Fasting part 4

We have seen something of what the Bible has to say about fasting, and the way it brings us so very powerfully to confronting our created-ness / dependent-ness and our fallen-ness. Fasting is deeply linked with prayer, and is often experienced as accentuating prayer for precisely these reasons.  Prayer is the very literal articulation of our dependence on our God, the deliberate abdication of our creator-complex: Hallowed be Your Name, Your Kingdom come, Your will be done…  Self-sufficiency is the deadly enemy of prayer, and is perhaps the reason we find prayer so difficult.  Similarly with our sinfulness.  Prayer (or at least effective prayer) is not an automatic spiritual transaction.  The Bible is clear that God does not hear or respond to prayer that is not offered from the context of a life lived in pursuit of righteousness.  As James reminds us, it is the prayer of someone who is righteous that is powerful and effective (Jas 5:16).   In a similar vein, the Psalmist reflects: ‘If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened…’ (66:18).  Fasting is the one of the most direct ways of confronting the reality of our sin, exposing it so that we can bring itto the cross in confession (I John 7:7-9).  It is perhaps the very antithesis of cherishing sin.

 Given its spiritual potency, it is perhaps not surprising that the idea of fasting has attracted a good deal of attention throughout the history of the Church.  After the time of the Apostles, the Church’s thinking about fasting quickly focusses on its indispensability to the Christian’s battle with sin and temptation.  One of the first Bishops, Polycarp of Smyrna (mid-second century, modern day Turkey) saw fasting in terms of being part of a Christian’s armoury in the battle against temptation: ‘let us forsake their false teachings, and turn to the word which was delivered unto us from the beginning,  being sober unto prayer and constant in fastings, pleading with the all-seeing God with supplications that He bring us not into temptation, according as the Lord said, The Spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak’.[1]  Similarly Tertullian (a prolific Christian writer at the turn of the third century, living in modern day Tunisia), in his treatise On Fasting saw it as a means to discipline the flesh to obey the Spirit, to strengthen prayer, and a means of humbling self.   

 By the fourth century, one of the greatest theologians the Church has had since the Apostles, the aptly named St. Basil the Great (again based in modern day Turkey), was teaching that fasting was indispensable in our pursuit of Christlikeness (though he allowed for great diversity in practise), and he warns us about the danger preferencing our bodies over our souls.  Basil is clear however that fasting must be done in a context of righteous living (echoes of Is.58).  He uses the analogy of fasting as a medicine that can cure the disease of sin. A century or so later, Augustine (a Bishop in North Africa) follows a similar line of thinking, and saw fasting primarily as a means to defeat temptation.  Such thinking seems to build on Jesus’ experience in the wilderness, and in facing Satan, but it is disturbing to note how quickly the Church seems to have lost the breadth and diversity of the Bible’s teaching.

 By the Council of Nicaea (325 AD)[2] fasting also became more focussed into certain seasons in the Church’s calendar (including Lent!).  Tragically, in spite of Jesus’ warnings, the idea of fasting was also taking on overtones of merit, so that people began to think prayer offered with fasting was more effective, because you’d earned it!  Over the centuries that followed there was a growing sense that fasting was a sign of spiritual superiority, and as such it was seen too often as the preserve of ‘elite’ Christians who were seen as holy enough to embark on certain prescribed fasts, and of little interest to the ‘normal’ Christian life.   Token ‘fasts’ (such as not eating fish on a Friday, or giving up delicacies for Lent) were handed down to the rank and file, but ‘proper’ fasting was for monks and priests.

 The Reformers of the 16th century (including ArchBishop Cranmer who was the architect of the Church of England) reacted against this kind of thinking, and sought to reclaim the idea of fasting as an integral part of the normal Christian life.  It was to be included in our regular devotional life in much the same way as prayer or Bible reading would be.  In this they were recovering the emphasis of earlier years, and bringing the Church closer to the Biblical pattern of fasting.  They argued for liberty of conscience (as opposed to obligating prescribed fasts), commended its use by any Christian where it was an expression of authentic devotion, and condemned it where it was ostentatious, or linked with super-spirituality.[3]  One of the reforming English Bishops, John Jewel thought fasting so central to the life of ordinary Christians that in 1571 he wrote a sermon on it and included it in a collection of sermons that were to be preached in every parish Church throughout the realm (Homilies, Book 2:4). 

 Unfortunately, in spite of his best efforts, I’m not sure it has ever been fully rehabilitated into the ‘normal’ Christian life.  Fasting, where it is known of at all, can still carry overtones of super-spirituality, perhaps belonging to a more ritualistic age when the Church didn’t have such a handle on grace.  In many circles fasting is little understood, and still less practised.  We are the weaker for it. 

[1] Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians 7:2.

[2] The Council of Nicaea was a significant conference of Bishops, pastors and theologians that met to discuss a number of issues around belief and practise that were facing the Church at the time.  Amongst other things, they produced the first draft of what we now call the Nicene Creed, and which we sometimes use in our services.

[3] Zwingli, for example, allows great liberty on this issue, saying, “Let each one fast as often as the spirit of true belief urges him”.  You were free to fast if you felt it was appropriate or helpful, but you emphatically weren’t under obligation to do so as you would have been under the Mediaeval Roman Catholic system.

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