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VM: Should Christians fast?

ED: FASTING—voluntarily going with- out food—appears to have been an intrinsic part of worship in Old Testament times.

When people prayed to God in times of trouble they would often fast, for example Judges 20:26, 2 Samuel 12:16–23, Esther 4:16. People fasted when they mourned for the dead, for example 1 Samuel 31:13, 2 Samuel 1:12. Fasting accompanied repentance, for example 1 Kings 21:27, Ezra 9:5, Jonah 3:5.

What’s the point of fasting? It is a way of showing God that you are upset and in need. It makes you uncomfortable. It reminds you that you are weak and that you rely on God. If you have something to pray about, it’s easy to forget about it in your busy life—but if your prayer is accompanied by fasting, you don’t forget about it, the hunger keeps your prayer at the front of your mind.

Fasting can be done properly, as an acceptable act of devotion to God, and it can also be done improperly, just for show. In Isaiah 58 God berates His people for making a show of fasting, without really meaning it. If it is done with the wrong attitude, fasting is no use.

There’s less mention of fasting in the New Testament, but we know that people did fast. Jesus gave instructions on the right and wrong attitude to fasting: ‘When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you’ (Matthew 6:16–18). In Acts 13:2–3 and 14:23 we see that fasting was part of the worship of the early church.

Fasting is something that can be done by individuals, as part of their personal worship. It can also be part of communal worship. It’s something that Christians choose to do—they are not instructed to fast.

Fasting can be hazardous, but if it’s done sensibly it does seem that it actually has health benefits. For example it rests the digestive system and allows the body to focus on other systems; it can improve the body’s control of blood sugar; and there’s also evidence that it enhances heart health and brain function.

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