A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.
27th June 2004
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Fasting is an unnatural act. It is the refusal to be governed by our physical senses. It is the willingness to let something more important take over our life.
It is a popular religious activity but not a particularly Christian one. Christians do fast but not in order to get close to God. The Anglican Homily on Fasting says
“To fast then, with this persuasion of mind, that our fasting and other good works can make us good, perfect, and just men, and finally bring us to heaven, is a devilish persuasion; and
That fast is so far off from pleasing of God, that it refuseth his mercy, and is altogether derogatory to the merit’s of Christ’s death, and his precious blood-shedding”
Fasting is not a virtue in itself. There is a time to fast and a time to feast. All food is to be received with thanksgiving to our Father the creator of all good things. However, for good reasons and at appropriate times Christians do fast.
The Bible does not know of the limited fasting of giving up some small pleasure like chocolate or ice-cream. But fasting in the Bible is total - it is not eating anything
Only one Fast is commanded in the Bible. Fasting is recorded as something people did more than something that they were required to do.
The annual Day of Atonement was the one required fast. On that day each year the sins of Israel were to be dealt with by God’s mercy. Repentance was marked by both confession and fasting. Atonement was established by sacrificial death.
Fasting symbolised repentance. It is an act of renunciation - be it individual like David (2 Samuel 12:22) or the community involving all Israel (Judges 20:26).
Fasting also symbolised the penitence and humility that goes with repentance. So Ahab humbled himself with fasting (1 Kings 21:27-29) and Nineveh fasted in ashes and sackcloth (Jonah 3:5-8).
The Israelites also fasted when confronted with great obstacles and were desperate in their desire for divine intervention. So King Jehoshaphat confronted by armies of Moab and Edom called for a fast (2 Chronicles 20:3-4), as did Ezra seeking safe journey (Ezra 8:21-23).
Fasting can also symbolise emotions such as grief and mourning. So we read of fasting when King Saul and his sons, especially Jonathan, were killed in action (1 Samuel 31:13, 2 Samuel 1:12) or when King David mourned the death of Abner (2 Samuel 3:35).
Moses fasted for forty days when he returned to the mountain to receive the tablets of stone after the people had sinned with the golden calf. (Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 9:9)
Similarly Jesus fasted in the wilderness for forty days as Satan tempted him. Here, unlike Israel in the wilderness, the true Son of God defeated the tempter.
In the New Testament, we read that the Christians sometimes combined fasting with their prayer (Acts 13; 1-3, 14:23). But there is no discernable pattern to this fasting.
In all this biblical material about fasting there is no command for Christians to fast.
Furthermore there is open attack on the abuses of fasting. The belief that the act of fasting in itself is meritorious (Isaiah 58; Jeremiah 14:11-12) is soundly condemned.
Thus Jesus unlike John the Baptist and the Pharisees did not teach his disciples to fast. He knew that when he was taken from them that they would fast but in his presence was the time for feasting not time for fasting. And he taught them that when they fasted they were to be Godward not manward in their orientation.
Today Christians, because of circumstances like repentance or mourning, may choose to pray to God with fasting. In private times of prayer or times of community concern we may together chose to fast. However we will not do it to impress each other or God for we know that we are in God’s presence not by our denial of food but by the death and resurrection of His Son.