There are many references to fasting in scripture including in the New Testament to suggest that this isn’t something that is obsolete or passé. The first of them is in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:16 where Jesus says, “When you fast…”, and I’d like to point out that he didn’t say “If you fast…”, “do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Acts 2:2,3 also mentions prayer and fasting.
Fasting has a long and honorable tradition behind it. The Israelites did it. And it is not limited, as we shall see, to God’s people, but they fasted in connection to their faith, and Jesus did it as we all know. Throughout the history of the church there have been days of fasting. The pilgrims had more than one. We like to remember their day of Thanksgiving. “Oh, great, it’s a wonderful tradition. We ought to perpetuate that.” And we do, but we sort of soft-pedal and neglect, ignore the fact that periodically they had days of fasting. Our forebears did in the Netherlands, and our church, when we fast, is not doing something novel by saying “we ought to have a day of fasting.” Abraham Kuyper pleads for it in his writings and John Calvin practiced it as well as taught it. In times when there was unrest on campuses and race riots, one of the churches in our denomination proposed that we have a day of fasting with regards to that. I mention that on the score that it doesn’t necessarily have to do with hunger. It can be done not only for physical need but also for spiritual need, or political injustices, freedom, personal rights, tyranny, etc. It’s all connected. So this isn’t just the matter of “well, we’ll go without food and then we’ll think more about those hungry people,” and that it is a crash program in which we give some sort of relief. No, it isn’t a charity thing at all as indicated by the fact that a number of years ago, in connection with a world situation that didn’t involve hunger particularly, we had a fast. Now you may say, “I don’t remember that very well,” and the fact is that it was so poorly observed, which is a shame. It is not intended to be a “one shot” deal. A flash in the pan. We are so given to that as Americans. This is supposed to be, not fasting necessarily, a whole soul searching program of planning and thinking and reflection on how we can change political structures and economic distribution, etc.
So, what are the purposes or reasons for fasting? Well, the first one is as an expression of sorrow. Fasting can be both voluntary and involuntary. Deliberate and in-deliberate. When a person is sick, he fasts. He has a physical infliction and he fasts. He has no appetite and that may be natures way of healing that particular case. Paul in II Cor. 12 talks about all the troubles he underwent. He mentions both kinds of fasting. Sometimes he just didn’t have food, he had to go without. Other times he deliberately fasted. But it was always associated with sorrow. All of us have had bereavement. You go without food naturally. In those days with the tiredness of a funeral…and that accounts, by the way, for the fact of a feast after a funeral. Not only because people may have come from a long distance away and you don’t want to send them away hungry any more than Jesus did with the 5000 after their long trip, but most of those people have been going without food in normal quantities. David is a classic example with the death of his baby, the child of Bathsheba. Just could not eat while the child’s life was at stake. And when the child died he said to set out food, let’s eat. Well, when food is available and you feel like eating but you deliberately don’t, it’s to show sorrow and contrition in the same fashion that sorrow and contrition motivate fasting. There are numerous instances of that. Nineveh is a case in point. They had plenty to eat, they were hungry enough and had plenty of appetite and here comes Jonah and says that they were going to be destroyed in 40 days, and they had 3 days of fasting. The king and servants didn’t eat, animals weren’t fed, all because of contrition and sorrow. There is something rotten in Denmark, there’s something wrong with the world. We all know that. We wring our hands, we’re supposed to lament the thing and now we are supposed to show our concern about it by fasting. Inequities that have to do with food are only incidental. The big idea of fasting when it comes to world hunger is not that we do without so that we have more to share. It’s to show sorrow that we haven’t shared sooner and more, and it’s regret that we are part of this global or corporate sin.
The second reason for fasting is in order to think. Now I know that you have to eat to think, if you don’t eat at all you’ll stop thinking. But it is in order to give yourself to intense reflection. Not just about one’s faults, now, in the sense of “Oh, what have I done wrong,” but in the sense of trying to arrive at God’s solutions. And here two factors are involved in connection with fasting in order to think and the first is the matter of time. Few of us realize how much time is spent in this matter of food. Not just the consumption of it, but the preparation and the planning and the purchase and procurement of it. If we had a stop watch and timed it, we would be amazed at just how much time goes into this business of food. And the less we eat the less time goes into that. We have all done something when we are so fixated on whatever it is that we are doing that we forget to eat. Thomas Edison was known to go all day without eating because he was so intrigued by his experiments. Well that should characterize us, that we are so concerned with other things that we don’t take time to eat. The second factor is that fasting is conducive to clear thinking. Most of us could think a lot better if we didn’t eat so much. You don’t exercise vigorously after a full meal. That would be bad, and we shouldn’t think that we should think clearly either, on any level, if we overeat. Studies have been done with students on fasting vs. overeating and how it can affect grades.
A third reason is for self-discipline. Self-preservation is the first law of life and a man will do anything to keep himself alive. And that is why it is so hard to fast, even in a mild form. We feel our life is threatened. It’s unpleasant. We enjoy eating. This ties in with all self-gratification. If you give a child a bottle which he doesn’t need if he is crying for a different reason than hunger, he learns that you eat to take care of any kind of need, it is self-gratification. That is especially true of us as Americans, we are self-indulgent. We say “no” to very little. We want instant answers to our “wants”. And it all starts here, that we can’t say “no” to our drive of self-preservation. The Bible speaks of “lust” and we instantly conjure sex in connection with lust. Lust means simply the desire for instant gratification, that you can’t defer it at all. In the case of sex, it means wanting now what you can’t wait for, for marriage and so on. But it can apply to an automobile that you don’t need and go into debt for. That’s lust, and that characterizes us. The ability to say “no” to an extra hamburger is good training in the matter of self-control and pre-marital sex. It is more than coincidence that Jesus fasted for 40 days before or while it was going on with regards to his temptations. He was practicing saying “no”. Saying “no” to the devil no matter what he came along with, because he had first said “no” to himself. And it is more than coincidence that the first temptation had to do with food. Satan wanted him to turn the stones into bread and he said “no” because he had been saying “no” for 40 days.
The corollary of all this is to learn the art of implicit obedience. Eating isn’t bad, it is one of God’s best gifts. He has given us freely all things to enjoy, it is something good and necessary. But that is why the first temptation in the Garden of Eden was couched in the form of eating. God didn’t say, “Now, Adam, I don’t want you to go around cursing in the garden”, or “I don’t want you to get drunk,” but he says, “Leave that tree alone. Show that you are my child by saying ‘no’ to something that is intrinsically good.” Here is the practical reason to why there is so little fasting. It’s one thing to say “no” to alcoholic beverages or drugs, you feel so virtuous, but to say “no” to something that gives you satisfaction, pleasure and even strength is something else. So we say, “What for? What is the sense of all this?”, like we have to have reasons when God say’s “Do it, and then you’ll find out.” George Bernard Shaw, the Irish critic and playwright said, “Christianity has been tried and found wanting.” That was his dictum way back in the British Isles a generation or two ago. His contemporary, G.K. Chesterton said that it “has been tried and found difficult”. That’s the trouble, and I’m not sure we have even tried it. Like many things we criticize it and refuse it without even trying it. Like many other aspects of the Christian life like prayer and tithing, we have to do it in order to understand its blessing.
Fasting is also to empathize with others. Sympathy and empathy are two different things. We sympathize with people that are starving. We are moved by pictures of kids with their ribs sticking out and we sympathize with them, but we don’t empathize with them. Of course you don’t, until you fast and then your stomach begins to growl and then you have just a little taste – if you’ll pardon the bad pun – of what these people go through. Then you begin to empathize. During the few years we were in Africa we saw first hand some of these people as they came to our door, and it just breaks you heart. To think that you never miss a meal and they have to go weeks sometimes between two harvests. Before the other comes in they have run out of the last. Then this thing of half the world goes to bed hungry every night, then it becomes very real, and all we did was see it. We weren’t doing much fasting then, I must confess, to my chagrin. But we saw it first hand and that is what you experience when you fast. What is it…a thousand people die every hour of every day of every week or every month of every year…from hunger.
Finally, fasting is to learn gratitude. Today is Thanksgiving. Now ideally a big feast should instill thankfulness. We look over that big table laden with food and say “All this and heaven too,” in the fashion of Matthew Henry. But there is precious little thankfulness on such an occasion as that. We have our appreciation dinners, our testimonial banquets and we all feel very grateful, presumably, that’s how we show gratitude toward one another. But does it? You know the answer to that. What thankfulness is there for the vast majority of Americans on Thanksgiving Day when they gorge themselves and stumble to the “boob-tube” to watch football all afternoon, what gratitude is there in that? It’s when we go hungry that we learn a little appreciation, don’t we? Just experience a few hunger pains and it drives you to your knees in appreciation. That’s the irony of life.