Review of A Hunger for God by John Piper

Some time ago, the elders of my church were searching for a new senior pastor, since our then senior pastor had announced his retirement. The process was highly secretive, and none of the candidates for the position were made known to the congregation. At one point, the leadership of the church urged the congregation to engage in a week of fasting and prayer. The fasting aspect was rather unusual since our church does not regularly engage in fasting, and very rarely is there any teaching on fasting from the pulpit. Realizing this, the church leadership recommended that we read A Hunger for God by John Piper, which our senior pastor said was the best book on fasting that he knew.

I remember being uncertain why we were being asked to fast. Was the idea that we needed to pray really hard and that fasting was a way to intensify our prayers? Or was the goal to “discern God’s will”? The latter seemed unlikely since the congregation had almost no knowledge of or control over the decision process. I managed to read only the first chapter of A Hunger for God before the appointed week began, and that chapter did not answer my questions. Unaccustomed to fasting, I did not fast that week, though I did participate in the prayer activities. The week passed and I set aside Piper’s book for the time being.

Recently, I picked up the book again and read the whole thing. It is indeed a very good book. Piper’s very first sentence in the Preface is, “Beware of books on fasting.” Chapter 1 is entitled, “Is Fasting Christian?” Piper does not take it for granted that Christians ought to fast, and in Chapter 1 he gives many arguments against fasting. For example, he points out that fasting is a universal religious practice, that sometimes it is used as a political weapon, and that other times it is used as a health regimen. Thus there seems to be nothing distinctively Christian about fasting. Piper quotes Keith Main, author of a book entitled Prayer and Fasting: A Study in the Devotional Life of the Early Church, who suggests the possibility that “fasting is no longer consistent with the joyous and thankful attitude that marks the fellowship.” Indeed, the Apostle Paul warns against several wrong attitudes toward fasting, pointing out that food is good, that legalistic rules about what not to eat are of no value, and whether you eat or do not eat is not an essential matter. In light of all these caveats, is there any reason to fast?

The most important word on fasting in the Bible, says Piper, is Matthew 9:14–17.

Then the disciples of John came to [Jesus], saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”

Piper argues that the time when the bridegroom is taken away from them is now, after Jesus has ascended into heaven but has not yet come again; “in this age there is an ache inside every Christian that Jesus is not here as fully and intimately and as powerfully and as gloriously as we want him to be.” So we fast. But what is new about our fasting, as the analogy with wineskins suggests there must be?

What’s new about Christian fasting is that it rests on all this finished work of the Bridegroom. It assumes that. It believes that. It enjoys that. The aching and yearning and longing for Christ and his power that drive us to fasting are not the expression of emptiness. Need, yes. Pain, yes. Hunger for God, yes. But not emptiness. The firstfruits of what we long for have already come. The down payment of what we yearn for is already paid. The fullness that we are longing for and fasting for has appeared in history, and we have beheld his glory. It is not merely future. We do not fast out of emptiness. Christ is already in us the hope of glory.

This view of fasting addresses the concerns mentioned earlier. “Fasting is not a no to the goodness of food or the generosity of God in providing it. Rather, it is a way of saying, from time to time, that having more of the Giver surpasses having the gift.” Similarly, fasting is not “willpower religion” or “Stoic self-exaltation,” but a way of disciplining the body and a “passionate resolve to resist anything that lures the heart away from an all-controlling satisfaction in God.”

In Chapters 2 and 3, Piper discusses at length two passages about fasting. The first is the temptation of Christ. Piper writes, “This is the deepest lesson of Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness. It was a weapon in the war against satanic deception because it was a demonstration that Jesus hungered more for God and God’s will than he did for God’s wonders.” The second is the passage in the Sermon on the Mount that warns us against fasting in order to be admired by other people. Most interesting to me, however, are Chapters 4 and 5, where Piper elaborates on the theoretical foundation that he laid in Chapter 1. What does fasting look like in practice? When and why, concretely, should we fast?

Chapter 4, “Fasting for the King's Coming,” hews closely to the theme of Chapter 1. Fasting is a way for us to cultivate a longing within ourselves for Jesus to come again. Piper points out that Anna fasted as she waited longingly for the coming of the Messiah. How much more, then, should we long for the second coming of the Messiah! Fasting also trains us to hunger for God more than we hunger for food. A final point that Piper makes in this chapter is that Jesus will not come again until the gospel is preached to every nation. Thus fasting can and should fuel our zeal for evangelism.

Chapter 5, “Fasting and the Course of History,” is intriguing to me because—although Piper does not quite put it this way—it gives some historical examples of seemingly “successful” fasting that do not fit neatly into the theory of fasting that Piper has so carefully developed up to this point in the book. Piper begins with the example of Charles Finney, who reported that when the power of his preaching seemed to diminish, he would fast and pray, and then the power would return. Piper’s response to the example of Finney is measured and cautious.

What shall we do with a testimony like this? Shall we conclude that repeated days of prayer and fasting are the key to continuous revival? Shall we discount its relevance for us because it was just one man’s experience with God? Surely somewhere between these extremes is the humble and sober answer. We are not so wise and experienced in the things of God that we cannot learn from another’s fight of faith. God may indeed inspire us to set aside a day of fasting as we read this, and he may meet us there with great reviving power. But he may not. Others have sought and found awakening without fasting. Still others fasted and prayed for two, three, four or more weeks before a breakthrough came. It is a mistake to think that God’s way with one of his children will be his way with all.

Piper cites several other striking historical examples: Faced with these and other examples, Piper cannot deny that God sometimes changes the course of history through fasting, and that Acts 13 provides a “significant biblical precedent for engaging in worship-fasting-prayer in the earnest pursuit of God’s will for our lives and the life of our church.” Nevertheless, Piper is very cautious about trusting subjective impressions that we may form as a result of fasting. He also cites several texts (Jeremiah 14:12, Zechariah 7:5, Isaiah 58:3) that caution against any belief that fasting will automatically produce positive results. Still, Piper ends the chapter on a positive note, pointing to David Brainerd, Thomas Shepard, and Cotton Mather as examples of the value of a commitment to regular fasting and prayer.

I wlil not say much about the remaining chapters of the book, in part because they almost seem like independent sermons tacked on at the end. Chapter 6 is about the metaphorical fast in Isaiah 58 to fight for justice for the poor, and Chapter 7 is about abortion.

Having finished the book, I remain uncertain about our church’s week of fasting and prayer. Did we go about it the right way? Did we have the right motives? I am not sure. Based on what Piper says in his book, it would certainly have been misguided to think that by fasting, we would twist God’s arm a little harder and increase the chances of getting what we wanted. But to be fair, that is not what we were taught, and indeed, our pastoral search unexpectedly ended with none of the three finalists being selected—not an outcome that anyone was hoping for. With hindsight, perhaps the purpose of fasting that week was to help us as a congregation center our hope on Jesus, and relinquish all other desires, including our desire to control the future of our own church on our own terms. As Piper says, the ultimate purpose of fasting is to deepen our hunger for Christ, and Christ alone. Maranatha!

ADDENDUM: After writing the above review, I realized that I had overlooked Piper’s appendix, where he had compiled quotations from a variety of Christians on the topic of fasting (with the caveat that he did not necessarily endorse everything that he quoted). Quite a number of these quotes regarded fasting as a natural accompaniment to prayer. For example, Andrew Murray said, “Prayer needs fasting for its full growth.“ Andrew Fuller said, “Fasting is supposed to be the ordinary practice of the godly. … It is an appendage to prayer, and designed to aid its importunity.” Perhaps most relevant to my question about why we should fast in connection with our pastoral search was John Calvin’s discussion of fasting in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.

There are examples scattered through the sacred histories, which there is no need to collect. To sum them up: whenever a controversy over religion arises which ought to be settled by either a synod or an ecclesiastical court, whenever there is a question about choosing a minister, whenever, finally, any difficult matter of great importance is to be discussed, or again when there appear the judgments of the Lord’s anger (as pestilence, war, and famine)—this is a holy ordinance and one salutary for all ages, that pastors urge the people to public fasting and extraordinary prayers. If anyone declines to accept the testimonies which can be cited from the Old Testament, as if inappropriate to the Christian church, the fact remains that the apostles also followed the same practice. (4.12.14, emphasis mine)

Whenever men are to pray to God concerning any great matter, it would be expedient to appoint fasting along with prayer. Thus, when the Antiochenes placed their hands upon Paul and Barnabas, the better to commend their ministry to God, a ministry of great importance, they joined fasting to prayer [Acts 13:3]. Thus, both of these afterward, when they appointed ministers to churches, were accustomed to pray with fasting [Acts 14:23]. Their sole purpose in this kind of fasting is to render themselves more eager and unencumbered for prayer. Surely we experience this: with a full stomach our mind is not so lifted up to God that it can be drawn to prayer with a serious and ardent affection and persevere in it. So are we to understand what Luke relates concerning Anna, that she has served the Lord in fasting and prayers [Luke 2:37]. For Luke does not set the worship of God in fasting; but he means that the holy woman has in this way trained herself to sustained prayer. Such was Nehemiah’s fast when, with earnest zeal, he prayed God for the liberation of his people [Neh 1:4]. (4.12.16, emphasis mine)

So unlike Piper, who feels the need to explicitly justify fasting on the basis of Matthew 9:14–17, Calvin seems content to simply follow precedent, recommending fasting as a practical way to help us be more “eager and unencumbered for prayer.”
Posted August 2020

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