Fasting: A 'New' Discipline for a New Year

January 6th, 2014

2013 has come and gone, and the new year is less than a week old. The good news is that, regardless of what 2014 brings, we can hold fast to the truth that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever!” (Hebrews 13:8). Our culture has long considered the new year as an opportunity to change, to grow, and to do things differently. To that end, we’ve developed a tradition of making resolutions and setting goals for the year ahead. For Christians the new year represents another 365 days to work toward an even closer relationship with God. To facilitate that spiritual growth we might commit to disciplines such as daily Bible readings, rigorous prayer habits, volunteering to serve others, and weekly worship. One spiritual commitment that is not terribly common in our culture is fasting.

Historically Speaking . . .

Fasting is an ancient spiritual practice that has been used by adherents of almost every major religion. It involves denying oneself of something, usually food and drink, for a period of time, such as from sunrise to sunset. Prayers and devotional readings often accompany a fast and help one focus on God, the community of faith, and living a holy life. Roman Catholic Christians abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and Fridays during Lent. Protestant Reformers during the sixteenth century rejected prescribed fasting but didn’t reject fasting altogether. Founder of Methodism John Wesley, for example, included “fasting or abstinence” as an example of “attending upon all the ordinances of God,” which was one of his three rules for Methodist societies. We read about fasting throughout Scripture. For example, in the Old Testament, fasting comes up often when people are in mourning or when God’s people are preparing for battle (see Judges 20:22-26). Queen Esther fasted and called her people to fast with her as she prepared to risk her life on behalf of the Jewish people (see Esther 4:15-16). Daniel fasted to seek wisdom from God (see Daniel 9:2-3).

Most of these biblical fasts involved abstaining from food and drink. But fasting isn’t limited to what we eat. The prophet Isaiah, for example, told the people of Judah that God was not satisfied with how they were fasting and desired a different kind of fast: “Isn’t this the fast I choose . . . sharing your bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into your house, covering the naked when you see them, and not hiding from your own family?” (Isaiah 58:6-7). Fasting, whether from food or something else, when practiced in the right spirit, draws one into a closer relationship with God and compels one to serve others with even greater compassion.

Why Fast?

Fasting reminds us that we depend entirely upon God and helps us identify with those who lack the necessities and luxuries that we enjoy. Abstaining from food can help us identify with persons who are hungry and motivate us to work to fight hunger and famine. Refraining from nonessential activities such as watching television and playing video games gives a person more time and energy to devote to relationships. And fasts of all sorts help us put things in perspective and focus on the Source of our blessings.

At this time of year, when so many people have resolved to make changes, we should reflect on ways we can grow spiritually. We should consider fasting as one such option. We need not fast from food (particularly if doing so is not an option for medical or health reasons), but we can abstain from electronic or social media or shopping. And when we commit to a fast, we can focus more clearly on God and turn our attention to the work that God calls us to do.

This article is also published as part of LinC, a weekly digital resource for youth small groups and Sunday school classes. The complete study guide can be purchased and downloaded here.

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