Fasting: Guidelines for Reformed Christians

When I discover that some Catholic or Lutheran friends are fasting during Lent, I feel a stab of guilt. My conscience nudges me with the insistent question, "Why don't I, a Reformed Christian, also fast?" Further thought doesn't make the question disappear; it persists. Why don't I, as an act of repentance or humility, deny myself some ordinary good in order to better remember my Lord's suffering and death? And why doesn't my church urge me to fast as a fitting way to prepare myself for the splendid Easter festival?

The answer my own mind readily supplies is, "Because fasting isn't a Reformed/Presbyterian thing to do." Certainly it's not part of our tradition. To us it smells of Rome; we vaguely recall being taught that fasting was rejected by the Reformers because they detected roots of a mistaken notion that we can earn salvation (or praise of others) by pious acts.

Yet that answer doesn't satisfy. Some Reformed Christians do have a tradition of fasting. And many people in the Bible fasted: the Ninevites after hearing Jonah's prophecy of doom (Jon. 3:7); David when his son was close to death (2 Sam. 12:16); Jesus when he was tempted (Matt. 4:2); and Paul after meeting Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:9).

Besides, when I mention fasting to friends and acquaintances within my own church family, a surprising number tell me that at some time in their lives they've practiced it. I never knew that, even though some are close friends. Among us, it seems, fasting is an intensely private, even hidden, practice. Having read about it in the Bible, some Reformed Christian try it, but they don't talk about it, don't receive any guidance from other Christians or the church, and in most cases soon stop.

When it comes to fasting, we Reformed Christians seem to live in a tension between guilt (if we don't fast) and fear of self-righteousness (if we do), between feeling that we lack in piety (if we don't) or that we're making an ostentatious display of piety (if we do). Add a smidgen of shame for indulging in a "popish" practice, and you have a very unstable mix. No wonder it's kept carefully hidden.

Biblical Practice

No one would deny that God's Old Testament people practiced fasting. Scripture makes that plain. All devout Jews fasted at certain prescribed times and seasons. On the Day of Atonement all were required to "deny" themselves from sundown to sundown (Lev. 23:32). On special holy days everyone fasted until evening (Judg. 20:26). The armies fasted seven days when King Saul died (1 Sam. 31:13). Nehemiah and all the people fasted in repentance and mourning (Neh. 1:4; 9:1). Fasting was a common way for the people to express their deep dependence on God and plead for his mercy and grace.

For most of us, the question of whether we also should fast hinges on New Testament teaching and practice. To be sure, Jesus himself fasted when he was tempted (Matt. 4:2), but this appears to have been an exception. We read of no other instance of Jesus fasting, and we are told that his disciples did not fast. Jesus defended this on the grounds that wedding guests don't fast while the bridegroom is present (Mark 2:18-19). But he added, "The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast" (v. 20). The disciples' decision not to fast, then, was not due to laxity, lack of piety, or a rejection of the practice; it was rather a sign of the Lord's presence and of the joyous breaking in of God's kingdom. Jesus himself predicted a time when they would fast. (See Acts 13:2-3.) Jesus' other main teaching concerning fasting is found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:16—18). Here he criticized the public fasting of the Pharisees, done so that it may be "seen by men," and required of his disciples a secret fasting seen and rewarded only by the heavenly Father. Clearly the Lord criticized the manner of and motive for fasting among the Pharisees, but not the practice itself.

Nothing in the New Testament, then, gives us reason to believe that Jesus abrogated Old Testament fasting.

The Practice of the Early Church

The early church apparently took over the common (pious) Jewish practice of fasting twice a week, with one practical change: instead of Monday and Thursday, Wednesday and Friday became the regular fast days. Church leaders, such as Ambrose, evidently made no attempt to justify this custom; rather they held up Jesus' own fasting as a model for all his followers.

Origen and Augustine placed fasting firmly in the context of prayer and almsgiving. Here again the church was following a Jewish practice, one that insisted ideal piety forms a triad of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Reflecting Jesus' teaching in Matthew 6, however, the early church emphasized that the inner motive for fasting is not winning applause or a pious image. Fasting, like prayer and giving, must be done for and to the heavenly Father alone.

The early church also taught that Christian fasting springs from and expresses a different spirit from the Jewish practice. It is subordinate to love. It promotes love. It is freeing—permitting Jesus' followers to break with the Jewish dietary laws—rather than binding. It expresses the spiritual joy of the Lord's present nearness and prepares us for the future rejoicing when the Lord's kingdom will fully come.

Why Fast?

Given this history and our Reformed tendency to make biblical and early church practice normative for us, the question for us should be not "Why fast?" but rather "Why not fast?" When the entire scriptural and early-church witness points to fasting as a practice both widely used and firmly fixed in the spiritual life of God's people, we need to give reasons why we do not follow it.

We can argue that fasting has been misused, that it has been misunderstood, that it can become mechanical; but faced with similar misuse in his own day, our Lord did not cancel the practice or forbid it to his disciples. Rather he said, "But when you fast…," implying that he expected his disciples to fast in faith and true piety, as a spiritual act done before the Father's face.

Considering, however, how long the practice has been neglected in our circles, we need to address the question, "Why fast?"

The best answer seems to be because fasting teaches, in ways that go beyond intellectual understanding, the meaning of Jesus' words, "Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Matt. 4:4). Fasting helps us realize concretely that while we are to pray for daily bread and clothing, we are not to worry about them (Matt. 6:25-34). Our task is to seek God's kingdom and to hunger and thirst after righteousness. Fasting helps us order our life priorities rightly. It is a powerful reminder: I do not live on bread alone.

Second, fasting intensifies prayer. Those who have fasted testify that when we have not eaten for a while, the body continually reminds us of that fact and thus helps keep us in constant prayer for a period. Repentance, mourning, struggling with doubt, making difficult decisions, are all occasions when prayer and fasting work together, strengthen each other, concentrate our attention, and help us humble ourselves before God and look to him for guidance and wisdom.

Third, fasting signifies a solidarity with the world's hungry. As Jesus directed in his model prayer, we are to ask God for daily bread. Yet our real dependence is obscured by our evident abundance of food. Most of us throw away enough food to feed a family in Bangladesh. Fasting can serve as a valuable reminder that daily bread is God's gift. It can also serve as a symbolic sharing with the world's hungry, a symbolism that leads to a real sharing. When New Testament Christians fasted, they gave the bread not eaten that day to the poor. Such a practice would also be most appropriate for us.

Finally, fasting teaches us to postpone gratification. As Scott Peck (The Road Less Traveled) points out, many Westerners have never learned to deny themselves anything. Our society teaches that instant gratification is our human right. Yet self-denial and delayed gratification are a key to psychological and spiritual growth. Fasting can train us to say no to ourselves.

How Fast?

Because of our own lack of experience, it is probably clearer to all of us how we should not fast than how we should. Fasting should certainly be more than a "Christian" form of dieting or physical cleansing (parallel to the popular Christian aerobics).

As mentioned earlier, our tradition does teach one constant regarding the how-to of fasting: we should always fast in the context of prayer and almsgiving. Fasting must be an act done to the heavenly Father, one that springs from and enhances awareness of our own needs and the needs of others. Without praying and giving, fasting can become self-serving, a pious ego trip.

This connection between fasting, prayer, and almsgiving points us inevitably toward worship, for at every worship occasion God's people bring their prayers and offerings before their Lord. To be sure, fasting is a private, not public, exercise. Jesus made it clear that this, like every other act of Christian piety, may not be done for public display. But whether our worship is public or private, fasting can deepen and enrich our praise to God.

How does one start? Experts say, ease into it. Most North Americans are accustomed to eating at very regular intervals and seldom miss a single meal. Accordingly they need to begin fasting with care. Some suggest beginning by skipping one meal a day (or eating a much smaller and simpler meal than ordinarily) and then extend it as you are able.

Christians follow many different patterns of fasting. Some deny themselves a selected kind of food or drink for a period (such as, drinking no alcohol or only water during Lent). Others fast by eating only one full meal during the day with two other very light meals. Others eat no food at all and drink only water from morning until evening. Still others eat no food for twenty-four hours. The precise practice is for each to determine.

In fact, both the ways and days for fasting should depend on individual and family circumstances. Some people have found that Sunday fasting frees the entire day from the time-consuming preparation and eating of meals, permitting more time for and imparting more intensity to worship.

Lenten Fasting

Fasting is clearly a private and voluntary practice; we should no more prescribe it than we do times of private prayer and Bible reading. Our Lord made clear that all such pious activity should be done in secret.

Still the fact that fasting is a private practice does not mean that the Christian community should say nothing about it. The church urges us to pray steadfastly, to read God's Word regularly, and to give generously. It should urge members to fast also, informing them how it may be done so as to contribute to their spiritual growth.

Lent has been a traditional time of fasting. By fasting during this special season of the church year, we humble ourselves as a remembrance of how Jesus humbled himself while on earth. We remind ourselves to observe the priorities our Lord displayed as he walked the way of obedience to the deadly cross.

Fasting during Lent prepares us for Easter joy. A feast is a time of contrasts; we celebrate by eating and drinking differently and more than we do on other days. By heightening the contrast, fasting before the Easter feast can deepen the celebration as believers greet with joy the good news that the Lord is risen and with him we all are freed from death's cold grip.

So while a church should not prescribe fasting during the Lenten period, it would serve all its members by strongly advising it. Fasting is the biblical sign of repentance that waits for God's forgiveness, of weakness that looks to God's power, of mourning that anticipates the resurrection joy. In every way, fasting is a most fitting act of Christian piety, especially during the Lenten season.

The late Harvey Smit was executive director of Reformed Worship and editor-in-chief of CRC Publications.