By Bill Warren, NOBTS Professor of New Testament and Greek
Question:When did fasting start, what is it about, and is it still valid to practice today?
[img_assist|nid=6120|title=Bill Warren NOBTS Professor of New Testament and Greek|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=75|height=100]Bill Warren responds: I remember preaching on fasting at my first pastorate – on a fifth Sunday when we were having a church dinner. Needless to say I was teased quite a bit on that one and reminded Baptists and fasting don’t always mix well, especially not when a church dinner is waiting.
As for when fasting originated, we don’t have firm evidence historically on a precise point of origin, but it is found in the Old Testament from the time of David forward (see the Davidic Psalms 35, 69, and 109). Fasting is linked to mourning in a spiritual sense of seeking God in repentance and contrition.
The connection to mourning is understandable – we often don’t want to eat when going through the loss of loved ones with broken hearts. Likewise spiritually, fasting, prayer, and repentance are linked to the sense of loss of closeness to God that weighs heavy upon the heart and soul. In the New Testament period, the Pharisees fasted twice each week (Luke 18:12) from sundown on one day until sundown on the next day, so a true 24-hour fast.
That length of time was not dramatic in the sense of any real hunger resulting. In the Sermon on the Mount, therefore, Jesus denounced the hypocrites who made their faces appear gloomy during these one-day fasts (Matthew 6:16-18). Jesus highlights that fasting needs to have the right emphasis. If one is going to seek to be closer to God by focusing on that relationship rather than even physical food, then the emphasis needs to be on God and not on impressing others.
Fasting should be a private matter (private to the individual or to the group) rather than a way of publically showing off one’s level of spirituality. Our walk with God is not a public display of affection to impress others but rather should be a meaningful relationship that shows the proper love and respect for the other one in the relationship, namely God.
Fasting should focus on getting closer to God, not publically bragging about how close we already are to God.
Early Christians also fasted, as can be seen in Acts 13:2-3. The Didache (8:1), an early Christian document from the late first or early second century, notes that Christians should fast on Wednesdays and Fridays so as not to be confused with the Pharisees who were fasting on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Good Friday was also a regular day of fasting for the early church.
So what about fasting today? Christians should feel free to fast – it’s biblical and was practiced by the early church. On the other hand, we are also free not to fast. But what cannot be avoided is seeking a close relationship with God.
If fasting helps you focus more on God and renew your relationship, praise God. If you renew your relationship with God by eliminating other distractions (turning off the TV for a day – fasting from TV, etc.), praise God.
The point is, we all need to regularly make sure our relationship with God is staying on track by focusing on God and not the things of life that so easily distract us. As a last note, if a medical condition is present that prevents fasting from food, then by all means don’t do it, but do seek wholeheartedly and earnestly to be close to God.