By Timothy Copple
Fasting in my former denomination was sort of undefined and little practiced. We had what was called "Prayer and Fasting" which was predominately to raise money for missions. The main idea being that you gave up a meal and give the money you would have spent on that to missions and take the time to pray for missions. Not a bad idea, really. It does incorporate some of the Orthodox understandings of what fasting is about, even if it misses the deeper understandings. It at least involved alms giving and prayer along with it, the two key components of a complete Lenten fast in Orthodoxy. The only down side was that this was all fasting was officially used for, and so it seemed more like one among many funding programs for the denomination…another special offering.
Various Protestant traditions have different ways of looking at fasting, what it entails, what is prescribed. There has, even in the last 10-15 years or so, been an upswing of interest in fasting in some denominations. After all, Jesus is our prime example of one who did fast regularly:
Mat 4:1-2 ASV Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. (2) And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he afterward hungered.
That passage indicates one very important concept of what fasting is about, but is often missed among many groups. Jesus was led into the wilderness for a specific reason…to be tempted by the devil. Note, Jesus didn't go into the wilderness to fast, he went to do battle with Satan. The fasting was to prepare him for that battle which you will noticed happened at the end of the 40 days of fasting.
Fasting is then understood to be a tool we can use to develop our spiritual strength and ability to "walk according to the Spirit" instead of walking according to the flesh. (Rom. 8:12-14) It is not the goal, it is not an end in itself, but a tool to reach a specific goal. St. Theophan, in his rewrite of "Unseen Warefare" says it this way:
There are many who say that the perfection of Christian life consists in fasts, vigils, genuflexions, sleeping on bare earth and other similar austerities of the body. Others say that it consists in saying many prayers at home and in attending long services in Church. And there are others who think that our perfection consists entirely in mental prayer, solitude, seclusion and silence. But the majority limit perfection to a strict observance of all the rules and practices laid down by the statutes, falling into no excess or deficiency, but preserving a golden moderation. Yet all these virtues do not by themselves constitute the Christian perfection we are seeking, but are only means and methods for acquiring it.
(St. Theophan, "Unseen Warefare", New York (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press), pp. 77-78)
If we begin to view and use them as ends in themselves, that is when it becomes destructive to our spiritual life instead of beneficial. Pride results instead of humility. In place of conquering the passions, we feed them. It is this specific use of fasting which Jesus condemned in the Pharisees.
Mat 6:16-18 ASV Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may be seen of men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have received their reward. (17) But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head, and wash thy face; (18) that thou be not seen of men to fast, but of thy Father who is in secret: and thy Father, who seeth in secret, shall recompense thee.
Note that with Jesus it was not a matter of whether one should fast or not, but what is the beneficial manner a fast is done. This is further illustrated in what the actual results of fasting and other spiritual disciplines accomplish in a person. If they do not produce virtues and a more godly character, then they are useless and divert us from our true goal. This is amply illustrated in the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee which is one of the Sunday emphasis leading into Lent.
Luk 18:10-14 ASV Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. (11) The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. (12) I fast twice in the week; I give tithes of all that I get. (13) But the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote his breast, saying, God, be thou merciful to me a sinner. (14) I say unto you, This man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be humbled; but he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
We also see in the Old Testament that fasting was sometimes used in a manner that did not accomplish its purpose.
Jer 14:12 ASV When they fast, I will not hear their cry; and when they offer burnt-offering and meal-offering, I will not accept them; but I will consume them by the sword, and by the famine, and by the pestilence.
This was generally the case when the fast was not done to draw close to God, but for themselves as the end goal.
Zec 7:4-6 ASV Then came the word of Jehovah of hosts unto me, saying, (5) Speak unto all the people of the land, and to the priests, saying, When ye fasted and mourned in the fifth and in the seventh month, even these seventy years, did ye at all fast unto me, even to me? (6) And when ye eat, and when ye drink, do not ye eat for yourselves, and drink for yourselves?
Now, reading the ways in which this was abused, and that it is only a means to an end and not the end itself, some may wonder whether fasting is really a good idea. Why risk falling into pride?
Fasting is expected in the Scriptures. We see God commanding His people to fast.
Joe 1:13-14 ASV Gird yourselves with sackcloth, and lament, ye priests; wail, ye ministers of the altar; come, lie all night in sackcloth, ye ministers of my God: for the meal-offering and the drink-offering are withholden from the house of your God. (14) Sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly, gather the old men and all the inhabitants of the land unto the house of Jehovah your God, and cry unto Jehovah.
Joe 2:12-13 ASV Yet even now, saith Jehovah, turn ye unto me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning: (13) and rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto Jehovah your God; for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness, and repenteth him of the evil.
We see countless examples in both the Old and New Testaments of people who fast including our Lord as well as the Apostles. Here are a couple examples: Daniel - Daniel 9:1-5, Paul - Acts 13:2-3 and Acts 14:23. It is also important to keep in mind that there were regular times of fasting in the Jewish tradition which it appears they followed. The only exception was the disciples with Jesus. Jesus, however, makes it clear that this is a temporary situation and this in no way indicates that we should not fast.
Mar 2:18-20 ASV And John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting: and they come and say unto him, Why do John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but thy disciples fast not? (19) And Jesus said unto them, Can the sons of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them? as long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. (20) But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then will they fast in that day.
As a matter of fact, this passage really illustrates to us the purpose of fasting. If we want to avoid falling into pride in our fasting, if we want to use it in a beneficial manner, then we must do it for the right reason, to accomplish a specific purpose.
In this passage we see that Jesus doesn't have them fasting because He is with them! When He will not be there, then there is reason for fasting. The purpose of fasting is for us to commune and unite with God. Because God was with them in the flesh there was no reason to fast. Once he was gone from them, then there was need to fast. We are fasting to enter the presence of God. After discussing the various things people do including fasting, St. Theophan says it this way:
Now, having seen clearly and definitely that spiritual life and perfection do not only consist in these visible virtues, of which we have spoken, you must also learn that it consists in nothing but coming near to God and union with Him, as was said in the beginning.
(St. Theophan, "Unseen Warfare", New York (St. Valdimir's Seminary Press), p. 79)
It is this union with God which is at the heart and goal of fasting. Fasting is one tool used historically by most every religion in Earth's history for various purposes and reasons. In Christianity, however, the purpose has never been an end in itself, to do it for one's own pleasure or purpose, but one of the key tools used in the Church to subdue the flesh so the spirit undistracted by sin will be open to the grace and mercy of God who alone grants this union to those who come to Him humbly and repentant.The next article looks at what a true and beneficial fast is and how to avoid a fast which causes division, strife and discord in our lives.
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