Here is a great change in the use and purpose of fasting, and the change may be traced to the words of the Lord Jesus Christ that we are studying. What did He say? He did not say that fasting was a form of outward piety. He did not consider it an exercise for the subjection of the body. He did not hold it forth as a means of social protest. He taught that it was to be a personal exercise between the individual soul and God. “But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face, that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father, who is in secret; and thy Father, who seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.” The reward is not money, of course. It is not an office promotion. It is the reward of the Father’s presence and the revelation of His will. Jesus taught that fasting was valuable to that end as long as we do it before the Lord and not men.
Now I must add that once this has been said, the truths about fasting may then be used to help us go on a bit further. You see, if this is what fasting is—not an external religious exercise but a period of abstinence in which the Christian can seek God’s will—then it is also true that the essence of fasting can be achieved in other ways. It can be achieved by abstaining from things. What is more, for us this may be far more important than not eating.
Dr. O. Hallesby is one writer who has seen this clearly. In his classic book on prayer he writes,
Fasting is not confined to abstinence from eating and drinking. Fasting really means voluntary abstinence for a time from various necessities of life, such as food, drink, sleep, rest, association with people and so forth… Fasting in the Christian sense does not involve looking upon the necessities of life, which we have mentioned, as unclean or unholy… Fasting implies merely that our souls at certain times need to concentrate more strongly on the one thing needful than at other times, and for that reason we renounce for the time being those things which, in themselves, may be both permissible and profitable.1
One thing for which we should lay aside our normal routine is Bible study—both individual Bible study and that with other Christians. This is much to the point, for it is in Bible study more than in other ways that God speaks to us and reveals His way to us. On this point I can speak personally, for it was out of such a study with other Christian friends that my wife and I were led to establish an English speaking church in Basel, Switzerland. As the result of the Bible study, which met in our home every Friday evening, Christians began to grow spiritually and others who were not yet believers began to be attracted to the Gospel. In time, we felt the need for regular worship. A church service was established, and to the regular Bible study in English was added another in German and a noon group for secretaries. Later on when I visited Basel again the group was still there, changed but growing, and the evidences of God’s blessing were evident. Moreover, I know that this simple story could be repeated by many other Christians in many different parts of the world.
1O. Hallesby, Prayer, trans. by Clarence J. Carlsen (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg), 113.