These are unprecedented times. Our world is paralyzed with fear over the outbreak of a new strain of virus known as COVID-19. Not only are there concerns about its dangers and ability to spread quickly, but its impact on the financial and political spectrums are enough to raise alarm. The church plays an important role at this crucial time in our history. We have a wonderful opportunity to introduce frightened people to the hope of the gospel. But fear is more contagious than the Coronavirus, and our hearts often grow as uneasy as our unbelieving neighbors’. How does God want us to respond to the melee before us?
There are many biblical responses we could talk about, but I want to highlight one that is often overlooked: fasting. That may sound strange to you, because while fasting was routine for believers in the Bible, most of us do not fast regularly—if at all. If you were to count up how many Christians you know who are regularly fasting today, would you use more than one hand? Dare I ask, would you use even one finger? Fasting just isn’t that common anymore. But I think that’s a shame, because a theology of fasting was built for moments like these. Fasting is designed to walk us through trying times, like a Coronavirus outbreak. So, let’s consider for a few minutes how fasting can aid us in our present crisis.
What is the Point of Fasting?
But before we talk about how fasting helps us, we need to examine the purpose of fasting from the Bible. I would venture to say that many Christians don’t practice fasting today, because they don’t understand what the point of it is. Let’s see what Scripture has to say about it first, so that we can then apply it to the Coronavirus pandemic.
Fasting is about Crisis
There are some good reasons people fasted in the Bible, and they collectively teach us that fasting is about crisis. For example, some people fasted to show grief over their sin or the loss of a loved one. Daniel and Ezra fasted as they mourned over Israel’s unfaithfulness to God (Dan. 9:3; Ezra 10:6). David wept and fasted until evening when he heard that King Saul had died in battle (2 Sam. 1:12). People also fasted to attend to an urgent matter or to plead with God to intervene. When Moses received the Ten Commandments from God on Mount Sinai, he fasted for forty days and forty nights (Deut. 9:9). When Esther planned to go before the king of Persia to persuade him not to murder all the Jews, she called for every Jew to hold a fast on her behalf (Est. 4:16).
What do all these good reasons for fasting have in common? They all revolve around a crisis. Sin, death, important tasks, or threats against someone’s life all qualify as crises. Every time someone fasted for the right reasons, it was due to a moment of urgency or emergency. Despite what some Christians may think, fasting is not about becoming godlier; it’s not something you do when life is going well or when things are normal.
Fasting is the right response to an abnormal situation
that requires you to devote all of your attention to it
Fasting is about crisis.
Fasting is about Sincerity
While all the good examples teach us that fasting is about crisis, all the bad examples warn us that fasting must be about sincerity. For instance, some have fasted in an attempt to manipulate God into delivering them. When Isaiah told Israel that they were going to be punished by God for their sin, the nation fasted with the hope that God would change His mind. But He didn’t, and Israel wondered why (Isa. 58:3). God responded, “Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke?” (Isa. 58:6). Israel fasted to avoid judgment, when they should have fasted to repent of their sins.
Perhaps a more familiar example is the fasting of the Pharisees, who did so to be seen by others (Matt. 6:16). The problem with this approach to fasting is that it was not provoked by a real crisis. Through their fasting, the Pharisees pretended there was a crisis so that they could look more spiritual.
What do these two bad reasons for fasting have in common? They both lack sincerity. Every time someone fasted for the wrong reasons, it was always from a veneer of hypocrisy that failed to originate from a real crisis. Either the true crisis was replaced or it was fabricated.
True fasting always comes naturally from a heart burdened by crisis
It shows that you are honest about what’s causing your problem and recognize that God is your only solution. Fasting is about sincerity.
Fasting is about Jesus
Fasting is about crisis and sincerity, but fundamentally, fasting is about Jesus. We learn this from Mark 2:18–20. This is the seminal passage on fasting for Christians today, because it not only brings together everything already mentioned, but it also sheds new light on the nature of fasting for believers living in a New Covenant era. Mark 2:18–20 tells the story when the Pharisees and some disciples of John the Baptist asked Jesus why He and His disciples were not fasting (see Matthew 9:14–15 and Luke 5:33–35 for parallel accounts). Jesus responds with an analogy:
While the bridegroom is with them, the attendants of the bridegroom cannot fast, can they? So long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.
Jesus confirms everything we learned about fasting so far, and He adds another layer to it:
First, fasting is about crisis. A wedding is a common event when life is going well. Therefore, no one would expect anyone to fast during a wedding. Jesus compares His presence in the world with a wedding, because wherever He went, people were healed, demons were cast out, and extraordinary miracles took place! There was no need to fast because there was no crisis. But when Jesus finally left His disciples after He ascended into heaven, fasting resumed, because His life-changing presence was no longer around to keep crisis at bay. Fasting is still about crisis.
Second, fasting is about sincerity. Jesus’ disciples did not fast while He was with them, because they saw how much good Jesus was doing everywhere He went. But the Pharisees and John’s disciples did not think about fasting the same way. To them fasting was a form of religious asceticism. But the problem is that there was no crisis to fast over, because Jesus was solving the problems around Him. Their fasting was contrived. Fasting is still about sincerity.
Third, fasting is about Jesus. Up to this point, everyone who fasted for the right reasons fasted because there was a crisis. But Jesus adds a new dimension to fasting: crisis is present because Jesus is not. When Jesus is present, crisis is not. In other words, Jesus is the difference between a world with or without crisis. “Christ-less-ness” is now the catalyst for fasting, not just crisis. For this reason, fasting takes on a new meaning for believers today.
Fasting is not just about mourning over sin or pleading
with God to intervene; it’s about longing for the return of our Savior
Christians no longer fast simply because they face overwhelming difficulty; they fast because they ache for Christ to come back and restore all things. Fasting is now all about Jesus.
How Does Fasting Help Us in Our Crisis?
There’s no question that we all are facing a major crisis. The Coronavirus pandemic has reshaped the lives of every single person. From mandatory stay-at-home orders to empty grocery shelves, there is not a soul in this world unaffected by COVID-19—and that does not include those unfortunate enough to have contracted the virus itself. Our world is facing a global crisis unlike this generation has ever seen. How are we to respond?
There are many ways we as Christians can and should approach the situation. But I want to submit that a theology of fasting must be front and center. Fasting, unlike any other spiritual discipline, is designed exclusively for crisis situations.
The theology of fasting is tailor-made to meet catastrophe head-on
If there’s one tool you want to have in your Christian tool belt during a crisis, it’s fasting. So, how does God want us to leverage fasting to address our anxious hearts?
Engage, Don’t Disengage
I am putting this first, because the most common way our culture deals with problems is to check out. This is the direct opposite of a theology of fasting. Fasting is abstaining to focus on the problem; disengaging is indulging to distract yourself from the problem. When life gets hard, we binge-eat. When times are tough, we binge-watch. Crisis is uncomfortable, and so many of us would rather get lost in our phones for a while than have to face the harsh reality of life.
He who disengages from crisis loves comfort more than Christ
Yes, you should distance yourself from people right now; no, you should not distance yourself from this crisis right now. Be engaged with what is going on. Think about those who are suffering; strategize ways to help them. Pray often and let your heart be burdened for a while. Get your attention off of yourself and onto a world hurting without Christ.
Trust God, Don’t Trust Yourself
While many of us prefer to distract ourselves from our problems, others of us go to the other extreme and try to fix everything by ourselves. Maybe we are not the ones hoarding all the toilet paper, but we might be the ones constantly voicing our opinion about what everyone around us should be doing. While we are certainly responsible to take care of ourselves and our families, our excessive attention on the problem demonstrates a lack of trust in God. We value control more than Christ. We fail to see the sovereign hand of God working good out of evil (Job 2:10; Gen. 50:20; Rom. 8:28). But a theology of fasting teaches us that we cannot solve every crisis. We rely on God to change the outcome of a broken world. Trust in God, not yourself. Run to Him in prayer before you attack the problem out of fear.
Hope in Christ, Don’t Hope in the World
In times of crisis, it can be tempting to put your hope in human institutions. Maybe you swear by a certain medical philosophy: you spend countless hours researching the best health practices or spend an inordinate amount of money on drugs or supplements. Or perhaps you submit to a specific political ideology: you think that if the government is set up a certain way, our crisis can be averted. You may be right; you may be wrong. If your beliefs consume your thoughts more than Jesus, your hope is in the world, not Christ. You treasure stability and security more than Him. Crisis doesn’t exist because the world hasn’t adopted your medical or political standpoint; remember, crisis is present, because Jesus is not.
The world is in shambles simply because its Savior is absent
Therefore, we wait and long for him more than cultural progress. For every minute you give to your ideas, give two to the return of your King.
A Final Word of Encouragement
As you can see, fasting is more than just the physical act of abstaining from food. There’s a world of theology imbedded in the practice of fasting meant to address the needs of someone going through a crisis. It’s less about the activity and more about the heart. It’s not only disciplining your body; it’s training you to think about crisis biblically and hope in Christ completely. For this reason, I’m a firm believer that the heart of fasting can be achieved even without practicing it externally.
But I want to encourage you to consider fasting anyway. You can learn to engage with our crisis the right way, trust in God to solve the problem, and hope in Christ’s return to restore all things, but the act of fasting will help you to do all three simultaneously. Fasting forces you to take your eyes off yourself and place them on the problem. It takes you off your feet and brings you to your knees in prayer. It strips away everything you hold dear in this life and replaces it with Christ and His future victory.
This is a unique season of life. Most of us are stuck at home and not busy with as many responsibilities. This is the perfect opportunity to practice fasting. Skip a meal or two. Take some time to meditate on the situation and the word of God. Create a running list of prayer requests including people you know or sectors of society that need special attention. Pray, and pray often. Pray for the health and safety of everyone, pray that the gospel will spread faster than the disease, and pray for the ultimate hope for which we should all be longing, “Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20).