WHY FASTING IS OUT OF FASHION
By Pastor Glenn Pease
William Broden, reporter for the Chicago Sun Times, begins his book called The Private Sea, with an account of a party in Chicago on LSD. A young man under the influence of this drug seized his live kitten and began to eat it. Later in an effort to explain his action he said he had a urgent need to experience everything. Eating a kitten is a long way from everything, but you'll have to admit he got the jump on most people for having that particular rare experience.
As rare as it was, however, it was not a great deal more rare than the experience of fasting among modern day Protestants. However much we abstain from literal cat nipping, we are not exactly noted for abstaining from eating altogether. Except for times of sickness and operations the thought of deliberately going hungry is distasteful to our minds. Is this solely because we are of an over indulgent bent of mind, or are there possibly some legitimate reasons for fasting to be out of fashion for us today?
It might seem like a trivial matter to even consider such a subject as fasting, but it only seems trivial to us because it is so foreign, and so absent from our way of life. It has played a significant role in many cultures down through the centuries. All of us do fast through the hours we are sleeping. That is why we call our first meal when we awake a breakfast. It is the meal that breaks our daily fast. The origin of fasting has been traced to this natural fast. When we sleep we dream, and since this takes place while we are fasting it was thought that we could stimulate dreams and visions by deliberately abstaining from food while we are awake. This has been practiced by many peoples including the American Indians.
In Daniel chapter 10 he tells us he had a vision after three weeks of fasting. Moses fasted 40 days and nights when he received the law, and Jesus fasted 40 days and nights before His great spiritual struggle with Satan in the wilderness. There seems to be clear Biblical and historical evidence to support the belief that fasting allows man to become more sensitive to the world of spirit. John Chrysostom in the 4th century said, "It makes the soul brighter and provides it with wings to mount and soar." There are many mystics who will testify to the great value of fasting, and they will say that by making the body lean you can make the soul fat.
If all this be so, do modern Christians have any good excuse for neglect of fasting? Yes they do! The evidence for its danger and abuse is also abundant. Many have felt voluntary pain was pleasing to God, and so they felt there was direct merit in going hungry. Others merely used it as a test of one's endurance. For example, among the Algonquin Indians it was an enviable distinction to be able to fast long. Many tribes have fasts during pregnancy, after birth, and on many other occasions. Much of it is pure superstition. In New Britain no pregnant woman could eat cuttle fish which is said to walk backwards lest the child become a coward.
We could list hundreds of fasting practices around the world that show it to be a universal practice. It is generally done either to placate the gods, or to gain revelation. The Zulus say, "The continually stuffed body cannot see secret things." They fast until they dream a successful hunt, or of a victory over their enemies. Then they are ready to go out to fulfill the dream. There can be little doubt that fasting does open one up to spiritual experiences, but there is no guarantee they will be good. LSD users have spiritual experiences also, but if they have a bad trip they wish they had remained less spiritual. Not all that is spiritual is good, for Satan and his angels are spiritual.
Fasting has led to some weird experiences. St. Jerome in the desert of Arabia would have visions that put him in a frenzy, and made him throw rocks at the crucifix, and blaspheme as if a demon were using him to express hate for the cross of Christ. The Christian has good reason for not desiring such experiences, and so may neglect fasting for the same reason they neglect using LSD. It can weaken ones resistance and allow negative experiences as well as positive. The whole thing seems too mysterious to the average Protestant to even consider. It is Biblical, and so we cannot ignore it just because it is abused. The more we study the subject the more we can find value, but also see why it is out of fashion.
One of the major practical questions of life concerns the matter of self-expression versus self-denial. Should a man obey his desires and express himself freely, or should he suppress and deny himself the fulfillment of his desires? Which category does the Christian fall into? These are often thought of as mutually exclusive alternatives, but the facts of history demonstrate that both are a fool's paradise when taken as an exclusive pattern for living. Each leads to a self-inflicted hell. One does not need 20/20 vision to see the wrecks of life due to self-expression. A man quickly reveals himself as a fool when he expresses every thought that enters his mind, and follows every desire that tugs at his body. Just as foolish, however, is the religious ascetic.
The man who feels the essence of life is to find out what he doesn't like and then do it, and suppress all he does like by self-inflicted torture if necessary is an ascetic. A classic example is Joam de Almeida, a Jesuit in Brazil. He considered his body a rebel slave which he despised by flogging it and punishing it in every way he could imagine. With a choice assortment of cat gut, leather and wire whips he flogged himself. He wore an undergarment of rough hair with seven crosses inside made of iron with sharp points on the surface. Another of his virtues was the practice of putting pebbles or grains of corn in his shoes when he took a journey. In fasting and torment he nevertheless survived to the age of 82. The modern man looks at that life and considers it debatable as to who is more insane, the cat eating LSD'er, or the fanatical ascetic. Neither the craving to experience everything, nor the craving to suppress everything appeals to the Christian mind. There must be a balance.
The extreme tendencies met head on in Hellenism and Hebraism. In the days before Christ when the Greeks confronted the Jews you had two cultures clashing. Alexander the Great conquered the world and spread Greek culture everywhere. The Greeks said, live it up and express yourself to the full. The message of the cross and self-denial was foolishness to the Greeks says the New Testament. This philosophy of life was self-realization and not self-renunciation. Some of the Jews found this appealing, but others were repulsed by it. The result was two parties developed, the Saducees and the Pharisees. The Saducees said yes to the Greek philosophy. The rejected the resurrection and immortality and said let's live for now. The Pharisees said nothing doing. They fought this denial of Judaism by making it more exclusive than ever. They multiplied laws and made life a burden in an attempt to fight the Greek idea of self-expression. They went to the opposite extreme.
While each was falling off the opposite side of the ship, Jesus came and took the wheel, and held the ship on a steady balanced course, and became the Captain of our salvation and the Master of the art of living. Jesus combined the philosophy of self-realization and self-renunciation. He welded Hellenism and Hebraism together into a new and fuller philosophy of life. We find Jesus both enjoying and promising abundance as well as experiencing and calling for great self-denial. Which ever one is appropriate depends upon the circumstances, and like Paul, we must be ready to be abased or to abound.
All of this is essential background to really see the subject of fasting in proper perspective. Now we can look at what Jesus actually said about fasting in our text. Jesus has just been feasting with tax collectors and sinners. This was bad enough in the eyes of the Pharisees, but to make matters worse it was a time when they and the disciples of John the Baptist were fasting. The Pharisees fasted twice a week. It looked like they had Jesus in a difficult spot when they could even point to those whom He approved of and ask why do they fast and your disciples do not? Jesus did not deny the charge, and so we know the disciples of Christ did not follow the two day a week fast of the Pharisees, or for that matter, any fast. The answer here of Christ becomes a basic text for all Christian thinking about fasting. In verse 19 He tells us when fasting is inappropriate, and in verse 20 when it is appropriate.
I. WHEN FASTING IS NOT FITTING. v. 19
Jesus says you can't expect my disciples to fast. I am the bridegroom, and as my attendants they are responsible to make these days ones of joy and feasting and celebration. If you want to be a real wet blanket you could fast on Easter, Christmas and Thanksgiving, and also at your wedding reception. Fasting is just out of place when people are happy and rejoicing. This is one of the primary reasons fasting is out of fashion. If one has claimed the purposes of Christ, and is living and abundant life rejoicing in his salvation, why should he fast?
There is no merit in fasting, and so there is no motive to fast as an end in itself. Jesus and His disciples did not fast during His ministry because it was a period of excitement, joy, victory, and amazing spiritual growth. Jesus was no ascetic denying Himself the pleasures of life. He enjoyed a feast, and a marriage celebration. Paul in I Tim. 4:3 rejects asceticism. He writes, "Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God has created to be received with thanksgiving." In 6:17 he says that God "Giveth us richly all things to enjoy." The abundant life is not found in dullness and fasting, but in the full and legitimate enjoyment of all God's creation in the way He intended it to be enjoyed.
The ministry of Jesus was so filled with people being healed and forgiven that there was constant rejoicing and celebration. It just didn't fit the circumstances to be doing any fasting. When you add to this the fact that it is no where commanded that we fast, nor is it even anywhere recommended in the New Testament, then we see there is good reason why it can be out of fashion, and a very small part of the Christian experience. On the other hand consider verse 20 where we see-
II. WHEN FASTING IS FITTING.
Jesus says the day is coming when the marriage feast will break up, and the bridegroom will be taken away. The implication is that he will be removed by force. Then He says it will be an appropriate time for them to fast. When Jesus was crucified, and all His disciples were crushed with grief, you can imagine how many banquets they had in those sad days. Jesus lays down the simple principle that fasting is a sign of grief and bad times. The only time it makes sense is when there is distress or great need. When there were great national calamities in Israel the people fasted. People of Nineveh fasted when they heard God was going to destroy them, and they were spared. Fasting is an act of repentance, or a deep longing for the mercy of God. Such times should be rare in the Christian life, but when they come fasting is appropriate.
The whole thing boils down to this: When self-expression is for the glory of God and the good of men, then live to the fullest and enjoy life. When self-denial is needed for victory over temptation and sin, then do not hesitate to fast in order to gain that victory. Fasting is never an end in itself, it is a means to an end. If by fasting you can give yourself to prayer and meditation, and grow in Christ, by all means, fast.
There are also practical values for health. Benjamin Franklin said, "The best of all medicines are resting and fasting." John Chrysostom said, "Fasting is a medicine." There are values in fasting that are not spiritual, but natural, and all men can benefit. When it comes to strictly Christian values, fasting is a very personal matter. The value of it will depend upon the circumstances of your life, and your motive, and also in what you do while you fast. If you do nothing but fast it will be about as valuable as experiencing the flu. Henry Bohn said,
He who fasteth and doeth no good
Saveth his bread, but loseth his soul.
Unless it is a means to a greater end of learning, prayer, or service, it is useless. It is worse than useless if you do it for the motive of the Pharisees, which was to be thought of as being uniquely pious. Pascal said, "It is better not to fast and be thereby humbled, then to fast and be self-satisfied therewith.
C.S. Lewis writes of his health in a personal letter and says, "The real nuisance is that I am beginning to get horribly fat. I have had to give up potatoes, milk, and bread: perhaps having to fast for medical reasons is a just punishment for not fasting on higher grounds." In the Old Testament fasting was prescribed just on the Day of Atonement. Other fasting times were voluntary. Jesus condemned its abuse, but not its practice, Paul in Rom. 14:6 puts it in the category of those things on which there is no command.
In conclusion, we can say that it makes good sense why fasting is out of fashion in our day, and there is little reason to suspect that we have suffered spiritually by neglecting it. On the other hand, since in our day the Greek concept of self-expression is dominating our society, it could very well be that the self-denial involved in fasting could bring Christians back to a balanced life where spiritual values dominate their actions and attitudes. I would encourage Christians to experiment, but not to expect to find a panacea for all life's problems.
Francis de Salas of the 17th century, echoing a principle of the Apostle Paul, gives us the proper Christian attitude. "As long as he who fasts, fasts for God, and he who fasts not, also fasts not for God, devotion is well satisfied with one as with the other."