These days it seems that when people are serious about losing weight and being healthy they are even willing to try intermittent fasting diets. Whether or not that is a good thing, there are clear reasons why they do. It is simple and they believe it is necessary and will benefit their health. So why do some Christians never engage in fasting and prayer when it is equally simple?
In part, this may be because they do not strongly believe it to be necessary or beneficial. In fairness, it is probably also because fasting by its nature is not routine or part of the ordinary means of grace. This means that we must be persuaded enough to be proactive in identifying the appropriate time for it.
1. Because we do not know that we should fast?
As has been observed frequently, Christ says twice in the same chapter not “if” but “when you fast” (Matthew 6:16, 18). “Religious fasting” is one of the duties of worship required by the second commandment (Westminster Larger Catechism, Q108). Some make excessive and superstitious use of fasting but this is not true fasting. It should not dissuade us from true obedience to this command. There may also be practical medical issues for some but it is still a principle that needs to be applied in some way. There different ways and different areas of life in which it can be applied.
Mere abstinence is not religious worship in itself. It has no spiritual value unless it is combined with prayer. As David Dickson notes on Psalm 69:10: “fasting in earnest is not so much the abstinence from meat, as it is the afflicting of the soul”. It is worship “only as it is made use of to be helpful for some other duty, such as praying, humbling ourselves, mortification etc” (James Durham). No doubt this is what the Westminster Confession means when it says that it is to be “used in a holy and religious manner”. It is “a solemn piece of external religious worship, when rightly and religiously discharged”. Durham also demonstrates that:
- Scripture commands fasting (Joel 2:12; Matthew 6:16, 18; Matthew 9:15).
- Scripture give examples of believers fasting (2 Samuel 12:16; Esther 4:16; Daniel 9:3; Acts 13:1–3).
- Scripture gives rules to direct us in fasting (Isaiah 58:3; Zechariah 7:5; 1 Corinthians 7:5).
These are only a fraction of the Bible verses on the subject. As Durham goes on to show it is wholly wrong to dismiss or undervalue fasting. We do this by:
- disparaging it or considering it as unnecessary;
- neglecting it, so that we will do not make effort to stir ourselves to be in the right condition for it;
- refusing to leave our pleasures or work for it.
- not esteeming it highly;
- not actively seeking suitable opportunities to engage in it;
- being afraid of it as a weighty burden;
- mocking at others who fast and calling it hypocrisy;
- not joining with or showing kindly interest in others whom we know to be fasting;
- making infrequent use of it;
- neglecting national reasons or to others; only being content our own private necessities;
- not being grieved at having neglected this duty. Not mourning and repenting because of this and the many evils that neglecting it has brought on us;
- neglecting one or another aspect of the duty of fasting;
- not being seriously focussed on the purpose of fasting and thus neglecting it or engaging in it superficially.
2. Because we do not know when we should fast?
Christ says “when you fast” – he does not specify specific times. There is freedom to identify the appropriate time. That is why recently we noted the danger of Giving up Liberty of Conscience for Lent. Fasting is for “special occasions” (Westminster Confession 21:5). Henry Scudder (member of the Westminster Assembly) emphasised this:
Though I cannot but justly complain of Christians seldom fasting; yet I dare not allow you to make this extraordinary exercise of religion to be ordinary and common. For then it will soon degenerate into mere form or superstition: but wish you to observe it as you shall have special occasion, and when ordinary seeking of God is not likely to prevail.
Fasting is the appropriate response to God’s providence in times of need. It is practical evidence of genuine belief that God is in sovereign control of events. Fasting is for times of present, imminent or feared trouble whether spiritual or temporal. Perhaps that indicates the reason we rarely fast, we prefer to face crises in our self-sufficiency. This spirit is inconsistent with fasting which indicates that we have come to the end of our own resources. Fasting shows that we do not consider ourselves worthy of even the basic necessities of life. It is not only for times of trouble. The critical moment may be the need for special blessing from God on some significant task or opportunity before us.
3. Because we do not know why we should fast?
As we have seen, fasting gives greater focus, reality and earnestness to prayer. It gives it “a stronger and speedier wing” (Henry Scudder). Fasting gives great help to all spiritual exercises:
meditations, reading, and hearing the word, prayer, examining, judging, and reforming a person’s self; both because his spirits are better disposed, when he is fasting, to serious devotion; and the mind being so long taken wholly off from the thoughts, cares, and pleasures of this life, he may be more intent and earnest in seeking of God.
Perhaps this is why the puritan Isaac Ambrose called it “soul-feeding” as well as “soul-curing”. It brings great spiritual blessing. While “it is an extraordinary piece of worship; yet the more holy we read any to have been, we find they have been the more in this duty of fasting” (Durham).
Durham also shows that we must not be mistaken about the purpose of fasting. We must be clear that it helps us to be in a more spiritual condition. The special reasons that call us to engage in fasting should be clear to us. We should seek to be suitably convicted in relation to them.
4. Because we do not know how we should fast?
The best guidance on how to fast privately is given by Henry Scudder in his book The Christian’s Daily Walk. He considers both outward and inward fasting. Not only does he give practical guidance but he gives questions for self-examination that are very useful at any time. The material above is drawn from James Durham’s exposition of the second commandment. He gives extensive cautions against sin during fasting (he gives twenty one instances) and afterwards (thirteen instances).
As Durham says there are two dangers to avoid in relation to fasting;
- making too much of it as though it gains merit for us (Isaiah 58:1) or as though it mortifies sin, or makes us holy in itself. Or even treating it as though it is in itself religious worship;
- making too little of it as though it is either not necessary or profitable as a means for getting us in the right spiritual condition for prayer, self-examination or wrestling with God.
When we avoid these dangers we can appreciate the genuine benefit that comes from this occasional aspect of worship. We need to be alert to the opportunities to seize in relation to fasting as well as the dangers to avoid. Surely what we have considered must increase spiritual appetite for fasting when we believe that God is calling us to it.
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