If we are being completely honest with ourselves, the spiritual discipline of fasting is far from “top-of-mind” in our thinking about the Christian life. Yet, it is one of three integral acts of devotion which Jesus highlights in Matthew 6 when instructing His disciples on the way of living in their heavenly Father’s heavenly Kingdom. If we are to take the Bible seriously as our wholly sufficient and inerrant rule for faith and practice, then we must believe and confess that fasting is a means of heavenly grace to us, that it is an elevating ordinance.
What is more, we must be doers of the Word, and not hearers only, lest we deceive ourselves (see James 1:22). In Matthew 6:16-18, Christ clearly assumes that His disciples will employ Spirit-driven fasting in their lives as they grow in grace and godliness to the glory of God. By extension, He expects us to be interested in and committed to fasting on suitable occasions, for we too are Christian believers and Christ-following disciples.
This prompts the question, what are those suitable occasions for fasting?
In answering this question, the second-generation Reformation preacher, pastor, and theologian William Perkins (1558-1602) has done the heavy lifting for us. In his exposition on the Sermon on the Mount (and particularly on Matthew 6:16-18), Perkins has helpfully identified seven occasions in Scripture when God’s people are either commanded to fast or otherwise fast with the clear approval of God. By both divine precept (God’s commandment) and by approved example (God’s commendation), we are told to fast on the following seven occasions:
- When we fall into any grievous sin. The only stated or annually recurring fast recorded in Scripture is the day of fasting and prayer commanded in Leviticus 16:29. God commanded that His people fast each year in connection with the annual Day of Atonement when the High Priest made the principal offering for the sins of the people before entering the Holy of Holies to commune with God on behalf of the people. We no longer maintain this – or any – stated day of fasting, for Christ offered a sacrifice for sins once and for all (Heb. 10:10), thereby fulfilling that which the Day of Atonement (and the sacrificial system of the Old Covenant) anticipated. It would be at best ignorant or misguided and at worst profanely legalistic to maintain a stated fast on an annual basis. However, it remains appropriate and important to call for days of fasting and prayer when we become aware or convicted of our sin. We see this modeled for us in 1 Samuel 7:6 when the Israelite prophet and judge Samuel calls for a fast to humble the people for their stubborn idolatry. It is no accident that immediately following this action, Samuel’s leadership is summarized in commendable terms in 1 Samuel 7:15-17.
- When those among us fall into sin. Not only is it appropriate for us to fast and pray for ourselves when we mourn over our sin, but it is appropriate for us to fast and pray for others as their sins come to light. In 1 Corinthians 5:2, Paul alerts the Church in Corinth to a missed opportunity and failure on their part in this regard. When the heinous sin of a member of their church came to light, they grew arrogant rather than mournful. Whether this arrogance manifested itself as gossip, slander, tolerance, or self-righteous condemnation, it was foolish of them not to mourn over the man’s sin and seek for God’s help. Thus, we infer that in the place of hard-heartedness when confronted with someone else’s sin, we ought to consider religious fasting, by which we adopt the posture of mournful lament, righteous indignation, and urgent prayer for repentance.
- When God’s judgement is upon us. When we feel the weight of troubles crashing down upon us in this sin-wrecked world, then is a time fit for fasting. In the middle of a brutal and bloody civil war, the eleven allied tribes of Israel fighting against the tribe of Benjamin recognized the awful judgment of God in their situation and called for a fast in Judges 20:26. Similarly, we too would do well to intensify with fasting our prayers of lament in the midst of judgement.
- When God’s judgement is upon others. Just as the first and second occasions suitable to fasting are closely related, so too are the third and fourth. We are to mourn not only over our dark and difficult circumstances, but also over the “hard providences” experienced by others. When King David considered the physical affliction of his son born out of his adulterous union with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, he fasted and prayed for the Lord to have compassion on the child (and by extension, on David himself as well). After the baby’s tragic death, King David could say with confidence in God’s grace, “I will go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Sam. 14:23). Perhaps more remarkably, David testifies in Psalm 35:13 that he fasted and prayed for his enemies in their troubles. “But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth; I humbled my soul with fasting, and my prayer kept returning to my bosom.”
- When God’s judgements are imminent. We see in Scripture that fasting is an appropriate means to intensify prayer when threats and catastrophes are looming, even before they land. When good King Jehoshaphat received a report of an impending invasion by hostile nations, he immediately called for a nationwide fast as he fervently prayed for divine deliverance in 2 Chronicles 20:2 and following. As seen from that text, God heard the urgent prayers of distress and saved His people.
- When we need God’s blessing, especially pertaining to matters of salvation, and especially an assurance of salvation. Do you ever struggle with a felt sense of God’s loving concern for you and your eternal salvation? Do you ever doubt your salvation? From the account of Cornelius the centurion in Acts 10, we find that fasting is a means of God’s saving and assuring grace in such seasons of spiritual distress. We are told in the opening verses of the chapter that Cornelius, though a Roman soldier, was a remarkable man of faith in the God of Israel. He prayed continually and contributed alms for the needs of the Jewish people of his day. The Lord heard his prayer and directed him to seek out the Apostle Peter whom God was at the same time calling to share the gospel of the Kingdom of heaven with all the nations of the earth. When Cornelius and Peter finally met, we read the former’s opening words to the latter in verses 30-32, “Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing, and said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard, and your alms are remembered in the sight of God. Send therefore to Joppa and call Simon here, whose surname is Peter. He is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the sea. When he comes, he will speak to you’” (NKJV). This is stunning evidence of the usefulness of fasting with prayer when we are seized with spiritual confusion, ignorance, or doubt. It is in these times that we should take advantage of this means of grace to humble ourselves before a God we cannot comprehend as we seek relief for the disquieting anxiety of our minds and hearts.
- When we seek God’s blessing upon the church’s ministry and the extension of the Kingdom. In the opening verses of Acts 13, the Apostle Paul and his associates in Antioch are fasting and praying for guidance on how best to proceed in the extension of the Kingdom. Once God gives them that sought-after guidance, they then call a second fast and season of prayer for the success of their God-given missionary journey. It is an old, but sadly forgotten, practice of Reformed and Presbyterian churches to call for a fast for the day before an ordination or installation service. During such times, we seek for the Lord’s blessing upon the ministry of the ordinand or pastor who is coming to a particular expression of the church in response to God’s call on his life. Should we bring this practice back into wider use? Reflecting the approved example of Paul and his companions in Acts 13, the answer is clearly yes.
But there is one caveat to that “yes” answer.
Though this blog post is primarily concerned with exploring the suitable occasions for fasting, I would be remiss if I did not give a brief caution. In all our religious devotion, we must be reminded that the means of grace are just that: means. The grace is God’s to give, not ours to demand or manufacture in our own power. Fasting and prayer, just as is the case with the giving of alms and offerings, worship service attendance, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, or the singing of spiritual songs, are the Father’s appointed channels of communicating His grace (and Himself for the sake of the Son and in the power of the Spirit) to His people.
We are not to fast and pray for the sake of fasting and prayer. We are to fast and pray for the sake and attention of our heavenly Father. As Matthew 6:16-18 makes clear to us, fasting is a means of grace if and only if presented for the notice of your heavenly Father who graciously rewards His children. But this caveat must in no way minimize the mysterious and profound reality that fasting at once humbles us to the dust and serves as an elevating ordinance. In sincere Christian fasting and prayer, the Spirit of God picks us up and for the sake of Christ the Son draws us nearer to our heavenly Father who dwells far beyond the highest heavens above.