As I had the opportunity yesterday to eat pancakes, which I really enjoy, I began to reflect on the spiritual discipline of prayer and fasting. As someone whoes spiritual upbringing is Nigerian Pentecostalism, prayer and fasting is a spiritual discipline that I am accustomed to, but I have observed that lent here in the UK takes on a different practice from what I have been used back in Nigeria.
What is fasting? Fasting is simply abstinence from food for a particular period of time, either for religious or political reasons. Fasting could be for religious reasons or political reasons depending on the cause of fasting. An example of a political fast was the Irish hunger strike, which was a protest against the withdrawal of certain rights by the British government from Irish prisoners. Fasting for religious reasons is more common than for political reasons. The reason is because fasting is a well established spiritual discipline within Christianity and other world religions. Fasting is recognised in Islam, especially during the Holy month of Ramadan, which is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar. In Biblical context, fasting is recognised in the Old and New Testament. Today, fasting is observed by many Christians in different ways during the lent season. This lent season is drawn from Jesus 40 days of fasting in the wilderness (Matthew 4, Luke 4)
What is fasting in Biblical context? Fasting in Biblical context implies total abstinence from all food for a certain period. The length of time varied from daylight, hours fasted that day until evening ( Judges 20: 26), or up to 40 days like in the case of Moses, see Exodus 34: 28. In the Old Testament, fasting is used to express repentance (Joel 2: 12-13; Jonah 3:5-9), or a desperate plea for God’s intervention (Esther 4:1-4). It is also a sign of mourning and sorrow for sins; this is connected with humility because the person involved humbles himself through fasting and pleads for God’s mercy. A classic example of this is when David prayed and fasted for Bathsheba’s child to be delivered from God’s sentence of death (2 Samuel 12: 13-19). In relation to this sort of prayer of repentance in the Old Testament is the expression, “sackcloth and ashes” see Daniel 9: 3. Sackcloth and ashes are a symbol of the attitude of mourning and sorrow by the person fasting, or as in the case of Daniel on behalf of Israel who has sinned against the Lord.
People also fasted in the Old Testament as a result of bereavement or loss of appetite as Hannah did in 1 Samuel 1: 7-8; 20: 34.
Another reason why people fasted in the Old Testament was to hear God’s direction. An example of this was Moses’ 40 days fasting when he received the Laws for Israel’s direction (Exodus 24: 18; 34: 28). It seems probable that Elijah also fasted in order to choose those who would succeed him when he could not continue his prophetic ministry (1 Kings 19: 7-21).
God rejected certain fasts in the Old Testament. Fasts that were done without acts of mercy and love were rejected by God. This was Isaiah’s prophetic rebuke in Isaiah 58: 3-11, Zechariah also rebuked the religious fasts of Israel during the exilic period because they were done simultaneously with oppressing the poor (Zechariah 7: 3-10).
Fasting in the New Testament: Anna served the Lord in the Temple with prayer and fasting (Luke 2: 37). An inference here is that prayer and fasting is possibly meant to be part of our spiritual sacrifices to the Lord. However, the Pharisees made much of fasting and regarded it as a meritorious work and more efficacious than almsgiving. This in turn became the custom of the pious to fast twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays (Luke 18:12). Jesus taught that fasting done in secret out of true devotion to God will be rewarded (Matthew 6: 16-18). Following this will mean that the wearing of sackcloth and ashes is no longer relevant as in the Old Testament, except in it symbolising humility of the heart. When fasting in our contemporary world, we must examine our motives of fasting. If our motive of fasting is to let everyone know that we are fasting because we are very spiritual and better than others, then the purpose is defeated, “……………and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” Matthew 6: 18b. I am aware that it might be difficult to hide our fasting from the public at times, but even when it is obvious to people that we are fasting or abstaining from something we usually do, our intentions of explaining to them is very important. At other times it might be wise to explain to people why we are not eating so as to avoid people thinking we are anorexic, or not to encourage anorexic people. Jesus didn’t seem to place too much emphasis on fasting as John’s disciples and the Pharisees did, probably because he was avoiding people being legalistic about it (Mark 2: 18-20). But he did fast for 40 days and 40 nights before he started ministry (Matthew 4:2). It seems probable that Paul fasted in 2 Corinthians 6: 5 and 11: 27. He definitely fasted for three days after he had an encounter with the Lord on the way to Damascus, see Acts 9: 9. According to the Didache (an early Christian teaching manual), the early Christians fasted twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays. This was modelled on the Pharisees’ fast twice a week, although on separate days from the usual custom.
In the 2nd and 3rd century, the pre-Easter and pre-Baptismal fasts came to be widely practised. The pre-Easter fast is commonly known as Lent, a 40 day period of fasting.
Contemporary application of fasting and prayer in the church
How should the Church of God fast today? I have discovered that fasting today means different things in different cultures. For example, when the Indian Orthodox Church is fasting, they abstain from meat, while many Christians in the UK abstain from luxuries such as not watching television, no mobile phones, not going on facebook or twitter, or not eating chocolate. In Nigeria, where I am from, fasting seems to be like the Jewish fast where people abstain from food for the whole day or days. I have witnessed people going without food (though they drank water) for 7 days, 21 days and so forth. During the Lent period in the UK, Christians eat pancake first on pancake day before we start to give up different things like watching TV (SKY), answering mobile phones, bad attitudes, smoking, drinking alcohol and so forth. Giving up all these things for a particular period is good and I definitely encourage it, but it seems to me that it is more of denying ourselves of our addictions, rather than the Biblical concept of fasting. I still think we should follow the Biblical fasting of denying ourselves of food for a certain period in the day. This period varies from individual to individual, depending on our strength. For example, we can decide to give up our breakfast, lunch, or dinner, or all three. I am aware of certain factors in the UK that might make this awkward. These include medical condition, cold weather, working long hours, fear of anorexic stigma and encouraging anorexic disorders and so forth. A note of caution here, if you have a medical condition which will prevent you from fasting as in abstinence from food please do not fast. This is why I think it is good to have retreats as possible alternatives when we can be separated from our busy schedule and go to a solitary place to seek God’s face in prayer. Retreats can be personal or communal, and could be fixed around our holidays. We do not have to be legalistic about fasting once or twice a week, but we should at least practice it once in a while if we are able to. It is worth mentioning that fasting apart from being a spiritual discipline is also very good in terms of health. It is healthy because it brings many beneficial effects by permitting the body to secure physiological rest and be restored to health. It can also be an effective tool in watching our weight but please do not be obsessed with this.Do not let the popular images in the media dictate who you are.
Finally, whatever fasting means in our culture, it is encouraged in scripture that we should seek God through prayer and fasting not in a legalistic religious manner as the Pharisees did, but as our Lord Jesus did in spiritual strength. This will develop our ‘spiritual muscles’ and make us strong Christians.