The Session of Redeemer Orthodox Presbyterian Church (ROPC) calls the congregation to a day of prayer and fasting on Friday, May 13, 2016. The occasion for this call is the many challenges facing the congregation —several marriages in the church are in distress, there is sin entailed, some in the church are laid off or unemployed, the elders are facing many challenges as they seek faithfully to shepherd these sheep, ROPC is seeking to select additional local elders and deacons, we believe that Satan, “the accuser of our brothers and sisters” (Rev. 12:10), is attacking ROPC and we are concerned for her peace, purity, and unity.
Even though such a call seems unusual in the modern church, it’s in accord with our Confession of Faith, which says (in 21:5) that:
“… religious oaths, vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings, upon special occasions…are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner.”
Based largely on the Directory for the Publick Worship of God adopted by the Westminster Assembly, the OPC Directory for the Public Worship of God suggests:
CHAPTER V — SPECIAL OCCASIONS OF PUBLIC WORSHIP
Under the gospel, we are commanded to keep no other particular day holy, except the Lord’s Day. Nevertheless, God’s people may observe special occasions as the dispensations of God’s providence administer cause and opportunity. Such observance is both consonant with Scripture and pastorally appropriate.
Prayer and Fasting
- When great and notable calamities come upon or threaten the church, community, or nation, when judgment is deserved because of sin, when the people seek some special blessing from the Lord, or when a pastor is to be ordained or installed (Form of Government, Chapter XXIII, Section 7), it is fitting that the people of God engage in times of solemn prayer and fasting.
- Prayer and fasting may be observed by private individuals and families at their discretion or by the Church at the discretion of the appropriate judicatory. If the civil authority calls for a time of prayer and fasting that the judicatories of the Church deem to be in harmony with the Scriptures, they should consider issuing such a call to their members.
- Public notice is to be given before the time of prayer and fasting comes, to enable persons to order their temporal affairs so that they can participate.
- It is especially appropriate on days of prayer and fasting called by the Church that the people of God gather for a time of prayer, the singing of psalms and hymns, and the reading and preaching of the Word of God. Let them lament their distress or unworthiness before the Lord, confess their sins, humbly implore the Lord for deliverance from the judgment present or imminent or for the blessing sought, and commit themselves anew to the faithful service of the Lord their God. It is fitting on such days that God’s people abstain from food and from such activities as may distract from their solemn engagement in prayer.
What is fasting?
What, however, is fasting? Fasting is voluntarily doing without a legitimate blessing (usually food) for a time before God in order to focus on seeking him in prayer. You can pray without fasting, but generally you fast in order to devote yourself to intensified praying. But you don’t necessarily consciously pray each and every moment of the fast.
Rightly understood, to fast is to humble yourself before the Lord in order to focus on him and to cast yourself on him for the strength, provision, wisdom, and grace that you need. In a sense, when you fast you humble yourself by recognizing that you really don’t deserve a single one of God’s good gifts; accordingly, you abstain from enjoying them for a time.
What are some purposes for fasting?
- to humble yourself for a time of intensified communion with God: Moses fasted during the 40 days and 40 nights he was on Mount Sinai receiving the law from God (Ex. 34:28).
- to humble yourself in times of distress or trouble: When he learned that Saul and Jonathan had been killed, David fasted (2 Sam. 1:12). When his baby was dying, “David therefore sought God on behalf of the child. And David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground” (2 Sam. 12:16) When they were about to be attacked by the Moabites and Ammonites, King Jehoshaphat called for a fast in all Israel (2 Chr. 20:3). When he learned that Jerusalem was still in ruins, Nehemiah had a time of prayer and fasting (Neh. 1:4). When he was forced to put Daniel in the den of lions, Darius, the king of Persia, fasted all night (Dan. 6:18).
- to humble yourself as an expression of grief: “And they mourned and wept and fasted until evening for Saul and for Jonathan his son and for the people of the Lord and for the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword” (2 Sam. 1:12).
- to humble yourself as an expression of repentance: “So they gathered at Mizpah and drew water and poured it out before the Lord and fasted on that day and said there, ‘We have sinned against the Lord.’ And Samuel judged the people of Israel at Mizpah” (1 Sam. 7:6). In response to Jonah’s preaching, the men of Nineveh fasted and put on sackcloth (Jon. 3:5).
- to humble yourself for seeking God’s guidance and blessing: “Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods” (Ezra 8:21). “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. … And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (Acts 13:2–3; 14:23).
Fasting is an element of worship. “And there was a prophetess, Anna … She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day” (Lk. 2:36–37).
But fasting is not an element of ordinary worship. The Law required fasting for only one ordinary, recurring event, the Day of Atonement. For that reason, it was called “a day of fasting” (Jer. 36:6) or “the Fast” (Acts 27:9). But God’s Word also gives many examples of fasting on special occasions. “And they [the Pharisees] said to him [Jesus], ‘The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days’” (Lk. 5:33–34).
It’s not generally appropriate to make the day of ordinary worship, the Lord’s Day, a day of fasting then. It’s instead to be a day of rejoicing before the Lord. Indeed, the New Testament does not specify ordinary times for believers to engage in prayer and fasting. Churches go beyond Scripture, then, when they specify set seasons for fasting, e.g., “Advent” or “Lent.” And believers do well to resist such legalistic additions to God’s Word. At the same time, however, believers ought not to over-react. Even under the New Testament, prayer and fasting is definitely something believers ought to do on special occasions.
But isn’t fasting just for the Old Testament?
It’s often suggested, however, that fasting is just an Old Testament ordinance. But the New Testament also records examples and instruction concerning prayer and fasting. Anna worshiped God with fasting and prayer (Lk. 2:37). John the Baptist taught his disciples to fast (Mk. 2:18). Jesus fasted for 40 days and 40 nights before his temptation by Satan (Mt. 4:2).
It’s true that these examples took place when God’s people were still under the Old Testament economy. But Jesus also instructed his disciples, “And when —[not if]— 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 —[not if]— 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 (Mt. 6:16–18). Moreover, after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, and his outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the church of Antioch fasted (Acts 13:2) and sent Paul and Barnabas off on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:3). And, as we have seen, Paul and Barnabas spent time in prayer and fasting for the appointment of elders in the churches (Acts 14:23).
What are some scriptural guidelines for fasting?
1. How NOT to fast:
- Never fast as a magical means to try to manipulate God. In the prophet Isaiah’s time, the people grumbled that they had fasted, yet God did not answer in the way they wanted (Isa. 58:3–4). Isaiah responded by proclaiming that an external show of fasting without the proper heart attitude is worse than useless (Isa. 58:5–9).
- Never fast as a show to impress other people. “And 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” (Mt. 6:16–18).
- Never fast as an end in itself. Far too often the focus of fasting is merely on abstaining from food. The biblical purpose of fasting should be to take your eyes off the things of this world in order to focus instead on God. Fasting should be limited to set times because not eating for extended periods can harm the body, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Fasting is not meant to punish yourself. Always remember that the suffering of Christ alone, not our own, is sufficient to save sinners. Nor is fasting a religious way to “diet” and lose weight. Fasting with prayer is a means to draw near to God. You shift your attention from the things of this world in order to focus on the Lord. Jesus promises, “and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Mt 6:18).
2. How to fast:
There is flexibility in the degree of your fasting. Different Christians have differing constitutions and circumstances and demands. Some have health issues; others have time constraints. Does it not seem likely that our Lord who said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mk. 2:27), will be equally understanding concerning his ordinance of fasting? Indeed, the Bible seems to suggest at least four different sorts of fasting:
- ordinary fasts — refraining from eating all food, while still drinking water or juice. When Jesus fasted in the desert, the Bible says, “After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.” This verse doesn’t say that Jesus was thirsty. Presumably, he drank water during his fast.
- partial fasts —omitting a specific meal from your diet or refraining from certain types of foods, for example, food that you regard as a treat. Daniel 10:2–3 says, “In those days I, Daniel, was mourning for three weeks. I ate no delicacies, no meat or wine entered my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, for the full three weeks.”
- total fasts — no food and no drink. Acts 9:9 describes when Paul went on a total fast for three days following his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus: “And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.” Esther also called for this type of fast in Esther 4:15–16: “Then Esther told them to reply to Mordecai, ‘Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.’” If this type of fast is done, it should be done in extreme circumstances and with great caution.
- fasts from things other than food — 1 Corinthians 7:3–5 speaks of a fast from the marriage bed, “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” Although God’s Word doesn’t specifically mention these, some Christians might commit to fasting from other activities as well. Some might go without music or TV or movies or video games or some other activity in order to concentrate on prayer for a specified period of time.
Perhaps these aren’t four different sorts of fasting at all, but rather are four different degrees of applying the same principle — voluntarily doing without legitimate blessings for a time in order to humble oneself before the Lord. It would seem that, before the set day of prayer and fasting, you should make a commitment between you and the Lord concerning what you will fast from, and for how long, and then you should stick with it.
Andrew Murray suggested that it’s helpful to think of prayer and fasting as two hands. When you pray, you lay hold of God with one hand. But when you pray and fast, you let go of the legitimate things of this world in order to lay hold of God with both hands to beg his mercy, grace, and help in time of need.
“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” (James 4:6–10).