Should I Fast?

Should I Fast? BY William Boekestein for Core Christianity

“And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth. . . . Neither man nor beast, herd nor flock tasted anything” (Jon. 3:5, 7). We might feel that the fasting of Nineveh is a telltale sign of a primitive culture. Fasting might be good for people who wrote by pressing wedges into soft clay and served food to carved images of their deities, but it surely can’t be suitable for modern people.

Is fasting finished? Or is our disinterest in fasting a modern blind spot? Might we need fasting as much as, if not more than, “primitive” people?

By fasting—or temporarily abstaining from life’s blessings—we better feel our need for God’s help.[i] For this reason, the Christian church throughout the ages has practiced fasting as an aid to heartfelt prayer. Today fasting is foreign to many believers. It “is, and has been for some time, countercultural. It goes against the grain of the Western world.”[ii] But we can’t ignore how often fasting is practiced and commended in God’s word.

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A Case for Fasting

Fasting Was a Component of Biblical Piety

In the Old Testament God’s people fasted on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29–31), during extraordinary times of meeting with God (Deut. 9:9), appalling instances of national sin (v. 18), and excruciating uncertainty (Esth. 4:15–16). In the New Testament Jesus fasted (Matt. 4:2), he expected his disciples to fast (Matt. 9:15; Mark 2:18–20), and chastened them when they did not (Mark 9:29). Early Christians naturally fasted in the face of critical decisions (Acts 13:2–3; 14:23; cf. 1 Cor. 7:5; 2 Cor. 6:5). Scripture nowhere suggests that fasting is finished.

The Christian Church Continued Fasting

How can we sum up the historic Christian approach to fasting? “In the grand sweep, the observance of fasts flowed from Judaism into early Christianity, evolved and flourished during the Middle Ages, and then underwent close scrutiny and modification during the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Still, Protestant theologians and ecclesiastical authorities did not abandon the fast.”[iii] John Calvin criticized institutionalized fasts that failed to connect to the organic circumstances of God’s people. However he insisted that fasting “has not been abolished by the gospel.”[iv] The Westminster Larger Catechism even codified “religious fasting” into the lives of Presbyterian believers.[v]

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