This Friday is Campus Renewal’s “First Friday Fast,” when we encourage students across the nation to fast from food for 24 hours in order to give their attention to prayer for their universities.  Some have wondered, is it Biblical to call people to fast in such a public way?  Of course it is.  Let me explain.

Self-focused Fasting and God-focused Fasting

People look to just one thing Jesus said in the sermon on the mount and by it assume that we are not supposed to fast publically.

“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Matthew 6:16-18

Jesus’s teaching was not that we should not fast publically, but that we should not fast to be seen by others.  It is a matter of motive.  In this part of the sermon, he starts off by saying this:  “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven (Matthew 6:1).”

He then goes on to talk about the spiritual disciplines of prayer, giving, and fasting.  Each, Jesus said, can be done for others instead of for God.  That’s the difference. Why are you praying, giving, fasting?  Is it to be seen by others?  Or is it to be seen by God?

Ritual  Fasting and Repentant Fasting

Sometimes we are tempted to pray the prayer of the Pharisee described in Luke 18.  Again Jesus describes a man who is fasting for the wrong reasons, to justify himself and compare himself with others.

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  Luke 18:9-14

Scripture is replete with condemnations and reminders that our motives matter, that our spiritual disciplines can become self-focused or ritualistic.  The prophets, in particular, remind us of this danger.

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?  Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Isaiah 58:3b-5

So the scriptural challenge to public fasting is to have proper motives (unto God, not man) and to have proper actions (to fast out of repentance, not ritual).

Biblical Fasting

Here’s the simple truth.  Fasting is Biblical.  Time and time again leaders in Israel, Judah, and the church (heck, even Nineveh!) called people to fast.  When public fasting is done for God instead of self, and in repentance instead of ritual, amazing things happen.

  • Wars are won by worship (Jeroboam’s public fast in II Chronicles 20).
  • Evil nations experience revival (Nineveh’s public fast in Jonah 3).
  • Safe travel and provision is given (Ezra’s public fast in Ezra 8)
  • Genocide is prevented (Esther’s public fast in Esther 4)
  • Missionaries are called and sent (the church in Antioch’s public fast in Acts 13)

In my opinion, the prophet Joel said it best when he called the people of God to wake up.  He called them to notice the spiritual condition of their land (Joel 1 and 2b).  Then he called them to gather the people in public prayer and fasting.

“Even now,” declares the Lord,  “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and He relents from sending calamity. Who knows? He may turn and relent and leave behind a blessing — grain offerings and drink offering for the Lord your God. Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly.  Gather the people, consecrate the assembly; bring together the elders, gather the children, those nursing at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her chamber. Let the priests, who minister before the Lord, weep between the portico and the altar. Let them say, “Spare your people, Lord. Do not make your inheritance an object of scorn, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’”

Campus Renewal’s call, like Joel’s, is a call to unite in prayer fasting.  We need to see the spiritual condition of our campus and be led to a season (if only a day) of God-focused, repentant fasting.

Please join us on this First Friday Fast and help spread the word to other campuses.

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 justin_newJustin Christopher is the National Campus Director for Campus Renewal Ministries and the author of Campus Renewal: A Practical Plan for Uniting Campus Ministries in Prayer and Mission. He gives leadership to the Campus House of Prayer and the missional community movement at the University of Texas.