It’s not a perfect theology of fasting we’re after; it’s any Biblical warrant

Yesterday, Tim Challies posted on why he believes it important to fast from real food rather than simply fasting from something like Facebook. You can read his article here. It is worth pointing out here that I really like Tim’s writing and have found it to be extremely helpful. He has been given a great platform that he uses excellently for God’s glory to build up others. I am grateful to, and for, him. I say this because I really mean it, not because I’m about to disagree with his latest piece (honest!)

I have previously written on why I don’t fast and specifically why I disagree with John Piper on this issue. There, I particularly landed on Jesus’ answers to John the Baptist’s disciples (in response to Piper doing the same). It should be noted in Matthew 9:14-17 the entire discussion revolves around the fact that Jesus’ disciples did not fast with Jesus making a case for why they didn’t need to do so. You can read how John Piper understands this here and you can see my areas of agreement and disagreement with him here.

My earlier article is worth reading because it answers more fully Tim’s early suggestion that Jesus expected his disciples to fast as a matter of course. Tim lands heavily on Jesus’ construction of ‘when [not if]’ and notes the similarity in Jesus’ instructions on how to pray. The obvious difference between the two, however, is that Jesus does specifically command us to pray, not only using when-not-if, but explicitly and repeatedly. The same cannot be said for fasting.

There is no more reason to take the ‘when you fast’ construction – given the lack of explicit command anywhere in the New Testament to do it – as an expectation Jesus’ disciples will continue to fast than to see it as a simple description of what already takes place culturally and why that practice is, in Jesus’ cultural context, often inappropriate. Coupled to his answer to John’s disciples, the latter reading bears more weight. This reading is furthered when we notice that Jesus’ main concern in Matthew 6:16 is not fasting per se, but the hypocrisy of insincere outward piety.

Tim argues:

I am convinced that much of our apathy toward fasting derives from our confusion about it. We do not understand why or how to fast and, therefore, we do not fast. Strangely, we seem to want to have a perfect theology of fasting before we practice it.

But the reality is we are not looking for a perfect theology of fasting before we’ll do it. What we want is a Biblical imperative. We want Christ, or the apostles, to tell us to fast because it somehow brings glory to God. We don’t mind if only one of them says it in only one place at only one time, but we do want it to be said. Even some evidence of an ongoing practice of fasting might be helpful, but it is mentioned only twice in the book of Acts.

Inevitably, we then have to contend with the descriptive/prescriptive tension of Acts and, additionally, note that both instances centre on the Jewish believers in Jerusalem (incidentally, the same church from whence the Judaizers arose). That is not to say we can draw no theological inferences from the Jerusalem church in Acts; it is simply to say that this doesn’t constitute a pattern. Moreover, it appears not to be a pattern that spread to any of the Gentile churches. Further, without any clear command, there is every reason to see this as a description of what the Jewish believers did in Jerusalem (potentially a cultural hangover of their Judaism) rather than a prescription for all believers.

Equally, Tim’s own explanations about the purpose of fasting are not drawn from scripture. There is simply no scriptural basis for arguing that fasting must ‘be long enough… to feel the weakness and hunger pangs that remind you of your weakness and your utter dependence upon God’. Likewise, his linking of fasting to prayer (typically the Old Testament approach when we read of fasting) is again not linked to scripture. We are instead given passages about continuity of prayer (which certainly is commanded in scripture) with no reference linking it to fasting. Could this be because there is no New Testament grounds to do so?

To be clear, I don’t think fasting is wrong – scripture never says don’t fast – but to mandate it we need something more concrete. I fear the arguments put forward on fasting – with scant Biblical warrant – would be given short shrift if advanced in the cause of any other semi-mystical practice. I agree with Tim that ‘prayer is a means of seeking God himself’, but what grounds does he have of asserting ‘and fasting is God’s mysterious but effective means of assisting that noble desire’? If scripture is sufficient in all matters of faith and praxis, ought we to insist upon what it eminently doesn’t? That way surely lies the road to error.

Tim is quite right that ‘you do not need to master a theology of fasting before you begin to practice fasting any more than you need to master a theology of worship before you begin to worship’. Indeed, one doesn’t need a perfect theology of anything to obey Christ. Nonetheless, what one does need is an actual command of Christ to obey. In fasting, it remains extremely hard to find that command.