Takeaway: A very good, pastoral look at the reasons to fast and the purpose behind fasting.
This is the second fasting book this week. (The first was Fasting by Scot McKnight.) Our church is currently in a 21 day fast so I am trying to do some background reading to understand what fasting is about and why we should do it.
Since this is a review of a book on the exact same topic as my last review I am going to do more comparing than I usually do. This is the second book I have finished of John Piper’s. The first was little more than a pamphlet. I have enormous respect for John Piper. I really respect his pastoral heart and his desire to communicate truth, especially to young people. He has been a part of Passion conferences since the beginning. That being said, I disagree with him on many things theologically, politically and socially. However, one of the things that I most respect about Piper is attempt (most of the time) to really respect people he differs with theologically. The introduction on his book The Future of Justification: A Response to NT Wright is the single best thing on disagreements in the church that I have ever read (although I never made it through the rest of the book). So on to the review.
Overall there was a lot of agreement between these two books. I find that heartening because these two authors are on different sides of several theological issues. Both go over many of the same scriptures that talk about fasting. In several places I think that Piper has a better sense of the overall reason that people are reading about fasting. McKnight seems to spend most of the book telling you not to fast or how not to fast. Piper is much more positive in his take. Piper quotes a story from Dr Lundquist (former President of Bethel Theological Seminary) where Lundquist realized during a trip to Korea, seeing how much the Korean church regularly fasted, that the common scripture used by the American church as a reason not to fast (Matthew 6:16 – this is the one that says ‘do not fast to be seen by men’) starts with the phrase “When you fast”. Lundquist, and Piper (and also McKnight–because he quotes Piper’s quoting of Lundquist) come to the conclusion that Jesus assumed that we would be fasting. Clearly there has been some drift from the original intention of the passage.
Another positive about this book is that he directly looks about what rewards we can expect from fasting. In the end he suggests that there are rewards. He eliminates instrumental rewards (if you fast then God must do xyz) but still allows that when done in the right spirit and in the right way there are rewards. McKnight was hesitant to even talk about the possibility of rewards. Piper says almost at the end of the book, “God is committed to rewarding those acts of the human heart that signify human helplessness and hope in God. Over and over again in Scripture God promises to come to the aid of those who stop depending on themselves and seek God as their treasure and help.” So when fasting is about depending more on God and not showing God how much we can do on our own, then God can reward us. Although those rewards are of God’s own choosing and in God’s own time.
There is a good quote from CS Lewis that Piper uses, “There are rewards that do not sully motives. A man’s love for a woman is not mercenary because he wants to marry her, nor his love for poetry mercenary because he wants to read it, nor his love for exercise less interested because he wants to run and leap and walk. Love, by definition, seeks to enjoy its object.” So Piper has no problem allowing for rewards. I think this idea is something lacking in McKnight.
On the negative side, Piper has a chapter that veers into the political. Not only did I disagree with parts of it, it just didn’t seem to fit. I understand where he was coming from, because he wants to talk about how fasting relates to 2 Chronicles 7:14 (If my people, who are called by my name will humble themselves and call upon my name…). In the end he says it doesn’t. He encourages people to fast for the country and for the sins of the country but cautions us on drawing a straight line between 2 Chronicles 7:14 and our current political world. So I appreciate how he ends that section, but he went through strange areas to get there.
I also like that he uses some modern examples of fasting. McKnight mostly used ancient authors (in McKnight’s defense his book was published as part of The Ancient Practice Series).
Just as a warning, don’t read either of these two books if you are looking for specific ideas on how to fast. Neither of them talk about specifics of how to fast. So if that is what you are looking for, you need to keep looking.
Also, if anyone doesn’t know, almost all of John Piper’s books are free on his website. They are mostly in PDF format but if you have a Kindle or other ebook reading you can convert them into a friendly format (they do not have DRM) and read away. I have downloaded several and plan on reading a couple more in the next few months.