Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you (James 4:7-10, ESV).
Despite the uninformed opinions of many who resist Christ in our day, the Christian roots of our society are undeniable. It was not uncommon in the early days of our Republic (and even prior to our independence) for our leaders to appeal to the God revealed in Jesus Christ for His aid when we faced a crisis. On a number of these occasions that appeal was accompanied with fasting.
Fasting has seen something of a revival in recent years. About 30 years ago I thought that I was far outside of the mainstream when I began a regular appeal to God through fasting over some personal issues, but in recent years many books and pamphlets have been written on the topic. Perhaps it was practiced more than I understood, but certainly there was less published about it. My study of this discipline has revealed that often in Scripture fasting is intended when the inspired writer uses the phrase “humble yourself” or “afflict yourself.” Most of these phrases are written to Jewish audiences in the Old Testament, but it is significant that in the handful of places where the phrase is used in the New Testament, the primary audience is also Jewish. When James wrote this in the passage quoted above, then, it is likely that he had the idea of fasting in mind.
Over the years I have counseled people to fast when they are facing impending doom — a personal diagnosis of cancer or the anguish of the decisions of a prodigal child. Weighty decisions are also proper occasions for fasting; it doesn’t have to be a matter of life or death as many matters were in colonial America or in the Biblical record. The Apostle Peter used the phrase, “humble yourself,” in the context of “casting all of your cares upon Him” (1 Pet 5:7).
Not all passages that refer to fasting include prayer, notably in the book of Esther. But virtually every reference is attended by a call to confession and repentance of sin, either overtly or implied. Before we can expect the Lord’s deliverance, it behooves us to have clean hearts through honest confession and the intentional decision to turn from what displeases Him.
Yet with the revival of interest in the discipline of fasting, there doesn’t appear to be a similar interest in confession and repentance. It is relatively easy to go a day without eating or to go many days without eating certain foods, but I confess (no pun intended) that I have a harder time with the self-examination that should accompany repentance. My personal fat reserves will not allow me to starve in a short period of fasting (despite what my stomach says), but the real struggle for me is setting aside the time for honest soul-searching. I suspect that I am not alone.
As I have read historical literature recently I have been struck by the importance that the people of previous eras have attached to genuine confession and repentance. Fasting might have accompanied their appeal to the God of Israel, but it was more incidental to it than it was central. The central issue was the humble confession (with subsequent forsaking) of their offending actions before the holy God that they worshiped.
The Jewish calendar always includes a high holy day in the fall that is called the Day of Atonement. It is instituted and described in Leviticus 16 and the text includes the phrase “humble/afflict yourself” as a reference to fasting. But like most everything else instituted by God, we humans have a propensity to make it a legalistic work of righteousness. I confess that my practice of fasting has often resembled a legalistic “Yom Kippur.” May God grant me the grace to restore a proper spirit to my fasting.