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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
What is the purpose of religious fasting? For some people I know, it seems almost a meritorious act.
Your question concerns a religious practice that does not seem to be as common in the church and in the life of the individual member as it used to be. Let’s look at the biblical passages and narratives where the practice is mentioned.
1. Practice and Types of Fasting: Fasting is not necessarily total abstention from food and drink. In some cases there was total abstention for a prolonged period of time, but in those cases God Himself seemed to have sustained the person (Ex. 34:28; cf. Matt. 4:2). Some people fasted for short periods of time without eating and drinking (Esther 4:16; Acts 9:9). But a normal fast probably allowed the drinking of water in order to avoid the risk of dehydration (Lev. 23:14), particularly in a hot climate, and abstention from food only during the daylight hours (2 Sam. 1:12; 3:35)—similar to the modern Muslim fast during Ramadan. Fasting during the night appeared to have been unusual (Esther 4:16). The Bible also mentions partial fasts, which consisted of the consumption of limited amounts of simple food (Dan. 10:2, 3).
The length of the fast varies. We read about fasts of 40 days (Deut. 9:9), seven days (1 Sam. 31:13), three days (Esther 4:16), one day (2 Sam. 3:35), and possibly a night fast (Dan. 6:18). There were community fasts: God ordered the Israelites to fast during the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29); occasionally the leaders asked the people to fast (Judges 20:26; 2 Chron. 20:3); or the prophets called for a fast (Joel 2:12, 13). But private fasting was a more common practice.
2. Concepts Associated With Fasting: Fasting is closely related to prayers of healing and deliverance (Ps. 35:13) and to worship (Acts 13:2); but it is also practiced in the context of a present or future calamity (Esther 4:1-4), in mourning (2 Sam. 1:12), in the selection of church leaders (Acts 13:2, 3), as a sign of repentance (Jonah 3:5), and as an expression of devotion to God (Luke 2:37). Jesus condemned ostentatious fasting that had the purpose of impressing others with the spirituality of the person. He encouraged private fasting (Matt. 6:16-18).
3. Basic Meaning of Fasting: It is difficult to find one fundamental purpose for fasting present in all of its expressions, but one comes very close to that ideal. Fasting seems to be an outward expression of the person’s inner total commitment and reliance on God’s preserving and rescuing power. The Scripture describes humans as single units of self-conscious life inseparable from their bodily forms. Feelings and emotions are not simply inner experiences we have apart from the body; they are intrinsically related to our corporeality and express themselves in it. There is no way of expressing feelings, emotions, and religiosity except in our bodily existence.
God must have informed Adam and Eve that they would have to cooperate with Him in the preservation of their lives through the ingestion of food (Gen. 1:29). An unwillingness to eat or eating improper food would indicate unwillingness to submit to His plan for them (Gen. 2:9). Such attitude would be a bodily/physical expression of a spirit of rebellion. Consequently, fasting would appear to indicate an unwillingness to cooperate with God in the preservation of our lives.
Yet the Bible indicates fasting as a proper expression of devotion and commitment to God. In that case the deprivation of food is not an expression of rebellion but a recognition that life can be ultimately preserved by our Creator and Redeemer. In fasting, we place our lives exclusively into the merciful care of God. It expresses a total and absolute commitment, a loving and trusting surrender of our lives to God as the only one who can rescue us from the oppression of sin.
Finally, when fasting we identify ourselves with the needy and the oppressed and allow God to use us to enrich their lives (Isa. 58:6, 7).
Meritorious? There is nothing meritorious in surrendering. Fasting is in fact an acknowledgment of our need before God.