Is fasting essential?
If you are hoping for a straight answer you won’t find it here. We are currently in the season of Lent when many people of faith or no faith chooses to practice some form of fasting from giving up chocolate to abstaining from all food for limited periods of time. Perhaps because of that it was the references to fasting and prayer in the book of Ezra that most caught my attention when I read the book before writing this post. Or maybe I’m just avoiding the really difficult aspects of Ezra that come from such a different time and culture, such as the huge amount of animal sacrifices in temple worship, the prohibition against marrying foreigners, or the absence of any reference to women except as foreign wives to be put away.
Back to fasting and prayer.
The Bible is full of references to both and often paired together as in the book of Ezra, for example in chapter 8:21. As part of the preparation of the exiles who returned with Ezra from Babylon to Jerusalem he assembled the heads of families by the AhavaCanal and there
“proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions.”
There’s a bit more to story than that (see Ezra 8: 21 – 23) but the bottom line is that the people
“fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer.”
That got me thinking more about fasting and whether or not it is an essential Christian practice or an optional one. I do have a view but I’m not going to give it in this post. But in deciding on an answer to the question, ‘is fasting essential for Christians?’ I think it helps to see what can be learned from the Bible as a whole about fasting. Here for starters are a few pointers:
In the Bible fasting is used:
As a sign of penitence, for example in the story of Daniel, Daniel 9: 3ff
“So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and asses. I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed:…”
As an accompaniment to prayer for God’s intervention, for example, King David fasted and prayed for the child he had conceived with Uriah’s wife to live. Does God always answer positively when prayer is accompanied by fasting? No, the child died. See 2 Sam 12: 15-17.
As an accompaniment to seeking God’s guidance, for example in Acts 13: 2 – 3, while members of the early church at Antioch were worshipping and fasting,
‘the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.’
How not to fast
As an empty ritual divorced from right living, for example there is condemnation in Isaiah 58: 3 of this:
“…on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers…”
While assuming his disciples would fast sometimes, Jesus condemned fasting done primarily to be seen by others. See Matthew 6: 16-18
How to fast
With an attitude of repentance such as in Joel 1: 13-14
With an attitude of humility and that brings us back to Ezra 8: 21:
“…I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God…”
Over to you: is fasting essential?
One of the major themes of Ezra is restoration, not just the rebuilding of the temple, but the restoration of the people’s relationship with a faithful God through following a call to holiness as part of their return from exile. Similarly, part of the purpose of Lent in preparation for Easter is the renewal and deepening of our relationship with God. Some Christians choose to use fasting as part of a Lenten discipline. Does this help? Is prayer more effective when done with fasting? What do you think?