Fasting with balance

A look at the purpose and the history of fasting

Madeline S. Johnston, a developmental psychologist, is a freelance writer and editor in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

In recent years one local church lost many members, even after earnestly praying for them. Was there something more we could have done? What about fasting?

Would God somehow be more apt to intervene if our supplications were accompanied with fasting? While avoiding a works-righteousness mentality, could fasting demonstrate that we really meant our requests? Would fasting somehow encourage God to disregard Satan's objections to His intervention? And if so, with so many people having great needs, how much should we fast? We couldn't abstain totally in every situation without starving to death!

While processing those thoughts, I recalled having witnessed a couple dramatic events that followed prayer and fasting. As missionaries in Korea, our family had a coworker who developed a malignancy. Following surgery, the prognosis remained poor. Yet much to the surprise of doctors, the patient recovered. Was this sheer luck, mere medical skill, or divine intervention? In association with an anointing service, one Korean pastor and his family had fasted. Was there some connection between this and the healing?

Another remarkable development on a spiritual level happened with a college friend of my daughters. In the depths of spiritual doldrums, she transferred from Andrews University to a distant state college. One weekend she and her parents planned to meet at our home, as travel took them in opposite directions. Our daughters announced to me: "We're going to fast and pray for her on Friday. Would you like to join us?" I agreed.

Just before leaving Saturday night, the young woman's mother begged her: "I wish you would come back to Andrews."

"No way," she flippantly replied. "We can't afford it, and Andrews doesn't have what I need anyway."

But then, within 24 hours, a series of unusual circumstances convinced her to change her mind. Roadblocks vanished, and she returned to Andrews. Although she graduated as an unbeliever, her very presence at our college was a dramatic answer to prayer. It left me wondering: What part, if any, did fasting play?

In probing for answers, here is what I've come up with.

Normally, not on Sabbath

Now and then our church announces a worldwide day of fasting, typically on Sabbath. 1 But the timing of this does not seem to be supported by the biblical practice, meaning, and context of Sabbath observance. In Bible times the Day of Atonement was the only fast day mandated by law (see Lev. 16:29-31; Acts 27:9).2

By contrast, the weekly Sabbath was a day of feasting not gluttony, but celebration. Sabbath is to be a day of great joy. Maybe when the church suggests a day of fasting, it should be some other day. How about Friday? There could follow a Friday sundown or Sabbath morning convocation to praise the Lord for hearing our prayers, after which the fast is broken.

Jewish/Old Testament examples

The typical Jewish fast called for one day of abstention, generally lasting from morning until evening; perhaps just one meal a day was involved. Such fasting often was tied in with alms, perhaps with donating to the poor what was saved by fasting.

Biblical examples of fasting abound. Moses fasted atop Sinai when receiving the Ten Commandments (see Ex. 34:28). The citizens of Jabesh-Gilead fasted seven days after recovering from the Philistines the bodies of Saul and his sons and giving them a proper burial (see 1 Sam. 31:13).

When the ark was returned and all Israel repented, they fasted all day at Mizpah while Samuel interceded for them (see 1 Sam. 7:5,6). Daniel fasted for wisdom regarding prophecy that he did not understand and also for God to have mercy on His backslid den people (see Dan. 9:2, 3). David repented with fasting (see Ps. 69:10; 35:13), and he fasted while praying for the healing of his first son by Bathsheba (see 2 Sam. 12:16-23). He expressed grief over Abner' s death by fasting (see 2 Sam. 3:35). Esther asked her people to fast when under the threat of death (see Esther 4:16). Ezra fasted when re questing a safe journey to Jerusalem (see Ezra 8:21). God's message through Joel was "return to me with all your heart, with fasting" (Joel 2:12, RSV). The people of Nineveh proclaimed a fast, and God accepted their repentance (see Jonah 3:5). King Jehoshaphat ^mm proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah when threatened by invading forces (see 2 Chron. 20:3).

New Testament fasting

Anna worshiped "with fasting and prayer night and day," waiting for the Messiah (Luke 2:37, RSV). She then recognized the baby Jesus (see verses 36-38). Jesus fasted 40 days before beginning His ministry (see Matt. 4:2). During His sermon on the mount that followed, He taught: "And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites" (Matt. 6:16, RSV) apparently assuming that all His listeners did fast. The Pharisees customarily fasted twice a week (see Luke 18:12).

In the early church, after fasting and praying Christians received instructions from the Holy Spirit (see Acts 13:2). Paul fasted for three days after his conversion on the Damascus road (see Acts 9:9). The church at Antioch fasted and prayed before sending Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey (see Acts 13:3).

Fasting in church history

Generally, in the early church fasting meant abstinence from all food until evening or just one meal a day. Later it came to mean abstinence from certain foods, keeping to the barest necessities.

More recently John Wesley re corded (1756) in his diary a national day of prayer and fasting when France threatened to invade Britain. A foot note in the diary remarked, "Humility was turned into national rejoicing, for the threatened invasion by the French was averted." In early America the New England states ordained both annual and special fast days.

Fasting by Seventh-day Adventists

The Ellen G. White Estate has a thick file on the subject of fasting in Adventist history. Along with quotations of Ellen White, the file includes research papers and letters from church leaders. In 1865 Review and Herald editor James White mentioned that certain days were dedicated to fasting and prayer for the end of the Civil War after which it did end speedily. The General Conference Committee endorsed Sabbath, February 11, as a day of fasting and prayer. In March of that year members ob served four days of humiliation, fasting, and prayer during which they had a minimum food intake; some ab stained altogether as health permitted and convictions prompted. James White testified that he had never seen such intensity and feeling, nor better times in Battle Creek or the whole world field. Many prayers were answered. 3

Seventh-day Adventists have carried the practice of fasting into the twentieth century. In preparation for a day of fasting and prayer in 1979, G. D. Strunk compiled from Ellen White's counsels the following goals of fasting: to search out essential truths so that the way of salvation will be clear,4 to seek the heavenly wisdom God has promised,5 to seek His direction in planning,6 to rise above indolence in dedicating our talents in Christian service,7 to request God's help in crises,8 to contend with demonic forces,9 to seek God for more laborers, 10 for unity among members. 11

According to another compilation of Ellen White's counsels, prepared in 1980 by W. P. Bradley, fasting can be beneficial in seeking light  and wisdom, 12 fostering heart cleansing and confession, 13 overcoming temptation, 14 conquering disease (for a meal or two), 15 and developing an appetite for plain food. 16

Eager, as in every other area, to maintain a balance with fasting, Ellen White also counseled: "We are not to make crosses for ourselves ... by denying ourselves wholesome, nourishing food." 17 "The spirit of true fasting and prayer is the spirit which yields mind, heart, and will to God." 18 This advice harmonizes with Isaiah 58, which describes what is and is not acceptable fasting in God's sight. Using one's resources to help the poor is more important in fasting than the actual abstinence from food.

Testimony of nutritionists

Since fasting from food affects physical health, it is important to note what nutritionists have to say. Alice Marsh wrote to a pastor that entire abstinence from food may not be required; one can eat sparingly of the most simple food.19 She added that fasting actually can be fatal to diabetics and is unwise for pregnant or lactating women, and people with hypoglycemic or hyperthyroid problems. She quoted studies on the effects of fasting, including mood alteration. Cautioning never to eliminate water, Marsh added that even a juice fast can be far from balanced because of the high sugar content. Her advice for a minimum balanced diet for an extended fast included fruits and vegetables four servings (one green or yellow, one citrus or tomato), wholegrain bread and cereal four servings, milk two servings, protein two servings, seed oil two teaspoons (a total of 1,200-1,300 calories).

Other nutritionists suggest that a simple diet would please God as much as or more than abstinence, and that a physician should supervise any fast of more than one day.

Mary Margaret Eighme wrote a paper in 1978, noting that between 1850 and 1900 there were 42 official seasons of fasting in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In 1904 Ellen White instructed that from then until the close of time we should be more earnest, setting aside days for fasting and prayer. 20 (Yet from 1900 to 1977, we have had only nine church fasts.) Ellen White cited the biblical examples of Moses, David, Elijah, Daniel, Nehemiah, Esther, Peter, Paul, and Barnabas. While speaking favorably about following their example, she also cautioned enthusiasts like Joseph James Bates, who was only eating one meal a day and then fasting two days, saying that God did not require such behavior.21

Winston Craig, professor of nutrition at Andrews University, points out that if one totally fasts for an extended time, biochemical changes take place. The brain needs energy from food, and the lack of nourishment causes the breakdown of tissues particularly muscle and adipose tissue. One muscle that can degenerate is the heart, resulting in cardiac arrest within a few weeks. Electrolytes also can be thrown out of balance. Light-headedness and nausea may result.

How long it takes for fasting to become dangerous varies according to individual health and size, but Craig would not recommend more than a few days. "I would not recommend a total fast even for one day," he says. Fruit juices and zwieback can help keep up the carbohydrate level.

Craig asks, "What are we achieving by fasting? If we seek a higher spiritual plane, is it not better to eat lightly of good food, get exercise in fresh air, maybe go on a retreat to the mountains, than to make yourself lightheaded, thinking continually of food, weak, no exercise, etc.?"

Applying it personally

Personally, I've experimented a little with various means of fasting: a day with milk, juice, or light soup if I get lightheaded, a day of eating the most simple and nourishing foods while omitting added fats and sugars, or omitting one meal a day. My experimentation has not been as consistent as I would like to report, but I've concluded that there is something to be said for the total commitment that fasting seems to bespeak a feeling that I have finally given everything, even my appetite, to God in my earnestness to have Him answer a particular prayer. And that in itself gives a particular closeness and a readiness to accept whatever answer He does or does not give.

The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality ably summarizes this matter of fasting: "It is a praying with the body, affirming the wholeness of the person in spiritual action; it gives emphasis and intensity to prayer; specifically it expresses hunger for God and His will; it asserts the goodness of creation by means of the temporary surrender of enjoyment of some of its benefits and therefore always includes an element of thanks giving; it is a training in Christian discipline and specifically against the sin of gluttony; it expresses penitence for the rejection and crucifixion of Christ by the human race; it is a fol lowing of Jesus on His way of fasting; it is one element in mortification; the acceptance of the death of self in the death of Christ, and thereby an act of faith in the resurrection." 22

Because of the united testimony from biblical teaching, church history, Ellen White's counsels, and the findings of science, there must be something to this matter of fasting. As individuals and as a church, I think we must practice more fasting in con junction with our prayer requests, being careful how we define and practice this spiritual discipline.

1 For example, the first Sabbath of 1979
was declared a day of prayer and fasting for the
spiritual needs of the church. In 1980 the
Sabbath of April 12 was set aside to pray and fast
for the upcoming General Conference session
in Dallas.

2 See also Samuel Macauley Jackson, ed.,
The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious
Knowledge (New York: Funk and
Wagnalls Co., 1909), pp. 279-284.

3 James White, in Review and Herald editorial,
Apr. 25, 1865; articles, Jan. 31, 1865, and
Feb. 21, 1865.

4 Ellen G. White, Counsels on Diet and
Foods (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald
Pub. Assn., 1946), p. 187.

5 Ibid., p. 188.

6 Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Washington,
D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958),
Book 2, p. 364.

7 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church
(Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub.
Assn., 1948), vol. 5, p. 134.

8 lbid.. vol. 4, pp. 517,518.

9 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain
View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1952),
p. 431.

10 Ellen G. White Letter 26, 1883, quoted in
Adventist Review, Mar. 27, 1980, p. 8.

11 Ellen G. White Letter 98, 1902, quoted in
Adventist Review, Mar. 27, 1980, p. 8.

12 White, Testimonies, vol. 2, pp. 650.

13 Ellen G. White, Counsels on Diet and Foods
(Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub.
Assn., 1946), pp. 187, 188.

14 Ellen G. White, Testimonies, vol. 2, p. 202.

15 Ellen G. White, Counsels on Diet and Foods (Wash
ington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn.,
1946), p. 189.

16 Ellen G. White, Counsels on Health (Mountain
View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1951), p.
148; Counsels on Diet and Foods, p. 190; and
G. D. Strunk, "Fasting," Canadian Adventist
Messenger, vol. 27, No. 24 (Dec. 21, 1978), p.

17 Ellen G. White, Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 626.

18 Ellen G. White, Counsels on Diet and Foods, p.

19 Alice Marsh, to Kenneth Schelske, Feb.
11, 1975. She also quoted from Ellen White, in
the Review and Herald, Feb. 11, 1904.

20 White, Counsels on Diet and Foods, p.

21 Ibid., p. 191.

22 The Westminster Dictionary of Christian
Spirituality (Philadelphia: Westminster Press,
1983), p. 148.

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Madeline S. Johnston, a developmental psychologist, is a freelance writer and editor in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

January 1995

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