NOT SO FAST: Why Fasting Is Unnecessary and Inappropriate for Christians

NOT SO FAST: Why Fasting Is Unnecessary and Inappropriate for Christians

© 2012, by John Tors. All Rights Reserved.

The ancient practice of fasting seems to be growing rapidly in popularity in evangelical circles.  It is entering churches as an element of “spiritual formation,” and books on the topic are proliferating, making grandiose promises, books such as Fasting: Opening the Door to a Deeper, More Intimate, More Powerful Relationship with God (by Jentezen Franklin), Fasting for Spiritual Breakthrough (by Elmer L. Towns), and The Miracle Results of Fasting (by Dave Williams).  In light of this, one must ask whether fasting is a good and desirable practice for the  Christian lifestyle, and the only proper way to understand what the Bible teaches about this or any other topic is to look at all of the relevant passages and then formulate an understanding that is consistent with all of them.  Let us proceed to do so.

First, what exactly is fasting?  It is the voluntary abstention from food and sometimes from drink for a period of time as a religious act.  It is an ancient practice that was observed not only by the Jews but by peoples all around the ancient Near East and elsewhere.  There are many examples in the Old Testament of the Jews fasting, and also of others e.g. Darius, the pagan king of Media (Daniel 6:18), and the Ninevites (Jonah 3:5-9).  Fasting was practised in the Hellenistic mystery religions, by the pre-Columbian Peruvian natives, North American tribes, and Siberian shamans, and in Jainism, Theraveda Buddhism, and ancient Chinese animism[1].

Fasting was done for a few basic reasons: to express mourning (e.g. 1 Samuel 31:13; Ezra 9:5); to show repentance (e.g. Judges 20:26; 1 Kings 21:27-28), which often including mourning for the sins done; and to entreat God (e.g. 2 Samuel 12:16-23, Ezra 9:5; Jonah 3:5).  It seems that it eventually came to be a religious thing to do for its own sake, apart from a specific immediate goal, even into New Testament times (e.g. Zechariah 7:3; Matthew 6:16; Luke 18:12; Acts 13:2).

The list of people who fasted in the Bible is a who’s who, including David, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Anna, and Cornelius.  The Jews had fixed fast days in the fourth month, the fifth month, the seventh month, and the tenth month.  In light of this widespread practice in the Bible, it might be assumed that fasting was a practice instituted by God and endorsed by Him, but that is not so.

First, search through the 613 commandments given in the Law of Moses, and you will find not even one command to fast![2]  That is rather curious, if fasting is something God wanted His people to do.  In fact, in the entire OT only once does God ever command a fast (in Joel 2:12), and there it seems to be an accommodation to the way the people showed repentance.

Meanwhile, God never shows approval of any fasting initiated by people; on the contrary, He seems to show no respect for it.  Consider Zechariah 7:1-7:

Now in the fourth year of King Darius it came to pass that the word of the Lord came to Zechariah, on the fourth day of the ninth month, Chislev, when the people sent Sherezer, with Regem-Melech and his men, to the house of God, to pray before the Lord, and to ask the priests who were in the house of the Lord of hosts, and the prophets, saying, “Should I weep in the fifth month and fast as I have done for so many years?”

Then the word of the Lord of hosts came to me, saying, “Say to all the people of the land, and to the priests: ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months during those seventy years, did you really fast for Me—for Me? When you eat and when you drink, do you not eat and drink for yourselves? Should you not have obeyed the words which the Lord proclaimed through the former prophets when Jerusalem and the cities around it were inhabited and prosperous, and the South and the Lowland were inhabited?’”

God wants obedience from His people, not fasting.  He did not say that they should have obeyed and fasted, but only that they should have obeyed.

Now consider Isaiah 58:3-9a:

‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and You have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls, and You take no notice?’

“In fact, in the day of your fast you find pleasure, and exploit all your laborers. Indeed you fast for strife and debate, and to strike with the fist of wickedness. You will not fast as you do this day, to make your voice heard on high.

Is it a fast that I have chosen, a day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, and to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord?

Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh?

Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.

So if one passes up food in order to share with his brother, then God is pleased; that is the “fast” of which He approves.  Passing up food just for the sake of passing up food, however, seems to make no impression on Him.

And now consider Jonah 3:4-10:

And Jonah began to enter the city on the first day’s walk. Then he cried out and said, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them. Then word came to the king of Nineveh; and he arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published throughout Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, “Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?” Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.

Notice that the Ninevites truly repented at Jonah’s preaching.  They proclaimed a fast, which was their cultural way of expressing remorse (as were sackcloth and ashes), and they “turn[ed] from [their] evil way and from the violence that is in [their] hands,” which latter constituted the true and actual repentance.  Notice that “God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.”  The fasting per se meant nothing; the only thing that impressed God was that “they turned from their evil way.”

In sum, then, what we see in the OT is that, while many people did engage in fasting, a common religious ritual in the ancient world, God did not command fasting to be a part of the faith life of His people[3].  We also saw that voluntary fasting initiated by people simply does not impress Him.

When we come to the NT, there are a number of arguments brought up by the advocates of fasting to defend the idea that this is a recommended practice for Christians, to wit:

  • The early church fasted (e.g. Acts 13:2-13, 14:23)
  • Paul fasted (2 Corinthians 6:5, 11:27)
  • Jesus gave instructions on how to behave when you fast (Matthew 6:16-18)
  • Jesus mentioned fasting as a tool in exorcism (Matthew 17:14-21/Mark 9:14-29)
  • Jesus Himself fasted (Matthew 4:1-2/Luke 4:1-2)

While prima facie these points may seem to make up a good case for the practice of fasting, a careful examination of the totality of NT teaching on the subject will reveal the opposite.  But before we consider these points, an important principle of hermeneutics must be discussed, which is this:

The Bible records historical narratives, describing what people did, and also didactic statements (teachings, instructions, commands), and it is these latter that are determinative for Christian conduct.  Some of the actions that people did were right, some were wrong, and some were idiosyncratic, so we must take care in using records of what people did as paradigmatic for us.  If there is a didactic statement that addresses an issue, then what it says must be followed and cannot be overruled by looking at examples of what people did.

This even applies in the case of Jesus Himself.  As a too-obvious example, we can point out that Jesus accepted worship (e.g. Matthew 14:33, 15:25; John 9:38), but that does not mean that we can do so (Matthew 4:10; Acts 10:25-26; Revelation 19:10).

A more reasonable example stems from the fact that Jesus was not married, and historically some have used this to argue for celibate unmarried clergy i.e. that we should follow His model.  Yet there is a clear didactic statement that church leaders should be married and with children (1 Timothy 3:1-5).  Since we are explicitly told that church leaders should be married, we cannot overrule that with the fact that Jesus Himself was unmarried; that was an historical fact, not a command to do likewise.

So the principle should be clear: didactic statements cannot be overruled by historical examples.  This is why it is vain to mine the NT for examples of people fasting to try to prove fasting is good and right (or, for that matter, to search for examples of women in authoritative church leadership roles in the NT to try to overrule the didactic statement in 1 Timothy 2:12-14 that women are not to hold such positions – and, indeed, there are no genuine examples of such).

With this in mind, let us consider the NT examples that are brought forth to promote fasting:

The Early Church Fasted

The early church retained many (or most) of their Jewish cultural traditions even after they converted.  Sometimes these were neutral and sometimes harmful, such as their implacable hatred of Gentiles[4].  Fasting was one of these cultural traditions, and so the fact that they did it in no way makes it normative for us.

Paul Fasted

No, as far as we know he didn’t.  The word translated “fastings” in 2 Corinthians 6:5 and 11:27 is νηστεια (nesteia), which can mean either “the experience of being without sufficient food; going hungry” or “the act of going without food for a devotional or cultic purpose; fast.”  Since in both of these passages Paul is listing the hardships he underwent in the service of the Lord, and not devotional practices, it is certain that the first definition is the correct one; he suffered from lack of food during his missions.

Jesus Gave Instructions on How to Behave When You Fast

This is the part of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus warns that acts of devotion must be done for God and not for public praise.  He uses as examples the three practices of charitable giving, prayer, and fasting because that is what the people did in those days; it is not a command for us to do them.  And, while charitable giving and prayers are both explicitly enjoined for us elsewhere in the NT, fasting is not.  The lesson of this passage is to serve God to please Him, and not to be praised by men.

Jesus Mentioned Fasting as a Tool in Exorcism

First, the passage doesn’t make it clear whether it was the disciples or the demon-possessed man who was to fast in this case.  Since the disciples already had the authority to cast out demons (Matthew 10:8; Luke 10:17) and are nowhere else enjoined to fast, it is probably the demoniac who must pray and fast as an indication of true repentance.

In either case, it is exceedingly difficult to see how this passage indicates that fasting is an appropriate regular spiritual practice for us, unless we are regularly engaged in casting out that particular type of demon.

Jesus Himself Fasted

There’s only one example of Jesus doing this, and what is when the Spirit “drove” Him into the wilderness.  It is not clear, therefore, that this was a voluntary fast or a result of the fact that there simply wasn’t anything available to eat in the barren wilderness where He was driven.  Either way, this was a one-time action, and so cannot be used to argue that fasting was a regular part of Jesus’ faith life – especially when there is not even one other mention of Him fasting.

So, having seen that none of the arguments adduced to endorse fasting as a Christian practice actually does so, let us look at what else the NT teaches on this topic.  First, the following is very significant:

Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?” (Matthew 9:14)

The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were fasting. Then they came and said to Him, “Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?” (Mark 2:18)

This is a “smoking gun”; whether or not Jesus voluntarily fasted that one time in the wilderness, it is not something He taught His disciples to do!  On the contrary, they were known for not fasting.  It is a great error to overlook this fact.

Now let us look at the rest of these two passages to understand the theological significance:

The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were fasting. Then they came and said to Him, “Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days. (Mark 2:18-20, bolding and underlining added)

Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?”  And Jesus said to them, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. (Matthew 9:14-15, bolding and underlining added)

Fasting is a sign of mourning, as we have already seen (and as Jesus makes it clear here as recorded by Matthew), and mourning is an inappropriate demeanour for the Christian.  On the contrary, the Christian life should be characterized by joy, even in the midst of adversity (e.g. John 15:11, 16:22; Acts 13:52; Romans 14:17; 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 1 Peter 1:8; 1 John 1:4), which means that religious practices denoting mourning, such as fasting, are completely inappropriate.  It is not I who say this, but Jesus who said that as long as we have the bridegroom, which is Jesus, with us, we cannot fast.

What about the following line, “But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days”?  Well, when was the bridegroom taken away from them?  Consider John 16:19-22:

Now Jesus knew that they desired to ask Him, and He said to them, “Are you inquiring among yourselves about what I said, ‘A little while, and you will not see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me’? Most assuredly, I say to you that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; and you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy. A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. Therefore you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you.”

The bridegroom, then, is “taken away from them” between the time of His death on the cross and His resurrection[5].  During that time, the disciples indeed “will weep and lament … and … be sorrowful” but their “sorrow will be turned into joy” when they see the risen Jesus; their hearts rejoice and joy becomes a permanent possession of theirs.

And, furthermore, thereafter He remains with us always, as He says in Matthew 28:20b:

“… lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

And again in Hebrews 13:5b:

… He Himself has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

So let us connect the dots: “As long as they have [Jesus] with them they cannot fast … [Jesus] is with [them] always, even to the end of the age.”  Q.E.D.: Fasting is not only unnecessary for the Christian life, it is inappropriate and sends the wrong message.  So no one with a deep understanding of Scripture can be advocating fasting for Christians.

Finally, some will say that, despite all this, they find the self-denial of fasting to be helpful for developing self-discipline and focus.  Does the Bible agree with this?  Hear Colossians 2:20-23:

If you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations— “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.

So, no, fasting is not helpful for developing self-discipline and focus.  According to the Bible, fasting (and other forms of asceticism) has an “appearance of wisdom,” which may be why so many who have only a superficial knowledge of the Bible promote it and think it is helpful.  However, Colossians 2:20-23 tells us that fasting (and other forms of asceticism) are “according to the commandments and doctrines of men” and not according to God’s commands, are “self-imposed religion” (and thus not from God), and “are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.”  How could it possibly be clearer?  Fasting is useless.  The Christian who wants to develop his self-discipline and focus ought not to “abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth” (1 Timothy 4:3b) but from those things from which God actually does want us to abstain:

… abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, having your conduct honourable among the Gentiles … (1 Peter 2:11b-12a)

For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality … (1 Thessalonians 4:3)

Abstain from every form of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:22)

You should abstain from sin, then, not from food.  It is abundantly clear from what we have seen that God did not institute, command, or even show approval of fasting as an element of the life of His people in the OT or in the NT, and particularly with the coming of Christ, who has risen from the dead and is with us forever, it is an inappropriate practice for Christians.


Endnotes

[1] Fasting in the month of Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam.

[2] In the commandments regarding the Day of Atonement, we read “This shall be a statute forever for you: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls …” (Leviticus 16:29a) and “’Also the tenth day of this seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement. It shall be a holy convocation for you; you shall afflict your souls … For any person who is not afflicted in soul on that same day shall be cut off from his people … It shall be to you a sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict your souls …” (Leviticus 23:27a, 29, 32a).  Many scholars believe “afflict your souls” refers to fasting, though it is not the usual word for fast, which is tsom.  Certainly the Jews have a longstanding tradition of fasting on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).

[3] There is the possible exception of “afflicting your souls” on the Day of Atonement, as noted in the previous endnote.

[4] Jesus made it clear that the Kingdom was open to Gentiles (e.g. Matthew 8:10-12) and commanded His disciples to preach to all the world (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15), but His disciples had a great deal of trouble getting past their hatred of Gentiles; even Peter needed an added vision to convince him even to listen to a Gentile (Acts 10:9-16, 24-28), and after that he himself was taken to task by the Jerusalem church for having done so (Acts 11:1-2).

[5] This is our “Day of Atonement,” so if indeed the Jews were to fast on that one day of the year, then that prefigured the mourning for Christ between Good Friday night and Resurrection Sunday morning.

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