Fasting in Worship
“ ‘Yet even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.’ ”- Joel 2:12
Under the new covenant, corporate worship takes place primarily on the Lord’s Day, as that is when the Apostles gathered with the early Christians to remember the great salvation purchased by Christ (Acts 20:7). That does not mean, however, that corporate worship should never take place at other times. Significant streams of the Reformed tradition have long recognized that the church may call for corporate worship on other days as long as these special occasions of worship are not made obligatory. Even the Westminster Confession, which represents a current of Reformed thought that was most reluctant to encourage the celebration of special worship services on Christmas Day and other traditional feast days, recognizes that a church has liberty to call for special occasions of worship outside of the weekly observance of the Lord’s Day. On such occasions of worship, we must do only what is in accord with biblical principles.
Some of the special occasions that Westminster Confession 21.5 suggests may be appropriate at times are “solemn fastings.” Often, we think of fasting as an individual discipline, but Scripture clearly has a place for corporate fasts as well. Today’s passage, for example, records God’s calling to the old covenant community to repent and fast so as to avoid divine judgment (Joel 2:12). Ezra called for fasting and prayer for the Lord’s protection when he was leading the people back to the Promised Land (Ezra 8:21–23). In the New Testament, we read of the church at Antioch worshiping and fasting just before setting apart Barnabas and Saul for their missionary work (Acts 13:1–3).
We see, then, that fasting can be a part of public worship no less than it can be observed in private worship (Matt. 6:16–18). But why would we fast? It cannot be to somehow merit an answer to prayer, for we do not earn God’s favor by depriving ourselves of His good gifts. Instead, fasting can serve as a reminder to pray. As we feel pangs of hunger, we are reminded of our commitment to set aside time during which we would normally be eating in order to pray for a particular person or situation that inspired the fast to begin with. Fasting also reminds us of our creatureliness and dependence. We are ever tempted to believe that we are self-sufficient, but the hunger we experience in fasting helps us recall that we are needy creatures. That, in turn, drives us to more conscious dependence on God and His blessings.
Although there can be occasions on which corporate fasting is appropriate, fasting is primarily a personal discipline. When we fast, we are driven to more urgent prayer and to remember our creaturely dependence. If you have not fasted before, consider whether you should fast and pray this week.
Passages for Further Study