A Twentieth Century Reconsideration
“Let us say something about fasting, since very many, while they do not understand how useful it is, regard it as not very necessary; others also, considering it superfluous, completely reject it. And, since its use is not well understood, it can easily lapse into superstition.”
Things have not changed much in the four hundred years since this criticism was made, not by a rigorist Catholic teacher, but by the Protestant reformer John Calvin. Practices on fasting range from overzealous abuse to rejection regardless of denominational boundaries. The topic of fasting is not high on the list of burning issues; I cannot remember the last time I heard a heated debate about it. However, if we consider a fasting from both a biblical and rational perspective, its proper use and potential significance should cause us to rethink our twentieth century practices.
Fasting in the Scriptures
Fasting is found in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament it was practiced under a variety of circumstances. Moses and Elijah fasted for forty days before encountering the God of Israel. Hannah, the mother of Samuel, simply refused to eat because of her perturbation at being childless. King David fasted as he sought from God the life of his dying child. Fasting was specifically enjoined upon the whole nation of Israel in preparing for the Day of Atonement. Other regular fast days were observed to mark anniversaries of catastrophes, such as the destruction of the first Temple. (See Zech. 8:19) The Old Testament prophets were concerned about the integrity of the observed fasts: Isaiah rebuked the people for their worthless fasting (Is. 58), as did Zechariah (Zech. 7:6). Fasting in principle was never discouraged, but it was always to be accompanied by proper motives and actions. It is clear that fasting was a regular practice of piety and often joined with prayer in the seeking of God. By the time of the New Testament this had been well established.
In the New Testament, Christ himself fasted forty days. Anna served God with “fastings and prayers” (Lk. 2:37). The apostles fasted in the Book of Acts on several occasions (13:2,3) and 14:23). But was fasting intended to be a part of the religious practices of the Christians? Beyond these simple mentions of fasting, there are two instances of Jesus’ teaching which should be considered in the face of any prejudice against fasting. In speaking of how to fast properly, there is in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:17-18) an assumption that fasting is a proper and normal practice. And in Matthew 9:15, Jesus states, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” There is the implication here that his followers would legitimately and necessarily fast. Fasting was a regular practice in subsequent generations. This is an undoubted point of fact. So, it would be irresponsible to reject the principle of fasting as “unbiblical.”
Eating and the Meaning of the Fast
Why all the fuss about food? Before we can fully appreciate the scriptural meaning of fasting today, some basic views about eating in general should be examined. No matter how trivial eating seems to us, how and in what circumstances we do it matters to God. Just as with fasting, the eating of food is linked at times with wrong attitudes and the practices of the impious—when such eating is done without gratitude, with inordinate craving, with selfishness, or with overindulgence. To take just a few examples: Esau lost his blessing because he craved the food of his brother Jacob more than the spiritual blessing of his birthright; Israel tested God sorely because they craved food in the wilderness; in Ezekiel, Sodom is said to have suffered because they had “surfeit of food” and did not share with the hungry; in Jesus’ parable the rich man lived “in luxury every day” while the beggar Lazarus longed to eat the scraps which fell from his table. But there is also an approach to food that is pious: Jesus taught us to pray to God for “our daily bread”; in the Psalms it is God who “gives food to all flesh.” Israel was allowed to hunger in the wilderness to learn “that man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” The fast can be seen to have a role in disciplining our appetites and in teaching us about our dependence upon God. Without this knowledge, without gratitude, and without moderation, there is nothing in our use of our God-given appetites that sets us apart from the animals.
Exactly what is the genius of fasting? As an aid to prayer its value should be evident. If used properly, it may serve as a reminder and help in focusing one’s thoughts toward God. The pangs of hunger can place a restraint upon the shifting, drifting consciousness of God that most of us experience. If we fast, we will be aware of our deprivation often and, hopefully, reminded of why we are fasting in the first place. It is meant to sharpen our soul’s desire for God. The lesson “that man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of God” is taught in a tangible way. From there we should turn to the Lord in prayer.
But can we look at fasting isolated from prayer? Does fasting have any intrinsic value in and of itself or is it simply a valuable tool or aid for prayer? Jesus himself treats fasting separately and speaks of it having its own reward when done properly:
But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matt. 6:17-18).
Obviously, proper fasting meets God’s approval and has value. What exactly is this kind of fast? It is a humbling of our souls before God and an act of contrition. This being the case, a fast not undertaken for the spiritual purpose of orienting us toward God is reduced to the level of a diet and is without spiritual benefit. So, as an act of repentance, or humiliation, fasting can be of value. Certainly, we should add, if there is sorrow for sin, there is also a natural inclination to seek through prayer the God who forgives and heals. It would be strange if one fasted but prayed not at all. But we can imagine a pious man who may be a man of regular and intense prayer, who may take up a fast as an act of penitence for a particular sin. The actual amount of time spent in prayer might not increase, though its intensity might be affected. Nevertheless, the fast in this instance might be viewed as an act of penitence in itself and more than a mere adjunct to prayer.
Problems with Fasting
Although the fast can be used for good, it can also be used for ill. The least dangerous of the abuses is a mindless following of a fast, particularly one set by the Church, such as Lent, without any change in humility, prayer, or charity. This is merely an ecclesiastical diet. Going beyond this, however, we can approach the fast superstitiously or legalistically, turning it into a game in which we think that God cares if we simply cross all the t’s. Worst of all, there are those for whom a fast becomes not a thing for humility but rather something that, in Paul’s words, “puffs up.” We may become proud in setting higher and higher hurdles to overcome, turning into “junkies” on ascetical practices. The fast then becomes a matter of false heroics. Some of us may also have a perverse fascination in reading about the rigorous ascetical practices of others (legitimate or illegitimate). If the Scriptures warn us not to practice certain pieties “to be seen by men” but in secret, then we should not be too eager to look upon the ascetical practices of others too closely. The bottom line on fasting is, does it dispose our souls toward God or anesthetize the soul in legalism? Does it humble or does it “puff up”?
Before we pass on to consider our modern situation, we should at least mention exactly what we mean by a fast. There are actually two types: a fast from all food and a fast (or abstinence) from only certain foods. The latter may actually be more difficult to understand. Usually this has involved abstinence from meat. Perhaps this can be viewed as refraining from the most satisfying foods, which are usually meats for most of us. But what is the meaning of a fast where meat is replaced by the most elaborate meatless delicacies, such as caviar, in an attempt to find alternatives and lessen the sense of deprivation? Where fish is substituted for meats, some may dine frequently on lobster or other expensive alternatives. If not a violation of the letter, then it is certainly a violation of the spirit! When we abstain from certain types of food, we are reminded every time we feel their absence of the fact that we are “fasting” or abstaining. It is up to us to take that conscious knowledge of deprivation and make use of it for good.
Should any particular Christian fast? Some should not. Those who endanger their health, and those who could not perform in their vocations properly, especially when the safety of others depends upon them, should not fast. There may be other cases as well. We are not called to be reckless. Most of us can undertake some form of fast without endangering our health (some would claim it would actually improve it). A healthful modification—less rich foods, for example, would hardly be considered reckless. We should realize that it is a potential tool and a sign to God (and ourselves) of our own earnestness in turning to him.
All this is nice. But, honestly, fasting seems passé today. Can this situation be changed? Is there any possibility we can find a new meaning in the twentieth century for this discipline? To answer this for ourselves, there are perhaps two things we ought to consider here. First, some of the obstacles which lie in our thinking about fasting are inappropriate. Secondly, fasting must been seen as an important thread in the fabric of the gospel and our participation in it.
Fasting as Reorientation, Not Rejection
First, we should rid ourselves of any notion that fasting is a rejection of the physical. As Paul says, “Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving; for then it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:4-5). Whether we fast or not, we should pray. However, if we choose not to eat, it is not because we reject food as evil. It may be that part of the hesitancy about fasting, besides an unwillingness to undergo a discipline that takes some willpower, is due to a fear of making a dangerous dichotomy between the “spiritual” and the “physical.” Kallistos Ware in “The Meaning of the Great Fast” in the Lenten Triodion (a book of services for the observance of Lent in the Eastern Orthodox churches) writes:
In this way asceticism is a fight not against the body but for the body; the aim of fasting is to purge the body from alien defilement and to render it spiritual….
But in rendering the body spiritual, we do not thereby dematerialize it, depriving it of its character as a physical entity. The ‘spiritual’ is not to be equated with the nonmaterial, neither is the ‘fleshly’ or carnal to be equated with the bodily. In St. Paul’s usage, ‘flesh’ denotes the totality of man, soul and body together, in so far as he is fallen and separated from God; and in the same way ‘spirit’ denotes the totality of man, soul and body together, in so far as he is redeemed and divinized by grace. Thus the soul as well as the body can become carnal and fleshly, and the body as well as the soul can become spiritual. When St. Paul enumerates the ‘works of the flesh’ (Gal. 5:19-21), he includes such things as sedition, heresy and envy, which involve the soul much more than the body. In making our body spiritual, then, the Lenten fast does not suppress the physical aspect of our human nature, but makes our materiality once more as God intended it to be. (p. 24)
This kind of fasting disciplines the body to be oriented toward God and weans it away from a merely physical orientation. It restores a proper balance. It hopes for the redemption of body and soul and thus affirms life; it does not deny life. Ascetical practices properly undertaken are actually the celebration of life, but on a spiritual basis.
Fasting and the Gospel
Another aspect of the fast has to do with our participation in the mission of the gospel. The fast undertaken for the right reasons, with prayer, and with compassion for the poor, is redemptive and enters into a partnership with the gospel itself. First, it is a statement about the incompleteness and abnormality of our current human condition, and as it expresses our humility and repentance, we begin to identify with this condition. Secondly, as a statement of our longing for restoration, it becomes a sign of our longing for the return of our Lord, “the bridegroom.” Thirdly, the fast is an identification with the poor and suffering, both witnesses to and victims of the world’s fallen nature. Finally, it is a witness against a fleshly and appetitive world in which God is ignored.
It is normal in human experience to fast because of grief or sorrow. How many times have people who have lost someone dear to them, especially suddenly, felt like not eating? Grief and sorrow refocus our desires and shift our appetites, sometimes even suppressing them. If we become disciples who mourn the absence of both Christ himself and the fullness of his kingdom, and who sorrow over the pains, grief, sins, and tragedies of man, then we should naturally feel at times the need to enter into a self-imposed state of sorrow as we long and pray for wholeness. Indeed, the world itself is “in travail” until its full redemption; those who appreciate this mourn for and with the world (Rom. 8:22–23). Our lack of this sentiment is evidence of our callousness toward real suffering and sin, and our preoccupation with our material comfort.
In our Lord’s absence, we should remember his words: “The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” We are in that state today, for the bridegroom has yet to come and receive his bride, the Church. Until that time, we should feel the pain of separation and a longing for his return, which will bring about the full redemption of the world and society. Until that time, it comes in its fullness. While we wait for him, we may rightfully fast.
In our fast we also identify with those who hunger, with the poor, and the meek. Our identification with the poor is only right. We must realize that poverty is a result of the fallen order and the actions and inaction of men. For this reason, our identification with the poor should lead us to become involved in rectifying this situation. So when we fast in sorrow and longing expectation in the fact of our Lord’s absence and the tragic disarray in the world order, we are also told “to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.” As Isaiah continues, “Is not [the fast that I choose]…to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” (58:6-7) Everything we read in the Scriptures about the reign of Christ as Messiah emphasizes this charity. In a stark portrayal of a final judgment, Jesus describes his return as King: he will judge between those who did these things and those who did not, the proverbial separation of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31ff) So we not only express our sense of incompleteness while awaiting the Lord’s return, but we also seek the Lord’s aid in bringing about justice and relief for the downtrodden. If as Christians we participate in the Spirit of Jesus, then when we impoverish ourselves, when we go hungry and then give food to the hungry, it is in keeping with that Spirit. For Jesus himself “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).
We also serve the gospel when by fasting we witness against the world’s selfishness. It is not that our fasting should become public; but the life given to holiness will show selflessness in its charity, poverty and simplicity of life-style—it will cause those who meet us to feel or suspect that our lives have a higher purpose than that of the materialist. In disciplining our natural appetites, which we share with God’s good animal creations, and by filling up on the inner presence of the sanctifying Spirit, we can present a compelling sign of the life of God. In this we can be consistent with our calling to be “saints,” that is, “holy ones”—those who belong to God. We must understand that the life we have in God is ultimately higher than and the source of the life we sustain by eating physical food. Through the discipline of fasting and the deepening of our souls through prayer, we may sharpen our “hunger and thirst for righteousness” and give evidence that men can only find satisfaction in God (Matt. 5:14).
The Challenge Today
Again, this is all nice, but we should be realistic. Those who are moved to do these things will be irrevocably out of step with the twentieth century pace. We are irresistibly prodded day in and day out by a noisy world of TV, radio, and printed ads to eat, drink, and be merry. Instant gratification is the means and the end. Consumption of certain goods will make us attractive, sexy, chic, or fun to be with. It is small wonder that a fast will always appear strange, even sick or morbid, to those who judge by values they have absorbed from this environment. It has always been this way. For the gospel itself and its results in the lives of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth have always seemed to be the “smell of death” to some, but to others the “fragrance of life” (2 Cor. 2:16).
Our obligation, then, is to take seriously our own roles as agents of God’s kingdom. This requires repentance, humility, and the willingness to take on the discipline of self-control for the purpose of focusing our energies on spiritual acts of prayer and witness. We must also take seriously the grievous problems around us, both inside and outside the Church. There is much work to be done, and the challenges we face are monumental. But they have always been. It is just that whenever they have been met successfully, it has usually been because of prayer, fasting, and an activism born of such spiritual preparation. We must be able to say with Jesus, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work” (Jn. 4:34). To be effective agents of the gospel, we must seek in prayer, fasting, and charity the weapons we need to bring the reality of a loving and just God to modern man.
James M. Kushiner is the Executive Editor of Touchstone.
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