in weakness expecting the Spirit’s help to intercede for you with “groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26).
For the hypocrite fasting is spiritual posturing. Hypocrites fast to show others how much they suffer for God (Matt. 6:16) or how much they deserve God’s attention (Is. 58:3). Believers fast thanking God for the plenty they ordinarily enjoy. At the close of a fast we can rejoice that we have food to eat though we “are not worthy of one bite of bread.”[xi] We fast by delighting in the Lord, praising him that he makes us to “ride on the heights of the earth” (Is. 58:14). We praise God that at his incarnation Christ fasted from the enjoyment of eternal glory, becoming to our hungry and thirsty souls bread from heaven (John 6:33) and living water (4:10). Fasting can help us praise God that this life is a temporary fast that prepares us for an eternal feast.
Thankfully, fasting is not the rule. It is the exception to the life of fullness God gives his children. But it can free us from life’s distractions and help us focus on the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matt. 6:33).
This article is adapted from William Boekestein’s latest book, Stubborn Prophet Faithful God.
[i] Daniel R. Hyde Scripture teaches that “Christian fasting is a religious abstaining from food or any other legitimate provision of God for a set period of time.” See Why Should I Fast? (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2015), 7.
[ii] Guy Richard, “Should Christians Fast?” Tabletalk (November 9, 2018); https://tabletalkmagazine.com/posts/should-christians-fast/
[iii] Raymond A. Mentzer, Fasting, Piety, and Political Anxiety among French Reformed Protestants in Church History, vol. 76, no. 2 (2007), 330.
[iv] For this reason Calvin lamented “how much we have departed from the right and lawful order of things; for at this day it would be new and unusual to proclaim a fast” (Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, vol. 3, 45).
[v] Westminster Larger Catechism, Q/A 108.
[vi] Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, vol. 4(Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage), 9.
[vii] Hyde, Why Should I Fast?,3.
[viii] à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 3.
[ix] à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 10.
[x] Bohemian Confession (1535), art. 18.
[xi] à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 10.