In the New Testament, fasting is assumed to be part of the routine of Christian disciples. Jesus makes reference to fasting in the Sermon on the Mount, and Luke mentions the church practicing it in the book of Acts.
Why don’t we hear much about it today?
Possibly our silence on this topic results from abuses of fasting and penance through the centuries. For some, fasting became a way of inflicting harm on self as a way of atoning for sin, as well as self-mutilation. For others, fasting was taken to unhealthy extremes that made it seem unreasonable to the average Christian. Still others engaged in fasting as a way to spiritual clarity, but observers of this practice have ultimately attributed much of the “insights” that come from it to the delirium from lack of food and water. However, none of these extremes are necessary for the Biblical practice of fasting to be carried out.
Fasting and Preparation
One common use of fasting in the Scriptures is in preparation for important work or choices. Moses, Elijah, and Jesus all conducted a forty-day fast as part of the preparation of their great works (Ex. 24; 34; 1 Kings 19; Matthew 4). In Acts 13:2-4, the church fasted with Barnabas and Saul before sending them out to do evangelism. Elders are said to fast in preparation for their work in Acts 14:23. In the early Christian text, Didache, fasting was part of the preparation for baptism:
And before the baptism let the one baptizing and the one who is to be baptized fast, as well as any others who are able. Also, you must instruct the one who is to be baptized to fast for one or two days beforehand. (Didache 7.4)
The idea is that fasting prepared the person inwardly for the important work that lay ahead. Prayer often accompanied fasting, so this was a time of serious, uninterrupted consecration and devotion to God.
Fasting as Repentance
Another type of fasting in Scripture is during personal or national repentance. Fasting became a tool of consecration accompanied by a prayer of guilt and shame before God. It was offered in hopes that God would spare the people from an imminent disaster. The prophet Joel gives this instruction:
Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber. … Let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep and say, “Spare your people, O LORD, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, Where is their God?” (Joel 2:15-17)
While it is hard to find a clear doctrine of penance in Scripture, the practice of fasting is a reasonable response of remorse for sin. It is also a meaningful response to tragedy. Would it be appropriate for a congregation to practice a fast if their town was hit by a tornado or if a shooting took place in a local school? This seems to be the kind of events that parallel the Biblical texts.
The kind of fasting that we hear the most about today is related to Lent. In 2016, Lent begins on February 10 and ends on March 24. Lent is the traditional period of fasting that precedes the celebration of Easter. It is used to heighten the celebration of Easter, which historically was celebrated by a feast. The word “Lent” itself comes from a Saxon word that simply means “spring,” and it was considered a balance to the feasts prevalent in the fall harvests. Those practicing Lent associate it with the story of Adam and Eve. The restraint practiced in Lent is restoring the lack of restraint that caused sin in the Garden of Eden.
The specific practice of Lent is not grounded in any particular Biblical passage. However, the concept of a “season of restraint” is not an unwarranted practice. If a person wanted to practice a version of it, a little restraint following the typical gluttony and consumerism of the winter holidays might prove beneficial.
Jesus on Fasting
Jesus taught that the practice of fasting was not to be done for show (Matthew 6:16). Instead, fasting was to be a practice of devotion known mainly to God (Matthew 6:17-18). This does not mean that people could not fast together, as the church certainly practiced this in Acts.
Primarily, Jesus seems to be pointing toward a kind of fasting that becomes a way of life, a conduct that stresses dependence on God. The section that precedes fasting in this sermon is on prayer and almsgiving (Matthew 6:1-15). The section that follows his teaching on fasting is dedicated to simplicity of life (Matthew 6:19-34). This placement seems to reveal the function of fasting, as a discipline that leads to prayerfulness, generosity, and dependence on God.