April 23, 2014

A New Covenant Lent II: A Closer Look At Fasting in Scripture

Fr. Ernesto pointed out that I had used the word “proscribe” wrongly throughout the original post. I appreciate that correction, and edited several sentences that might ease the stress of a few readers who may have taken my wrong use of the word to mean I was denouncing all fasting. Thanks Fr. E.

Yesterday’s post of “A New Covenant Lent” garnered considerable strong reaction, particularly criticizing my reading of the Bible regarding fasting. While I’m not very excited about the strange suggestion that I’m preaching a false message of American individualism, I welcome the critical interaction. It sends me back to the scriptures for further consideration and examination of my fundamental point: all old covenant practices (or all practices initiated in the old covenant era, if that’s helpful) should only be continued with a new covenant, Christ-exalting, Gospel centered meaning.

With the assistance of my Accordance program, I looked at every mention of the words fast, fasts, fasted, and fasting. I examined the major passages where the topic of fasting is expanded upon, especially Isaiah 58:1-14.

Here are some of my conclusions and observations.

1. Fasting in the old covenant is almost always conceived of and described as either a corporate act of repentance, with official proclamation within the authority structure of the nations of Israel and Judah, or as an individual action closely tied to prayer, repentance or demonstration of grief.

2. When prophetic critiques are offered, it is almost always being offered to fasting as a scheduled, institutional activity. (Zechariah 8:18-19, Isaiah 58:1-14)

3. Individual fasting is almost always an expression of personal repentance, personal grief or intense entreaty of God in prayer. I assume that godly individuals took part in corporate fasts, but most references to individual fasting are acts of intense repentance, grief or focused prayer.

4. The critique of fasting in Isaiah 58:1-14, is a new covenant, Gospel critique. The problem with the fast under consideration is that it is has become an attempt to manipulate God. It amounts to a self-deceptive religious activity. The prophetic criticism notes the absence of humility and the presence of an unrighteous self-confidence and arrogance. A true fast will bring about a life of justice and reconciliation. God’s gift of light and righteousness will come to his people and go out to the nations. This is a Gospel promise; not a promise to the one who fasts, but a promise to the one who finds the “true fast,” and fasts in Gospel faith.

5. Isaiah’s description of a true fast runs on the same new covenant traction as other prophetic critiques of old covenant practices that had become empty of the reality of living faith. It is not that a corporate fast cannot be genuine, but it is the case that the corporate fast has become a ritual disconnected from genuine, living faith. (This same critique is offered somewhere in the prophetic canon to almost every aspect of old covenant life, such as circumcision, the temple itself, sacrifices, and so on.)

6. Jesus’ critiques of fasting follow this same direction.(Matthew 6:16-18) It is not a critique of fasting per se, but a critique that it has become a public show; a manipulation of God and not an expression of faith. It is the very definition of the kind of religion Jesus has come to replace with the new covenant. (We see the same kind of criticism in Jesus’ great sermon against the Pharisees in Matthew 23. While fasting is not mentioned, tithing, pray and other legitimate old covenant practices are mentioned. Jesus’ point is not hard to identify. By transforming faith into show and tradition aimed at creating a spirituality of “competitive external righteousness,” the Pharisees have abandoned true faith. I can’t think of a text that makes my point plainer. Look at anything in this sermon that we still do today, and ask what would be Jesus’ word to us about doing it?)

7. Jesus critique of the Pharisee in Luke 18 (including his claim to fast twice a week) is important because, in contrast to practices centered in the Gospel, the Pharisee’s fasting and tithing are exercises in self-glorification. The tax collector demonstrates what new covenant faith is all about: with or without fasting, it is a confession of complete dependence on God for righteousness.

8. Jesus’ words that his disciples “will fast” are spoken within an assumption of the practices of Judaism I have described in the old testament and within old covenant Judaism. This is similar to (not identical to) Jesus speaking of bringing a gift to the altar in Matthew 5: 23-24. Jesus is not saying that his disciples will always be in the context of offering animal sacrifices. He is speaking about a larger issue in the context of familiar practices of Judaism. (Obviously, animal sacrifice is explicitly brought to an end in the letter to the Hebrews and the destruction of the temple.)

9. There are no passages speaking of the elimination of fasting as a new covenant practice or commands for all Christians to fast in the new covenant. Jesus fasted. Jesus spoke about his disciples fasting (which isn’t a command to do so, but a recognition that some would do so.) Acts records that the early Christians fasted in periods of intense prayer. I assume that the critiques of fasting in the Gospels were prompted by issues regarding the continuing practice of Christian fasting. This is why, I believe, Paul is writing new covenant theology with fasting and other old covenant practices in mind. The issue is not whether a person, in response to the Holy Spirit, may fast. That is obvious. The issue is whether fasting accrues righteousness or spirituality, as some false teachers were claiming. (Colossians 2:16-23, I Timothy 4:1-5)

10. My position remains simple: Fasting as an old covenant practice is not required of Christians, even though its value as a part of prayer is obvious. Christians who choose to fast- whether individuals or corporately- should do so for new covenant reasons and do so in view of the new covenant’s view of all old covenant practices.

For example, look at the new covenant view of the old in Hebrews 10:1-10. Using an old covenant prophetic critique, the author says that God takes no pleasure in something we see all sorts of godly persons choosing to do: offering sacrifices. Instead, God explicitly takes pleasure in the perfect obedience and sacrifice of Jesus. There is a new covenant view of the old covenant practice: Jesus is the complete sufficiency that God is pleased with.

As this pertains to fasting, I would suggest that a fast is done in imitation of Christ (as a Spirit led manifestation of prayer), in trust of Christ (trusting Christ for physical sustenance), and in complete understanding of the Gospel of Christ (we are complete in him, complete apart from whatever we do or abstain from doing.)

Comments

  1. Prodigal Daughter says:

    I’ve enjoyed these posts on Lent, iMonk. Thanks. I grew up in a very creedless, ritualistic-shunning denomination. I’m now a Presbyterian and my church can be described as “liturgy lite”. We include some liturgy, but don’t practice them a truly “high church” manner. But, as I have grown in my understanding of grace, I have really come to appreciate the value of liturgy and I actually long for it more. When it comes to the Lenten season, I find that I often arrive at Easter morning with the sad realization that I have not reflected hard and long about Christ’s suffering and death as I would have liked–in a way that helps me to grow in my relationship with him and become more like him (not because I’m doing a ritual that will get me there, but because I’m focused on what Christ has done for me). In the past couple of years, I’ve had a longing for a deeper experience of Lent, and I think I can really appreciate liturgical practices more bc of my understanding of the gospel of grace.

    What I find somewhat ironic though, is that in my experience, some evangelical churches who shun rituals and liturgy for fear of turning them into acts of legalism, often have an “unspoken” culture of rituals and legalism. The difference is that these “laws” are not always publically sanctioned from the pulpit (though sometimes they are; I can’t tell you how many “thou shalt not let alcohol touch thy lips” sermons I’ve heard as if it were the 11th commandment.) Evangelical rituals tend to be done for reasons of outward personal piety rather than a truly spiritual discipline (if someone can explain to me how refraining from dancing or dresses only for women during church hours is a spiritual discipline pointing to the new covenant, I’d love to hear it). All that to say, no matter what side of the liturgical fence we find ourselves, legalism loves to find it’s way into our spiritual lives.