Our church is in a 21-day fast, and a few people have asked me about my fasting practices. Before it began I set about finding a “good fast”, meaning to me, how do I fast in a truly Christian way? I try to consider how I ought to do things, and how it has been done previously, by other faithful witnesses now long gone from this world, but still very much alive in Christ. I found a few elements that characterized Christian fasting: mournful repentance, particular days of fasting, less moral rigidity than I supposed, and a focus on social justice.
Why Do We Fast?
Christians, as I have found, typically characterized fasting as mournful repentance for sin. This is a currently unfashionable perspective, outside of Lenten practices. In our modern age, we often don’t want to take a hard look at ourselves, to examine our conscience, to recognize the gap between God, our neighbor, and ourselves and call on Christ to bridge it.
Rather, we often fast to either get something out of God or get closer to Him. Now, neither is bad in itself. However our spiritual forebears would likely tell us you can do neither unless you repent; and sometimes that must come with sackcloth, ashes, and tears. In fasting, we buffet our flesh, making up in our own suffering what is lacking in Christ’s (Colossians 1:24). As my wife put it, we fast to teach our flesh to submit to the control of the Spirit.
When Do We Fast?
Traditionally, Christians would fast on Wednesdays and Fridays (see the Didache), but not on Sundays. The Synod at Gangra, sometime in the 4th century, in Canon 18 rejected fasting on Sunday, but this was a preexisting practice; the synod merely affirmed what had always been done. When we should fast can be answered many ways; I want to focus on one. Jesus was asked this, and his answer in Mark 2 is interesting:
The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were accustomed to fast. People came to him and objected, “Why do the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.
If fasting is mournful repentance for my sins, how can I fast on a Sunday, as we celebrate our liberation from sin? So, I fast no longer on Sundays, in anticipation of the hope that the Bridegroom will be with me again.
How Do We Fast?
God helped me realize it is unhelpful to “bean-count” my fast. If I eat on a Friday before sundown (as I did today…damn Pop-Tart) I just get move on and start afresh. When I break the fast on Sundays, I don’t drink and eat to excess; I exercise restraint, control of the body, to train my flesh to obey the Spirit even after the fast has ended. It also teaches me that rigidity to a moral standard is not the kingdom of heaven, rather it is righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17).
Righteousness… we get that word wrong so often. The essence of righteousness is right relationship, toward God and one another. God’s word through Isaiah ought to stab us through the heart whenever we fast:
Is this the manner of fasting I would choose,
a day to afflict oneself?
To bow one’s head like a reed,
and lie upon sackcloth and ashes?
Is this what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?
Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking off every yoke?
Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry,
bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own flesh?
This convicts me, because selfishness lurks in fasting…We ought to fast for more than our own interests.
Our fast ought to gain for God what he wants from us, not the other way around.
Our fast ought to gain us love for our neighbor, and our enemies.
We ought to fast because we, often, failed to keep the whole Law – love of God, love of one another.
A truly Christian fast I have not yet achieved or contemplated fully, but I humbly suggest it involves mournful repentance for sin, interposed with Sunday celebrations of our deliverance, less moral rigidity but a passion for loving just relations with others. I am not there yet, but I hope to be.