Chapter 1:
Is Fasting Christian?

New Fasting for the New Wine

But the days will come
when the bridegroom
is taken away from them,
and then they will fast.

Matthew 9:15

If you have died with Christ
to the elementary principles of the world,
why, as if you were living in the world,
do you submit yourself to decrees, such as,
"Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!"
(which all refer to things destined to perish with the using)
in accordance with the commandments
and teachings of men?

These are matters which have, to be sure,
the appearance of wisdom
in self-made religion and self-abasement
and severe treatment of the body,
but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.

Colossians 2:20-23

There's a little document called the Didache which was written near the end of the first century. In it there is a section on fasting. One verse goes like this: "Let not your fasts be with hypocrites, for they fast on Mondays and Thursdays, but do you fast on Wednesdays and Fridays." Now that seems strange. Why is changing the fast days such a big deal? I think the point of the early church was this: the Jewish custom was to celebrate its Sabbath on Saturday. That's what the Old Covenant called for. Now, to show that we have continuity and discontinuity from Judaism, we Christians will celebrate the Sabbath, but on a different day. We will celebrate on Sunday, the day the Lord rose from the dead and created a new people. In the same way the Jews did their fasting on Mondays and Thursdays, but we will do ours on different days. Why? Same reason: to show there is continuity and discontinuity. Yes, we embrace fasting; but, no, not just as we find it. There is something new about Christian fasting. We'll take it, but we'll change it. No, we don't mean that fasting on different days is what makes it Christian. That is only a pointer. But Christian fasting is new. That is for sure. How it is new is the point of this chapter.

In this connection, the most important word on fasting in the Bible is Matthew 9:14-17. I know this is a sweeping claim for me to make. But I say it because these words of Jesus speak most directly and deeply to the central problem of fasting—namely, Is it a distinctively Christian thing to do? If so, how?

It Is Not Obvious That Fasting Is Christian

This is a crucial question for at least four reasons. First of all, fasting, as a deliberate abstinence from food for religious, cultural, political, or health reasons, is "a practice found in all societies, cultures and centuries." Virtually every religion in the world practices fasting. And even non-religious people fast for political and health reasons. So why should Christians join this pagan parade of asceticism? Second, even if fasting was practiced extensively by God's people in the Old Testament, does not the arrival of the kingdom in the ministry of Jesus make this practice obsolete? Can you put the new wine of the kingdom into the old wineskins of external form and ritual? Third, does not the finished triumph of Christ on the cross, and the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit in the church mean that the victorious Christ is so powerfully among us that the dominant spirit of life should be celebration, not mortification? And besides these three objections, does not the triumph of fasting over the body's appetites lead to pride and self-reliance, which is even worse than gluttony?

So it is not at all obvious that fasting is a distinctively Christian thing to do. If it is, we need to see how it relates to the Center. And the Center is the triumph of Christ in dying and rising and reigning over history for the salvation of his people and the glory of his Father.

Fasting Is a Universal Religious Practice

No one knows how or where fasting had its beginning. Wherever you go, there are customs and traditions of fasting. Most people are aware of the Jewish fasts including Yom Kippur, or the day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29-31), and the Muslim fasting during Ramadan and the severe fasting of the Hindu high caste of Brahmans. But the extent of the practice is worldwide. For example,

the Andaman Islanders...abstain from certain fruits, edible roots, etc. at certain seasons, because the god Puluga...requires them, and would send a deluge if the taboo were broken...Among the Koita of New Guinea a woman during pregnancy must not eat bandicoot, echidna, certain fish, and iguana; and the husband must observe the same food taboos...Among the Yoruba, [at the death of a husband] widows and daughters are shut up and must refuse all food for at least 24 hours...In British Columbia, the Stlatlumh (Lillooet) spent four days after the funeral feast in fasting, lamentations, and ceremonial ablutions...Before slaying the eagle, a sacred bird, the professional eagle-killer among the Cherokees had to undergo a long vigil of prayer and fasting...[Other] American Indian youth [often undergo prolonged austerities] in order that by means of a vision [they] may see the guardian spirit which will be [theirs] for the remainder of [their] life...Among the tribes of New South Wales, boys at the bora ceremonies are kept for two days without food, and receive only a little water.

Fasting Is a Political Weapon

In addition to worldwide religious fasting, there is also political or protest fasting. One of the most famous examples is Mahatma Gandhi, who lived from 1869 to 1948 and spent over thirty years crusading peacefully for the independence of India. His family and his Hindu culture fed his passion for fasting as a political weapon. His mother was a devout Hindu who went beyond the required duties of fasting each year and added several more rigorous fasts during the rainy season. Gandhi recalled,

She would take the hardest vows and keep them without flinching. Living on one meal a day during the Chaturmas was a habit with her. Not content with that she fasted every alternate day during one Chaturmas. During another Chaturmas, she vowed not to have food without seeing the sun. We children on those days would stand, staring at the sky, waiting to announce the appearance of the sun to our mother. Everyone knows that at the height of the rainy season the sun does not often condescend to show his face. And I remember days when, at his sudden appearance, we would rush and announce it to her. She would run out to see with her own eyes, but by that time the fugitive sun would be gone, thus depriving her of her meal. "That does not matter," she would say cheerfully, "God did not want me to eat today." And then she would return to her round of duties.

It's not surprising that Gandhi would make fasting an essential part of his political career. By the ancient laws of Manu, a creditor could only collect a debt owed him by shaming the debtor. He would sit, for example, before the debtor's house without eating day after day until the debtor was shamed into paying his debt. Eric Rogers observed that "this very Indian technique worked for Gandhi...His fasting undoubtedly touched more hearts than anything else he did. Not just in India, but practically everywhere, men were haunted by the image of a frail little man cheerfully enduring privation for the sake of a principle."

Fasting Is a Health Regimen

Then, besides religious and political fasting there is health fasting, with or without religious associations. A brief search on the World Wide Web under the topic "fasting" reveals hundreds of organizations and publications devoted to fasting for health. For example, one of the prominent locations is the Fasting Center International. The blurb on their Internet home page goes like this:

Feeling out of shape, self-conscious, low on energy, or downright unhealthy? Want to improve your physical health, while heightening your clarity of consciousness and your spirituality, as well? Scientific juice-fasting enables you to accomplish all of these goals, very quickly, without any interruption of your work, life, exercise or study routines. Fact is, you'll experience more energy than you now have, during and after your fast!

Glimpses like these, of worldwide religious, political, and health fasting, free us from the notion that fasting, in and of itself, is peculiarly Christian. It may, in fact, be emphatically anti-Christian, as it was already in the New Testament, when forty men "bound themselves under a curse not to eat or drink" until they had killed the apostle Paul (Acts 23:21). And it may be distorted, even among Christians, not only into legalistic technique (as we will see), but also into a destructive bondage like anorexia nervosa. All of this raises the question why a Christian would put much stock in a ritual so widely used for non-Christian religious, political, and fitness purposes.

Does Fasting Belong in the Kingdom of God?

Not only that, the prevalence of fasting in the Old Testament raises the question whether the practice has abiding validity for people who live on this side of the coming of the Messiah and the appearance of the kingdom of God. Jesus said, "If I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you" (Luke 11:20). And when the Pharisees asked about the coming of the kingdom, he said, "The kingdom of God is in your midst" (Luke 17:21). So there is a profound sense in which the long-awaited kingdom of God has already come in the life and ministry of Jesus.

This is the "mystery of the kingdom" that Jesus had in mind when he said to his disciples, "To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God; but those who are outside get everything in parables" (Mark 4:11). This was a stunning new reality in the world. "The new truth, now given to men by revelation in the person and mission of Jesus, is that the Kingdom which is to come finally in apocalyptic power, as foreseen in Daniel, has in fact entered into the world in advance in a hidden form to work secretly within and among men."

So the question is pressing: does fasting belong in the Church—the new kingdom-people that God is assembling from all the peoples of the world? Some think not. For example, in his book, Prayer and Fasting: A Study in the Devotional Life of the Early Church, Keith Main argues that the inbreaking of the kingdom of God in Jesus' ministry radically changes the importance of fasting. "Thus far," he says, "we have suggested that the joy and thanksgiving that marks the prayer life of the New Testament is a sign of the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God. Fasting is no longer consistent with the joyous and thankful attitude that marks the fellowship."

Does Paul Nullify Fasting?

Keith Main's viewpoint gains more credibility when we look at the rest of the New Testament outside the Gospels. Fasting is barely visible. Main presses his point:

[Fasting] ceases to be a crucial issue within the church...Paul, following the lead of Jesus, deliberately diverted the disciples' attention away from fasting and any form of food asceticism and into prayer, service, and toil on behalf of the Kingdom. Missionary work served as a corrective and counterpoise not only to apocalyptic dreaming but also to the outworn and overworked custom of fasting....A sense of Life Eternal is ever breaking in upon us. The believer marches to the sound of music from a different world! And it is exceedingly difficult to reconcile the Risen Christ with the fasting forms.

Does the scarcity of fasting in the New Testament epistles, and the joyful presence of the kingdom and the glorious ministry of the Spirit of Christ nullify the relevance of fasting in the Christian church? The urgency of this question is what makes Jesus' words on fasting in Matthew 9:14-17 so important—the most important in the Bible in my opinion.

The urgency is increased when we consider that in Paul's letters food is celebrated as something good, asceticism is treated as a weak weapon against fleshly indulgence, and practices of eating and drinking are regarded as nonessential, except as they express love and contentment in Christ.

The Goodness of Food

In 1 Timothy 4:1-5

Paul warns that in the end times "some will fall away from the faith...and advocate abstaining from foods." He responds to this attitude toward food by saying, "God has created [food] to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer." So Paul is eager to warn against a kind of asceticism that exalts fasting in such a way that the goodness of God in the gift of food is overlooked or distorted. Even during the holy times of sharing the Lord's Supper, Paul did not discourage eating, but told the Corinthians to "eat at home, so that you may not come together for judgment" (1 Corinthians 11:34).

The Weakness of Asceticism

And when Paul pondered the value of harsh measures for the body, he cautioned the Colossians that such disciplines are of limited value and can stir up as much carnal pride as they subdue carnal appetite. He fears that the Colossians have drifted away from deep and simple faith in Christ toward external ritual as a means of sanctification: "Why do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 'Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!' (which all refer to things destined to perish with the using)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men?" (Colossians 2:20-22).

What's wrong with these "teachings of men" that call us not to "taste"? He answers, "These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence" (Colossians 2:23). This is a strong warning against any simplistic view of fasting that thinks it will automatically do a person spiritual good. It is not that simple. "Severe treatment of the body" may only feed a person's flesh with more self-reliance. C. S. Lewis saw this clearly and sounded the warning:

Fasting asserts the will against the appetite—the reward being self-mastery and the danger pride: involuntary hunger subjects appetites and will together to the Divine will, furnishing an occasion for submission and exposing us to the danger of rebellion. But the redemptive effect of suffering lies chiefly in its tendency to reduce the rebel will. Ascetic practices which, in themselves, strengthen the will, are only useful insofar as they enable the will to put its own house (the passions) in order, as a preparation for offering the whole man to God. They are necessary as a means; and as an end, they would be abominable, for in substituting will for appetite and there stopping, they would merely exchange the animal self for the diabolical self. It was therefore truly said that "only God can mortify."

The true mortification of our carnal nature is not a simple matter of denial and discipline. It is an internal, spiritual matter of finding more contentment in Christ than in food.

Eating and Not Eating Are Not Essential

Paul regards eating or not eating as a matter that is nonessential in itself, but which gains value as it expresses love and superior satisfaction in God. Therefore he tells the Roman church, "Let not him who eats regard with contempt him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and stand he will, for the Lord is able to make him stand....Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind....He who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God" (Romans 14:3-6).

These words from Romans 14 are not addressed to a situation of fasting. The situation has to do with eating food that some in the church consider taboo because of its associations. But that does not change the principle. Eating and not eating—fasting and not fasting—can both be done "for the Lord" with "thanksgiving to God." Therefore, "let each be fully convinced in his own mind." And, as Paul says in Colossians 2:16, "Let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink." For "food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat" (1 Corinthians 8:8). For "all things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything" (1 Corinthians 6:12).

The Most Important Word on Fasting in the Bible

So the question demands our attention: Is fasting Christian? If so, how? This is what the words of Jesus in Matthew 9:14-17 ultimately address. That is why they are the most important words on fasting in the Bible. It's time to look at them.

The disciples of John came to [Jesus], saying, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?" And Jesus said to them, "The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. But no one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and a worse tear results. Nor do men put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out, and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved."

The disciples of John the Baptist come to Jesus and ask why Jesus' disciples don't fast. So evidently Jesus' disciples were not fasting while he was with them. In fact, Jesus had set them an example that earned him the reputation of being anything but an ascetic. When he praised the ministry of John the Baptist he said to the crowds, "John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine; and you say, 'He has a demon!' The Son of Man has come eating and drinking; and you say, 'Behold, a gluttonous man, and a drunkard, a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners!'" (Luke 7:33-35). In other words, John practiced much fasting, and Jesus practiced little if any (apart from his initial forty-day fast).

—Hunger For God, A