The medical benefits of fasting is astounding, ranging from a stronger immune system, better hormonal balance, increased longevity, lowered heart risk and even to healing of various cysts and some cancerous growths. For these and other reasons fasting clinics have been popular throughout Europe for over 60 years.
But fasting is not only prescribed for its health benefits; it is rightfully still thought of as a spiritual exercise or discipline. Yet in our high-paced consumerist society this ancient discipline is not frequently practiced. So why should Christians fast? What is the promise behind this self-denying practice?
The 69th Psalm of the shepherd-king gives us unique insight into the purpose and power of fasting. In its opening lines David cries “Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my soul. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold… mighty are those who would destroy me, those who attack me with lies” (verse 1-2, 4). Two verses later he writes “O God, you know my folly; the sins I have done are not hidden from you.” (verse 5).
These opening phrases sketch the mindset of a troubled man in a hopeless situation: his soul is in anguish because of enemies much more powerful than himself, and to top of it his conscience is troubling him with the weight of guilt. Then David finds comfort in these words, the central thought of the Psalm: “I humbled my soul with fasting” (Psalm 69:10)
God alone can save
Why fast? Firstly, David “humbled his soul with fasting” to appeal for help: his fasting was a clear statement that all his strength, all his knowledge, all his resources was insufficient to save himself from this troubling situation. This great shepherd-king who killed the lion, the bear and great Goliath, who lead an army of mighty men that put fear in the hearts of his greatest enemies, this great David abstained from food and wine to shamelessly declare “I cannot save myself” – “my prayer is to you, O Lord!”, “Save me!”, “Deliver me!” (Verses 13, 1, 14). In his fasting he displayed his trust in God, saying “God alone can save!”
Years later his great-grandson King Jehoshaphat received troubling news that three great armies were marching against Jerusalem, greatly outnumbering the inhabitants of small Judah. His first response was to do what he learned from David: “Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah” (2 Chronicles 20:3). Rather than rallying the troops, forming allegiance, gathering supplies and fortifying the cities Jehoshaphat humbled himselfwith fastingto appealfor help from God. The closing line of his prayer captures the motive of their fast: “For we are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (2 Chronicles 20:12). And as they weakened themselves through abstaining from food and stood before the Lord helpless, the Lord answered “Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s” (verse 15). God responded with a great deliverance that day!
Still years later Ezra the priest was returning from exile, leading a group of elders and officials to rebuild Jerusalem and its temple. Although Ezra had special favour from King Darius carrying letters of his support, Ezra refused to ask for a royal guard for protection through hostile territory because he ensured the King “The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him” (Ezra 8:22). So what did Ezra and his company do before their dangerous journey? “I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods” (Ezra 8:21). The wise priest and his companions humbled themselves with fastingto appealfor help from God. And the hand of the Lord was upon them for good!
God alone can satisfy
The second reason David states in Psalm 69 why he humbles his soul with fasting is to facilitateholiness as he confesses and shows remorse for his sins (verse 5-7). After being confronted by the prophet Nathan for his adultery with Bathsheba and staged murder of her husband Uriah, the king fell on the floor in remorse and fasted for seven days (2 Samuel 12:15-18). From this time of fasting comes these words:
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment…
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.”
(Psalm 51:1-4, 10-12)
David did not invent fasting as a means of repentance and holiness; as a Jew David grew up and annually kept The Day of Atonement – the special Holy Day during which all Israelites fasted (“afflicted their souls”) and confessed their sins to God as a nation. On this special Sabbath the High Priest offered a Lamb for atonement of sins (Leviticus 23:27-28). Thus the nation annually humbled themselves in fasting as a sign of remorse to facilitate their holiness to God – as prescribed in God’s Law.
But fasting for holiness not only has to do with confession of sins – the key focus is to humble the soulby denying its carnal cravings. During a fast one shuts down all other impulses that tug at the heart and deny all the cravings of the flesh. This time of consecration therefore serves as both a reminder that God alone satisfies the desires of the soul, and an opportunity to grow in holiness and love for God. During a fast one can pray with the Psalmist “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God… Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls” (Psalm 42:1,7).
So Psalm 69 teaches us to humble the soul by fasting, firstly to obtain help, because God alone can to save, and secondly to grow in holiness, because God alone can satisfy.
When fasting is not selfish
But we ought to fast to obtain help for others, as the Lord instructed Israel in Isaiah 58:6 “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” And Nehemiah and Daniel showed us that even righteous men humble themselves by fasting to show remorse for the sins of their nation, and to appeal for God’s mercy. (See Daniel 9 and Nehemiah 1)
Is there any situation in your life too big or difficult for you? Is your soul too cluttered, too worried, too demanding or overburdened with guilt? And do you crave intimacy with God, to share in his holiness? Then it’s time to slow down, and fast.
When I was a young teenager I wondered whether “fruit of the tree” was a euphemism for sexual intercourse – the original sin that caused the fall. It’s a ludicrous thought, but I recently found that I was not alone in my thinking: the Church fathers, heavily influenced by Stoic and Gnostic education deduced that all sex was wrong and only necessary for procreation. For instance Tertullian (150 – 230 AC) accused woman of being “the unsealer of the forbidden tree” that caused the fall, Justin Martyr (c. 100–165) said “Christians marry only to produce children” with Jerome (c. 320-420) adding “he who is too ardent a lover of his own wife is an adulterer.” This statement makes no sense, but he firmly believed Adam and Eve were virgins before the fall, and only married (euphemistic speech for “had sex”) once they were cast out of paradise. The severity of sexual sin is evident in their responses to temptations: Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) once looked at the face of a beautiful woman, and to avoid sexual temptation jumped into an icy pond. Benedict of Nursia (480-547 CE) once threw himself naked into thorn bushes, rolling around to ensure the pain would remove all sexual desires. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) frequently rolled around naked in the snow when tempted with sexual desires, but when there was no snow he followed the painful example of Benedict. (Be thankful for ready access to cold showers!)
Yet we know sex is not sin – we were created as sexual beings “male and female” from the very beginning, and commanded to “multiply” (Genesis 1:26-28). Our sexual desires were not the result of the fall but part of the desire for intimacy – the reason God made Adam a helper to deliver him from his loneliness (reference). Sex between husband and wife is good and meant to be pleasant – it is created by God, honoured by God (Hebrews 13:4), encouraged by God (Proverbs 5:18-19) and married couples are even commanded to please one another sexually (1 Corinthians 7:2-4) to avoid sexual temptation.
Only sinful sex is sin. The Mosaic Law lists various sexual misconducts including adultery (Exodus 20:14, Leviticus 18:20, Deuteronomy 5:18), bestiality (Leviticus 18:23, Deuteronomy 27:21), homosexual acts (Leviticus 18:22), incest (Leviticus 18:6−18; Deuteronomy 22:30; 27:20, 22−23), prostitution (Leviticus 19:29, Deuteronomy 23:18), rape (Deuteronomy 22:25−29), sex before marriage (Exodus 22:16−17), shrine-prostitution (Deuteronomy 23:17), transvestism (Deuteronomy 22:5), unclean acts (Leviticus 18:19), and violation of betrothal (Deuteronomy 22:23−27). These laws, although negative and carrying severe punishment in case of transgression, were given by God “for [our] good always” (Deuteronomy 6:24). [i]
These Mosaic laws were asserted by Jesus (Matthew 5:19), stating that these sins emanate from the heart (Matthew 5:27-28; compare Proverbs 6:27-29) and defile a person (Mark 7:23) so that one who practices these things will not inherit the Kingdom of God and therefore have to be avoided at all cost (Matthew 5:29-30). Therefore the apostles also taught that the sexually immoral will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Ephesians 5:5), and warned against the sins of adultery and fornication (Hebrews 13:4), homosexual acts (Romans 1:26−27, 1 Corinthians 6:9−11, 1 Timothy 1:8−11, Jude 1:7), incest (1 Corinthians 5:1−5), and prostitution (1 Corinthians 6:15−16). As in the Old Testament, the apostles warned the early church that God still judges sexually immoral acts in the new dispensation (Hebrews 13:4; 1 Corinthians 10:8; Jude 1:7; Revelations 21:8, 22:15).
However, in the new dispensation there is grace for forgiveness and restoration of those who have fallen prey to sexual temptation and a lifestyle of immorality (1 Corinthians 6: 11). Jesus demonstrated welcoming hospitality and kindness toward those who sought him (Luke 7:36-50) and taught humble identification and mercy with those battling the lure of lust (John 8:2-11). Yet he never stopped warning about God’s judgment on sexual immorality (Matthew 5:29-30; Mark 7:23), but reached out to sinners (Luke 5:32). Thus the disposition of the church towards believing sexual sinners should not be indifference or judgment, but rather humble support towards restoration (Galatians 6:1), yet unrepentive believing sinners should be publically disassociated after ample warning to prevent others emulating the immoral behavior and perhaps granting the sinner repentance in the light of the seriousness consequences (1 Corinthians 5:1-13), all the while trusting and praying for repentance and hoping for restoration (2 Corinthians 2:5-11).
Light in a dark world
Both the Old Testament Law as well as the New Testament letters were written so followers of God living in utterly perverse societies: the older in Baal worshiping country and the newer in Grecko-Roman society. Both these societies were obsessed with sexual practices, even incorporating shrine prostitutes in their religious ceremony. Thus it is not strange to find within these writings many instruction pertaining to morality and sexuality. The commands intended to set a people aside for God which is holy or distinguished from contemporary society so that their everyday lives display the holiness and loving nature of God, a people where God can dwell in holiness. In one such instruction pertaining to sexuality Paul uses Mosaic text to motivate holiness “I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.” (2 Corinthians 6:16-18)
Sadly, today there is no discernable distinction between the sexual conduct of believers and unbelievers.[ii]Tyler O’Niel reported earlier this year that “A new study on Christian attitudes toward dating and marriage reveals a broad acceptance for cohabitation, premarital sex and a rejection of traditional gender roles. Experts believe that many Christians are following cultural trends over scripture when it comes to sex and marriage.” The majority of believers have adopted the sinful practices of the world around us, so that we are unable to represent the nature of God and ineffective in our witness to the world.
Justification for sex before marriage
I have heard three noteworthy arguments from believers to justify pre-marital sex, each of which I will shortly address Biblically. Also refer to a previous post “On Spiritual Maturity: the error of Balaam” to see the various Biblical references to spirituality without morality.
1. Abstinence is “outdated” or “old-fashioned”. God does not change (Malachi 3:6), nor does his prescribed law. That is why Jesus himself did not change but obeyed the Law (Matthew 5:17), even intensified the interpretation to go beyond literal fulfillment but taught that it also judges thoughts, motives and emotions (Matthew 5:19-20, 29-30; refer Hebrews 4:12, Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).Consequently, the apostles also continued to reinforce the sexual morality laws of Old Testament Judaism. The intent of Scripture is clear: God designed man to find sexual intimacy and fulfillment in faithfulness to one spouse – “for our good always.”
2. Abstinence is “the invention of the Church fathers” – the Bible does not prohibit sex before marriage. Sexual purity was not the invention of the early church fathers but God’s desire for humanity as expressed in the Mosaic Law and contained in the teachings of the Old Testament prophets, Jesus himself and the apostolic writings (as briefly outlined above). Yet some argue that use of “fornication” (Gk: pornea) does not prohibit sexual relations between unmarried, consenting adults – rather it is expressly used for perversities such as pornography, orgies, bestiality etc. Although pornea is generally used to mean “inappropriate sexual conduct” and is normally translated “sexual immorality” very few linguistic or Biblical scholars would argue that the word excludes fornication (sex outside the bounds of marriage).
However, without using this word a few sections in the Bible make it clear that sexual relations are reserved for marital partners, of which this pointing case suffices to defeat the argument: 1 “But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband… But if [the unmarried] cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” (1 Corinthians 7:2-4) In this short text Paul makes it clear that no unmarried believer has rights to sexual relations; only with a married partner should that desire be fulfilled. All sex outside the covenant of marriage is sinful and will be subject to God’s judgment (Hebrews 13:4).
3. “Sex is just sex”. Some believe that “sex is just sex”, meaning it is a biological act like holding hands without spiritual effect and therefore can be enjoyed without harmful spiritual consequences. However, anyone who has been victim of molestation or rape knows that what they experienced was more than a mere physical touch. Sex is inherently spiritual – this is why God warned the religious leaders in Malachi’s day that unfaithful sexual conduct is detrimental to their spirits, and therefore he cautions them to “guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless” (Malachi 2:14-16).
The congregation in Corinth had a similar argument as “sex is just sex”, stating that just as the body needs food, so the body needs sex – and therefore one should feed its sexual appetite; there is nothing more to it. Paul answered with a powerful rhetoric (1 Corinthians 6:13-20), stating that sexual intercourse binds two people together in a mystical manner, and that should one should not do that improperly (outside of marriage) since the believer is “joined one in spirit with the Lord”. He concludes that therefore believers ought to “flee sexual immorality… [because] your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you… therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.” Much could be written about this section, but the essential truth here is this: sexual intercourse is immensely spiritual, and has an impact on the spiritual welfare of the believer.
How do we respond to this?
My personal goal for sexual holiness is articulated in the phrase that Paul used to encourage the church in Ephesus: “among you there should be not be a hint of sexual immorality” (Ephesians 5:3 NASB). How do we grow towards that in this immoral society?
Protect your eyes. One of the most useful lessons I have learned is to seriously sensor what I watch and look at – a lesson I learned while reading the famed Every Man’s Battleby Arterburn and Stoeker. They teach tat like Job we “make a covenant with [our] eyes to not look upon a young woman [or men] with lust in [our] heart” (Job 31:1). Then you seriously sensor your environment not get sensual stimulation – go cold turkey for a while. And your learn the habit to “bounce the eyes” – as soon as you see something that usually give sensual stimulation to your mind, you bounce your eyes off to somewhere else and not look there.
Renew your mind. During my student years God seriously challenged me to no longer think and live like the world around me does but to “renew my mind” (Romans 12:1-2) and adopt his perspective on life and relationships. Sexual happens when our perverse desires lead us astray (Mark 7:23; James 1:13). This necessitates a retraining of the heart and mind through deliberate study of God’s precepts, prayer and reflective conversations with believers about God’s will. Over time I have found that my actions change, my dreams and daydreams became innocent and my relationships became healthy. God restores innocence!
Accountability. As motivated in a previous blog on accountability relationshipswe need friends that watch out for us and that help us stay on the path of holiness and relationship with God. This especially needs confession when we fall in some sexual sin, since nothing brings a sense of shame, guilt and condemnation like sexual sin. A lifestyle of transparency and honest confession (1 John 1:9, James 5:16) keeps us on the path of holiness.
Self-control. Learn to control your sexual urges (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8; Romans 13:11-14). I do not advocate throwing yourself into thorn bushes like Benedict and Francis, but one has to do something to redirect energy and teach your body that it cannot always have what it desires. Simple ways are endurance exercises or fasting which teaches you to ignore the demands of the body, learning the blessing and wisdom of delayed gratification (in a healthy way). What many young people do not know is that this sexual self-control is also absolutely essential to a happily married life.
Avoid tempting circumstances. Not Samson the strongest, nor Solomon the wisest, nor David “the man after God’s own heart” overcame sexual temptation. But Joseph got it right by running away from his seductress (Genesis 39:13). That is why Paul taught Timothy to flee youthful lust (2 Timothy 2:2; see also 1 Corinthians 6:18). Avoid sensually luring situations – it is the sure way to have victory over this sin. You have learned when you are vulnerable to this sin – simply avoid it. If you can’t, so as the marines do and call a friend to provide cover (prayer) fire! When tempted we should resist it (1 Peter 5:8). Just know that you will never be tempted above your ability – with the temptation God will provide a way out (1 Corinthians 10:13).
In closing, God is holy and desires us to be holy as He is. He has made us to be sexual beings, and created us to enjoy sex – in its rightful place of marriage. In that proper place God blesses it and calls it good. Therefore we ought to take heed to the dangers and judgment of sexual immorality, resist and avoid temptation. We ought to encourage one another to obey God’s moral laws, so that in this perverse society we may represent God’s holiness and loving nature well.