Confession time. For most of my Christian life, I had very little understanding about the nature of fasting. I never bothered to investigate the topic in Scripture. I could blame my teachers for not cluing me in, but no; it’s on me. I am ashamed to admit for years—many years—I just accepted the traditional Evangelical understanding of this practice. I just swam along in the ill-informed stream like the rest of my peers. I am ashamed of my ignorance, ashamed that I did not take the time to find out the truth. And to help insure that I don’t become “high-minded, but fear,” let me hastily add that surely there is more to learn.

We all knew we should fast because Jesus said, “When you fast…” The thinking was, “It’s not if you fast, it’s when you fast. So, we should fast.” Ok, but why? The predominant idea was of getting alone with and close to God, perhaps retreating to a quiet, isolated place and hearing His voice. Getting direction.

The New Testament offers very little instruction about fasting. Jesus addressed it, but He only taught about what not to do when fasting: Don’t make a religious show of it (Matthew 6:16-18). The only other time in the Gospels that Jesus took up this topic was when people asked Him why His disciples weren’t fasting. His response should help us understand the Jewish attitude about this practice. “Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast’” (Matthew 9:14–15). Please note that Jesus asked, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long at the bridegroom is with them?”

Mourning. This is what my teachers and I did not consider. Yes, seeking God is a piece of it, as well as seeking direction due to confusion about one’s distressed condition; but people in the Old Testament and in Jesus’ time as well, fasted primarily because they were grieving or in trouble.

Time and space don’t permit us to go through every Old Testament passage about fasting. I encourage you to do a study on your own. However, let’s start with the first place the word appears: “And Benjamin went against them out of Gibeah the second day, and destroyed 18,000 men of the people of Israel. All these were men who drew the sword. Then all the people of Israel, the whole army, went up and came to Bethel and wept. They sat there before the Lord and fasted that day until evening, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the Lord” (Judges 20:25–26).

Why did Israel fast that day? They had just lost 18,000 men fighting against one of their own tribes, the tribe of Benjamin. 22,000 had died the day before. They were mourning. Confused.

Here is the second time Israel fasted. “So the people of Israel put away the Baals and the Ashtaroth, and they served the Lord only. Then Samuel said, ‘Gather all Israel at Mizpah, and I will pray to the Lord for you.’ 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 Samuel 7:4–6).

Could one say in this instance that God’s people were fasting in order to draw close to the Lord and hear His voice? Well, they’d already heard His voice—they were to put away their foreign gods. They were repenting of their sin. They knew their sinful behavior was abhorrent to the Lord. However, yes, one could say they wanted to draw close after having worshiped Baal.

Here is the third time: “But when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, all the valiant men arose and went all night and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth-shan, and they came to Jabesh and burned them there. And they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh and fasted seven days” (1 Samuel 31:11–13).

Why were the inhabitants of Jabesh-Gilead fasting? Saul had been killed.

Now, let’s return to what Jesus said in response to those who asked why His disciples weren’t fasting. “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”

Fasting and mourning. Fasting and distress.

This all came together for me one day when I remembered what happened when my mom died when I was sixteen. I was so grief stricken that I didn’t want to eat. Food was not important to me in the least.

When Jesus told John’s disciples that His disciples would fast when He was taken from them, He was countering the practice of fasting as a religious tradition and exercise. Jesus taught that fasting should have a purpose, a reason—sorrow and difficulty.

However, this is where it gets even more uncomfortable. Because it is true that Jesus said, “When you fast…” However, what am I to mourn over? Why should I grieve to the point where food becomes so unimportant to me that I don’t want to eat? Clearly, it may be because someone I love has died. However, it also may be, as when Israel was defeated by the tribe of Benjamin, that God’s people have been defeated or there is tragedy and debilitating confusion in the Church. It may be, as when Samuel rebuked Israel for worshiping false gods, that I am repenting over my sin.

What else should I mourn for? A world that is perishing, lost in darkness and bondage? A world that is suffering without God? This view of fasting brings greater understanding to what the Lord said through Isaiah:

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isaiah 58:6–7).

The uncomfortable truth is that I do not mourn. The embarrassing truth is that the condition of the world and the Church does not move me to lose my appetite in grief. I have been asking the Lord to cause me to mourn. This must be a response from my heart, not from guilt or religious tradition. I am remarkably insensitive to a world that is perishing and a Church that is causing Jesus Himself to weep.

Thanks to Ben Williams for the photo.