For a little while now, our church has held monthly intercultural dialogue evenings with some of our local Muslim friends. The usual setup of the evening is to share on a topic from a Christian perspective, hear a Muslim view and then provide time for Q&A after each presentation. We then continue to talk together over some food. These evenings have provided wonderful opportunities to share the gospel through such varied topics as the means of salvation and the Israel-Palestine conflict (yes, we really discussed that. And yes, we really managed to clearly present the gospel through this). This month, given we are coming up to Ramadan, we are going to discuss fasting.
Given that I had been thinking about the topic anyway, I thought it worth sharing here why I personally do not fast. Now, before I go any further, let me make a caveat. There are plenty of good Christian people who did, and do, practise fasting. In fact, the weight of historical examples stand against my view (though history and tradition should rightly be subservient to scripture). I do not take lightly the fact that Calvin, Luther, Lloyd-Jones and others considered it a valuable practice.
For a helpful overview from somebody who thinks fasting is right and proper, you can do much worse than read John Piper here. I will interact with this particular view as I go through. Piper lands on many of the same scriptures as me but comes to a contrary position. His view on this in no way diminishes my respect for him or my overall view that he is an exceptionally gifted bible teacher and preacher from whom I have learnt immensely. So, to be as clear as I possibly can, I am not saying Christians cannot or should not fast. I deliberately titled this ‘why I do not fast’. This is nothing more than my personal view as I understand scripture.
With that caveat out of the way, let me briefly highlight two areas on which all Christians ought to agree (irrespective of your particular practice on fasting). First, fasting does not lead to salvation. Whether we fast or we don’t, there is no effect upon our standing in Christ. Our salvation is in no way compromised or improved by fasting. Second, there is no scriptural command that insists Christians must fast. Those who believe we should fast, or who hold it to be a helpful practice, generally (and rightly) do not appeal to scriptural command. Typically, they do so by inference, example and experience. This means the full force of their argument can only be, at best, that fasting is a (potentially) helpful practice. Similarly, the full extent of the argument that we do not need to fast can only be, at best, it is not required of the Christian and is (potentially) unhelpful. In neither case can we argue it is needful, of first importance or a fundamental matter of obedience to Jesus Christ.
With that said, let me explain why I do not fast. It is important for us to begin by understanding what fasting was about. Throughout the Old Testament, fasting was linked to mourning. Typically, it was connected to mourning over sin. For example:
‘On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and putting dust on their heads’. (Nehemiah 9:1)
‘there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping and wailing. Many lay in sackcloth and ashes’. (Esther 4:3)
‘I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes’. (Daniel 9:3)
‘”Even now”, declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning”.’ (Joel 2:12)
Clearly, however, God was never interested in fasting per se. Fasting was only of value inasmuch as it reflected a truly repentant heart; a person mourning the fact that their sin had truly grieved the heart of God.
‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired… in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure’. (Psalm 40:6f)
‘Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice’. (1Samuel 15:22)
‘man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart’. (1Samuel 16:17)
‘The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise’. (Psalm 51:17
The law and the sacrificial system within Israel existed to point towards a time when God’s messiah would finally solve the problem of sin once and for all. In Jesus Christ, God fulfilled that promise. Jesus has finally dealt with the problem of sin.
‘But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him’. (Hebrews 9:26b-28a)
‘“This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,” then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin’. (Hebrews 10:16-18)
Jesus himself reaffirms the idea that mourning and fasting are linked.
‘Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast’. (Matthew 9:14f)
Jesus is clear in these verses that as long as he is with his disciples, they have no need to fast. Jesus being present with them makes fasting obsolete. The one who has come to deal with the problem of sin, the reason for their mourning, is here with them.
Later in this same gospel, Jesus says to his disciples: ‘behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age’ (Matthew 28:20b). Jesus is now with his disciples, all true believers, forever. Jesus has finally dealt with the problem of sin, the reason for our mourning, and dwells with every real Christian so that he is always with us. Taken together, if we are not to mourn and fast while the bridegroom is with us – and Jesus himself said he is always with us – it follows that there is now no reason to fast.
There are three arguments made in response to this. First, Jesus says in this same section ‘the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast’. It is argued this must mean fasting continues. The problem with this view is that it ignores Jesus’ other words that he is with his disciples ‘to the end of the age’. We cannot just ignore one set of words because it doesn’t seem accord with the other.
Whilst John Piper acknowledges the truth of Christ’s current and ongoing presence with his people, he lands on 2 Corinthians 5:8 to argue that we are not as fully present with Jesus as we might be. Though it is true that we are not physically present with Jesus – he dwells with us by his union with the Spirit – it doesn’t alter the fact that he is present with us in some measure. If fasting was about mourning over sin, and Jesus links the need to fast with his presence, in the final analysis Jesus’ presence with us by his Spirit fundamentally means our sin has been dealt with. Thus, on either reason for fasting, the bridegroom is present with us and this means we have no need to keep mourning over our sin because we now stand in the forgiveness of his grace (cf. Romans 5:1-5).
Given this, it seems the most credible explanation for the time is that Jesus refers to the period between his death and resurrection. At that point, he was not with his disciples. Similarly, it makes sense of the fact that they were mourning his death. Following his resurrection, their mourning had turned to gladness and Jesus himself says he will never leave them.
A second argument is made in relation to the early church. If Jesus had intended to infer that fasting would be for the time between his death and resurrection, how do we account for the fact that the early church fasted? John Piper lands on four examples of this: Acts 13:1-3; 14:23; 2 Corinthians 6:5; 11:27. The latter two examples are easily dealt with because they are evidently not examples of fasting. In the context, Paul is clearly speaking of times in which he has found himself without food. This is not an example of a spiritual discipline or religious fasting, it is an example of actually being hungry and not having enough to eat. As such, the latter two examples from 2 Corinthians simply don’t stack up as evidence of early church fasting.
Nonetheless, the two verses from Acts are most definitely fasting in the sense intended. So how do we explain this? It strikes me there are two key things to consider. First, it is generally agreed that the reading of Acts in particular has a tension between that which is prescriptive and that which is descriptive i.e. what is a mere description of what took place and what holds as prescribed for the church today? We must contend with the question of whether these examples of fasting were descriptive or prescriptive.
Second, the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 wrote to the Gentile believers that they should ‘abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled’. When we compare this to Jesus’ words in Mark 7:18f and Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 8 we are left with something of a discrepancy between the ruling of the Jerusalem Council and the words of Jesus and Paul. The answer is that though there was nothing actually wrong with these things, it was still an issue of conscience for the Jewish believers. Rather than allow the Gentile believers to walk roughshod over Jewish conscience, for the sake of the weaker brother, they were asked not to exercise their liberty. But clearly, here was an instance of Jewish cultural norms carrying over into new covenant relationships for Jewish believers. Whilst Jewish believers weren’t sinful to refrain from these foods, they were not required to do so. Given the descriptive/prescriptive tension, the lack of any direct command to fast and the evidence that Jewish, old covenant customs occasionally carried over among Jewish believers, is it not possible that fasting was another such example? When taken together with Jesus’ own words, this seems probable.
A third argument made by Piper regarding Jesus’ words is the comment about new wine in new wineskins. Immediately following Jesus’ comments about the bridegroom, he says:
But no one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and a worse tear results. Nor do men put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out, and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved. (Matthew 9:16f)
Piper rightly points out that this new wine is the reality that God’s kingdom has come in the person of Jesus. He rightly notes it is the fact that Jesus died for our sin once for all. It is the sending of Spirit as the real presence of Jesus among his people. It is the inauguration of the new covenant in Christ. This is the new wine. He goes on to say:
And Jesus says, The old wineskins can’t contain it. What is the old wineskin? In the context it seems to be fasting. Fasting was inherited from the Old Testament and had been used as part of the Jewish system of relating to God. Now Jesus says, the old wineskins of Judaism can’t contain the new wine.
I would only slightly differ from his interpretation, arguing that the old wine is the entire Judaic system including laws, customs and traditions of which fasting was a part. But we certainly both agree that fasting is here included.
Piper rightly goes on to ask ‘what shall we say? In verse 15 Jesus says that we will fast when the Bridegroom is gone. And in verse 17 he says that the old fasting cannot contain the new wine of the kingdom’. He goes on to argue this means that new wine necessitates a new form of fasting. He then outlines what form he believes this should take.
However, it strikes me the more straightforward reading is not that new wine necessitates new fasting. Rather, it says that new wine cannot be held by the old wineskins. If fasting is the old wineskins (or, fasting being included within the Judaic tradition) then it follows that fasting cannot hold the new wine. A plain reading of the text does not suggest that the new covenant necessitates new fasting, rather it suggests the old order of the Judaic system – it’s traditions and customs in which fasting is included – cannot be grafted onto the new. Whether fasting per se is in view or the whole Judaic system, what is clear is that it is not compatible with the new wine brought in by Christ. It’s not that new wine requires new fasting, it’s that fasting is not compatible with the new wine.
Taken altogether, it seems to me that Jesus has dealt with our need to mourn over sin in the way fasting existed to facilitate. He was also clear that as long as he is with us, there is no need to fast. As he is now with us always, fasting has become defunct. Moreover, the new wine brought in by Jesus means that the old Judaic religious forms no longer hold. As Paul makes clear: ‘Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink… Let no one disqualify you, insisting on ascetecism’ (Colossians 2:16a, 18a). If Paul does not have fasting in mind on these things, I do not know what he can possibly mean.
A final word on a comment by John Calvin:
Let us say something about fasting, because many, for want of knowing its usefulness, undervalue its necessity, and some reject it as almost superfluous; while, on the other hand where the use of it is not well understood, it easily degenerates into superstition. Holy and legitimate fasting is directed to three ends; for we practice it either as a restraint on the flesh, to preserve it from licentiousness, or as a preparation for prayers and pious meditations, or as a testimony of our humiliation in the presence of God when we are desirous of confessing our guilt before him. (Institutes, IV.12, 14, 15)
I am especially conscious of Calvin’s warning that fasting can quickly degenerate into superstition. All too often, the theological case for fasting is lacking and ends in an existential invocation of experience or a nebulous appeal to amorphous spirituality. It is a danger that can turn fasting into an idol or a means of earning favour with God (not what I suspect Calvin is doing here, to be clear). It often ends up as an attempt to mandate subjective experience for all.
Calvin’s argument in favour of fasting appears primarily to be experiential. If, indeed, he found fasting was beneficial to him in these ways then, of course, he had liberty to do it. What seems less fortunate is that he determines it to be ‘necessity’ and chides those who ‘reject it as almost superfluous’. But without a solid scriptural command, what basis is there for his position? His appeal is to the benefits of fasting as per his experience. Whilst one doesn’t in any way want to denigrate that, nor to suggest he was therefore wrong to engage in the practice, we oughtn’t to mandate something for all based on a subjective experiential argument (no matter how widespread the experience).
To take Calvin’s benefits of fasting directly, each of these benefits are things commanded of God’s people in the New Testament entirely apart from fasting. We are commanded, specifically because of the Holy Spirit at work within us, to restrain our flesh and keep from licentiousness (e.g. Romans 6:1-4; James 4:4). We are called to ready ourselves before we pray (e.g. Mark 14:38; 1 Peter 4:7). We are similarly obligated to humble ourselves before God (e.g. Philippians 2:5-11; James 4:6f). In none of these cases is fasting given as a way to attain these things. If it were indeed necessary, and did work to produce each of these things that scripture clearly does ask us to pursue, would not one of the New Testament writers have said so somewhere? If it really were a necessity, or even a clear and direct route to attaining these characteristics we are called to put on, one cannot help but feel God would have made it explicit in scripture. That he hasn’t says to me it is not as necessary as Calvin wants to argue.