Abraham Kuyper’s little book on the Christian life, The Practice of Godliness, closes with a thorough commendation of fasting.
In Kuyper’s day, individual fasting had all but died out, and congregational fasting was non-existent. Kuyper laments: “We have become estranged from fasting, and we do not count it among the means of edification.”
According to Kuyper, fasting is a beneficial spiritual discipline the church cannot afford to abandon: “In these times of spiritual poverty not one means of grace or one channel of closer fellowship with God should be neglected.”
Some Protestants associate fasting with Roman Catholicism (in order to condemn or avoid it), but Kuyper says this is a mistake, stemming from a “biased reading of the Word, ignorance of the practices of our forefathers, and lack of earnestness in the pursuit of a godly life.” In fact, fasting has a robust protestant pedigree, and was “commonly practiced” and recommended by the reformers as “an expression of godly living.” But if fasting is a practice of godliness, it must be grounded ultimately in God’s word, and not mere human prescription.
Kuyper presents three significant biblical examples of fasting as patterns for the Christian life: Moses in Exodus 34, Elijah in 1 Kings 19, and Jesus in Matthew 4. Kuyper acknowledges the exceptional duration of these fasts, yet this does not prevent them from serving as examples for Christians today, for “there was a special significance in this fasting, closely related to the spiritual struggle through which each had to wrestle in the Name of the Lord. For each it was a momentous experience — not a superstitious vagary, but a deed in which the Name of God was honored and glorified.”
Other Scriptures support these examples: Jesus commends fasting in various ways, speaking of it approvingly, declaring it an act of piety, recommending it as a defense against struggles with Satan. We see the apostles favoring and practicing it in Acts and the epistles, and there is ample testimony to fasting in the law and prophets. Since the teaching of Scripture is clear on the goodness of fasting, Kuyper asks, “Can we have any doubt as to its spiritual value? Can we doubt whether it is a godly practice, and according to God’s will?”
Kuyper endorses fasting in no uncertain terms: “Unhesitatingly we recommend fasting for the Christians of today. In fact, we are inclined to say that there is more reason for fasting in our day than ever before. Corrupted human nature yearns for luxury, and tends to become more corrupt as wealth and luxury increase. God knows that we cannot well be checked except by burdens and sorrows. And He himself has suggested fasting, by means of which we may guard against the unspiritual influence of ease and luxury.”
Notice that fasting is not just a sporadic event performed in response to some calamity, but an ordinary (if occasional) discipline that expresses godliness and combats worldliness. “We cannot well close our eyes to the spiritual blessings derived from the practice of fasting,” says Kuyper.
Kuyper’s diagnosis of widespread spiritual poverty is no less applicable today than when he wrote a century ago. Our basic struggles are little different than what the saints of old experienced, and we are beset by added temptations. The comfort, convenience, abundance, and amusement which are staples of modern life all too easily enflame vice and quench virtue. Fasting may seem an extreme prescription, but it could be just what we need to renew our hunger and thirst for righteousness.