Does God Require Fasting?
GOD’S Law given through Moses required fasting only on one occasion—on the annual Day of Atonement. The Law commanded that on that day the Israelites were to ‘afflict their souls,’ which is understood to mean that they fasted. (Leviticus 16:29-31; 23:27; Psalm 35:13) However, this fast was not a mere formalism. The observance of the Day of Atonement moved the people of Israel to greater consciousness of their sinfulness and the need for redemption. They fasted on that day also to express sorrow for their sins and repentance before God.
Though this was the only obligatory fast under the Mosaic Law, the Israelites observed fasts on other occasions. (Exodus 34:28; 1 Samuel 7:6; 2 Chronicles 20:3; Ezra 8:21; Esther 4:3, 16) Included among these were voluntary fasts as a means of displaying repentance. Jehovah urged the erring people of Judah: “Come back to me with all your hearts, and with fasting and with weeping and with wailing.” This was not to be an outward show, for God goes on to say: “Rip apart your hearts, and not your garments.”—Joel 2:12-15.
In time, many fasted as an outward formalism. Jehovah detested such insincere fasting and therefore asked hypocritical Israelites: “Should the fast that I choose become like this, as a day for earthling man to afflict his soul? For bowing down his head just like a rush, and that he should spread out mere sackcloth and ashes as his couch? Is it this that you call a fast and a day acceptable to Jehovah?” (Isaiah 58:5) Rather than making a showy display of their fasting, these wayward people were asked to produce works befitting repentance.
Some fasts established by the Jews met with God’s disapproval right from the outset. For example, at one time the people of Judah had four annual fasts to commemorate the calamitous events associated with Jerusalem’s siege and desolation in the seventh century B.C.E. (2 Kings 25:1-4, 8, 9, 22-26; Zechariah 8:19) After the Jews were released from captivity in Babylon, Jehovah said through the prophet Zechariah: “When you fasted . . . , and this for seventy years, did you really fast to me, even me?” God did not approve of these fasts because the Jews were fasting and mourning over judgments that had come from Jehovah himself. They were fasting because of the calamity that befell them, not because of their own wrongdoing that led to it. After they were restored to their homeland, it was time for them to rejoice instead of bemoaning the past.—Zechariah 7:5.
Is Fasting for Christians?
Even though Jesus Christ never commanded his disciples to fast, he and his followers fasted on Atonement Day because they were under the Mosaic Law. Additionally, some of his disciples fasted voluntarily on other occasions, since Jesus did not direct them to avoid the practice altogether. (Acts 13:2, 3; 14:23) Yet, they were never to ‘disfigure their faces that they might appear to men to be fasting.’ (Matthew 6:16) Such an external display of piety might bring admiring glances and approving nods from other humans. Nevertheless, God is not pleased with such a showy display.—Matthew 6:17, 18.
Jesus also spoke of his followers’ fasting at the time of his death. He was not thereby instituting a ritual fast. Instead, he was indicating a reaction to the deep sorrow they would experience. Once he was resurrected, he would be with them again, and there would no longer be such a reason for them to fast.—Luke 5:34, 35.
The Mosaic Law ended when “the Christ was offered once for all time to bear the sins of many.” (Hebrews 9:24-28) And with the end of the Law, the command to fast on Atonement Day ended. Thus, the only obligatory fast mentioned in the Bible was removed.
What About Lent?
What, then, is the basis for Christendom’s practice of fasting during Lent? Both Catholic and Protestant churches recognize Lent, although the manner of observing it differs from church to church. Some eat just one meal a day during the full 40-day period preceding Easter. Others fast totally only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. For some, Lent requires abstaining from meat, fish, eggs, and milk products.
Lent is supposedly based on Jesus’ 40-day fast after his baptism. Was he then establishing a ritual to be followed yearly? Not at all. This is evident from the fact that the Bible does not record any such practice among the early Christians. Lent was first observed in the fourth century after Christ. Like many other teachings of Christendom, it was borrowed from pagan sources.
If Lent is in imitation of Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness after his baptism, why is it observed during the weeks leading up to Easter—supposedly the time of his resurrection? Jesus did not fast during the days prior to his death. The Gospel accounts indicate that he and his disciples visited homes and ate meals in Bethany just a few days before he died. And he ate the Passover meal the night before his death.—Matthew 26:6, 7; Luke 22:15; John 12:2.
There is something to be learned from Jesus’ fasting after his baptism. He was embarking on a vital ministry. The vindication of Jehovah’s sovereignty and the future of the entire human race were involved. This was a time for deep meditation and for prayerfully turning to Jehovah for help and guidance. During this time Jesus appropriately fasted. This indicates that fasting can be beneficial when done with the right motive and on a fitting occasion.—Compare Colossians 2:20-23.
When Fasting Could Be Beneficial
Let us consider some occasions today when a worshiper of God might fast. A person who has committed a sin may not feel like eating for a period of time. This would not be to impress others or be in anger at the discipline received. And, of course, fasting in itself would not straighten out matters with God. However, a truly repentant person would feel deep sorrow over having hurt Jehovah and probably friends and family. Anguish and fervent prayer for forgiveness may inhibit a desire for food.
Israel’s King David had a similar experience. When faced with the prospect of losing his son by Bath-sheba, he concentrated all his efforts on praying to Jehovah to obtain mercy regarding the child. As his emotions and strength went into his prayers, he fasted. Likewise, taking food may not seem appropriate under certain stressful conditions today.—2 Samuel 12:15-17.
There may also be times when a godly person wants to focus on some deep spiritual matter. Research in the Bible and Christian publications may be necessary. A period of time may be needed for meditation. During such an absorbing study session, an individual may choose not to be distracted by the eating of meals.—Compare Jeremiah 36:8-10.
There are Scriptural examples of servants of God fasting when serious decisions had to be made. In Nehemiah’s day an oath was to be made to Jehovah, and the Jews would be liable to a curse if they broke it. They were to promise to put away their foreign wives and to keep separate from the surrounding nations. Before making this oath and during the confession of their guilt, the entire congregation fasted. (Nehemiah 9:1, 38; 10:29, 30) When faced with weighty decisions, a Christian may therefore go without food for a short period of time.
Decision-making by bodies of elders in the early Christian congregation was sometimes accompanied by fasting. Today, congregation elders faced with difficult decisions, perhaps in connection with a judicial case, may abstain from food while considering the matter.
Choosing to fast in certain circumstances is an individual decision. One person should not judge another on this matter. We should not want to “appear righteous to men”; nor should we make food so important that it interferes with our caring for serious obligations. (Matthew 23:28; Luke 12:22, 23) And the Bible shows that God neither requires that we fast nor prohibits us from fasting.
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Do you know why Jesus fasted for 40 days after his baptism?