Rev. Kuiper is pastor of Southeast Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
We read of fasts for the most part in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word means to cover the mouth, to keep the mouth shut, to fast. The Mosaic law prescribed only one fast, what Leviticus 16:29-31 calls “afflicting of the soul,” on the great day of atonement. Later, the Israelites had the practice of fasting in hard circumstances, in the midst of bereavement, and whenever God threatened judgment. Still later, they fasted on certain days to commemorate outstanding events in their history, such as the capture of Jerusalem. Fasting was often accompanied with other visible signs, such as the putting on of sackcloth, casting ashes upon the head, and tearing of the garments. Even under the Mosaic law, these outward activities were to be consistent with the inner afflicting of the soul in recognition of one’s unworthiness and in the renouncing of one’s will. Whenever Israel demonstrated exactitude in the keeping of outward signs and a lack of sorrow in the heart, hypocrisy resulted, so that their holy God rebuked them with the words, “Rend your hearts and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God” (Joel 2:13).
In the New Testament the Greek word means to abstain from food, to be empty, to fast. The Pharisees were sternly rebuked by Jesus for their hypocritical fastings, which not only went far beyond what was required once a year, but also lacked the inner contrition of the heart. They went about with a sad countenance and disfigured their faces that all might know they were fasting. Jesus said, “When thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: shall reward thee openly.” and thy Father which seeth in secret: When the disciples failed to heal a man’s son who was lunatic and sore vexed, Jesus rebuked them for their unbelief and said, “Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.” From this passage and many others, we see that fasting was engaged in as a preparation for prayer, for spiritual work, and for a revelation from God. Thus Jesus Himself fasted for forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, just before His triple temptation by the devil, in order that He might be spiritually sharpened and quickened for that great battle. That fasting enabled Him to experience to the depths of His soul every aspect of the temptations, and to resist them in the Spirit.
Although the strict observance of fasting is abolished amongst Christians, “yet the truth and substance of it remain with us in Jesus Christ, in which it has its completion” (Belgic Confession, Art. 25). Fasting is no longer obligatory with us, although what fasting represented is upon us with as great an urgency as ever with Israel. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (Ps. 51:17). And, “Godly sorrow worketh repentance unto salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death” (II Cor. 7:10). It ought also be remarked that all afflicting of the body, all asceticism, all abstaining from meats on certain days, a la Rome, is worthless as far as spiritual benefit is concerned and is soundly condemned by Scripture (Col. 2:21).
There are several New Testament passages which set forth fasting as a voluntary practice. Have you ever fasted? We are not talking about dieting, the purpose of which is physical, but fasting, the purpose of which is spiritual. There are passages which speak of fasting in the context of prayer (Acts 14:23; I Cor. 7:5; II Cor. 6:5). The idea is that our prayer life can suffer if our intake of food is too great. Too much food can make us feel sluggish, can dull the mind, can rob us of the ability to concentrate on unseen, spiritual things. We have all experienced this: we simply cannot follow a prayer-thought to its conclusion, or we fall asleep while we are praying. Our prayers suffer. It has been suggested that when we eat, and especially when we overeat, the blood supply concentrates in the abdomen, robbing the brain of the blood it needs to function properly. Perhaps. At any rate, God tells us that there are times when it is profitable to abstain from using His good gifts, in order that our spiritual life may be improved.
A parallel example is given in I Corinthians 7:5, where the child of God is encouraged to abstain from the good gift of sex for the same reason we have been discussing above. After stating that the wife and the husband do not have power over their own bodies, but that they possess their bodies mutually, Paul writes, “Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency.” Clearly, it is possible that the use of good gifts can hinder our prayers. If we observe this, we are to abstain from the use of these gifts that our prayers be not hindered. When things have been properly balanced once again, we are to resume our use of that gift we have given up for a time. Fasts in themselves have no spiritual benefit; but we may engage in fasts as an aid to a richer spiritual life of prayer and watching.