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Posts Tagged ‘Fasting’

Fastidious, Pt.4

Please pardon the following unconscionable play on words:

Are you ready for another post about fasting?

Man, have I been away from this topic for a while.  I had a stack of commentaries sitting on my desk for more than two months, borrowed from my pastor who for a while was taking in the sights in Israel. I knew he was getting back soon and had asked about them before he left, so I figured my time was limited. The commentaries I had borrowed were on the Gospel of Mark. Specifically I’ve been wanting to study Mark 2:18-22. Here is the passage in question:

“Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, “How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?” Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. 20But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast. “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, he pours new wine into new wineskins.”

Significant to this passage is the fact that it is the only New Testament passage that deals with fasting with more than a passing reference. In trying to understand the practice of fasting, I’m looking to this passage for help.

In case you’re new to my discussion of fasting, I have been perplexed by the question of whether fasting is useful for the pursuit of holiness. Fasting is never prescribed in the New Testament, and only in reference to the Day of Atonement in the Old Testament. It is understood to be a common practice in New Testament times, and is never prohibited, and yet precious little is said about the proper way to do it. I’ve already concluded that fasting does not make one holy, but that it may be useful for subduing the appetites of the flesh.

A remaining area of interest is the relationship of fasting to the ministry of Christ. As we see in the passage quoted above, the practice of fasting was impacted by the presence of Christ. I wanted to see how and why this was the case. I’d like to share some important observations I gleaned from my use of commentaries:

  1. The Pharisees were concerned chiefly with asserting their own righteousness, not in the practice of fasting itself. They fasted twice a week and made quite the public show of it. Their question was a veiled was of noting their own piety. (WE fast…why don’t YOU?)
  2. Jesus response is not meant, again, to teach on the subject of fasting but to condemn the Pharisees’ hypocrisy. Jesus seems to imply that fasting is a somber practice, and His presence with His people was a cause for joy. For His followers to fast would have been contradictory to their mood.  In saying this Jesus implied that the Pharisees’ show of somber fasting was hypocrisy because they were inwardly prideful.
  3. The parables used by Jesus underline the fact that the Pharisees and Jesus were completely at odds and that no compromise could be forged. The Pharisees employed fasting to establish a righteousness of their own. This is not how true holiness is obtained. Christ came to provide an alien righteousness which the Pharisees would reject. Any practice which seeks to please God must refer to our need for a righteousness outside of ourselves. This is not the point of the passage, but I believe it is rightly inferred.
  4. This time of abstention from fasting on account of Jesus’ presence was not permanent. In other words, it was not His coming per se, but His actual presence.  Christians need not view fasting as having been rendered permanently suspended  because Christ has come once.

Top to bottom, I am seeing that I was dangerously viewing this passage though isogetical eyes. I wanted to learn about fasting, but this passage teaches only by inference about the practice. This is always an obstacle when studying topically.

I do think it is fair so say that this passage implies that fasting is something to be done in somber humility. While fasting is not explicitly prescribe I am seeing, more and more, that there is a proper way to fast. It is not what I thought it might be. There are still many pieces I need to fit together, and already the picture is turning out much differently than I expected. Glory be to God for His goodness and wisdom!

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Fastidious, Pt.3

Here’s an awesome quote from John Owen that has helped me break through on a key issue in my investigation of the Biblical practice of fasting. If you’ve read previous posts of this subject, you know that I have struggled to separate what the Bible describes as good, and what the Bible condemns, namely the practice of abstention denounced in Colossians.

Referring to 1 Cor 9:27 (“No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”), Owen says this:

“The bringing of the very body into subjection is an ordinance of God, tending to the mortification of sin. This gives check to the natural root of distemper, and withers it by taking away the fatness of soil…(criticizes the Catholic practice of penance as it relates to fasting)…The bringing of the body into subjection in the case insisted on, by cutting short the natural appetite by means of fasting, watching and the like, is doubtless acceptable to God, if it be done with the ensuing limitations.”

[i] “That the outward weakening and impairing of the body be not looked upon as a good thing in itself, or that any mortification doth consist therein (which were again to bring us under carnal ordinances); but only as a means for the end proposed, the weakening of any distemper in its natural root and seat. A man may have leanness of body and soul together.”

[ii] “That the means whereby this is done, namely, by fasting and watching, and the like, be not looked on as things that in themselves, and by virtue of their own power, can produce true mortification of any sin; for if they would, sin might be mortified, without any help of the Spirit, in any unregenerate person in the world. they are to be looked on only as ways whereby the Spirit may, and sometimes doth, put forth strength for the accomplishing of His own work, especially in the case mentioned.”

Well said, J-O!

Owen concludes by stating that the Catholics misunderstanding of this makes their version of fasting better suited for horses. The error of the Catholics is in thinking that personal righteousness is gained in the keeping of such practices. Owen insists that the practices of fasting and praying, and the weakening of the body are not the goal. they are only a means to an end. Our righteousness is accomplished by Christ on the cross, and worked out through the Spirit. Fasting merely serves to clear obstacles from our path as we seek to apply the blood of the Savior.

Working through this quote from Owens with my brother-in-law has helped me separate the benefit of fasting from the errorists of Colossians. In Colossians, Paul warns that these men who forbid them “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle (Col 2 :21).” are mistaking the practice of abstaining for actual holiness. They are effectively saying that abstaining from certain foods makes one holy.

So how is Biblical fasting different than the false teaching of Colossians?

  1. Fasting is paired with prayer.
  2. Fasting is not a lifelong practice, but done for finite periods of time. A fast can be indefinite, but it will end at some point.
  3. Fasting appears to be comprehensive, not selective (Read: giving up chocolate for Lent).
  4. Fasting is a tool, not a destination.

I have to say that I’ve really been enjoying this process. It has driven me to study my Bible and think critically. I praise God that He brought this passage of Owens’ book before my eyes at a time when I was battling through this issue. I’d started and stopped before. Providentially, I hit these paragraphs right on time.

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Fastidious, Pt.2

Back again with some more thoughts on fasting. As I work through this issue, it’s felt more natural to throw some of the large fragments out there for public consumption. Was that a pun? I apologize if so.

After digesting (sorry, last time) a basic framework for discussion and establishing a goal in my considerations, I want to consider a few things. First up is the public vs. private aspect of fasting. the following passage is probably the most commonly quoted on the subject:

“Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. “But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” (Matt 6:16-18)

One obvious observation from this passage is that Jesus assumes the practice of fasting. He does not discourage it, and further gives guidelines for how it ought to be done. Whether fasting was in any way cultural or related to the old covenant, or related to the coming/presence of the bride is something I will address later.

What I want to discuss now is that it is that fact that Jesus says that fasting is by some means meant to be private. However, I believe that the context teaches us that fasting need no be exclusively private. The context I speak of is just a few verses prior:

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. “So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.

“When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. “But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” (Matt 6:1-6)

The common idea here is that fasting, like giving and prayer is not to be done for the sight of men. However, one things that we can reasonably say about prayer is that we need not go totally out of our way to do it in private. Indeed there are very public forums in which giving and prayer are done in broad daylight, all the way from Moses into the present day. Scripture is littered with example of God’s people giving and praying publicly. This point isn’t contested by anyone.

The point of Jesus’ comments about giving in prayer is one of motivation; that is, public shows of religiosity are often done with selfish motives, and regular public practice infects good intentions. He wasn’t prohibiting these things, including fasting , from being public in any way.

I’m making this point because whenever I discuss fasting with anyone who fasts, they are always tight-lipped, as though revealing a fast negates its value. Further, there is no corporate emphasis on fasting like we see in the Old Testament

  • 1 Kings 21:9 – Jezebel, I know, but still apparently an accepted public practice and an occasion for public gathering.
  • 2 Chronicles 20:3
  • Ezra 8:21
  • Jeremiah 36:9
  • Joel 1:14, 2:14

Jesus would have know that fasting was often a corporate practice for the Jews when HE made this statement. Context tells me that HE was referring to individual fasts here, but my point is the same: when I look at the modern day practice of fasting, the private, individual aspect of fasting seems to be stressed to the neglect of the public, corporate side of fasting.

Why is this? I think it is because Matthew 6 is a pretty stern warning, and Christians don’t want to get crosswise of Jesus. Fair enough. And yet, if I am to practice Biblical fasting, I would like it to be full, complemented by the corporate aspect. Do we have to declare a fast for our church? No? Would it be cool if fasting was advocated in addition to prayer when there are serious decisions to be made by our pastors and elders? Sure.

Those questions still assume an answer about the question of fasting that I have not yet reached, but I do find the emphasis on the privacy of fasting interesting. I hope you found it provocative as well.

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Fastidious, Pt.1

If the Ikonographer poses a trivia question and nobody answers, does it make a sound? Man, I know my readership is not that great, but no takers? OK. I want to get the whole thing over with, but I have some other things on my mind that I want to get to while they are fresh.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I am curious about fasting. I’ve been studying Christian disciplines and fasting is one discipline mentioned that I have never done. More to the point I’ve been under the impression (I’m not sure why), that fasting is not for the church age. If it is a valid way to grow spiritually, I want to do it. istock_000004322751xsmall.jpgAll the same, I want to be sure about it. It’ll take me several posts to work through it. I thought I’d do it publicly for our mutual edification.

If I have one major hang-up about fasting, it’s the teaching of Colossians about spiritual maturity. Paul is VERY clear in Colossians that physical denial of the body is not a means of godliness (col 2:18-23). The relationship between the body and the soul is a one-way door. The soul influences the body, but the body can’t touch the soul. Paul explains that Christ is the creator of the physical world and he made things, so things can’t in themselves be bad for us. Rather, it’s how we use things that is sinful. Alcohol is a prime example. Christians can enjoy alcohol in moderation, sinners get drunk.

The teaching of Colossians on the true nature of Christian growth has been IMMENSELY liberating for me. It really helped me move beyond me early understanding of holiness which had grown somewhat legalistic. I learned about enjoying all things to the glory of God. I got back some things that I enjoy that I thought I had to give up. I learned that Christian life is about freely acting out of love (Galatians 5:13-14), rather than selfishly avoiding certain behaviors.

The law of Christ, or the law of liberty is a beautiful thing. The book of Galatians is a valuable bookend to Colossians in this respect. Where Colossians is about the danger of exceeding Scripture for the purpose of holiness, Galatians is about misunderstanding Scripture itself for the purpose of holiness. Both books present different angles on the pursuit of holiness. In both epistles the cure is to understand the finished work of Christ and Christian liberty.

What I am getting at here is that I do not want to go backward and submit myself to a yoke of self-denial (Galatians 2:4). If fasting is Biblical, then it obviously can’t conflict with the law of Christ (James 1:25, 2:12).

So as I view the Scriptural view of fasting I have to bring these two truths together:

  1. Scripture does not advocate or prohibit fasting, but it does describe it and give some guidelines. When it is seen to occur, it is a good thing.
  2. Scripture does teach that self-denial does not equal maturity.

I am looking for the right view of fasting that upholds its use as a Christian discipline that does not deny the teaching of Colossians. The only time that Scripture speaks negatively of fasting is when those who are fasting have the wrong motive (Isaiah 58:5). I particularly want to understand the relevance of Christ’s comments about the old and new cloth, old and new wineskins, and the relevance of the bridegroom’s presence in Mark 2, a critical chapter regarding the New Testament understanding of fasting.

OK, I am officially getting ahead of myself. More to come. I hope this is helpful to some of you.

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