Richard Collings, Caerphilly, Wales [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
Should Christians fast?
To begin, it is necessary to define what is meant by ‘fasting’. In its primary usage, fasting refers to the voluntary abstaining from food, but, perhaps in a secondary sense, we can broaden this to include the self-denial of anything we could legitimately have so as to be more devoted to the Lord and His work.
Thinking of the primary meaning, a search of the word ‘fasting’ and words that relate to it, shows that it was a practice that was followed in Old Testament times as well as in the days of our Lord and in the apostolic era. From the Epistle to the Romans onwards, it only occurs three times; once in 1 Corinthians chapter 7 verse 5, where most translations omit the word, and the other occasions relate to the various privations Paul experienced as part of the ‘great things he must suffer for my name’s sake’, Acts 9. 16.
In respect of the passage in 1 Corinthians, it’s important to observe that this fasting and prayer by the husband and wife is a voluntary act to which both spouses are in full agreement. This is not something that is obligatory for all married couples, nor can it be insisted upon by one of the partners. This, therefore, conforms to the overriding pattern in scripture that fasting was a voluntary abstinence from food. The issues being dealt with by Paul in chapter 7 were in response to a letter the Corinthians had written to him, so perhaps fasting was something that the Corinthian believers may have practised as part of their commitment to the work of the Lord. However, it was not a specific divine command, nor something that, as a consequence, was required of all believers.
In relation to the primary meaning of the word and based on the foregoing comments, my mind is that fasting is a personal and voluntary exercise. There is nothing to stop individual believers abstaining from food as part of their own devotions, if they so wish, but equally there is no scripture that mandates that everyone or anyone should do it. Whereas it was a part of Jewish religious ritual, fasting is virtually absent from the New Testament Epistles and this very obvious contrast may teach us that it does not have the prominence today that it held then.
Interestingly, the probability is that many of God’s people fast from time to time without actually realizing it. I’m sure that there are times when believers have become so immersed in their studying they have foregone a meal rather than interrupt their meditation. Others have left work late and have gone straight to the assembly meeting rather than going home for their meal. How many elders have had to help a saint in need and this pastoral care has resulted in them missing a meal and maybe even a night’s sleep? Fasting in this sense is not a fixed observance of a ritual but the direct outcome of love for the Lord’s word and the Lord’s people.
If we take the broader application of the word and link it to self-restraint and self-denial then other scriptures have to be taken into account. Twice in 1 Corinthians, the apostle states, ‘All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient’, indicating that for the sake of others and in certain situations there are matters which, though not wrong in themselves, are better avoided. In chapter 9 of the same letter he writes, ‘Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection’, 9. 24-27. In this very challenging section, Paul is teaching that stringent self-discipline is necessary in order that we may serve acceptably and, finally, that we may gain reward at the judgement seat of Christ.