It was a Jewish army doctor who caused me to take a second look at fasting as a religious exercise. As a boy, I had fasted one day to test my willpower. As a seminarian, I had skipped the noon meal for a week to know something of China’s hunger and to contribute to its relief. As an army chaplain, I had observed the fast of Yom Kippur to encourage the Jewish men to keep up their religious practices. It was in that connection that I was speaking to our medical officer.

“Yes, I’m keeping the fast,” he said, “not as a religious exercise, but purely for hygienic reasons.” That made me wonder about the religious value of fasting. 1 knew the old answers—that it is better to do something positive than to deny something; that ours is a joyful religion—the Kingdom has begun; that the man who boasted of his fasting twice a week is to be despised. But I also reasoned that the same man made a boast of his tithing, yet that has not stopped us from taking up offerings. Ours is a joyful religion, but we also know humiliation and repentance in it. And Jesus said, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself.…” Maybe denying oneself of food would be the easiest step in learning to discipline oneself in the service of One who asks for complete commitment.

This reasoning sent me to the Bible. The first reference to fasting comes in Leviticus 16:29, although we might well presume that in the great mournings of Abraham for Sarah and of Jacob for Joseph there was an abstaining from food. On the Day of Atonement, the people were commanded “to afflict” their souls, and this became “the fast” for the people of Israel. Later special occasions brought forth additional fasting—as when Joshua lay on the ground before the ark of the Lord after ...

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