Fasting

By Joseph R. McAuliffe

One of my favorite accounts of how God prepares a man for his calling is the story of Joseph. The favored, if not spoiled, son of Jacob was sold into slavery by his brothers, misjudged for an act he never
committed by his master’s wife, and left to languish several years in a prison before Pharaoh eventually established him as the principal administrator of Egypt. While Joseph suffered for thirteen years, God
was with Joseph and favored him amidst trying circumstances.

The Egyptian officer Potiphar who purchased Joseph from the Midianites perceived God’s approbation upon him and entrusted everything he possessed to Joseph’s stewardship with one notable exception-the food he ate! At first glance it appears incredulous that one could relinquish trust to another for every area of life but food, but now after twenty years of counseling Christians, I have come to acknowledge
the, Potipharian predominance of food in our lives as well.

Food is a gift from God that is essential to our physical health: “He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, And vegetation for the service of man, That he may bring forth food from the earth, And wine that makes glad the heart of man, Oil to make his face shine, And bread which strengthens man’s heart” (Psalm 104:14-15.)

Food is also a source of life and pleasure which is why Christians customarily give thanks before taking a meal. Because food is so gratifying and essential to life, it is not surprising that humans in their fallenness have frequently developed a sinful and obsessive relationship with it.

The apostle Paul speaks of some ostensible church leaders in his day “whose god is their belly” (Philippians 3:19.) The theologians of the middle ages identified gluttony as one of the seven deadly sins. The multi-billion dollar diet industry and notorious pathological eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia attest to the contemporary inordinate food preoccupation in America. Instead of eating to live, there are those who live to eat. Recently I overheard a woman comment to a friend: “Of course I’m on a diet … I’m an American.”

To counteract this idolatrous devotion to food is the spiritual discipline of fasting. To fast (Greek: tiestelio) literally means “not to eat.” In the Scriptures we find three kinds of fasting: the partial
or Daniel fast (Daniel 10:3: “I ate no pleasant food, no meat or wine came into my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, till three whole weeks were fulfilled,”) the total or Pauline fast (Acts 9:9: “And he
was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank,”) and the normal fast which includes water (Matthew 4:2: “And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry [not thirsty].”) The duration of the fasts cited in Scripture varied in length but one thing characterized each: the literal abstinence of some or all foods.

Fasting has been traditionally considered a spiritual discipline alongside of prayer, Bible study, praise, and meditation. The Pentateuch prescribed one fast a year, on the Day of Atonement, but by the time of Zechariah, there were at least four a year… “The fast of the fourth month, the fast of the fifth, the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be joy and gladness and cheerful feasts for the house of Judah” (Zechariah 8:19.) During our Lord’s earthly sojourn it was the practice of the Pharisees to fast twice a week. Jesus endorsed fasting in the Sermon on the Mount to his followers by saying “when [not if you fast” (Matthew 6:16.) The New Testament reveals that the early church and the apostle Paul in particular regularly fasted: “…in stripes, in imprisonment’s, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fastings” (II Corinthians 6:5,) “…in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in
fastings often, in cold and nakedness” (II Corinthians 11:27.) When Paul was commissioned by the leaders in Antioch for his first apostolic mission, it was accompanied by fasting. Similarly fasting was employed by the apostles in the ordination of elders in the mission churches: “So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (Acts 14:23.)

Philip Schaff notes that throughout the first three centuries of the church’s history. Christians fasted twice a week, on Wednesday and Friday, in commemoration of the passion and crucifixion of Jesus. The
practice took on a legalistic form under the Montanists and other monastic groups. James Hastings comments, “The growth of strictness in fasting is especially observable in the 4th century, the age of
councils and organization, made possible by the cessation of persecution.” Clement of Alexandria responded to the overvaluation of fasting by making an addendum to Paul’s words: “The kingdom of God is not meat and drink, therefore neither abstinence from wine and flesh, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 113 Certainly fasting is not a panacea for every human problem and like every
spiritual discipline has had its effects exaggerated.

Nevertheless the Scriptures are replete with references of those who experienced God’s provision through fasting. Fasting was practiced by Ezra for protection (Ezra 8,) by Jehoshaphat for military victory (H Corinthians 20,) by Esther for preservation (Esther 4,) by Nehemiah for restoration (Nehemiah I,) by Nineveh for repentance (Jonah 3,) by Daniel for favor and wisdom (Daniel 1, 9) and by Jesus against the evil one (Matthew 4.)

Many today would be surprised to know that fasting has played an important role both in the pilgrim settlements and the development of this nation through the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln proclaimed three fasts in his administration, but as Arthur Wallis has noted: “For nearly a century and a half fasting has been out of vogue.” Perhaps this might explain in part the corresponding declension of spiritual
life and Biblical values both in our churches and our nation. William Bradford in his “Of Plymouth Plantation” describes the pilgrims’ preparation for coming to America: “So being ready to depart,
they had a day of solemn humiliation, their pastor taking his text from Ezra 8:21 [“Men I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from Him the right way for us and our little ones and all our possessions.”] Later the practice of setting aside special days of prayer and fasting became an accepted part of the life of Plymouth Colony. On November 15, 1636, a law was passed allowing the governor and his assistants “to command solemn days of humiliation by fasting.”

The pattern set forth by the pilgrims of proclaiming public days of fasting was followed in subsequent generations both by the governing bodies and by the most famous leaders of the American people. On June 1, 1774, the Burgesses of Virginia passed a resolution proclaiming a fast to “implore the Divine Interposition” against the British Parliament for ordering an embargo on the Port of Boston. George
Washington wrote in his diary for that day: “Went to Church and fasted all day.”

In 1798, when the young republic was on the verge of war with France, President John Adams proclaimed May 9 a day of fasting declaring: “As the safety and prosperity of nations ultimately depend on the protection and the blessing of Almighty God, and the national acknowledgment of the truth is not only an indispensable duty which the people owe to Him, but a duty whose natural influence is favorable to the promotion of that morality and piety, without which social happiness cannot exist, nor the blessings of free government be enjoyed…”

In 1815, the United States was again at war with Britain and James Madison issued the following proclamation for the nation to fast:

“The two houses of the National. Legislature having, by a joint resolution expressed their desire that, in the present time of public calamity and war, a day may be recommended to be observed by the people
of the United States as a day of public humiliation and fasting, and of prayer to Almighty God for the safety and welfare of these States, his blessing on their arms and a speedy restoration of peace: I have deemed it proper, by this unlike the one Jonah proclaimed and Nineveh heeded which averted judgment: four days before the date set by Madison the last battle of the war was fought at New Orleans resulting in victory for the United States. Madison promptly proclaimed a day of public thanksgiving declaring:

“It is for blessings such as these, and especially for the restoration the blessing of peace, that I now recommend that the second Thursday in April next, be set apart as a day on which the people of every
religious denomination, may, in their solemn assemblies, unite their hearts and their voices in a free will offering to their heavenly Benefactor, of their homage of thanksgiving, and of their songs of praise.”

The aforementioned resolutions are indicative of the importance of fasting from a Biblical perspective. The reason we abstain from food for certain periods is to earnestly demonstrate before God our need for
His intervention. When we are fasting for spiritual purposes, we are humbling ourselves before Him to implore His assistance. “I humbled my soul with fasting” (Psalm 35:13,) writes King David. The Scriptures reveal that humility is a requisite for grace… “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6.) Fasting is a Biblically prescribed means of humbling oneself in order to solicit God’s gracious assistance.

The spiritual discipline of fasting is an important component that must be restored to the church at this time. There are provisions attached to fasting that are vital to the needs and problems facing the church
and our nation today. Both entities have been adrift on the sea of secularism and are in need of repair and restoration. The prophet Isaiah spoke of such disintegrating times as ours and the role of a
Biblically motivated fast:

“Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness, To undo the heavy burden’s, To let the oppressed go free, And that you break every yoke?… Those from among you Shall build the
old waste places; You shall raise up the foundations of many generations; And you shall be called the Repairer of the Breach, The Restorer of Streets to Dwell In” (Isaiah 58:6, 12.)

Joseph R. McAuliffe is the Editor an Publisher of Business Gram and the Senior Pastor of Tampa Covenant Church in Tampa, Florida.

This article is from: Business Gram Newsletter, Vol. 11, No. 9, April, 1993.

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