Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Do Christians Fast and Why?

This week's article for the newspapers answers a question about fasting among Christians:

Q:  What place does fasting have in Christianity?  How and why would a Christian fast? 

Fasting—the practice of reducing or ceasing the consumption of food for spiritual reasons—takes on a variety of forms, both among Christians and non-Christians.  While the term fasting has sometimes been used metaphorically to speak of abstaining from any number of things, it historically refers only to food. The concept also includes the idea of hunger, so it is not merely to refrain from a particular item while indulging in an equal or greater quantity of something else. 

Probably the most well-known example of fasting among the world’s religions is that Muslims fast from all foods during daylight hours one month of the year.  Another method of fasting, engaged in by many communities of Buddhist monks, is to eat a single meal prior to noon, then to fast for the remainder of the day. 

Fasting in the Christian tradition actually dates to before the time of Christ, as fasts were common practice for the Old Testament people, and the Pharisees, who lived at the time of Jesus, fasted two days a week—on Monday and Thursday.  Many Jewish Christians continued to fast two days a week, although on Wednesday and Friday, during the first centuries of Christianity. 

Perhaps the most familiar form of fasting among present-day Christians is Lenten fasting, where Christians fast to varying degrees from simplifying their diet, to giving up meals on a certain day or at a certain time of day, to even a full 40-day fast which imitates what Jesus endured while He was tempted in the wilderness.  In fact, the name for Lent in many languages is often related to the word for fasting. 

Jesus addresses fasting two times in the Gospel of Matthew.  On one occasion, a question is raised of Jesus about why His disciples do not fast.  He replies, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”  From this, it appears that Jesus’ disciples did not fast during His earthly life, although some did later, as seen in the book of Acts. 

The other occasion on which Jesus addresses fasting is in Matthew 6, when He instructs that those who fast should do so quietly, not telling others or looking miserable, but rather to keep their fasting between God and themselves. 

Jesus does not give any instructions how often or how intensely His followers ought to fast, though, nor do the other New Testament authors.  In fact, no text of the New Testament ever commands fasting of any kind as mandatory for Christians.  This is one characteristic that is unique to Christians regarding fasting.  While fasting has a strong history in Christianity and there are occasional references to it in Scripture, it is never required of Christians. 

In fact, fasting is never to be given credit for advancing a Christian’s status before God or earning them anything from God.  It cannot earn salvation or merit any kind of blessing from God for the Christian.  Instead, Christian fasting is a practice used to build discipline by removing distractions or using hunger as a reminder of our Spiritual poverty before God and the needs of less-fortunate neighbors. 

In addition, the Christian who is not burdened by the necessity to prepare and consume food will then have additional time to devote to prayer, and because they have reduced their expenses for food, they are free to give greater gifts to benefit their neighbor who suffer from poverty or offerings to further the Church’s mission of proclaiming the Gospel.

So it is that Christian fasting is not mandatory, nor is it a method of compensating for sin or gaining status with God, but rather a beneficial exercise which a Christian might choose to perform for the sake of devoting Himself more fully to Scripture and Prayer and the assistance of his neighbors. 

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