We are not to fast and pray for the sake of fasting and prayer. We are to fast and pray for the sake and attention of our heavenly Father. As Matthew 6:16-18 makes clear to us, fasting is a means of grace if and only if presented for the notice of your heavenly Father who graciously rewards His children. But this caveat must in no way minimize the mysterious and profound reality that fasting at once humbles us to the dust and serves as an elevating ordinance.
If we are being completely honest with ourselves, the spiritual discipline of fasting is far from “top-of-mind” in our thinking about the Christian life. Yet, it is one of three integral acts of devotion which Jesus highlights in Matthew 6 when instructing His disciples on the way of living in their heavenly Father’s heavenly Kingdom. If we are to take the Bible seriously as our wholly sufficient and inerrant rule for faith and practice, then we must believe and confess that fasting is a means of heavenly grace to us, that it is an elevating ordinance.
What is more, we must be doers of the Word, and not hearers only, lest we deceive ourselves (see James 1:22). In Matthew 6:16-18, Christ clearly assumes that His disciples will employ Spirit-driven fasting in their lives as they grow in grace and godliness to the glory of God. By extension, He expects us to be interested in and committed to fasting on suitable occasions, for we too are Christian believers and Christ-following disciples.
This prompts the question, what are those suitable occasions for fasting?
In answering this question, the second-generation Reformation preacher, pastor, and theologian William Perkins (1558-1602) has done the heavy lifting for us. In his exposition on the Sermon on the Mount (and particularly on Matthew 6:16-18), Perkins has helpfully identified seven occasions in Scripture when God’s people are either commanded to fast or otherwise fast with the clear approval of God. By both divine precept (God’s commandment) and by approved example (God’s commendation), we are told to fast on the following seven occasions:
- When we fall into any grievous sin. The only stated or annually recurring fast recorded in Scripture is the day of fasting and prayer commanded in Leviticus 16:29. God commanded that His people fast each year in connection with the annual Day of Atonement when the High Priest made the principal offering for the sins of the people before entering the Holy of Holies to commune with God on behalf of the people. We no longer maintain this – or any – stated day of fasting, for Christ offered a sacrifice for sins once and for all (Heb. 10:10), thereby fulfilling that which the Day of Atonement (and the sacrificial system of the Old Covenant) anticipated. It would be at best ignorant or misguided and at worst profanely legalistic to maintain a stated fast on an annual basis. However, it remains appropriate and important to call for days of fasting and prayer when we become aware or convicted of our sins. We see this modeled for us in 1 Samuel 7:6 when the Israelite prophet and judge Samuel calls for a fast to humble the people for their stubborn idolatry. It is no accident that immediately following this action, Samuel’s leadership is summarized in commendable terms in 1 Samuel 7:15-17.
- When those among us fall into sin. Not only is it appropriate for us to fast and pray for ourselves when we mourn over our sins, but it is appropriate for us to fast and pray for others as their sins come to light. In 1 Corinthians 5:2, Paul alerts the Church in Corinth to a missed opportunity and failure on their part in this regard. When the heinous sin of a member of their church came to light, they grew arrogant rather than mournful. Whether this arrogance manifested itself as gossip, slander, tolerance, or self-righteous condemnation, it was foolish of them not to mourn over the man’s sin and seek God’s help. Thus, we infer that in the place of hard-heartedness when confronted with someone else’s sin, we ought to consider religious fasting, by which we adopt the posture of mournful lament, righteous indignation, and urgent prayer for repentance.
- When God’s judgment is upon us. When we feel the weight of troubles crashing down upon us in this sin-wrecked world, then is a time fit for fasting.