Questions From Readers
The Mosaic law does not use the term “fast”, but in connection with the atonement day it does command, “Ye shall afflict your souls.” (Lev. 16:29-31; 23:27; Num. 29:7) This is generally understood to mean fasting, and the view is supported by Ezra 8:21, Isaiah 58:3, 5 and the marginal reading of Psalm 35:13. Though the atonement day was the only occasion specifically set by God as a fast day, yet on other special occasions he ordered fasts. The Jews established many fasts, and at one time had four annual ones to mark the calamitous events of the fateful year 607 B.C. When Jesus was on earth it was customary for the Pharisees to fast twice a week, on the second and fifth days of the week. (Zech. 8:19; Luke 18:12) Fasts were to show godly sorrow and repentance concerning past sins. (1 Sam. 7:6; Joel 1:14; 2:12-15; Jon 3:5) They were also fitting in the face of great danger, or when in sore need of divine guidance, or while enduring tests and meeting temptations.—2 Chron. 20:3; Ezra 8:21; Esther 4:3, 16; Matt. 4:1, 2.
Proper religious fasting is not an ascetic afflicting of the body with hunger, as though bodily pain or discomfort were in itself meritorious. Actually, it is a natural consequence of strong emotion. If the mind is gripped by pressing problems or the heart is swayed by deep feelings the body does not crave food, and would refuse to properly digest it if it were consumed. If emotional stress is great enough it destroys the body’s natural appetites.
It is on this natural basis that fasting is founded as a religious procedure. It indicates to Jehovah the intense feeling of the fasting individual. It shows that the individual’s mind or emotions are so burdened with a sense of sin or so loaded with grief that the body refuses food. The person’s mental and emotional faculties may be so humiliated by past transgressions, so occupied by longing for forgiveness, so concerned with resolves to avoid a repetition of sins, that no room is left for thinking of such things as food. If the grief is really great and the repentance deeply felt, eating at such a time would be both unwelcome and unhealthful. Or the person may be faced with a serious problem, demanding reflection and meditation and concentrated study to search out Jehovah’s will and direction in the matter. The honor of Jehovah’s name may hinge on the decision or statements made. In such an engrossed state of mind one would hardly be thinking of his stomach.
But what about the person who loudly talks about his sorrow for past sins, his desire for forgiveness, his resolves to reform, or his deep concern to make a right decision at a crucial time, and yet all the while busily stuffs himself with food? He cannot be very deeply stirred or genuinely concerned, despite his verbal protestations. His good appetite belies his pose of deep concern. For that matter, fasts themselves can be but a pose, an outward show.
For instance, at one time the sins of the Jews were heavy, yet they did not sincerely repent. They made a pretense of worshiping Jehovah, giving him lip service and performing religious rites for show. Fasting was one of such, and they thought it should gain them divine notice and favor: “Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not? wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge?” Jehovah told them why, when saying that even during the fast they pursued their own pleasure and business, indulged in strife, oppression and violence, and showed none of the godly sorrow and repentance behind sincere fasts. The fast was not such as to make their voice heard in heaven, though their showy wailings were noisy indeed. Jehovah denounced the hypocritical act they put on: “Is such the fast that I have chosen? the day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head as a rush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to Jehovah?”—Isa. 58:1-5, AS.
The fast bespoke sorrow and repentance, but their actions belied the claim or pose. To be acceptable the fast must be accompanied by a correction of past sins: “Is not this the fast I choose—to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the knots of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and every yoke to snap? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and the homeless poor to bring home; when you see the naked, to cover him, and to hide not yourself from your own flesh?” (Isa. 58:6, 7, AT) These Jews had lost the spiritual discipline involved in proper fasting, had left out the spirit of genuine repentance the fast was to express. They looked upon the mere act of fasting as a means of winning favor from God, as a basis for claiming that favor, as a purchase price of divine favor, much the same as some now view the ritual of praying with beads, a specified amount of such ritualistic praying shortening by so many days the torments to be endured in an imaginary purgatory. These Jews thought the very discomfort involved in afflicting the soul was meritorious, like ascetics, and they thus thought they put God under obligation as owing them something in return. When this return was not forthcoming, they queried God about the payment they thought due them: “Wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge?”
The four annual fasts to lament the calamities of 607 B.C. were similarly insincere, self-imposed, self-inflicted. On these occasions the Jews wept and fasted as sufferers, feeling sorry for themselves and gaining some satisfaction in this self-pity; but they were not truly sorry or humbled for the sins that had brought on these calamities, that had provoked God’s wrath against them in the first place. Jehovah told them that their fasting was a self-righteous, ostentatious display and formalism, done as much for themselves as was their eating and drinking for sensual gratification. They should cease such fasting, and rejoice in the restoration of true worship and the ingathering of others to Jehovah’s service. (Zech. 7:3-7; 8:19, 23) Such fasting, unaccompanied by proper penitence, only gratified a personal feeling of superiority and self-righteousness, as Jesus showed in the case of the fasting Pharisee. (Luke 18:11, 12) Afflicting the body with self-imposed, formalistic fasting in a mock humility does not combat fleshly desires and gain God’s approval: “Those very things are, indeed, possessed of an appearance of wisdom in a self-imposed form of worship and mock humility, a severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in combating the satisfying of the flesh.”—Col. 2:20-23, NW.
Such was the fasting of the Pharisees. Of them Jesus said to his followers: “When you are fasting, stop becoming sad-faced like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Truly I say to you, They are having their reward in full. But you, when fasting, oil your head and wash your face, that you may appear to be fasting, not to men, but to your Father who is in secrecy; then your Father who is looking on in secrecy will repay you.” (Matt. 6:16-18, NW) The Pharisees fasted for outward show, assumed gloomy and morose expressions of unfelt sorrow, and deliberately went unwashed and haggard-looking for show. To be seen of men is what they wanted, and that is all they got. Lacking genuine piety, they knew not how to express it. Their hypocrisy was apparent. None should attempt to exhibit outwardly more than they feel inwardly. Fasting to God should not be made an exhibition to men.
Nonetheless, does not this text show Jesus’ followers were to fast? Proper fasting would be in order, but remember this was still under the Jewish system of things. What about Matthew 17:21, mentioned in the question? This text, as is also the case with Mark 9:29, Acts 10:30, 1 Corinthians 7:5 and 2 Corinthians 6:5, does not contain any reference to fasting, according to the most accurate manuscripts. (Compare King James Version and New World Translation.) Matthew 9:15 does not command Christians to fast. While Christ was on earth it was not proper for them to do so. When he died they did mourn and fast, but they did not so mourn after his resurrection and especially after the outpouring of holy spirit. (Mark 2:18-20; Luke 5:33-35) However, the early Christians did fast on special occasions. When Barnabas and Paul were sent on a special missionary assignment into Asia Minor there was fasting and praying. Also it was done when servants were appointed for a new congregation. (Acts 13:2, 3; 14:23) Divine direction was specially needed. Fasting was appropriate to those occasions. Nevertheless, Christians are not under command to fast.—Rom. 14:5, 6.
Just as the disciples were not to fast at the time of the first presence of Christ the Bridegroom, so they do not need to now in the time of his second presence. It is a time of rejoicing, not mourning. Some say the Christian fast now is a fast from fleshly lusts or unclean food for the mind. However, this hardly fits the procedure of fasting. Fasting was to temporarily abstain from proper food. Filthy mental food or immoral bodily conduct are never proper. Abstinence from them should be permanent. They were to be deadened, impaled, and not resumed like food after a fast. (Gal. 5:24; Col. 3:5; 1 Pet. 2:11, NW) To break abstinence from such things would be fatal. (Heb. 10:26, 38, 39; 2 Pet. 2:20-22) To refuse to break a fast from food would be fatal. Fasting usually involved mourning; abstinence from evil brings rejoicing. To make such a parallel does violence to the procedure of fasting.
For the Christian organization as such to fast now would be a self-imposed fast, one not commanded by God. It would be out of order now that the Bridegroom has returned and true worship has been restored. (Zech. 8:19; Matt. 9:15) However an individual might choose to fast on occasion for spiritual reasons. If he is confronted with a special trial, or exacting assignment, or is grief-stricken over some trespass, his concern or sorrow might be reflected in abstinence from food. He might prefer to fast in order that his mind may engross itself in deep reflection and meditation, uninterrupted by the intake of food for a season. Also, Christians might abstain from time to time from activities that are proper in themselves, but in which an overindulgence would be spiritually weakening. (1 Cor. 7:5, 29-31) The more concern we have for the material, the less we shall have for the spiritual. Never fast from the spiritual food, which embraces both the learning and the doing of Jehovah’s will.—John 4:34, NW.