“And he made a proclamation, saying, ‘From the learning of the king and his great ones—neither man or beast, nor cattle or flock should taste anything. Let them not pasture nor let them drink water. Rather, they shall cover themselves with sackcloth—man and beast—they shall call to God in strength, and each man shall turn from his way of the evil and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows, God may turn and relent and turn from his wrath and we will not perish.” (Jonah 3:7-9)
And here we have the king’s proclamation and call to national repentance (or at least city-wide repentance). The proclamation begins with a rather formulaic introduction—“from the learning of the king and his great ones.” We could probably translate this more idiomatically as: “according to the wisdom of the king and his nobles” or “This is the discernment of the king and his advisors.” The general idea is to clearly communicate the authority that this proclamation has. Not only, thus says the king and those governors that are under him in power, but assuming that the king is either the wisest or has access to the wisest men in the area—here is the wisdom of all of these fellows.
The king’s response is to call a fast. Fasting is an important element in the Christian faith that we often ignore in our self-centered culture. When Jesus was preaching what we know as the Sermon on the Mount, he made the assumption that faithful believers did fast. His language is unambiguous, he does not say “if you fast,” but Jesus clearly states, “when you fast” (Matthew 6:16). Given the importance that scripture places on fasting, it would do us well to build an understanding of just what fasting is and what it should be used for.
Perhaps it would be best, though, to first set out a few things that fasting is not. First of all, fasting is not accidental. Because you had a busy day and decided to work through lunch does not mean that you had a fast. Because you forgot to take lunch with you does not mean that you had a fast. As a young man, when my parents were serving liver or tuna-fish casserole for dinner, I often told them that it was my evening to fast as a way of getting out of eating dinner. Though I called these things fasts, they really were nothing of the sort.
Fasts are also not to be done for the praise of men. When fasting, Jesus says, the people around us should not recognize that we are fasting—that is unless they are fasting with us (see Matthew 6:17-18). Fasts are not to be detrimental to your health. God means for our times of fasting to build us up in faith, not for them to tear us down. That means that if you have serious dietary restrictions like diabetes or anemia, you should consult with your doctor before embarking on a time of fasting (it is worth noting that I do know of people with diabetes who do fast, but who take special precautions when doing so). Also, if you happen to be recovering from a sickness or are fighting an illness off, you need to eat to keep up your strength and you should consider postponing your time of fasting until you are well. Though fasting may be done during a time of intense grief and mourning, as a whole, it should be a positive experience, not a detrimental one.
Lastly, fasts should be irregular. They should be the exception in the life of the believer, not something that you do in the course of habit. When we do things on a regular basis, our fallen human nature begins to take things as a matter or routine and habit, and that often decreases the value of such an experience to the participant. Fasting is meant to stretch you and teach you to rely more strongly on the provision of God—routine does not do this.
The point of fasting is not simply that you are giving up food for a time, but that you are subjecting your physical body for spiritual purposes. All too often our lives are dictated by the desires of our flesh. We eat when we get hungry and we sleep when we get tired. In fasting, you submit your body to the needs of your spirit.
Fasting is something that can be done individually or corporately. What we have here in the Jonah account is an instance of a corporate fast and it is done in conjunction with a national tragedy (in this case, the preaching of Jonah). There are certainly plenty of reasons in our day that would spur on a corporate time of fasting within the church. The world threat of terrorism that is going on today, the wholesale slaughter of unborn babies in our own nation, and the way the evangelical church in our culture is losing the purity of its witness are a few examples that might spur us to fast as a body of believers.
On an individual level, scripture gives us a number of examples of reasons to fast. Fasting is something that is done in connection with intense grief over the effects of sin, as David fasted for his dying child after his sin of adultery (2 Samuel 12:16). It is to bear witness to our contrition and humiliation before God, as was part of the king’s motivation in Nineveh. It is meant to stir up our devotions and to set our minds to God, especially when it comes to matters of spiritual discernment. Before choosing Paul and Barnabas to go as missionaries, the church in Antioch was involved in fasting to guide their wisdom (Acts 13:2). In turn, Paul and Barnabas fasted and prayed before choosing elders in the churches they established (Acts 14:23).
Yet, we must always keep before us the fact that while fasting is an important part of the life of the believer as well as being an important aid to prayer, it is not a sure-fire means to getting what we want. God is not a gumball machine in the sky, just because you put a quarter prayer in, does not mean that you will get a sweet treat out. God has ordained all things from before the beginning of creation and when you pray, led by the Holy Spirit, you are praying for those things that God desires you to pray for. You are not changing God’s mind, but are gloriously being allowed to participate in the redemptive plan of God. Often, God will use prayer and fasting to put your heart and mind in the right place so that he can work through you. Never forget what God spoke through the prophet Joel: “rend your hearts, not your garments.”
Beloved, never forget the importance of fasting, but when you do so, do so for the right reasons. Never do it out of a sense of personal holiness, but do it in brokenness. Never do it for the praise of men, but do it in secret—God will know the motivations of your heart. God places no value in empty ritual, but seeks to conform you to his heart, and fasting is one of the means that he uses to do just that.