Reasonable Fasts

The season of Lent is upon us, and so Christians are talking once again about fasting. Among Protestants, this is always a touchy subject. Some among the sons of the Reformers strive to distinguish themselves from Papists by glorying in feasts; others, for various reasons, seek to regain some part of the church’s tradition surrounding fasts.

I’m not particularly interested in hashing out this debate here, though I have my opinions. However, I would like to share Scot McKnight’s argument, from his little book on fasting, about the logic of fasts in general. I read this years ago, but it has stuck with me ever since as eminently reasonable.

He defines fasting as follows:

Fasting is the natural, inevitable response of a person to a grievous sacred moment in life. [xx]

That is, he argues that fasting is a natural response to a particular kind of moment, a grievous, or serious, sacred moment. In other words, fasting is not done (at least in the Bible) for the purpose of achieving some response. It is not done, primarily at least, with prospective vision, but rather with retrospective [xx-xxi].

The Jews and the early Church, of course, also practiced stationary fasts, which are fasts that are practiced regularly, often two days a week (Jews on Mondays and Thursdays, Christians on Wednesdays and Fridays). McKnight admits he does not know exactly what the purpose for these fasts was, but he argues that, given the survey of fasting he had given by that point in the book, it was reasonable to assume that they, too, were retrospective acts. As he puts it:

Even if we cannot always discern why the earliest Christians fasted, we can be confident that some grievous sacred moment prompted the fasting. In light of the themes we’ve already discussed, it is reasonable to think that body discipline was a response to the presence of sin, to the reality of a broken world, and to the yearning for holiness and love. [73]

And how can it be otherwise? Until the Lord comes, there will always be evil and pain to cause us grief, both in others and in ourselves. There is thus always reason to fast, if we are sensitive enough in heart to perceive it.