WHAT IS A FAST?
Fasting is part of the faith life of religions old and new all over the world. In a fast, the believer chooses, for a set time, to do without something that is hard to do without. This is done so it does not come between the believer and God, so it cannot act as a god over that relationship and over the life of the believer.
Usually, the fast is to do without food. Food is one of the great blessings of God in our lives, a true pleasure and a true necessity. But humans tend to be gluttons; we want to eat more. Our hunger can compel us, force our hand, occupy our thoughts. When we have anything in our lives that we don't or can't say no to, then it is lording over us. But God is in control. If something else takes up God's place in our lives, it is an idol, and we are living in something akin to idolatry. Fasting helps to bring it back into enough control for us to surrender it to God so it can be returned to its rightful place in life. Food is the foremost example of such a thing.
You can fast from some foods, and not others. You can fast from watching television, having sex, and buying pleasure items, even from buying ordinary stuff. You can fast from hobbies you crave, places you are unhealthily drawn to, music, books, news, and movies. You might even find it necessary to be fasting from use of the Internet -- though please don't start until you're done using this site. :) If you can be described as a 'junkie', 'freak', or 'fanatic' about something, that's a good thing to fast from. For most people in North America, and the upper classes all over the earth, the most important it is to fast from being a consumer of goods, for our role as a consumer can consume us spiritually. For Catholics, fasting for Lent is one of the most enduring hallmarks of their tradition.
Fasting In Repentance
1 Samuel 7:6 (national);
Jonah 3:5-9 (Nineveh);
Mark 2:18 (re John the Baptist's followers)
- How does fasting in repentance work? You realize what you did was very wrong. Doing things that way is destructive; it harms others, and thus yourself. Wrongdoing blocks the value you have as a person; it adds to you a hellishness which saps you spiritually. To repent is to reject this hellishness.
- What does fasting do that furthers the repentance/healing? Fasting is a discipline. Through it, you change your way of living for a while, taking away something very basic to your body's health. The whole You enters into [or 'experiences'] the unwholeness that your sin creates. Things are not right, and feeling that unrightness through the discomforts of hunger helps to firm up your resolve not to do it again, a resolve to live a different kind of life.
Leviticus 16:29-34 (Yom Kippur), done "that you may humble your souls", and Numbers 29:7-11.
Fasting And Obeying God
"First, let [fasting] be done unto the Lord with our eye singly fixed on Him. Let our intention herein be this, and this alone, to glorify our Father which is in heaven."
------- John Wesley, as found in the collection *Sermons On Several Occasions* (Epworth, 1971), p.301
If one of the purposes of fasting is to bring yourself to obey and follow God, then what can it mean when life after fasting does not bear the marks of such obedience? In the face of a nation that fasted and wailed before God as if they were holy, but did not live Godly lives, the prophets spoke of the kind of 'fasting' God wanted. Or, as Isaiah said, especially 58:6 :
"Isn't this the fast that I want :
to loosen the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the bands of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free
and break every yoke?"
The disciples often did not fast at the usual times specified by the Jewish faith. (This was so very different from the Pharisees and the followers of John the Baptist, who would fast regularly.) This was not done to make a point about fasting, but a point about Jesus, since Jesus' coming was God's response to the pleas of all those who had been fasting in repentance and for God to rescue them. Jesus spoke little of fasting, and when he did, it was about the right spirit to fast in. Jesus spoke more often about feasting, comparing the Kingdom of God to a banquet. This was foreshadowed by Zechariah, who prophesied that one day the solemn fast days of the Jewish faith would become "cheerful feasts". Not that Jesus was against fasting. He himself fasted and faced the temptation to use His power to get food to break His fast. He spoke of the role of fasting and prayer in healing and in casting out evil spirits.
The early church expected those who fast to give away what they would have eaten, either in money-value or in food, to those in need. (Shepherd of Hermas 3.5.3; Augustine's Sermon 208). Origen (Homilies on Leviticus, 10) even praised those who fasted in order to give to the poor.
"Is not the neglect of this plain duty (I mean fasting, ranked by our Lord with almsgiving and prayer) one general occasion of deadness among Christians?"
--- John Wesley, *The Journal of John Wesley*
Some Red Flags of Fasting
Is there a time not to fast? Yes. Don't fast when it's time to celebrate and have fun. For instance, your wedding anniversary. For Christian believers, Easter is the resurrection of Jesus, the happiest thing that's ever happened, so the time between Easter and Pentecost is a season to celebrate and feast, not fast. The birth of Jesus is cause for celebrating that God is with us, so the days between Christmas and Epiphany are for celebration. Jesus' disciples generally didn't fast on the usual Jewish fast days, because they were with One who was so great they had to use all the time and energy they could muster to sink into Him. They fasted after He was gone, as part of their standing as apostles before God for the whole Church.
Fasting from food is not dieting. It's not a divine weight-loss plan. Treated that way, it could be a thin disguise for an adult version of anorexia, a psychological eating illness which has strong physical effects on the body. Many people have died because of this abuse of fasting. If you're overweight because you have no self-discipline about eating or exercise, then short or selective fasts may be helpful as part of the larger process of developing self-discipline about food -- but spiritually helpful due to the discipline, rather than the weight loss.
Jesus speaks of the hypocrites who fast so that other people are impressed. Fasts are not for getting others to say, "wow, this is one holy dude". Fasts are between yourself and God. Even a fast as an act done publicly with others (as, for instance, in Lent, Ramadan, or Yom Kippur) is not about showing non-believers or fellow believers how holy you are. They are not the point; the relationship between you and God is the point of a fast. (The same can be said of most of those who rhapsodize about fasts in their sermons. Talk is getting cheaper with each new day.)
Sufferings caused by fasts are not an excuse for being grouchy, stingy, or rude. Going without food can make your mind get weak and unable to focus, which can make for angry or delusional reactions. When it does, stop fasting, because you're starting to harm yourself and you're bearing a bad witness to God's love.
Don't Fast To Punish Yourself
Fasts are not for self-punishment. The Qumran sect and some apocalyptic Jews of Jesus' day took on extreme food-free periods, in hopes of making themselves pure before the end-times arrived. They would sometimes prohibit marriage or sex and require abstinence from foods. To the early Christians, this made no sense. They thanked God for God's good creation, including all kinds of food. And they would not stand for setting a new law over themselves, since Christ has just freed them from the burdens of the law. Even the one rule of not eating sacrifices to idols, as sensible as that was for their witness, was cause for a major struggle. Some folks since then have sought to enter into the drug-like experience which happens as the body gets seriously weakened by the fast. Even more often, they had a sadistic drive to destroy themselves. They had this idea that their sins were so bad that they were worthless before God, even after they dedicated themselves to God. Many monks, especially from Europe's Middle Ages, and also many holy people of Christianity and other major religions, believed that one should force one's body into submission to God. But self-punishment is a form of self-destruction and self-hatred. This attitude bleeds over into everything else about the way you think of yourself and your body, even when you are not fasting. God didn't love you and then tell you to go hate yourself. God wants you to see yourself and your body through God's eyes -- as being well worth loving. Or perhaps, you might dare treat The Almighty Creator as a fool for loving you? This is true of both foods and people: God did not create mistakes. Besides, you can't earn forgiveness, and there is no sin in you God can't forgive. So what's all this obsessive work for?
Fasting Too Much
It is also not right to harm yourself in a way that might make you a burden to others who would have to give you physical care. Mohammed was a strong believer in fasting as a discipline, but even he had to act against the extreme fasting of his Companions in Medina when it weakened them up to the edge of death. The lengthy Ramadan fasts are only for daylight hours. King Saul put his soldiers under oath of death not to eat, leaving them too weak to succeed. His son Jonathan understood how wrongheaded this was, but his disobedience almost got him killed by his own father. Thus, do not fast in a way that seriously harms your health.
You don't need to fast to be saved, at least not according to Scripture. Each church body has its own rules and practices about fasting, as part of their own way of living the Christian life. But many millions of people live good and faithful Christian lives without ever fasting. It can be helpful to your own discipline, but is not at all required and has no role at all in whether God rescues you.
When To Stop Fasting
Stop fasting for preparation when the time has come to do what you're preparing for. Better yet, following Jonathan's lesson, give yourself at least a short time between the end of the fast and the moment you're about to seize. That will make you stronger for the task.
(There are a very few special situations where fasting is part of a larger effort of achieving something really big and good for others beyond yourself -- Gandhi's fasts for Indian independence come to mind -- in which the faster's own physical good is in the far background. But that's almost certainly not your case, and don't fantasize that it is. Some would not even label this as 'fasting', but as a political 'hunger strike'. However, in many if not most actual cases it is done with a very clear spiritual dimension, and when that is true it is very hard to separate it out from fasting. Justice is, after all, a serious concern of God and a part of God's character that the Spirit is writing into us, in part through fasting.)
"He wants nothing at all to do with you if by your fasting you court Him as if you were a great saint, and yet meanwhile nurse a grudge or anger against your neighbor."
Seen in an ad:
Prayer and Fasting Conference fee: $65.
Asking God to Change
Fasting to ask God to change course: Ezra 8:21-23
-- why would this matter to God? Because God cares that we care.
When King David had been caught by Nathan the Prophet in his evil deed of murder and adultery (2 Sam 12), Nathan ended by forgiving David of his sin, but telling him that the son born from this relationship was to die (verses 13-14). David took his sorrow over this to the Lord in prayer and fasting and tears, laying on the ground, doing nothing else for a whole week (try doing that when you're the sole leader of a nation). But this did not save his son. Once the baby died, David immediately got up, washed and clothed himself, went to worship, and then went to eat. This puzzled the people around him: shouldn't he be fasting over the child's death? David's answer showed how deeply he understood what he was fasting for :
"While the child was alive, I fasted and wept, thinking, 'Who knows, maybe the LORD will be gracious to me so the child may live.' But now that he has died, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again??" (2 Samuel 12:22-23)
David was fasting and weeping out of love for his son, the son his own evil deeds created, the son his own evil deeds killed. He had already come to hate the great sins that he did. He had already mourned as terribly as he could. It was now his task to lead a nation (God's own covenant people), follow God, and comfort Bathsheba who was also mourning over the child that was hers as well as his. But he can't do any of that while he's on the ground starving and wailing. The time for fasting was over; the time for renewed living was at hand. By setting himself right with God, David was once again blessed by God, as the Lord took that twisted relationship and made from it David's eventual heir, Solomon.
Fasting As Part of Mourning
For most of the rest of us, we have no nation to run. The loss of a loved one affects us so much that we may not care to eat. Or we may come to understand the damage of all those little wrongs we did to that someone, and plead for forgiveness to God. The Bible has many examples of fasting as part of mourning:
Fasts are also done to commemorate a catastrophe -- the traditional Jewish fasts for the events described in :
Getting Ready By Fasting
The Bible shows fasting as preparation for major moves and deeds:
Think on These, in Fasting
- How does fasting help us prepare? By helping us put even our most basic urges and needs into a lower priority than the task at hand, so we can put our whole selves into it.
- What effects make fasting useful for preparation?
- Jesus fasted 40 days in the desert. That led to the temptations, the first of which was to use his powers to make food for himself. Since he was in a fast period preparing himself for the ministry and the trial ahead of him, feeding himself would have made the preparation incomplete. The task ahead was way too important. He had to maintain focus on God.
- Paul spent much time isolated after conversion; as a good Jew, periods without food were a part of that time.
- In Didache 7.4, days of fasting were specified for the ones being baptized and the ones baptizing them.
- In some Jewish traditions, the bride and groom fast in preparation on their wedding day up to the time of the ceremony. Then, of course, they feast.
Notes on Why People Fast
Most religions use fasting, usually as self-discipline and preparation. They use it as :
- defeating evil spirits which show forth in the desire for material things;
- a discipline for one's 'evil' bodily (material) nature, to force it to submit to God.
- a way to become one with the experience of Christ's suffering by way of one's own suffering.
These ideas carried over into the monastic traditions of the Middle Ages and of Eastern Orthodoxy. Some of these are a poor fit for the faith, but have influence through several unquestionably faithful Christian devotionalists.
It is common for rulers to declare national days of fasting, by even the most secular of governments, especially during wartime.
One of the most powerful discoveries of small prayer groups is the use of fasting together, with intensive prayer, over urgent matters. Someone can challenge the whole small group to fast together during the time period when they are holding the urgent matter in prayer. This is usually done over a specific turning point in congregational life, or an acute illness, or after a disaster.
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