Fasting - It's Use and Abuse
by Ernest L. Martin, Ph.D.
Read the accompanying Newsletter for August 2001The subject of fasting is often more misunderstood than most topics, but the recognition of a few biblical principles can make it comprehensible. It has been mentioned (and sometimes commanded) in the teachings of the Holy Scriptures, and this is the reason that it becomes a topic that all Christians should be concerned with. Indeed, the majority of all early religions have adopted, in one form or another, the physical application of fasting as a special mode of expressing a relationship to God. The faiths found in the Bible are no exception. From the dawn of history, fasting seems to have had a religious relevance. Why is this? Why has fasting (which means the abstinence from food and/or water, or to avoid certain eatable commodities for periods of time) found such universal appeal?
And for Christians, why would our heavenly Father wish his children to go without food and/or water (or refrain from eating or drinking certain foods or liquids) for short or extended periods? Is there some hidden power or spiritual honor that comes from the application of fasting? Or, does God take pleasure in seeing his worshippers go without food or water, or to avoid particular foods and drinks at certain times? Since none of us who are parents would demand of our own children that they fast to prove their devotion and sincerity to us, would God also require such a procedure for his spiritual children? Of course, when one was sleeping, it was not possible under normal circumstances to eat or drink, but when the sun rose the next morning people would ordinary "break the fast," that is, as we say today, they would have Breakfast. This means that the previous 12 to 6 hours were hours for what we call fasting.
These matters concerning fasting are questions that many of us have no doubt wondered about from time to time. And since we find many references in the Bible to fasting (with its various forms), all of us who respect the Holy Scriptures should try to understand the biblical meaning of the subject as best we can. If we know the essentials of the spiritual teaching behind the use of fasting, then we would then be able to deal with the subject intelligently, profitably and to everyoneís advantage.
It is almost a universal belief in the majority of religions of the world that suffering of a person will appease the anger and also please the deities that people worship. The forgiveness of sins through some kind of payment involving suffering is a widespread doctrine of mankind. In the earlier periods of civilization there is no idea more prevalent and widespread than the faith that deities are propitiated (or they pay more attention to their worshippers) by the voluntary sufferings of their creatures. Within many heathen societies, not only would people give of their money and time to the pagan gods until it hurt, but they would often physically punish themselves (and even go to the extreme devotion of offering their own children or themselves in death) to honor and to please their gods. One of these means of appeasement was through the application of fasting.
People adopted various forms of fasting as means of suffering to show their sincere devotion and utmost attention to the reality and the recognition of powers attained by their deities. This is reflected even in some Christian societies when persons give up something they like to do or to eat or drink during the period of Lent (just before the Easter celebration). This avoidance is a modified form of fasting. In some extreme cases, individuals have fasted from eating for the full 40 days of Lent in order to mimic Christ who also fasted for 40 days in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1,2). In most long fasts such as that of 40 days, it is common for people to drink water or some liquid during the period, but yet to refrain from all solid foods. The reason, we are told, that Christ fasted before being tempted by Satan is to show that even in his weakened state Christ was able to show the strength of his spiritual convictions and that Satan had no power over him in the arena of faith and endurance. This was one type of fast. There are others.
There were various reasons for fasting and to practice different kinds of fasting. One of the most common reasons to fast was centered on a kind of pummeling of the flesh in order to punish one for his or her sins or showing forth weaknesses in spiritual matters. In many religions, since it was often believed that the gods held human enjoyments in displeasure because they titillated the fleshly senses, compensations for such happiness achieved in the flesh were often balanced with voluntary sufferings. Indeed, it was thought that the gods were jealous of manís happiness, and throughout Greek and Roman mythology this is abundantly attested. And what more natural pleasure and comfort for a human that having no hunger or thirst? It was deemed that a voluntary denial of such blessings must then be well pleasing to the Deity. A full discussion of these beliefs just mentioned is found in MíClintock & Strongís Cyclopedia, vol. III. pp. 486, 487. It was a kind of self-punishment for sins that one committed.
As religious beliefs became more sophisticated in later times, fasting and other forms of self-chastisements were used as a personal means of afflicting oneself to show sorrow to God for the human demerits that plague all human beings. This belief has been especially prevalent in areas where people recognize the Deity as angry with oneís violation of divine law. People feel God does get angry with them and that he will afflict them with various trials unless the people show remorse by going hungry. I heard of one minister in my former denomination who "fasted" by avoiding all common foods and drinks that he normally ate or drank. He "fasted" by drinking champagne and eating cashew nuts all day as a type of discipline to teach him spiritual principles rather than insisting on his regular cuisine.
But are these interpretations of the use of fasting as advocated by humans valid from a true biblical view? What Christians need to know are biblical truths, not human traditions that often are diametrically opposite from the teachings of the Scriptures. The fact is, these are perversions ó and are wrong.
If there is anything made clear in the Bible it is the teaching that fasting (or any physical or spiritual act of man) cannot atone for sins ó be those sins minor or major. From the time the pristine Christian message was initially given to mankind (and especially since Christís death and resurrection), there has been only one means by which anyone can gain forgiveness and atonement for sins. That is through the application of Christís sacrifice by the Father to the person making the appeal for redemption (Hebrews 9:11-15). Christ has paid for all our sins by his substitutional death and resurrection for each of us.
Yet, how many times have you heard ministers tell people who have sinned and wish forgiveness from God to pray and fast about the matter? This advice may be fine if one is praying and fasting for right motives, but this is often not the case. Too many people feel they have a part in the atonement for their sins. But only Christ can forgive sins. The Christian has the life, death and perfection of Christ imputed to him when he or she becomes a Christian ó and it is Christ who has worked out a perfect and complete forgiveness for us. See my new Second Edition book titled: "The Essentials of New Testament Doctrine" where this is explained in detail.
The Father legally looks on those redeemed by the blood of Christ as being a part of the body of Christ himself. "For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones" (Ephesians 5:30). When the Father observes Christ, he sees us in him. "Know ye not that your own bodies are the members of Christ" (I Corinthians 6:15). "For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ" (I Corinthians 12:12). All Christians are now "in Christ." We are "co-heirs, and co-bodied, and co-partakers of the promise in Christ [Greek]" (Ephesians 3:6). Indeed, all the righteousness that Christ now has is presently imputed to us in a legal way. "Being justified [Greek: declared righteous] freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" (Romans 3:24). We do not have to fast for sins (in order to appease God or to show our sorrow) because we are legally now reckoned to be "in Christ" and in the eyes of the Father in heaven we have no sins on us.
Of course, our present standing with God is a legal one that God recognizes. It is not an actual fact of life because it is quite evident that Christians still sin from time to time (I John 1:8). Yes, though we are still sinners, God now reckons us as righteous (and not sinners) by our being reckoned by the Father to be "in Christ." Though we are legally free of sins, we do commit sin from time to time. To rid ourselves of these recurrent sins, we should ask Godís help and his spiritual strength in such matters (II Timothy 2:19). He will help us (I Corinthians 10:13). It must be understood, however, that all sins that stand in the way of our salvation have been totally forgiven in the death of Christ ó be they past, present, or future. Again, read the book that I have mentioned above where the biblical theology of eternal security in respect to salvation is thoroughly documented. If you do not have a copy, we hope you will send for it because no principle is more important for the Christian to understand.
We are thus legally considered by the Father to be sinless by being "in Christ." We have been forgiven of all our sins. Since this is a practical as well as spiritual fact, if we continually bring before God the Father our present sins through many prayers and even through fasting, we are doing nothing but continually crucifying Christ afresh! It is wrong for the Christian, if he or she sins, to ask that a present sin or all future ones also be placed on the back of Christ. The truth is, this placement of sins on the person of Christ was already accomplished some 1900 years ago (indeed, even from before the foundation of the world ó II Timothy 1:9). When you became a Christian is when all your sins were imputed to Christ. That is the clear teaching of the New Testament. True, it is a natural and proper thing to confess all present sins (I John 1:9), but such confession, repentance and using the act of fasting to secure forgiveness are not any means to attain your redemption. That forgiveness that has brought us salvation in Christ Jesus is already secured and needs no further action. On the other hand, a continual thankfulness to God the Father for Him having forgiven us through Christ and saving us into His divine Family (in an attitude of praise and joy) is something that is always acceptable and well-pleasing to God.
The use of prayer and fasting has been very much misused by mankind in regard to the cleansing of sin. Too many people today feel (just as did the early heathen) that they must punish themselves for their sins by various means ó and fasting is usually one of them. What nonsense! It was Christ who suffered and died for us all. Though it is good to strive against sin (Hebrews 12:4), all your human efforts to atone for sin through your own sufferings are not the least bit effective (Galatians. 2:16). Fasting (or anything one does for oneís self) should never be used as a means of suffering for sin. This is what the dictionary calls penance, and it is a thoroughly heathen practice (even though some institutional church denominations use it as a cardinal doctrine of forgiveness). This is very wrong to do.
There are many that think that fasting is a sure means of gaining more attention from God. If that is true then one should fast with every prayer because oneís petitions would have more of a chance of "getting through to God." The principle is usually felt to rest in the belief that if Godís saints cause voluntary suffering on themselves to show their real sincerity with God, then God will more readily respond. He would look on their self-imposed afflictions in an anxious mood and rush to release them from their self-imposed hurt. But this cannot be correct. If it were then the prophets of Baal in Elijahís time had the right idea. After crying to the Baals from morning to late afternoon without any response, they began to "cut themselves with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them" (I Kings 18:28). It was like saying: "Look, Baal, we are suffering for you." Elijah mocked them to scorn. Such a thing was rank heathenism. This type of "suffering" also applies in regard to fasting. Simply being uncomfortable with gnawing pangs of hunger or thirst is not advocated in the Scriptures as a way of getting Godís attention.
Yet there are many people today (even misdirected Christians) who believe they ought to punish themselves for their sins or to gain the attention of God. This should never be. The Father can, and will, hear your prayers no matter if you are at a feast with a full stomach or abstaining from a meal (or meals) in order to take the time to pray to him. God is interested in oneís spiritual attitude, not your physical condition or discomfiture at the time of prayer (John 4:24).
Does God take pleasure in his children being hungry? Christ gave an illustration of all worthy parents supplying adequate food to their children (which He approved). See Luke 11:11-13. In regard to this example given by Christ, would you like your own children going hungry (when you have plenty to eat) in order for them to show you deference and an attitude of subservience? Hardly. However, suppose there was some important work to be done for you and your children took it upon themselves to work day and night to accomplish it. Letís say they loved you so much and wanted to accomplish the tasks so energetically that they didnít even eat their normal meals while performing the job. They totally absorbed themselves into doing the work that they forgot to eat. As long as they did not injure their health, would not any human parent appreciate this effort by the children? This type of duty is also pleasing to God. It shows that the interest in satisfying God the Father was so intense that the children doing an important job even gave up eating for a time to please Him. They skipped a meal or two to accomplish the job through their efforts. This activity is a common form of fasting for God.
It is this principle that pleases our heavenly Father when one is doing "work" for him. Many of the saints of the Old and New Testament went into the desert on occasion to commune with God. They were so interested in their spiritual activities with Him that they were willing to go without food to be with God in constant fellowship. It has been stated by numerous people that going without food for a few days can often open the mind to greater mental clarity. This is not always the case with everyone. Only you can determine what is efficacious to you. As for me, in the matter of studying Godís word, I cannot tell you the number the times I have missed meals because of the job of continuous study on biblical matters. This kind of fasting (the skipping of meals and drinks) is entirely proper from time to time.
There is another good reason to fast. In times of sickness, grief, fear, concern, or sorrow, it is quite normal for the person experiencing such trauma to lose oneís appetite. Everyone recognizes this. Even on certain memorial days of the Jews (such as the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple), the later Jews customarily fasted (Zechariah 7:5). It was a day of sadness and sorrow. As a result, they fasted to commemorate what their ancestors literally experienced when they knew the Temple was destroyed.
As a further corollary of this, suppose one of your relatives is sick or sorrowful. Could you not temporarily join him in his grief by sharing his concern by praying and fasting with him? See I Corinthians 12:26. It would be wrong, of course, to say: "God, I am suffering for this person by fasting, and you must come and help him in order that this punishing of myself can be allayed." This attitude is similar to the prophets of Baal cutting themselves and it is not biblically allowable.
There was one day in the Old Testament that was commanded as a day of affliction and mourning. It was the tenth day of the seventh Jewish month. All people were to be afflicted [to be fasting óEzra 8:21-23] on that day. Rituals were performed to reconcile the ancient Israelites to God because of the sins the nation had committed [both collectively and individually] over the previous year (Leviticus 16:23-25). The fasting was to accent the sorrow they should have had for their demerits. In this type of fasting, it means to avoid both food and water.
There may also be another reason why the Israelites fasted on that day. Adam and Eve were told they could eat all of the fruits of the trees in the Garden of Eden except one. Because the trees had fruit on them when they committed their sin, this indicates that the events recorded in Genesis Two occurred in the Autumn. Symbolically, the first day of creation (starting with Genesis 1:1) could have been the first day of the Jewish Autumn month called Tishri. The seventh day of creation would answer to the seventh day of Tishri. After that "Sabbath," we find Adam and Eve in the Garden and curious over the various trees and their many fruits. The serpent then tempted Eve to take of the forbidden fruit. She did, along with Adam. Isnít it interesting that this simple eating of some small items of fruit introduced sin into the world? Though the eating was a small thing in one way, it had major consequences.
Their eating made them sinners, and now a Savior would have to die on a tree of crucifixion to atone for that sin ó and all other sins of mankind that have since been committed. The consequence was so serious that the serpent was sent to his belly as a curse, and Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden. Since the seventh day (weekly Sabbath) of creation could typically be considered the seventh of the Jewish month Tishri, then it could well be that sin was introduced to the world three days later on Tishri 10 ó the very day that later became the Day of Atonement in the time of Moses. This makes perfectly good sense. If the serpent introduced sin on that day, it is reasonable that sin would also be dealt with in regard to Israel and their Old Covenant relationships with God on that day? And since the first sin involved eating, God could very well have emphasized his abhorrence of sin by commanding the Israelites to abstain from food on that day which was the anniversary of the introduction of sin.
As interesting and truthful as this may be, those of us who are Christians, however, have had all our sins forgiven in Christ. It is no longer necessary to remember those sins year to year by fasting (Hebrews 10:1), lest Christ be crucified afresh each year. We no longer need to fast over sins that have been permanently forgiven. Indeed, it would be utterly wrong for Christians today to fast on the Day of Atonement. If one does fast on Yom Kippur (Atonement), it is a denial of Christ forgiving us of our sins.
Some people believe that fasting is an important feature of Christian living. It may well be if it is put to use in a proper way. But one thing for certain, it is not demanded by God. Jesus even told his disciples not to fast as long as they had him with them (Mark 2:18,19). This means the period of time that Christ was in the flesh and among them, that time passed without them fasting voluntarily. Christ did say that they would fast at certain undesignated periods after he would return to heaven (Mark 2:20). This shows that fasting from time to time is acceptable for the Christian, but it is nowhere commanded by Christ for any specific time. [Some later editors of the New Testament texts (long after the time of Christ) added some references about fasting in Matthew 17:21 and Mark 9:29. These words are not in the original manuscripts and should be relegated to the margins as does the Revised Standard Version of the Bible.]
Indeed, Paul had some specific teachings about all ascetic practices (which include fasting). He said that such things "have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting rigor of devotion and self-abasement and severity to the body, but they are of no value in checking the indulgence of the flesh" (Colossians 2:23 RSV). In fact, in the fourth and fifth centuries when there were many people who became ascetics and starved themselves through fasting, etc., many of these so-called "saints" began to hallucinate in their minds (through physical weaknesses experienced in the flesh for lack of sustenance). As a result, they selected many of the false "holy places" in Palestine and Jerusalem that were as wrong as could be. This is a wrong use of fasting. In my view, the apostle Paul knew what he was talking about when he condemned ascetic ways.
What sound advice! No amount of fasting or pummeling of oneís body in religious exercises (in the first place) can possibly make the human flesh any better in a spiritual sense. All these things are physical, not spiritual. One could go a long time without fasting, or he could fast every other day, and still be no better or any worse. Christianity is not dependent upon physical rituals ó and thatís what fasting (as a religious exercise) is, pure and simple. Though it should never be denigrated as a means of expressing sorrow and concern, or as a means to be in continual prayer to God on occasion, no amount of fasting will make a better person out of anyone. It is wrong to practice it in a ritualistic way (Colossians 2:23).
There is, however, one type of "fast" that Christians could use to great advantage. It is a symbolic "fast," but one which answers all the reasons for fasting anyway. The description of this "fast" is found in Isaiah 58:6. "Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?" This is a metaphorical type of fast God always approves. In fact, physical fasting was meant to produce this type of spiritual attitude.
I would hope that one practices this type of metaphorical "fast" twenty-four hours a day. If anything, this is one of the cardinal verses that describes, hopefully, the work of the Associates for Scriptural Knowledge. Our hope is that all of you will be with us in our quest to accomplish the principles of this scripture. "The days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days" (Mark 2:20). And isnít the best kind of fast the one that God has chosen? His chosen fast is that mentioned in Isaiah 58:6. And frankly, it is the best kind of fasting that anyone can do. It will bear rich rewards for you ó and everyone.
The main difficulty that people encounter in the interpretation of biblical truths is the inability to distinguish a spiritual "principle" from physical "rituals." There is no doubt that the Bible has a great deal of symbol or types within its pages. The entire animal sacrifices in the Old Testament (along with Temple services, circumcision, Sabbaths and Holy Days) were physical types of the Christ who was prophesied to come. They were "shadows" -- mere outlines of the reality they were designed to show (Colossians 2:16,17; Hebrews 9:9,10; 10:1). All ceremonies of the Old or New Testaments fit this classification ówhether they be circumcision, baptism, the Lordís Supper, or what have you! These ritualistic acts of themselves mean nothing in actual spiritual development. But the figurative principles they are portraying mean very much indeed. And the matter of fasting is no exception to the rule. It has definite spiritual values associated with it (particularly those done on the Day of Atonement) that all of us can profitably adopt for the good of all mankind and ourselves.
It is the principle behind fasting that counts, not the physical fasting itself. Even in the Old Testament this was demonstrated in a clear way. The whole of Isaiah chapter 58 is devoted to the question of fasting. In actual fact it is a discourse on the Day of Atonement (the holiest day of the Hebrew year -- a "Sabbath of Sabbaths" -- Leviticus 23:32). This has to be the case because verse 3 says this particular "fast day" should be one on which no work was to be done. This would only be the situation in Old Testament theology with the day being an ordained Sabbath. Thus, the Sabbath mentioned in Isaiah 58:13,14 is the Day of Atonement, not the ordinary seventh day of the week. But what kind of "a fast" is God really interested in? Isaiah explains it very precisely and it bears repeating. Look at Isaiah 58:6,7.
"Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?"
The trouble was, as Isaiah was able to see, the whole of the nation of Israel at the time was keen on performing the physical fast on the Day of Atonement, but they left off accomplishing the spiritual principles that the fast was intended to promote. To God, practicing the principles of fairness, honesty, consideration, respect, helpfulness, mercy and love for oneís neighbor (as well as oneís self) was the important issue, and not the physical fasting itself. And look at today ó even at our modern period. How many people do you know who may look good on the outside and are very religious, but do not practice the essentials of ethical conduct in their lives that Isaiah was speaking about above?
It is little different today than it was in Isaiahís day. Many people are prone to observe the outward, physical aspect of the Law of Moses (or the laws of their church denomination ó and they fast accordingly) but many of them do not keep the "spirit of the law" that God has ordained for them. But God looks on the "spiritual principles" that the law was intended to show, rather than the outside of the platter that the people of the world observe. Christ mentioned this point. Some are like the Pharisees.
"Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess."
The Day of Atonement given to ancient Israel was to remind them of their sins once every year. They had to fast once each year ó by commandment from God ó as their reminder of "all your sins before the Lord" (Leviticus 16:30). But the Book of Hebrews shows that those physical ceremonies which were conducted on the Day of Atonement were only "a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things" (Hebrews 10:1). The animal sacrifices and the rituals of the Law which were done year by year never made those who participated in them perfect. But Christ has now arrived (which all those physical things foreshadowed) and we can now keep all the spiritual principles of judgment, mercy and faith without having to perform the external rituals any longer. The Roman Gentiles were able to keep the law without once resorting to keeping holy days, circumcision, Sabbaths or fasting (Romans 2:14,15). The spirit of the law operating in the lives of Christians is important, but not the act of physical fasting itself. This is why the external observance of the Old Testament Holy Days given by the angels to Moses are no longer needful for mature Christians to observe. What we need to do is to extract the spiritual meanings of those beautiful periods and adopt them into our environment of keeping the nine fruits of Godís Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-25). May God give you the wisdom to see these truths.
The fact is, God expects His mature children to understand the final adult teachings of the Gospel of Christ (called "the Mystery"). Physical fasting as shown in the ritual is of no spiritual value today in creating in us a proper and effective association with Christ Jesus and our Heavenly Father. Our fasting reserved for mature Christians is that mentioned in Isaiah 58:6 and 7. Once this is understood in the proper way, there will never be any need for further questions about the ritualistic principle called fasting. The thing for which we need to hunger and thirst is righteousness (Matthew 5:6). If we truly hunger for righteousness, we shall be filled with the spiritual manna of God.
Ernest L. Martin
© 1976-2021 Associates for Scriptural Knowledge - ASK is supported by freewill contributions