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 the defeat caused by Achan’s sin (Josh. 7:6), when the men of Israel fought against the children of Benjamin (Judges 20:26), when David fasted during the illness of his child by Bath-sheba (2 Sam. 12:16). (The fastings of Moses and of Elijah for 40 days were miraculous occurrences.)

When the Jews returned from captivity, the bitterness of those experiences was commemorated in additional fasts (Ezra 8:21; Neh. 9:1; Esther 4:1–3). Zechariah lists four (Zech. 8–9), but the emphasis was placed on the deliverance from these experiences—therefore, they should be of joy and gladness and cheerfulness. As the Jews continued to experience troubles, additional fasts were prescribed. By the time of the Herods and the Caesars, many Jews fasted twice a week (Thursday and Monday) in addition to all the others; for working men and women these must have been “heavy burdens” (Matt. 23:4).

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Like the prophets before him, Jesus warned against the mere external observance of religious forms. In the Sermon on the Mount, he warned against wrong motives in almsgiving, praying, and fasting. If we do any of the three for the show, then that show is exactly what we will have and no more. But if we keep a steady countenance before men and “fast unto God” in secret, then we shall receive an open reward in that fasting (Matt. 6:16–18). Note also in this reference, Jesus said, “When ye fast …,” which implies an assumption that we shall fast.

In secret, our Lord must have fasted as well as prayed; he was not afraid of hunger (John 4:32) and commended fasting to those who would do his work (Matt. 17:21). When the disciples asked why they could not cure the afflicted boy at the foot of the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus replied, “Because of your unbelief.… Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.” There would be hard tasks for the followers of Jesus—tasks that would not be accomplished but by prayer and fasting (race problems, inter-church relations, war and peace for examples?).

We have no reason to doubt that Jesus and his disciples kept the Fast of the Atonement and the other regular fast days of the Jewish faith, but he added no new ones—which might have been expected of a new teacher to show his religiosity—and disregarded the additional ones which others had added. (The fast days became so numerous that after the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus it became necessary to list the days when fasting was forbidden.) The Pharisees and the disciples of John did not charge that Jesus had broken the law of Moses, which they would have if he had neglected the Fast of the Atonement; rather they were offended that Jesus did not make his disciples conform to their customs and practices. This was the rub of their complaint: that the disciples did not fast as they did (Matt. 9:14). Jesus could have rebuked their self-righteousness, but instead he spoke of the bridegroom’s presence. The Messiah’s kingdom was a time of joy and cheer, of feasting and fellowship; all the best pictures of human happiness are used to describe this most joyful spiritual fulfillment—and so the fasting would be out of keeping. It was not the time of forms but of fellowship, not the place for tears but for laughter and joy. But listen to the Master: “… The days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast” (Matt. 9:15b). Surprising, isn’t it?

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And that time came. The disciples needed no one to tell them to fast after the crucifixion; thoughts of food must have escaped them, and only in the presence of a Risen Lord and when he himself had first eaten could they eat again. Then after he was “taken up” from them, there must have been fasting with their praying as they tarried in Jerusalem. It seems to have been a regular part of preparing for any special task, such as the setting aside of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:2, 3) and the ordaining of elders (Acts 14:23). Paul speaks of “[giving] yourselves to fasting and prayer” in special seasons and occasions (1 Cor. 7:5), and also of ministers of God approving themselves in fasting along with the watchings and labors (2 Cor. 6:5). These references seem to indicate that fasting is to be a part of the Christian’s spiritual discipline until the Lord returns in triumph. The rejoicing of the disciples in the physical presence of Jesus was a foretaste of our eternal joys—but until then, shall we not discipline ourselves to serve him by abstaining from food as the need and calling arise? Can it not be inferred that Jesus expects his followers to fast: “… When the bridegroom shall be taken away … then shall they fast” (Luke 5:35)?

A Religious Exercise

I am confident that we need to take a second look at fasting as a religious practice. Like John’s disciples, we are prone to increase external forms; we had rather create new departments in our denominational work, or have special Sundays, or new programs, more meetings, higher goals, new drives, and so on. These are our “fasts” today, and they have been multiplied until somebody ought to designate some Sundays when we can be free of these “drives” and just enjoy our religion. Today, fasting itself is not fashionable—rather we like the easy-smiling, winsome, popular appeal of optimism and confidence. Maybe we need the affliction of soul, the humiliation of spirit, the emptying of oneself. We ought to consider it. After all, did not Jesus say, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself …”? What a rebuke to some of us who are out to make a name for ourselves or to get ahead or to be a success or to look out for Number One. And what have we ever denied ourselves; come, now, tell it? What do we know of denying? Perhaps to deny oneself of food and drink “from even to even” would be a first lesson.

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Of course, the condition of the body affects the soul. Once a British actress told me that when she was learning a play she ate no potatoes or bread—only fruit, eggs, vegetables, and a little lean meat. And I have found that during times of examination, and when I am preaching, it is better not to eat much. We are keener of mind and heart when not so full; a big meal brings drowsiness and sluggishness. (Aren’t you glad that you preach to your congregation at eleven o’clock rather than at one? Somehow, we have found eleven o’clock—with a little edge of hunger—better suited to religious purposes than one o’clock when we are stuffed.) If these observations are valid, don’t they suggest that fasting might hold special religious significance for us?

As Americans, we are known for our much eating. In France during the Second World War, we were told: “You Americans eat everything—even horses’ food (corn)—and all the time. You have a big breakfast; then, a snack (coffee break); after which comes an enormous lunch, and another snack (Coke break); and a big dinner, and then a bedtime supper—and yet you are not satisfied; you have something to put in your mouth which keeps your teeth going up and down all the time (chewing gum).” It might help if we knew something of hunger. For one thing, we would “feel” better, and it undoubtedly would aid our health. (Long ago James Morrison said: “There are multitudes of diseases which have their origin in fulness, and might have their end in fasting.”) Fasting would sharpen our sympathies for the unfortunates of our own society and for the hungry of the world. Fasting would help clear our minds and spirits as we face great problems and tasks. It also affords a lesson in thanksgiving for food—and sheer joy again of eating. Some have said primitive man abstained from eating that he might better eat his god. We, too, want God to abide within; can physical hunger prepare the soul to receive him?

Now, I am not advocating a special “Fast Sunday” or anything like that. It is not something to be required, but in preparation for special revival services and on other special times (as when I preached on segregation), I have invited members of the church to share in a fast—and I have been amazed at the ones who whispered in my ears that they had been blessed in it. And more—there were “open rewards” from it.

This is enough. Take another look at this ancient practice, or better, just try it. There is no telling what the Lord will do for you, if you fast “unto thy Father which is in secret.”


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