Light for our path : Christian fasting

I hear a lot about Christian fasting programs. Should I be participating in them?

James F. Pope

You’re right. Christian dietary programs have been growing in popularity. It would be worth our while to see what the Bible says about fasting and Christian freedom.

Rare requirement

In Old Testament times mandatory fasting was uncommon. The Mosaic Law called for Israelites to fast on only one day of the year—on the great Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29; 23:27).

Of course people were free to go beyond that requirement, and some did just that. Without being compelled by any divine directive, individuals like Hannah, David, Ezra, and Nehemiah—just to list a few—fasted. People often fasted in times of sorrow, repentance, and intense prayer. After Jonah’s reluctant missionary work in Nineveh, the Bible tells us that the king of Nineveh decreed a fast for all inhabitants— including animals (Jonah chapter 3). Eventually, Jews like the Pharisees fasted twice a week to make plain their claims of spiritual superiority (Luke 18:9-12).

Fasting freedom

In the New Testament, Paul wrote, “Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink. . . . ” (Colossians 2:16). When Jesus completed his redeeming work and abolished the ceremonial laws, the number of required fasting days for God’s people decreased from one to zero.

As was the case in Old Testament times though, Christians today are free to fast if they like. To help people who wish to fast, there are programs like The Daniel Fast, among others. Programs like this are popular in the season of Lent and throughout the year.

Prudent participation

So, should you fast? It is entirely your call. That is the freedom of adiaphora—those activities that God has neither commanded nor forbidden. Of course, you will want to understand what the programs are about. Do the fasts deprive you of food and/or water for extended periods of time? Are there health risks associated with them? Are there spiritual concerns of any kind? A physician can help you with the first two questions; I can help you with the last.

As is the case with any adiaphoron, motives for fasting can be important. Some of the literature I have seen speaks of fasting serving the purpose of “assisting and enhancing” our prayers. In view of that, you may want to ask yourself: “Am I thinking in any way that God is going to hear and answer my prayers because of something I am doing? Am I fasting like the Pharisees—thinking that fasting will put me in a better standing with God and make me superior to non-fasting Christians?” Any thoughts like these would rule out fasting.

On the other hand, are there thoughts of controlling the body and its desires—not being mastered by anything, even food (1 Corinthians 6:12)? Are there thoughts of taking good care of your body in which God lives (1 Corinthians 6:19)? Are there thoughts of eating to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31)? Thoughts like these can exemplify good motives for fasting.

Martin Luther wrote in his Small Catechism that “fasting and other outward preparations may serve a good purpose” in preparing ourselves to receive the Lord’s Supper. But the best preparation, he said, is believing Jesus’ words. Fasting—prior to the Lord’s Supper or any time—can be a beneficial practice, but there is no substitute for faith.

Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.

James Pope also answers questions online. Submit your questions to [email protected].



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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 102, Number 2
Issue: February 2015

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