Nothing is more of a distraction to me than hunger. When I consider that some people purposely abstain from food in hopes of focusing their minds and energy, I must admit a lack of comprehension.
Fasting is a Bible matter, though decidedly more so in the Old Testament than the New. Jesus says a few words of regulation, but there exists no evidence that God intended to bind a form of fasting upon Christians.
Many people today claim they are rediscovering the power of fasting to better their lives and clear their minds to commune more effectively with God. Perhaps this is so; still fasting remains a matter of personal discretion and should not be used a test of fellowship among the saints. Although he spoke originally of vegetarianism and not fasting, the words of Paul are appropriate here due to context: "Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats, for God has received him" (Romans 14:3). "But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse" (1 Corinthians 8:8). While he was not speaking of fasting in particular, he reminds us that the kingdom of God is not meat or drink (Romans 14:17) and that fasting is no part of the worship of the assembled church or an obligation even of the individual.
Naturally, we go to the law of Moses first to find if fasting was enjoined upon ancient Israel as a matter of commandment or prohibition. Strangely, though, the old law is practically silent when it comes to fasting. Moses says that he fasted before God gave him the law and again when he found the people dancing around their molten calf as he returned (Deuteronomy 9:18), but gives no indication that God told him to do so.
There are many more instances of fasting in Old Testament times but nothing to suggest it was originally anything more than a common cultural custom. Fasting does take on a spiritual component, however, as it continually accompanies moments of deep import.
Lewis writes, "It is a matter of common observation and experience that great distress causes loss of appetite and therefore occasions abstinence from food" ("Fasting," International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, page 1099). Indeed, we witness Bible fasting, not as a matter of divine directive, but personal expression of sorrow, loss or yearning. Hannah "did not eat" as she grew more distressed over her barren womb (1 Samuel 1:7). David fasted as he mourned Abner's death (2 Samuel 3:35) and prayed for the life of his own son (2 Samuel 12:16-23). The genocidal decree of King Ahasuerus in Esther's time caused the Hebrews to mourn and fast in every province of the empire (Esther 4:3). Soft-hearted teacher Ezra fasted over the sins of Israel as she faltered while rebuilding (10:6).
God takes advantage of this custom by instructing the priests to consecrate a fast as Joel's pestilence was foretold (1:14). This fast was to be part of the lamentation due to the consequences of sin. Still, God was not telling them to observe some facet of the law, for fasting was not, but to execute the quirks of their culture that made abstention from food an expression of sincere sorrow.
Numerous other passages could be cited to indicate that fasting was not a command of the law of Moses, but rather a natural cultural custom derived from the simple fact that "great distress causes loss of appetite." Even today, some are heard to wonder on such occasions, "How can you eat at a time like this?".
Lewis writes further that "Fasting ... became the customary mode of proving to others the inner emotion of sorrow" (ibid.). This public facet of fasting hints at the regulation Jesus would give in his day.
Jesus went about Palestine exposing religious corruption everywhere it existed. From the marketplace to the household to the temple, Christ was indefatigable in preaching the truth.
He taught the parable of the Pharisee and the publican to expose "some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others" (Luke 18:9). The Pharisee brags to God in prayer of his tithing and fasting habits; he fasts twice weekly, he boasts, while casting derision upon the lowly tax collector. Conversely, the publican humbles himself before God, boasts of nothing, but begs for mercy. Jesus called the publican justified for he did not exalt himself as the Pharisee did.
Fasting had taken on a very public motivation. People fasted to prove their piety to others and impress them with their suffering. Hence, Jesus devotes several precious words in the sermon on the mount to regulating the custom of fasting (Matthew 6:16-18).
"Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly."
Barnes comments that the Pharisees would often throw ashes upon themselves to increase the appearance of suffering. Their fasting was not to express sorrow but to create the appearance of sorrow. They would go about with hair uncombed, beards unkempt and clothing a mess. And all this to impress the world with their willingness to sacrifice for God. God was unimpressed.
Jesus said that fasting should be a private matter and that one who fasts should keep it between him and God, seeking not human accolades.
Actually, the Pharisees objected to the disciples of Christ because His followers did not fast according to their custom (Matthew 9:14).
It is clear that the apostle Paul engaged in fasting throughout his life. No pattern is given to his habit, nor does he ever express it as a direct command to be imitated at penalty of condemnation. His fasting seems always to accompany times of great distress, according to the pattern set forth in the Old Testament (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:5, Acts 27:33). In 1 Corinthians 7:5, he decrees that married couples only separate from their sexual relationship long enough to pray and fast. Considerable doubt exists as to whether fasting was added here by translators, but the point has mainly to do with time for religious devotion within the demands of family life. Fasting could be an expression of that devotion.
While there is no clear command given in the Bible to fast as a religious exercise, it is clear that fasting was practiced by godly people in distress over sin within their own lives or surrounding them. A Bible sanction exists for the individual to choose to fast as he feels it might benefit him. Naturally, many fast almost involuntarily in times of mourning and deep emotional distress. These occasions actually seem to fit the Bible pattern best.
More and more Christians and nominal Christians are extolling the positive effects of fasting. Others are made to wonder if they should take up fasting as well.
The New Testament makes it clear that one is neither condemned nor saved by virtue of his diet. Still, if one garners spiritual benefit from fasting, he should not be discouraged in the exercise. His fasting should not become a public venture or means of self-exultation, however. This occurs far too often among those proud of their self-sacrificial custom.
The urge to conform to religious trends and the traditions of men and artificial theologies should be resisted. If we are fasting just to keep up with the Baptists, it is wrong. If we are fasting just to keep up with brother So-and-So, it is wrong.
Fasting is a choice left to the individual, having never been legislated in the old or new testaments, although the practice is regulated by both.