Occasionally, we receive some questions about the matter of fasting as it is set forth in the New Testament. We have been asked if Christians must fast in order to be acceptable in the sight of God, and if we are to fast, how do we know when to do so? Answering these questions will allow us to make some general observations regarding the matter of fasting. The first observation is that this was a thing that was done by the Old Testament Jew. And though God, in the law of Moses required only one day of fasting per year, according to Leviticus 16:29-31, the Jews added several other periods of fasting to this one required by God's law. (See: 2 Chronicles 20:30; 1 Samuel 31:13; 2 Samuel 12:16; 1 Kings 21:9 & 27; and Esther 4:16.) God did not seem to mind that the Jews engaged in fasting more often than he had required under the law, so even under the law, with the exception of the Day of Atonement, fasting was a voluntary exercise and was not a requirement of God.
By the time that Jesus began his ministry upon the earth, fasting was quite common among the Jews and especially among a sect called the Pharisees. Some of the Pharisees fasted as often as twice a week, but they did so more for the purpose of showing themselves off to men than they did for dedicating themselves wholly to God for the period of the fast. Jesus saw through the hypocrisy of the Pharisees who boasted that they fasted twice in a week. In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. In this parable, he mentioned that the Pharisee boasted to God that he fasted twice a week (v.12). Jesus also pointed out in Matthew 6:16 that the Pharisees did this to be seen of men, and that when they had been seen of men they had their reward. So they did not really fast in order to draw more closely to God, but in order that men would say, when they looked upon them, "Look how righteous the Pharisees are, they fast twice a week."
In 1 Corinthians 7:1-5, Paul told the Corinthian Christians that they could refrain from the conjugal relationship if both consented to do so for a period of fasting and prayer. They were not required to do this, but they were permitted to do so. We understand, from what is written to the Corinthians, that fasting was a choice to be exercised by the Christians and not a matter of obligation laid upon them by the Gospel of Christ.
It goes without saying, that Jesus abhorred the hypocrisy that was practiced by the Pharisees regarding the matter of fasting, and warned the people not to follow the example of the hypocritical Pharisees. Jesus did not forbid them to fast, nor did he forbid them to be seen of men while they fasted, but he did forbid them to fast for the purpose of receiving human praise. If we decide to fast today for the purpose of drawing closer to God in prayer and study, we should not allow that to be made known to those around us. We say this because fasting is not a means of earning a place of good standing with God. Even in the Old Testament Yahweh warned of a religion that replaced righteousness with fasting and outward devotion with dealing justly with one's fellow man. So fasting cannot be substituted for loving obedience to God or for loving fellowship with our brethren.
Fasting can come about as a result of our faith in, and devotion to the God of heaven. We may fast in order to give ourselves, for a period of time, to prayer and the study of the Word of God. It could also be, depending on our physical makeup, that fasting would be so distracting to us that we would not be able to engage in concentrated Bible study and prayer. We think that it is interesting that in all the Bible only one nation of people were required to fast, and that was limited to one day.
There is, no doubt, a place for fasting in the kingdom of God, but it is something that we do by the permission of God, and not because he requires it of us. No one can bind fasting upon another person, and no one can forbid another to fast because both Jesus and Paul gave permission for us to fast: Paul by command, in the First Corinthian letter, and Jesus by example during his ministry upon the earth. Perhaps more of us should fast more often, but since it is to be a personal matter, there would be no way of forcing men and women, boys and girls to do so. One can say that one must be baptized in order to be saved (Mark 16:15-16) but no one can say that one must fast in order to be saved!
In Ephesians 4:30, we read the following words: "And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption." There are many interesting things to study in this simple verse of Scripture. For example, it would be very nice to understand the "sealed" in this passage. Perhaps we will enter into a study of that word at some later time. It would also be beneficial for us to study what is meant by "the day of redemption," and perhaps we will study that phrase in the not too distant future. But for today we wish to ask the question, what does it mean to "grieve" the Holy Spirit of God? Whatever it means, it must refer to something that is quite serious!
The word that is translated "grieve" in this passage comes from the Greek "lupeite," from "lupeo," which means to cause distress, heaviness, or grief; to be made to have "sorrow." The concept of the word is the very same that we experience at the passing of a loved one, or something of such a grave nature. Think about the fact that it is within the capacity of a mere human being to bring grief to the Godhead by the things that we do, or fail to do, or by the things that we believe or fail to believe! It seems to me a thing almost unbelievable that mere human beings have the capacity to grieve the Godhead, and yet we read of instances in the Bible when they did just that!
In Genesis 6, when God resolved to destroy the people of the world with a great flood, he made that resolve because he was sorry (grieved) that he had ever created man and given him the earth. Out of a population that could have been several millions, God found only one family that was righteous in his sight. That was the family of Noah, that great patriarch who "walked with God." The Jews under the law of Moses, at various times and in various ways, caused God not only to grieve, but to become angry as a result of the terrible sins committed by them.
Since those of us who are Christians are not likely to wallow in idolatry as did the Jews in the days of Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah, how can we cause grief to the Holy Spirit of God? We believe that the very paragraph which gives us the warning not to grieve the Holy Spirit mentions several ways in which it may be done. One may grieve the Spirit by lying, being angry and sinning, letting the sun go down on our wrath, giving place to the devil, stealing, refusing to work, allowing corrupt communication to come from our hearts by the way of the mouth while refusing to speak in such a way as to edify those Christians around us.
But in verse 31, Paul mentions some other characteristics which, if they are found in our lives will also "grieve the Holy Spirit of God." The first of these is to be bitter, that is, to have an acrid, sharp, harsh personality. The second of these is for us to be wrathful, that is have feelings of hostility and rage against another person. This, among other things, will cause a person to become bitter, and give him the capacity to grieve the Holy Spirit. The third thing which Paul mentions in this passage by which we may grieve the Holy Spirit is anger, that is impulsive wrath, or what we call "blowing our tops." We generally refer to a person who does this as one who cannot control his temper. The fourth thing that Paul mentions in this verse is that we can grieve the Spirit by engaging in clamoring. To clamor means to scream, or shout at the top of one's lungs during a heated exchange. Such behavior, and the attitude that brings it on, have no place in the life of the Christian. And if we allow our "tempers" to take over so that we scream, or clamor, we lack self-discipline and faith in God.
Next, the Apostle Paul speaks of that which may be found in the midst of a clamor, and that is, speaking evil of another person. To speak evil here actually means to "blaspheme." But we can also speak evil of others at various times in our lives. We may do so by slandering another, particularly one with whom we have had a difference. But the Apostle brings this list to an end by telling the Ephesians that these characteristics are to be removed from our lives along with all malice. The word "malice" refers to a corrupt depraved disposition. Another way of describing malice is to say that a certain person has a "hateful disposition." So, by removing such things from our lives, by faith, we will not be found grieving the Spirit of God.
However, that is not all there is to the matter. As some things are to be removed from our lives, so some things are to be added. Paul expressed these things in verse 32 when he said that we are to be kind (gentle and patient) with one another. He said that we are to be tenderhearted, that is, compassionate toward one another, and we are to be forgiving toward one another to the same extent that God, because of the death of Christ, is forgiving toward us. Let us all resolve not to grieve the Holy Spirit of God!