Friday, March 21, 2014

Do Christians Really "Fast" During Lent?

Jesus is tempted to make bread while fasting
The other day on Facebook I got a question from a friend about my article on the 40 days of Lent. It is a good question, especially if you have the religious background both of us do, wherein we once attempted to celebrate the holy days God gave ancient Israel. Long story; maybe I'll tell it one day. But in the Old Testament you'll notice, fasting could sometimes be quite rigorous. So why do members of the Christian Movement call the somewhat gentler thing we do during Lent "fasting?"

Well, at one time the Lenten fast was much more rigorous too! But I didn't get into that. Here is the question and a modified version of my response.

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Q: How do you define fasting? My understanding of it is that it's literally going without any food or water for a period of 24 hours.

I remember many years ago a minister... mentioning in a sermon (on the Day of Atonement) that he never knew of anyone who tried to fast this way for 40 days that didn't end up doing permanent damage to his/her body, and thus strictly warned against attempting it in this day and age, due to the degeneration of the human body.

But your article makes it sound as if it's a relatively common thing for folks to do.

What am I missing here?


A: As you point out there would be a lot of dead and sickly worshipers each year if it was a full on fast. This Scientific American article says it's just barely possible to to go without food for 40 days or a little longer, but if you also don't drink anything you'll be dead in 2 weeks.  It seems to me that Christ, Moses -- who did it twice! -- and Elijah must have had supernatural assistance to make it that long.

We're dealing with the Christian fast of Lent of course, which is not necessarily patterned on an ancient Israelite fast. But it's not without biblical precedent, since it does resemble Daniel's 'no pleasant bread' fast in the Book of Daniel 10.3 (In the old King James Version Daniel says, "I ate no pleasant bread, neither came flesh nor wine in my mouth, neither did I anoint myself at all, till three whole weeks were fulfilled." ('Pleasant bread' means 'rich food.')

So for instance I'm eating no meat for the 40 days. Others abstain from other things.  In the Old Testament there are fasts that include not putting oil in your hair or even refusing to bathe (although Jesus said not to do that.)

At any rate, yes this type of a fast is fairly common.

The Scriptures mention different degrees and  types of fasts. In case you are really, really interested in what the Bible says about fasting (or just have a research paper on it), here is a comprehensive list of every fast it mentions.


(I borrowed this with much gratitude from the wondrous Bible.org site. It was originally compiled by the Bible Scholar Kent D. Berghuis.)


Scriptural References to Fasting

What follows is a comprehensive list of references to fasting in Scripture, with a brief summary of the contents of each passage (synoptic passages have been treated together). Notation is made of the extent of the fast (whether the fast is strictly individual or of a corporate nature), for the purpose of highlighting the corporate nature of biblical fasting in contrast to the frequent misconception that fasting was intended to be a strictly private, individualistic matter. Some text critical notes related to questionable NT passages are made here, but a fuller discussion may be found above in the discussion in the second chapter.

Reference
Extent
Summary
individual
Moses twice spends forty days on Mount Sinai without eating or drinking, and in mourning over Israel’s sin.
corporate
Israel fasts until evening to inquire of YHWH after loss to Benjamin.
individual
Hannah weeps and refuses to eat when her husband’s other wife provokes her, and she prays for a son.
corporate
Israel fasts for a day to repent, Samuel prays, YHWH delivers them from the Philistines.
corporate
Saul places the army under oath not to eat until evening on the day of battle with the Philistines.
individual
Jonathan refuses to eat because of his grief over his father’s mistreatment of David.
individual
Saul eats nothing all day and night when he consults with the witch of En-dor.
corporate
Men of Jabesh fast seven days after recovering the bodies of Saul and Jonathan from the Philistines.
corporate
David’s men fast until evening upon hearing the news of the death of Saul and Jonathan.
individual(?)
David refuses to eat food until evening when he heard of the death of Abner.
individual
David fasts and weeps seven days during the terminal illness of his son by Bathsheba.
individual
An unnamed prophet is instructed by God not to eat or drink while on a mission to prophesy against Jeroboam’s idolatry.
individual
Elijah goes forty days on the strength of the food provided to him by an angel.
individual
Ahab eats no food because he is sullen after Naboth refused to sell his vineyard.
corporate
Jezebel calls a false day of fasting to accuse Naboth of cursing God.
individual
Ahab fasts and puts on sackcloth in repentance after Elijah rebuked him, and God recognized Ahab’s humility.
corporate
Jehoshaphat proclaims a fast throughout Judah to seek YHWH for fear of the armies of Ammon and Moab.
corporate
Ezra calls a fast to seek God’s protection for those leaving Babylon for Israel.
individual
Ezra eats and drinks nothing because of his mourning over the unfaithfulness of the exiles.
Neh 1:4
individual
Nehemiah mourns and fasts for days over the news of the state of Jerusalem, confessing national sin.
Neh 9:1
corporate
The people of Israel assemble with fasting to confess their sin after Ezra reads from the law.
corporate
The Jews weep and fast when they hear of the king’s decree for their destruction.
corporate
Esther, her maidens, and the Jews of Susa fast from food and drink for three days before she goes to the king.
corporate
Purim is established for the Jews with instructions for fasting and lamentations.
individual
Job groans at the sight of food, and experiences great affliction and pain.
individual
Elihu suggests that man (specifically, Job) is afflicted by God and unable to eat because God is chastening him.
individual
David defends his honor by saying that he fasted and prayed when his enemies were sick.
individual
The psalmist (Sons of Korah) says that tears are his food day and night.
individual
David’s fasting, weeping and prayer was an object of scorn by his enemies.
individual
The afflicted psalmist forgets to eat bread because of his great grief.
individual
People in distress are pictured as near death, unable to eat, but YHWH saves them.
individual
David says his knees are weak from fasting, and his flesh has grown lean during his affliction from his enemies.
corporate
Israel’s fasts are not heard by God because of their oppression and hypocrisy; He desires righteousness first.
corporate
Israel’s fasts are not heard by God because of their oppression and hypocrisy.
corporate
The people of Judah assemble in Jerusalem for a fast, and Baruch reads Jeremiah’s prophecy to them.
individual
Ezekiel is instructed in special mourning rites, that include fasting, for the death of his wife.
individual
Darius fasts from food, entertainment, and sleep through the night while worrying for Daniel in the lion’s den.
individual
Daniel fasts, confessing Israel’s sin, upon reading Jeremiah’s prophecy of the seventy weeks.
individual
Daniel mourns for three weeks, abstaining from tasty food, meat, wine, and ointment.
corporate
Joel calls for a nation-wide fast because of famine that is destroying the land.
corporate
YHWH calls the people to return to Him with fasting, rending their hearts, not garments; Joel again calls for a fast.
corporate
All of Nineveh fasts, repenting at the preaching of Jonah of the destruction of the city.
corporate
YHWH rebukes the priests for their ritual fasts that were done more for themselves than for Him.
corporate
YHWH will transform the ritual fasts into feasts of joy when God’s people have repented of sin and He grants them favor.
individual
Jesus fasts forty days in the wilderness, being tempted by the devil.
individual
Jesus teaches that fasting should be done privately for God, not for the purpose of being seen to be fasting, like the hypocrites.
corporate
Jesus tells John’s disciples that his do not fast because the bridegroom is present, but when He is taken away they will.
corporate
Jesus did not wish to send the crowd away fasting,855 since they had been with Him three days and have nothing (more?) to eat.
individual?
Jesus says that this kind of demon goes out only by means of prayer and fasting.858
individual
Anna serves in the temple night and day with fastings and prayers.
individual
The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable shows his self-righteousness by boasting that he fasts twice a week and tithes.
individual
Saul fasted from food and water three days after the Damascus Road experience.
individual
Cornelius was fasting and praying when an angel instructed him to go to Peter.
corporate
Prophets and teachers in Antioch were ministering to the Lord and fasting before and after the Holy Spirit set apart Saul and Barnabas.
corporate
Paul and Barnabas appoint elders in the churches, having prayed with fasting.
corporate
Certain Jews bind themselves by oath not to eat or drink until they kill Paul.
corporate
Paul’s voyage to Rome takes place after “the fast” was over, a reference to the Day of Atonement.
corporate
Paul encourages the ship’s crew to eat, since they had gone 14 days fasting.860
couples
Paul tells couples not to deprive one another sexually, except for brief periods devoted to prayer and fasting.
individual
Paul lists “fastings”862 among the hardships he suffered as a mark of his apostleship.

Summary of Biblical Purposes for Fasting

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