Fasting is often mentioned in Scripture, not only in the Old Testament but also in the New, and, evidently, it has an important place in the believer's life, for it is one of the three things which the Father will specially reward, when rightly done (see Matt. 6). The lack of it seems to involve great absence of spiritual power (see Matt. 17:21), whilst it is often mentioned in connection with special occasions of drawing near to God. Surely, then, it is highly advisable to enquire what fasting really is, according to God. May God help us in this enquiry.
The dictionary meaning of the word, which gives us the ordinary current use among men, is "Abstaining from food, chiefly on religious grounds." Christians generally look at it either as literally meaning this, or as self-denial in various shapes, culminating in denial of self as a whole, i.e. a refusal to know or to pity ourselves, or to care for self; or else as abstention from natural means of doing the service God may give us to do, as when David refused Saul's armour, or Ezra refused to ask for the king's escort, but betook himself to fasting and prayer. It is not denied that most of these thoughts are true as far as they go, but God's thoughts are not our thoughts, they are exceedingly wonderful. What does He say on the subject? It is remarkable that He tells us both what it is not and what it is. He says:
"Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and shew My people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek Me daily, and delight to know My ways, as a nation that did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinance of their God: they ask of Me the ordinances of justice; they take delight in approaching to God.
"Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and Thou seest not? Wherefore have we afflicted our soul and Thou takest no knowledge? Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact all your labours. Behold ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness: ye shall not fast as ye do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high. Is it such a fast that I have chosen? A day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Wilt thou call this a fast and an acceptable day to the Lord?
"Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? When thou seest the naked that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh." (Isa. 58:1-7.)
(The verses following should also be read.)
Now, the solemn part of this is that it is spoken of those who professedly delighted in drawing nigh to God and doing righteousness, and were very scrupulous in outward observances. These are told that their literal fasting and outward show of sorrow were all vain and that their hearts were wrong.
Then comes the remarkable part of the address, for, after being told what fasting is not, they are told what it is, and, strange to say, it is not negative, as we should expect, it is positive. In other words, it is true philanthrophy.
Now, we cannot understand why many should speak of philanthrophy as if it were a bad thing. Undoubtedly the term (like every other term God uses) has been sadly misused, but the remedy for this is not to say philanthrophy is worthless, but to show the true philanthrophy.
Twice is the word used in Scripture. In Titus 3:4 it is translated "love (of God, our Saviour) toward man," and, in Acts 28:2, it is translated "kindness." So far from philanthrophy being worthless, it is what every true Christian must have. He must be a follower of Christ, and have the spirit of Christ. Now, what did He do? Never could anyone show such love to man as Christ did. God was in all His thoughts, but He laid Himself out completely for the service of man. "The Son of Man came not to be ministered unto [to be served] but to minister [to serve], and to give His life a ransom for many."
When we think of fasting in connection with the Lord, His forty days' fast before He began His ministry generally comes to mind. But the great point for us is that all His ministry was one of fasting. For, while His whole soul went up to God in the devotedness and obedience of purest love, He entirely spent Himself for man, never thinking of nor caring for Himself, having no leisure so much as to eat, blessing all, seeking all, serving all, doing good to all, and thus, in perfect self-renunciation, showing forth the love in the Father's heart for man.
Yet so little did He appear unto men to fast that they called Him a self-indulgent man, a gluttonous man and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. He was free to go everywhere, to the house of the Pharisee, though He got no real welcome; to the house of the publican and the degraded of the earth; but always to give, always with grace seasoned with salt, always in utter self-abnegation to glorify God and to do good to men.
What a life of fasting His was, everything for God, everything for man, nothing for self. And yet so different was His life from man's thoughts that they did not understand that He fasted at all. In this, as in all else, He carried out all He taught in Matthew 6 and elsewhere.
What about the apostles? They were to fast when the Lord was taken away. Were they armchair disciples and critics, or did they utterly spend themselves for man in the service of Christ? Surely the latter.
We have not very much about the lives of the twelve, but that of the Apostle Paul is brought before us in detail, laying bare the very secrets of his heart. Oh! how he fasted, as witness 1 Cor. 4:9-13; 2 Cor. 4:7-15; 6:3-10; 11:24-29, and numerous other passages. Yet, in spite of his marvellous labours, devotion, love, and self-denial, he did not lack accusers, who went so far as to accuse this Christ-like man of walking disorderly, (see Acts 21:24). He was made all things to all men if by any means he might save some, and to do this he kept under his body, and brought it into subjection, yet still many found fault with him, saying he was not a true apostle and detracting from his character continually.
He did nothing ostentatiously, he sought no credit, he wanted nothing in the way of honour from men, he suffered the loss of all things in faithfulness to Christ as he served the saints, and brought blessing to sinners. Yet he was a most practical man. See how he acted on board ship, how he encouraged them all. See him on the island gathering sticks. Had he fasted according to men he would have stood apart with austerity and severity, and let them do these things. But his was the true fasting, which only those whose eyes are open could recognise as such, for he anointed his head and washed his face (figuratively speaking), and thus appeared not unto men to fast. He cared infinitely more for the souls of men than their bodies, yet he did not forget the body, but reached the soul through the body. (See Acts 20:33-35.)
Let these examples teach us what true fasting is, viz, to be so constrained by the love of Christ as to lay oneself out in true devotion to man, and thus be a true follower of Christ. Let no one say that these things are not up to the Christian level. The glory of God and the blessing of man are indissolubly linked together. They are intertwined in all the life of Christ, in the lives of the apostles and of the saints. They cannot be separated. Glory to God implies blessing to man, and real blessing to man only goes along with the glory of God. Some think they can do good to man and leave God out, a terrible blunder. But it is no less a blunder to think we can glorify God and leave man out. The measure of our love to God is our love to our brother, and sentimentality is of no use in this connection. Downright wholehearted devotion to the good of man, in accordance with the will of God, is what is so much needed in the present day. Knowledge there is in abundance, and there is no lack of eloquent speech. But lives burning with love to God and man are very, very rare, and from this lack we are perishing.
Yet few recognise such lives if they meet them. Most look for external demeanour, something that will appeal to men in the flesh, whereas the true fasting will appear not to men to fast, he will hide what he does, he will be simple, natural, cheerful, unaffected, hearty, loving, kind, and practical. He will not let his left hand know what his right hand does, that is, not only will he seek no credit from man, but, more important still, he will give no credit to himself. He will give up all, be servant to all, seek the good of all, but will say (and think) "I have done nothing, there has been no sacrifice, all has been grace and love to me all along the way." Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, never fails because there is no self-seeking in love, all, all is for God and, being for God, is therefore for man who is made in the likeness of God.
May God raise up those, who truly fast in this manner, for fasting is not a negative thing, but love in activity.