I’ve been doing a bit of thinking on fasting so today I begin a short series of three posts looking at the topic:
What is fasting?
Fasting normally involves going without food for a limited period of time. But it can also involve abstinence from sexual intercourse, technology or shopping. Paul assumes married couples may abstain from sex to focus on prayer together when he warns them not to do this for too long: ‘Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.’ (1 Corinthians 7:5) Fasting could also involve not using the internet, television, phones or movies for a period of time. Finally it could involve not shopping. Rodney Clapp says: ‘The consumer is schooled in insatiability … The consumer is tutored that people basically consist of unmet needs that can be appeased by commodified goods and experience. Accordingly, the consumer should think first and foremost of himself or herself and meeting his or her felt needs.’ The Sabbath day is a kind of fast from work and spending. It is a declaration that we are not defined by what we do or what we buy. In a similar way, a Sabbath fast is a declaration that we are not defined by what we eat.
Should Christians fast?
Jesus assumes Christians will fast. In Matthew 6:16-18 Jesus says ‘when’ you fast, not ‘if’ you fast. He assumes his followers will fast. The early church also fasted (Acts 13:1-3; 14:23).
In Matthew 9:14-17 Jesus says his disciples of Jesus do not fast because he is among them as the bridegroom of God’s people. But one day he will be taken away and then they will fast. This could refer to the period between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The problem with this interpretation is that the early church fasted after Easter Sunday (Acts 13:1-3; 14:23). So it is more likely that it refers to the period between the ascension and return of Jesus.
This means New Testament is both like and unlike fasting Jewish fasting. The Jews fasted as a sign of mourning and repentance, believing that God would return to vindicate his repentant people (Luke 2:36-38). Christians believe this event has happened in the death and resurrection of Jesus. So our fasting cannot have the same note of mourning. But we also believe the public vindication of God and his people lies in the future. So we, too, are looking for the coming of God.
What is the purpose of fasting?
1. To seek guidance from God
The early church fasted when important decisions needed to be made like the appointment of leaders. In Acts 13:1-3 God guided church leaders when they fasted. Although it’s not explicitly stated that they were seeking guidance, it seems likely they were seeking the next step for the church.
2. To seek satisfaction in God
In Matthew 6 Jesus promises a reward to those who fast. (Jesus also says those who fast to be seen by people receive their reward in full – the temporary and inconsequential admiration of people without the favour of God.) What is this reward? It is not a reward that we earn through fasting as if fasting were some sort of meritorious act. The reward rather is God himself.
In both cases, fasting can also be used to create time for prayer – prayer about the decision needing to be made or prayer pursing a stronger relationship with God.
In my next post I’ll develop this last idea – using a hunger for food to develop a hunger for God.
 Rodney Clapp, ‘Why the Devil Takes Visa,’ Christianity Today 40:2, 7 October 1996.