Background discussion of fasting (The precursor to the Sermon on the Mount on Fasting)

Why do people fast?

In this section we are going to look at some non-religious reasons and then religious reasons with a general overview of what the Bible has to say about fasting.  This is a precursor to a later blog in which I look at what Jesus taught about fasting.

There are many reasons why people fast. People fast for many different reasons, religious reasons and non-religious reasons.

For non-religious reasons a person might fast because they want to lose weight.  I do this usually when I get a little too heavy for comfort and this is usually linked to 10,000 steps per day.

Another reason might be that they have to lose weight for medical reasons. It may be that they need to focus about something important in the family.  An example of this could be a particular type of diabetes and fasting can help to even reverse this disease.

Then we come to the religious reasons, the reason might be that you want to get closer to God.  Ordinary people who go to church for example may fast seeking an answer from God for something.  Perhaps a new church building for the congregation.

Many People fast observing a religious calendar such as Lent in Christianity or Ramadan in Islam.

 It can also be more personal for example, someone that want to pray for a big decision going to happen in their life such as marriage and one needs God’s wisdom.

It could be for example in Buddhism or another religion in which for meditation reasons one fasts for a period to clear one’s mind.

Whatever the reason why someone fasts there’s usually a reason. Fasting in a sense also has something to do with sacrifice. We all like our food, we all like to eat so by fasting a person is denying themselves the very basic stuff needed to live. An extreme case of fasting is when a prisoner decides to go on a hunger strike possibly for a moral reason. There are also Buddhist monks who have fasted near the end of their lives. They know they’re going to die pretty soon so they change their diet, and they literally dry themselves out from inside out. In other words they start the mummification process while they’re still alive. Anyhow as a general rule of thumb when a person fasts, they usually sacrifice something in order to reach something else.

General Introduction to Bible teaching on Fasting

C. Robert Marsh (Holman Bible Dictionary; page 478-479) says that there are three areas we need to look at:

  • The normal fast is the abstinence of all food as in Luke 4,2 but this does not mean Jesus didn’t drink water.
  • There is the absolute fast in which one does not eat or drink.  This fast does not usually last for more than three reasons for the obvious reason of death. Acts 9:9
  • The partial fast is the restriction of food but not complete abstinence.  Daniel 10.3

Marsh goes on to say:

“Fasting is the laying aside of food for a period of time when the believer is seeking to know God in a deeper experience. It is to be done as an act before God in the privacy of one’s own pursuit of God (Ex. 34:28; 1 Sam. 7:6; 1 Kings 19:8; Matt. 6:17).

Fasting is to be done with the object of seeking to know God in a deeper experience (Isa. 58; Zech. 7:5). Fasting relates to a time of confession (Ps. 69:10). Fasting can be a time of seeking a deeper prayer experience and drawing near to God in prevailing prayer (Ezra 8:23; Joel 2:12). The early church often fasted in seeking God’s will for leadership in the local church [Acts 13:2). When the early church wanted to know the mind of God, there was a time of prayer and fasting. (C. Robert Marsh)”

Marshes references:

(The following references have been taken from the Olive Tree Bible App; NASB)

28 So he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did not eat bread or drink water. And  he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments. Exodus 34:28

6 They gathered to Mizpah, and drew water and poured it out before the LORD, and fasted on that day and said there, “We have sinned against the LORD.” And Samuel judged the sons of Israel at Mizpah. 1 Samuel 7:6

8 So Elijah arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mountain of God. 1 Kings 19:8

17 But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face 18 so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. Matthew 6:17-18

5 “Say to all the people of the land and to the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months these seventy years, was it actually for Me that you fasted? Zechariah 7:5

..

10 When I wept in my soul with fasting,

 It became my reproach.

11 When I made sackcloth my clothing,

 I became a byword to them.

12 Those who sit in the gate talk about me,

 And I am the song of the drunkards.

 13 But as for me, my prayer is to You, O LORD, at an acceptable time;

 O God, in the greatness of Your lovingkindness,

 Answer me with Your saving truth.

14 Deliver me from the mire and do not let me sink; Psalms 69:10-14

..

23 So we fasted and sought our God concerning this matter, and He listened to our entreaty. Ezra 8:23

..

12 “Yet even now,” declares the LORD,

 “Return to Me with all your heart,

 And with fasting, weeping and mourning;

13 And rend your heart and not your garments.”

 Now return to the LORD your God,

 For He is gracious and compassionate,

 Slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness

 And relenting of evil. Joel 2:12-13

..

2 While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away. Acts 13:2-3

..

1 “Cry loudly, do not hold back;

 Raise your voice like a trumpet,

 And declare to My people their transgression

 And to the house of Jacob their sins.

2 “Yet they seek Me day by day and delight to know My ways,

 As a nation that has done righteousness

 And has not forsaken the ordinance of their God.

 They ask Me for just decisions,

 They delight in the nearness of God.

3 ‘Why have we fasted and You do not see?

 Why have we humbled ourselves and You do not notice?’

 Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire,

 And drive hard all your workers.

4 “Behold, you fast for contention and strife and to strike with a wicked fist.

 You do not fast like you do today to make your voice heard on high.

5 “Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself?

 Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed

 And for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed?

 Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the LORD?

6 “Is this not the fast which I choose,

 To loosen the bonds of wickedness,

 To undo the bands of the yoke,

 And to let the oppressed go free

 And break every yoke?

7 “Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry

 And bring the homeless poor into the house;

 When you see the naked, to cover him;

 And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

8 “Then your light will break out like the dawn,

 And your recovery will speedily spring forth;

 And your righteousness will go before you;

 The glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.

9 “Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;

 You will cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’

 If you remove the yoke from your midst,

 The  pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness,

10 And if you  give yourself to the hungry

 And satisfy the desire of the afflicted,

 Then your light will rise in darkness

 And your gloom will become like midday.

11 “And the LORD will continually guide you,

 And satisfy your desire in scorched places,

 And give strength to your bones;

 And you will be like a watered garden,

 And like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.

12 “Those from among you will rebuild the ancient ruins;

 You will raise up the age-old foundations;

 And you will be called the repairer of the breach,

 The restorer of the streets in which to dwell. Isaiah 58:1-12

Reflection

What we have learned today is that people fast for various reasons.  In religious circles people usually fast to connect with a ‘Greater Reality’.  At this point I said greater reality because in Buddhism the question of the existence of God is not an important question, yet it still has some type of transcendental idea such as Nirvana.  In the other religions God and the gods depending on one’s tradition fasting plays some key role to be close to one’s Creator somehow.

In Christianity fasting is very important not only in the traditions such as Lent and other times but also from the teachings of the Bible.  We can see that prayer and fasting can go hand in hand.  Marsh reminds us that people fast because they are seeking an answer from God or that they want a deeper relationship in God.

In these verses we also see prayer and fasting clearly linked to morality.  If one prays and fasts but closes their eyes to the needs of others such as widows, the hungry, injustice in the community then God will not listen or answer such prayers.

I think the late Rabbi Sacks understood the moral dimension to fasting:

“Next week in the Jewish community we’ll observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish year. We’ll spend the whole day in synagogue, fasting, confessing our sins, admitting what we did wrong, and praying for forgiveness.

Something like that seems to me essential to the health of a culture. Often we see things go wrong. Yet rarely do we see someone stand up, take responsibility and say: I was wrong. I made a mistake. I admit it. I apologise. And now let us work to put it right.

Instead we do other things. We deny there’s a problem in the first place. Or if that’s impossible, we blame someone else, or say, it’s due to circumstances beyond our control.The result is that we lose the habit of being honest with ourselves.

” (Taken from rabbisacks.org/archive/the-age-of-greed/)

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