Physical Fasting: Spiritual Feasting
It's strange that in a church that professes to follow the Bible, the practice of fasting seems to have been emptied of its true meaning and occupies so little place in our thinking. We need to put things right.
I have to be cautious in saying it occupies little place in our thinking: fasting can be something personal and secret that only the members of the family circle may know about.
But I don't hear frequently of congregations practising it and I'm fairly sure that if it isn't done at that level, it won't be done at a personal level either.
Yet fasting isn't an Old Testament shadow now passed away; nor is it a piece of asceticism inherited from Catholicism. It isn't a modern American invention nor a practice suited to Arminian belief. It has a sound Biblical basis and has been a respected habit amongst those of Reformed persuasion. Indeed, although I couldn't find a reference to it in The Larger Catechism, it is laid down in The Westminster Confession of Faith in Chapter XXI;
Of Religious Worship and the Sabbath-day: '…solemn fastings ... are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in a holy and religious manner.'
In other words, it is actually a neglected part of our accepted beliefs. The Directory for the Public Worship of God, another document produced by the Westminster Assembly (though generally disregarded today), has a whole section on how to go about "public solemn fasting".
I just say this to clear away the feeling that fasting is something at odds with our general outlook and tradition and to remove any prejudice to the consideration of the Biblical testimony about this.
Teaching about fasting comes to us straight from the mouth of Jesus. It was an issue which was raised with him and on which he gives relatively clear and specific guidance. The key to his outlook is his speech recorded in Mark 2:16-22. I think Jesus makes the following points there:
The presence of Christ brings joy like the happiness of a marriage feast. When the presence of Christ is thus enjoyed, there is no occasion for fasting.
The time is coming when Jesus will be removed. Then, Jesus says, his disciples will fast. In Jesus' thinking, there is a place for fasting.
The old and the new don't go together: new cloth shouldn't be patched onto an old garment; new wine shouldn't be put into old wineskins. If this is applied to fasting, it means that the old outlook on fasting, characteristic of the Jews of that time, is inappropriate for the new age into which Jesus has introduced his followers. There's to be a changed outlook as regards the meaning and practice of fasting.
This passage then speaks about the fact of fasting ("my disciples will fast"), the circumstances in which fasting occurs ("when the bridegroom will be taken from them") and the practice of fasting (it will be done in a "new" way). Let's explore other parts of the Scriptures to develop each of these points.
My Disciples will Fast
Jesus fasted (Matthew 4:2). There are no special circumstances in the case which make this uniquely relevant to him; so what is appropriate for the Master is fitting for the disciples.
Jesus assumed his people would fast and gave specific instructions about the way they should do it (Matthew 6:16-18). The context shows that, to Jesus, fasting was as much part of the Christian life as prayer (v. 5) and caring for the needy (v. 1).
The word "fasting" is used in the New Testament of any period of abstention from food whether for a religious purpose or not. But when it records that the church fasted (Acts 13: 2-3; 14:23) the spiritual exercise of fasting was clearly in mind.
Paul teaches that it is legitimate to abstain from marital relationships for a time by mutual consent, with a view to the couple devoting themselves to prayer (1 Corinthians 7:5). Whether or not this is fasting depends on how you define the word. What Paul speaks of certainly works along the same lines as fasting: he speaks of abstaining from the satisfaction of bodily appetites for the sake of devoting oneself to seeking God. It is hard to see how Paul could have taught this unless it were also an established and acceptable practice to abstain from food and drink to devote oneself to God.
Fasting then is a practice written into the basic outlook of Christ and the early church. We have practices, which we would never think of discarding, which have far less ground to support them than fasting has. So why is fasting viewed as something strange and unnecessary?
When the Bridegroom is Absent
The reasoning of Jesus on the occasion mentioned may point us to the circumstances in which fasting is appropriate.
It is noticeable, for example, that he never enters into details about frequency (just as he doesn't lay down a specific pattern for prayer). That silence is noteworthy. These practices are not capable of being reduced to a regular routine. No-one can say: you ought to fast twice a week, or once a month, or whatever. Fasting in its basic nature is irregular; done in response to specific circumstances and needs rather than in accordance with a prescribed code of practice.
Jesus' words, however, have been taken to mean that Christians will never fast. This (false) argument runs thus: the bridegroom is not really absent; he may be absent in body but never in spirit. The believer can always discover the joy of his Lord's presence and can live his life as if always at a wedding feast. Fasting therefore is never appropriate.
We have always felt that this interpretation was born of an unwillingness to face the facts and involved a distortion of the plain words of Scripture. Jesus says the bridegroom will be taken away; we cannot deny what he asserts. When that happens, Jesus says fasting is appropriate; we daren't say otherwise.
This way of speaking points us to a definition of when fasting is appropriate. Fasting is the sensitive soul's response to the felt absence of Christ. An awareness of deep spiritual need; a perceived lack of blessing; a deep hungering after Christ; a longing for some special blessing whose need is deeply rooted — these are circumstances in which the bridegroom's absence is sharply felt and in which therefore fasting is fitting.
Then They Will Fast
The three occasions on which we see the New Testament engaged in fasting tend to confirm the view that fasting is appropriate when special grace is needed or special blessing sought.
We don't know the situation which led the Antioch Church to fast. We do know the outcome: the dispatch of Barnabas and Saul on what is commonly called the first missionary journey (Acts 13:2). With hindsight we can see that the greattness of the need, namely, discernment of God's will, was matched by an eagerness to seek God, namely, in fasting.
Moreover, the initiative which sprang from the church's fasting was consecrated with fasting (v. 3): the actual ordination of these missionaries to their task was carried out after prayer and fasting. It was a time when special grace was needed: the men were assuming a great task, they might face great dangers; and the church was assuming no light responsibility when they associated themselves with the missionaries by sending them out. In such circumstances, the church sought God by fasting.
Similarly, on their return from that journey Paul and Barnabas ordained elders in every church. Again, what a responsibility on Paul and Barnabas and what an onerous task for these new elders. The burden of teaching, pastoring and ruling was placed on them. Everything would point to them being young believers, called to do the work of the mature. Connected with this momentous step of setting up a church structure in these places for the first time, the church fasts (Acts 14:23).
It seems to me that the choice or ordination of minister or elders is the most appropriate and Biblical time for fasting. I've twice been Interim Moderator of a vacant charge and my greatest regret is that I never took the opportunity of teaching and practising this Biblical pattern. Prayer, yes; but fasting, no. I look forward to the time when, in our churches, fasting becomes an accepted accompaniment of the choice or induction of new office-bearers.
In general, therefore, the Scriptures do not portray fasting as our staple spiritual diet but as something reserved for special circumstances when there is a felt need of the presence of Christ or of some special blessing from him.
In a New Way
As the old garment and the new patch don't go together, neither does the old way of fasting go with the new gospel age which Jesus has introduced. What was the "old" approach to fasting and what is the new way?
It is clear from the general tenor of Jesus' teaching that the system of religion which he found amongst the Jewish leaders and against which he directed his criticisms emphasised the external dimension at the expense of the spiritual. This was no less so in regard to fasting.
In the Old Testament, the effect of fasting on the body is prominent: it produces weakness and emaciation (Psalm 109:24). It is connected with sackcloth and ashes (Daniel 9:3); with weeping and mourning (Nehemiah 1:4). It is an act of self-humiliation. All of these strongly express the external, visible or physical features of fasting.
It is not surprising then that fasting became an outward rite which folks thought would automatically bring God's blessing (Isaiah 58:3). This calls forth the rebuke of the prophets who strenuously condemn as futile the sort of fasting which is divorced from a life of uprightness (Isaiah 58:3-7; Jeremiah 14:10-12).
When Jesus dealt with this outward approach to religious observances which was characteristic of the age in which he lived, he emphasised what was inner and spiritual (for example, Matthew 5:20; Mark 7:6 and 15). From this alone we might conclude that the "new" way of fasting which was pleasing to Jesus was one in which there was no outward display nor emphasis on bodily affliction. What mattered was the spiritual dimension: the feeding upon God rather than the abstaining from food; the cultivation of the inner life rather than the lack of attention to the outward life.
...and The New
That is indeed the emphasis that comes across when Jesus teaches on this point (Matthew 6:16-17). Especially important is the fact that fasting is an act performed before God. The mind is not on the food abstained from; the purpose is not the affliction of the body. The mind is set on seeking God and the purpose is the seeking of that "reward" which he gives to the one who fasts in this spiritual style.
It seems to me that this allows us to say that fasting is an act of devotion in which we say: "your love is better than life. I prefer to know you than have my physical appetites satisfied. My yearning to know you takes precedence over all other desires." In fasting, we set aside food to devote time and energy to spiritual exercises. It is through these spiritual exercises engaged in the context of a life yielded to God, that the real blessing of fasting arises.
This is not to say that there are not other positive aspects to fasting. Where excessive eating is common, modest fasting can benefit the body and improve physical health. Fasting involves self-discipline which may then overflow into other areas of Christian behaviour. No doubt the physical effects of abstaining from food may be felt in our mental and spiritual faculties. But the real impact of fasting springs from the spirit of devotion in which it is engaged: the diverting of our energies from our material needs to our spiritual; the giving of additional time to the nurture of our spiritual lives rather than our physical lives.
The word "fasting" remains in our vocabulary: the Thursday of the Communion Season is the "fast" day. That may be a day of humiliation; but in regard to eating it's a feast day. The New Testament concept of fasting has been lost.
The bridegroom has been taken away; in our present circumstances, his presence is missed. That's the time to recapture the New Testament teaching, and practise afresh the lost art of fasting.