Happy Fasting

These posts are rough summaries of the Sunday messages.

And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Matthew 6.16-18

We’ve arrived at everyone’s favourite subject; fasting.

In truth, fasting is massively underemphasised in our particular tribe within Christendom. Why is this? I would suggest these reasons.

First, we have a tendency to emphasise inner spirituality over outer obedience. We hear Jesus speak about the importance of the heart, but we forget that outer obedience — in particular, what you do with your body — matters a great deal. You are not a soul floating around in a body; your body is you, and what you do with it matters in the sense that it has spiritual ramifications. How you eat, sleep, make love, exercise, and countless other things are spiritual acts. It follows that fasting is a spiritual act also, but one we neglect.

Second, we ignore fasting because church leaders don’t often speak of it. My theory is that they want to avoid hypocrisy in speaking of something they avoid practising themselves!

Third, we avoid fasting because there is no command to fast on any particular day or period in the year. Of course, Christians have introduced periodic fasts (e.g. lent), but these are not Biblical innovations, and therefore those of us from a ‘low church’ background (i.e. those of us who avoid the robes, smells, and bells) do not follow religious calendars. We prefer to fast when we feel led by the Spirit. But what happens when you never feel led?

Fourth, and probably most importantly, we overlook fasting because it is downright unpleasant. You get bad breath, feel weak, and probably feel grumpy.

Now, when Jesus spoke these words about fasting he was speaking to people who saw fasting as integral to life and godliness. The Pharisees (known as the most pious guys around) fasted twice a week, which far exceeds the amount of fasting required under Biblical law. There was only one fast per year that God required, and yet these guys wanted to demonstrate their super-godliness by going over and above. It’s clear, then, why Jesus saw the danger of hypocrisy creeping into this context of guys following a set routine of regular fasts. 

Does Jesus' teaching apply in our situation, given that we don’t fast often (if at all)? I’d argue that his teaching is even more pertinent for this reason: if a Christian who fasts is about as common as a unicorn, then the amount of kudos at stake is even higher. The temptation to show yourself to be a super-Christian by fasting is even more acute.

But despite the danger of hypocrisy, Jesus absolutely expects his disciples to fast. It’s clear from these verse that this is the case. Jesus says, ‘And when you fast…’ (not ‘if’ you fast). Elsewhere, Jesus said that his followers would fast when he was no longer with them (see Matthew 9.15), and Jesus set the example with a particularly intense 40 day fast (Matthew 4.1-11). 

So, if Jesus expects us to fast, we need to take a step back and ask some bigger questions: What is fasting? Why fast? How should we do it?

What is fasting? Fasting is self-denial in consumption for a defined period. In the Bible you see different kinds of fasting, from no-food-or-water, to no-food, to no-fancy-food. The common thread is saying ‘no’ to what goes in your mouth as a deliberate act of self-denial. Of course, we can deny ourselves other kinds of pleasures (e.g. sex) but the Bible only speaks of food fasts as ‘fasting’.

Why fast? What would motivate you? What gain is there? I think we can boil the answer down to three basic motivations. 

1. Humiliation: you can fast in order to grow in humility. We know that humility of spirit can be reflected in the body. If a person hangs their head low or avoids eye contact, it may well reflect a basic humility (in contrast to the proud person who literally holds their head high). But the opposite is also true: what you do with your body, or what happens to it, can produce humility in your heart. We’ve all felt this at times of sickness when you suddenly feel deeply weak and dependent on others. When your body forces you to recognise your limitations, it makes you more humble.

Fasting is a kind of voluntary humiliation. By limiting what goes in your mouth you can truly feel your weakness and dependence, which in turn produces greater humility.

Fasting as self-humiliation can be appropriate in repentance from sin. God commanded the Israelites to fast on the great Day of Atonement (once a year, see Leviticus 16). Much later in the book of Joel we hear this call from God:

    “Yet even now,” declares the LORD,
        “return to me with all your heart,
    with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
        and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
    Return to the LORD your God,
        for he is gracious and merciful,
    slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
        and he relents over disaster. (Joel 2.12-13)

Fast as self-humiliation can also be appropriate when you feel the need to recover an appetite for God through self-denial. You see, many of us live relatively easy lives, and this can make us get very sleepy in a spiritual sense. Too often we fail to see that comfort can be dangerous for your spirituality. Cornelius Plantinga Jr. explains:

Self-indulgence is the enemy of gratitude, and self-discipline usually its friend and generator. That is why gluttony is a deadly sin. The early desert fathers [Christian men who lived like monks in the desert] believed that a person’s appetites are linked: full stomachs and jaded palates take the edge from our hunger and thirst for righteousness. They spoil the appetite for God.

If you are in danger of living a life of such ease that your hunger for God has diminished, fasting may well be an effective way of fostering the humility that causes you to come back to God. In other words, fasting helps teach ‘war time lessons in peace time’.

2. Devotion: you can fast as an act of devotion to God. Jesus is our primary example here. Nobody – nobody – has ever lived such a perfectly devoted life of worship to God. ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God…’ (Hebrews 10.7). ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise’ (John 5.19).

It’s so important to see how Jesus begins his public ministry: with an extended fast of 40 days. In so doing, Jesus shows us one of the crucial ways that he sought to demonstrate his devotion to the Father. And the fact that this takes place at the commencement of his ministry shows that he saw fasting as an appropriate way of being commissioned to the work he had to do.

Likewise, there are many circumstances in which it may be appropriate for us to fast as an act of devotion. Fasting is appropriate when seeking God’s guidance (see Acts 13.2), or when being commissioned to a work (Acts 13.3; 14.23). Fasting is linked with worship, as in the life of Anna (Luke 2.37).

3. Petition: you can fast to lend special intensity to your prayers. It is impossible to fast continually, though we are called to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thessalonians 5.17). Fasting is something special and rare, and so it can lend a certain intensity and focus to your prayers during particularly important seasons.

Nehemiah knew this. When he heard the horrible news of Jerusalem lying in ruins, he describes his reaction: ‘As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven’ (Nehemiah 1.4). (It makes me wonder, do we care about anyone or anywhere as much as this?)

Similarly, when Esther is charged by her uncle to go before the emperor and appeal on behalf of her people, she knows that this may court death since the emperor had the power to execute anyone who came to see him without invitation. And her reaction? She calls on people to pray with fasting (Esther 4.16).

How should we fast? From all we understand about fasting, it’s clear that fasting in order to get the praise of men is a total contradiction to the very meaning of fasting. (And surely this includes fasting with half a mind on the benefit of losing weight!)

Jesus wants us to fast, but he wants us to do it well, conscious that the Father sees, and that the Father rewards us. As we offer our bodies to God in this way, we are offering them as a spiritual act of worship (Romans 12.1).