Fasting and Decision-making
“While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.” (Acts 13:2, 3)
There are no regular times of fasting that Christians are commanded to observe. Yet, if Christians and churches were fasting in the first century it might be worthwhile to consider why and how Christians could practice fasting in this century as well. On the first missionary journey, fasting coincided with important decisions at the beginning and the end of the work. There were so many things that these brethren could not know about what might happen to Barnabas and Saul. They knew that the Jews had already been willing to use violence in opposition to the gospel, and there was no reason to think that the rest of the world would not eventually resort to violence as well.
However, the church in Antioch knew that they had a command from God to take the gospel into the world. They knew that they had the ability and the opportunity and they had men who were willing and able to go. They could try to take measures to minimize the suffering of Barnabas and Saul, but they couldn’t foresee or control all of the challenges along the way. So, the church appealed to the God who could keep Barnabas and Saul safe in the midst of the wolves, and they were so concerned about the safety of their brethren and the fruit of their labors that the Antioch church abstained from physical food for a time to give attention to this spiritual matter.
When Barnabas and Saul were preparing to leave Galatia they knew that the churches would continue to face threats and persecutions. They knew that these churches needed qualified and faithful leaders to help them continue to grow and be fruitful in the midst of the wolves. Barnabas and Paul also knew that they couldn’t foresee or control all of the challenges that their brethren might face. So, they appealed to the God who could keep these brethren in their faith and they were so concerned about appointing good men and leaving these churches prepared for persecution that they abstained from physical food for a time to give attention to this spiritual matter (Acts 14:21-23).
How can churches and Christians fast today? A good place to start would probably be when we have to take the commands of God and make decisions about what to do that will possibly have long-lasting effects. Selecting and appointing elders and deacons, making decisions about preachers and churches working together, when a local church seems to be going through some problems, or when a local church may need to withdraw from a disorderly member - these could all be great opportunities to get up early and delay eating until we have spent some significant time focused on God, His word, and the scriptural answers to these spiritual concerns.
Can fasting really be this simple? Didn’t people sometimes go days without eating? Yes, in extreme or miraculous cases. David fasting as he prayed for his son and Paul and those who were traveling through the intense storm of Acts 27 are probably the most extreme non-miraculous cases of fasting that we can read about. In the most extreme situations, eating food often gets set aside to deal with the intense grief or anxiety of the moment, but nothing in the Bible says that this is the only kind of fasting.
Thinking of fasting this way doesn’t minimize the importance of selecting and appointing elders or making decisions about preachers and churches working together. These kinds of decisions can have long-lasting effects, but these kinds of decisions can also be amended fairly easily when God’s people will be humble and honest with themselves and one another. Fasting can help us with this because, when we fast, we are admitting our inadequacies. We are admitting that we need God’s help. When we have considered the instructions of the Lord very carefully and we are convicted that it is time to act, we are still very much like the church in Antioch in that we cannot foresee or control all of the challenges that may result from our efforts to obey God.
Failing to fast may very well be an indication that we are relying too heavily on our own wisdom. We don’t realize that we need God’s help. We believe that we have foreseen all that could go wrong and that we have planned for it. Then when things go wrong, we look for someone else to blame or we stand by our previous decisions even as they continue to cause conflict or harm because we never stopped to consider that our best efforts to be wise might still leave something to be desired.
All the decisions that we have to make in our service to God do not carry the same weight. Sometimes the early disciples fasted, and sometimes they didn’t. We don’t want to be like the Pharisees who practiced fasting to be seen and praised by men. However, we should want to learn from the example of faithful Christians who appealed to God through fasting when they felt the weight of their deepest spiritual concerns.