Q: In a previous House Call we addressed physical health aspects of fasting;1 now we will look at some psycho-spiritual and social ones from a biblical perspective.
A: Biblical fasting is an act of intentional self-denial to draw closer to God, to hear Him better, to seek and to yield more readily to His will, or to plead your or another’s case. It is not a form of spiritual arm-twisting. Daniel, Esther, and Jesus fasted, but physical deprivation alone, no matter how severe, does not in itself constitute a biblical fast. While the heart is estranged from God and determinedly hardened by a wrong course of action, food deprivation provides no spiritual benefit. The sacrifice that God desires is a broken spirit and a contrite heart. When we fast, we shouldn’t show off or attract pity; that would be the only reward we would get (see Matt. 6:16-18). We should wisely use the time gained and the food not consumed by giving time to God and family and food to the hungry. We instead should “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt. 5:6). Daniel’s experience and Isaiah’s prescription will form the basis of our comments.
Daniel is perhaps one of the best-known Bible figures who fasted. Daniel’s motives for fasting were quite unlike the motives of those engaging in the contemporary, popular “Daniel fast,”
2 whose most common purpose for fasting is financial. The 10-day dietary “experiment” of Daniel 1:8 was the outworking of Daniel’s upbringing and determination to not eat what would weaken rather than strengthen him. So he requested his preferred and accustomed diet (which ended up sustaining him and his friends for three years); this was not a fast. Note, also, that Daniel did not fast when asking God to tell him Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and its interpretation in order to save his life, but he did fast when confessing and interceding on his people’s behalf and for God’s mercy and honor (Dan. 9:3). He later fasted (mourned) for three weeks on an austere diet to gain understanding (Dan. 10:2). Notice his motives and desired outcomes in each case. Biblical fasting gets us in tune with God’s agenda; it does not force God to work on ours.
Isaiah 58 describes God’s perspective on fasting and is relevant even today. The Israelites wanted God’s blessing but were not interested in allowing God to change their hearts (attitude and actions). They wanted their food deprivation to move God to give them success in the struggle for power, position, and possessions. God’s response: self-centeredness, greed, and strife produce darkness. This is the opposite of emotional, relational, and spiritual well-being. Yet, as we practice justice and benevolence, God’s overwhelming light bursts forth; healing and restoration of body, mind, and spirit follow; our recovery springs forth speedily. God’s righteousness guides and protects when we think and act like Him. He becomes our vanguard and our rearguard, and He will be there for us!
“Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: ‘Here am I’ ” (Isa. 58:9).
Peter N. Landless, a board-certified nuclear cardiologist, is director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department. Zeno L. Charles-Marcel, a board-certified internist, is an associate director of Adventist Health Ministries at the General Conference.