Fasting: An Expression Of Humility

By John A. Harvey

    Fasting appears to be on the increase among earnest Christians. However, many seem to enter into this exercise without understanding its spiritual essence or value.

    If we fail to comprehend the type of fasting God chooses, we risk being of no effect like the New Testament Pharisees or guilty of fasting like the heathen.

    Fasting was used in the Old Testament as an aid to help a person humble himself before God. Ezra said, "I proclaimed a fast...that we might humble ourselves before our God" (8:21). The psalmist likewise spoke to the purpose of fasting: "I humbled my soul with fasting" (35:13). When Ahab responded to the prophet’s words of judgment by fasting and putting on sackcloth, God’s comment to Elijah was, "Seest thou how Ahab humbleth himself before Me?" (1 Kings 21:29).

    One of the Hebrew words that can be translated "fasting" can also be translated "humiliation," as in Ezra 9:5 NEB. Fasting is implied in the popular verse used so often as the key to revival, "If My people...shall humble themselves..." (2 Chronicles 7:14).

    James, the New Testament writer who spoke with Old Testament flavor, likewise implied fasting when using the word humble. "Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will lift you up" (4:9-10).

    In time people became proud about their humility. During the days of His earthly ministry Jesus taught that fasting should be practiced in private instead of in public so as to maintain its essence of humbleness before God (Matthew 6:16-18). Fasting is nothing to be proud about; to the contrary, it is a demonstration of humility.

    That heresy of the Early Church period called Gnosticism encouraged fasting with an entirely different meaning. Since the Gnostics saw the body as evil, they looked to fasting as a tool to curb the appetites of the flesh. They felt that it assisted a person to become more holy and thus improved his standing with God. In Colossians 2:16-23 Paul challenged such thinking, concluding that it lacks "any value in restraining sensual indulgence." Yet the ascetic interpretation of fasting has remained with the church even to this day.

    Most Christians see fasting as meritorious in some mysterious way known only to God, and they fast expecting to move God accordingly. We should know better, for we can do nothing to earn a hearing with God. A theology of fasting, like every Christian practice, must be reconciled with the Pauline theology of grace.

    Jesus showed clearly in the story of the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:9-14) that no one gets anywhere with God by trying to earn favor through fasting--not even the proud Pharisee who fasted twice a week. Rather, it was the humble publican who got a hearing, whose attitude was more in keeping with the essence of fasting than the Pharisee’s.

    A question should be asked at this point. How does fasting aid in humbling us before God? The answer is found in understanding the Hebrew idea of mourning. To be in sorrow and grief was synonymous to being humbled. Joy related to glory and honor; mourning to humility.

    Therefore the whole exercise of humbling oneself before God was put into the context of grief. Sackcloth and ashes accompanied it. Even the tearing of clothes, pulling out of hair and beating of the breast. Weeping and howling were also common--anything that would demonstrate agony of heart. Daniel described his twenty-one-day fast as a time of mourning (10:2). So it was with David’s fast for his son’s illness (2 Samuel 12:15-20), and throughout the Old Testament.

    Fasting relates to mourning in that grief affects the appetite. It was not so much in the beginning of the custom a declaration of "I will not eat" but rather "I cannot eat." The truly despairing and concerned person is so occupied emotionally by the need at hand that food is forgotten. Therefore, as mourning is a part of humiliation, so also fasting becomes the way to express humility before God.

    In the New Testament fasting receives less emphasis, no doubt because mourning is in contrast to the lifestyle that the New Testament encourages. Jesus’ disciples did not fast, He said, because it was not appropriate to mourn in the presence of the Bridegroom (Matthew 9:14-15). Love, joy and peace are also more suitable than tears and grief for Christians since the Comforter has come.

    Nevertheless, there is still a place for fasting in the New Testament. Jesus fasted prior to beginning His ministry and in Acts 13 and 14 we see the apostles also fasting. In these cases their action was not an expression of the symbol (mourning), but of the purpose of fasting (humbling oneself before God) in order to be assured of God’s guidance.

    Whereas the command in the New Testament is to rejoice rather than to fast, there is still a place to "weep with them that weep" (Romans 12:15). Paul also found himself fasting, but often it was more forced than voluntary (2 Corinthians 6:5; 11:27).

    Certainly as we approach the day of the Lord, we too will find many more things to weep over. But even though mourning is not the New Testament thrust, humility is always in order. As fasting helps us to bend the knee before God, to that extent it is fitting.

For Spiritual Warfare

    Some writers suggest that fasting has a further value as a weapon of our spiritual warfare. It has been proved both by Scripture and in experience that God is moved by fasting when nothing else seems effective. Why is it that fasting has such power with God, especially if it is not meritorious in itself?

    The reason God responds to fasting is that He responds to the humble. "God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble" (James 4:6). Many saints have said that it is our weakness that commends us to God, and fasting, if done properly, is an expression of our weakness.

    Our prayers are often said in the virtue of our own holy acts, and we need this periodic reminder that we are nothing but contaminated dust and ashes.

    To those who acknowledge their state and need, God is irresistibly drawn, and He answers their prayers. "He does not ignore the cry of the afflicted [humble]" (Psalm 9:12). "You hear, O Lord, the desire of the afflicted [humble]; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry" (10:17).

    The power of fasting is found as we humble ourselves. It has no virtue in itself, no more than the water of baptism does. The heart attitude is all-important.

    Many have seen fasting to be effective in the lives of others, and then have tried it themselves, to no avail. They are like Gehazi, who tried to use Elisha’s staff on the Shunammite woman’s dead son to raise him up. The power lay not in the staff, but in the condition of the person using it.

    The same is true of fasting; it is not a divine gimmick. It is an outward evidence of an inward condition and an aid to expressing it.

    This is the essence of fasting: the concerned heart--yea, even the grieved soul--humbles itself before God, knowing that "the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise" (Psalm 51:17).

    – From Alliance Life, 12/26/79, the official magazine of The Christian and Missionary Alliance. Used by permission. John A. Harvey is the regional director for Europe and the Middle East for the U.S. Christian and Missionary Alliance.