A Hunger for God, Desiring God Through Fasting and Prayer, by John Piper (Wheaton: Crossway, 1997) pp. 239, paper $10.99
John Piper pursues his usual theme, desiring God, this time through the means of fasting. He states early that “the birthplace of Christian fasting is homesickness for God” (p. 13). Additionally Piper makes numerous and strong claims for fasting: it awakens our appetite for God (p. 23); it will help keep us from turning gifts into gods (pp. 17-20); fasting is a test to see what desires control us (pp. 19, 58); it is an intensifier of spiritual desire (p. 22); we cannot face the hazards of life and ministry without fasting (pp. 51, 62-63); Jesus triumphed over the devil by fasting and, thus, we owe our salvation, in some measure, to fasting (p. 55); fasting is a physical expression of heart-hunger for the coming of Jesus (p. 83); it awakens us to latent spiritual appetites by pushing the domination of physical forces from the center of our lives (p. 90); the reason we do not fast is because we are content with the absence of Christ (p. 93); it was fasting in Acts 13 that changed the course of history (p. 107); fasting is meant to starve sin (p. 136); it is a gift from God (p. 177); fasting will subdue and control the body, or so says Luther (p. 185); one who does not fast is not a Christian, or so says Wesley (p. 191).
As is obvious, Piper is a strong supporter of fasting, but he recognizes that Old Testament fasting is not the same as Christian fasting. The Old Testament people fasted primarily for two reasons: longing for the Messiah and mourning (over loss, danger or sin) (p. 35). They fasted on Mondays and Thursdays (Piper does not mention that this practice is found not in the Old Testament but in the Gospels and was part of the tradition of the Pharisees, not a scriptural mandate). And while there is no New Testament command to fast Piper assures us that we must embrace fasting although not as was found under the Old Covenant. “We’ll take it, but we’ll change it,” he writes (p. 25).
In the absence of any command in the New Testament to fast, coupled with virtually no mention of fasting in the epistles and only two examples in Acts, Piper has to scramble to make a case for fasting during the church age. Despite the strong statements and claims for fasting mentioned above, none of them is supported directly by Scripture. In addition there are strong arguments questioning the role of fasting for the Christian that must be handled. Piper hits these head-on and early. He opens his book by listing Scriptures that warn of asceticism (1 Tim 4:13; Col 2:20-21; 1 Cor 8:8; Luke 18:12-14) (p. 9). He then points to four objections that some have to Christian fasting: fasting is not uniquely Christian; the arrival of the kingdom negated the need for fasting; the danger of fasting leads to pride, and fasting seems to be a denial of the joy of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit (pp. 26-36).
Piper’s reply to these concerns comes in several forms: examination of Scripture, testimonies of others, and personal conviction. The primary argument, of course, must be what the New Testament teaches and he sees Matthew 9:14-17 as the most important New Testament passage on fasting (p. 34). Jesus’ disciples did not fast because they were in the presence of the Bridegroom but when the Bridegroom is taken away Jesus declares “they will fast” (p. 36). Piper rejects, as I would, that this fasting by His disciples should not be confined to the three days between the Cross and the Resurrection. But he dismisses rather quickly (one paragraph) Jesus’ teaching that the Holy Spirit would be coming to replace Him as our “paraclete” (John 14:18). Piper does not mention John 16:7 where Jesus tells His disciples that it was to their advantage that He go away. Could not Jesus’ statement to His disciples’s concerning fasting when He was taken away refer to the time between the Crucifixion and Pentecost? Piper does not address this possibility.
The author uses a few other New Testament scriptures to prove his case but none convincingly. He claims that 2 Corinthians 6:5 and 11:27 (p. 37) speak of Paul fasting when clearly these verses are in the context of forced hunger as a form of persecution. He correctly points to Acts 13:1-3 and 14:23 to show that fasting was still practiced on occasion by the New Testament church but never addresses that some Christians at the time, such as Paul, still participated in a few Jewish feasts and rituals. If we are patterning our lives after examples, why do we not as Christians keep the Jewish traditions as some of the apostles did for a time? What is lacking in Piper’s exegesis is clear teaching or command in the New Testament scriptures for church-age fasting. Examples might give us freedom to fast, but are not a mandate. Romans chapter 14 is an important text in regard to this subject but is not adequately addressed in this volume (see p. 33). Quite frankly Piper does not prove his case for Christian fasting from the New Testament. Fasting is neither commanded nor rejected in the New Testament, but left to the circumstances and convictions of individual Christians. A quote from J. Oswald Sanders gives the proper balance: “Fasting is not a legalistic requirement but a spontaneous reaction under special circumstances…There are…godly and prayerful people who have found fasting a hindrance rather than a help…There is no need for such to be in bondage. Let them do what most helps them to pray” (p. 208). With this I agree.
Piper’s next line of argument are examples and quotes throughout church history. He devotes chapter five to such experiences (pp. 99-127) and he ends A Hunger for God with an appendix of quotes favoring fasting (pp. 183-210). Of course, quotes and examples, while interesting, carry no authority if not backed by Scripture. But of even greater concern is that Piper draws from a number of disturbing sources. There are spiritual formation leaders such as Richard Foster (pp. 19, 58, 202-203) and Dallas Willard (pp. 203-204), Roman Catholic priests and monks (p. 210), and the Desert Fathers and early church mystics from which much of modern fasting practices originate (p. 210).
Piper’s final line of argumentation is his own conviction and authority. The claims for fasting, listed early in this review, simply cannot be proven by Scripture. They are the opinion of Piper and those who back his views. For example, when using Acts 13 as proof for Christian fasting he does not mention that the passage lacks specific reasons why they fasted, and that nothing is said about their hunger for God that led them to fast (p. 106). This is typical of the book. Piper makes powerful claims for Christian fasting but he does not prove these claims from New Testament scriptures.
One Old Testament text that the author spends much time on is Isaiah 58 which condemns Israel for keeping fasts while its heart was far from God. This is an excellent reminder, but Piper uses the passage to springboard into his belief in the cultural mandate (although not mentioned by name), that the church has been called to social action as part of the Great Commission (pp. 22, 127-153). Piper can make this link only by equating Old Testament Israel with the New Testament church. By doing so he does not distinguish life under the Old Covenant from New Testament teaching for life during the church age. This is really foundational to Piper’s position on fasting. The logic is that if fasting was an important part of Old Testament Israel’s spiritual life then it must also be an important part of the Christian’s life today. During the church age we must make some changes and adjustments to Old Testament life, but we must not break the link to these things. It is on the basis of this theological premise that Piper can promote fasting so heavily in spite of the absence of New Testament teaching to back his views.