Fasting, or abstaining from food for spiritual purposes, is a practice often misunderstood by Christians. Since it is natural in times of great grief to lose the appetite, some have concluded that this is the fasting Jesus expected of his disciples after his departure. (Matthew 6:6-18; Matthew 9:14; Mark 2: 18-20 and Luke 5:35).
Some religious groups have set aside seasons and days when their followers are expected to refrain from eating or are to refuse to eat certain foods. Perhaps these practices have added to the confusion of Christians thinking on the subject of fasting.
History indicates that man in all ages and among all nations has engaged in fasting. It has been used for many purposes including ceremonials, mourning, or as an aid to building self-control and as a method for gaining spiritual strength. The late Mahatma Gandi gained world attention through his extensive fasting. It has been used by both groups and individuals and is widely practiced today. Many groups have found "hunger strikes" more powerful than violence in obtaining their purposes. Recently a group of teenagers did without food for 24 hours in order to gain understanding of the hungry populations of the world, The money they saved on their food was then sent to rescue missions in India. Many Christians today have experienced the blessings that can come only to one who has dedicated a season to fasting and prayer to Jehovah.
Biblical examples of fasting indicate that it was only once commanded as a regular ritual, on the day of Atonement (Lev. 23:27) but it was practiced by God's people both individually and in groups. Sometimes it was commanded by leaders, sometimes it was voluntary. God's people fasted for many purposes; David, to humble his soul, to entreat God in behalf of his sick son, for his enemies and in mourning for the death of Saul and his sons. In times of great crisis, the children of God usually turned to their Father, confessing their sins, praying and fasting, entreating his favor; and the Scriptures indicate that God usually blessed them. In one case, that of the Nenevites, he even repented and changed his plans for destroying them.
Fasting was habitual for John's disciples (Matthew 9:14), for Anna (Luke 2:36-37) the Pharisees (Matthew 9:14), Cornelius (Acts 10:30) and for Paul (II Corinthians 6:5, 11:27). Jesus fasted for forty days and nights and told the disciples of John that his disciples would fast when the bridegroom was taken from them. (Matthew 9:15). Apparently, fasting alone does not move God, for in Isaiah 58:3-9 the people asked "Why have we fasted, and thou seest it not?", and the answer is given: "Behold you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high." Again in Jeremiah 14:12, the Lord said: "though they fast, I will not hear their cry". Here the Lord's people had turned to wickedness and the prophet was asked to refrain even from praying for them. In Zechariah 7:5, their fasting was lost because of wickedness. Thus, fasting is not a substitute for righteousness.
Fasting, like any other act of devotion can be empty and for show only, hence the Pharisee of Luke 18:12 who fasted twice a week was not justified. Jesus condemns as hypocrites those who wear a sad countenance that they may appear to men to fast (Matthew 6:16).
It is easy to understand why fasting is not popular today. With so much emphasis on pleasure and selfindulgence as constituting the good life, any appeal to self-denial is unpopular. Eating has been regarded as one of the nations greatest problems, especially eating for enjoyment. This very condition actually enhances the value of fasting for a person with this attitude if he could be persuaded to try it.
The physical aspect of fasting is beyond the scope of this lesson. Health and body condition is such a highly individualized matter, that its results cannot be generalized. There are few, if any, however, who could not leave off a meal now and then to the benefit of their physical well-being.
Fasting, like prayer, may bring blessings to the participant apart from the special blessings bestowed by the Heavenly Father. For the person who would gain in self-control it is excellent practice. It may contribute to weight control and economy of time and food cost, but like prayer, Jesus taught that its greatest benefit would come from the special blessings of God.
Perhaps our strongest New Testament teaching on the subject is from the Sermon on the mount when Jesus was teaching that we should be careful not to make a show of our religion before men. When we do an act of charity, pray, or fast, they should be done without public attention, and with each of these it is stated that, "your Father who sees what is done in secret will regard you" Matthew 6:1-8). Doesn't it seem likely that he expected his followers to fast since he gave them instructions for the proper way to conduct it?
Christians today would do well to consider fasting as a means of drawing closer to God, or gaining spiritual strength. It is not a command, it is a privileges In times of great stress it is a way of communicating with the Lord, and if it is sincere and dedicated to God, it will be regarded by him. (Matthew 6:18).