Is fasting an important teaching of Jesus? Let’s be honest. Rarely, exceedingly rarely, in our evangelical world do we hear about fasting.
Once scholarly source, Halley’s Handbook says this: “There are special occasions born out of extreme sorrow when fasting is appropriate, but generally speaking it is out of order.”
Generally speaking, it is out of order? Really?
Jesus once spoke to his disciples about fasting in his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6. In verse 16 we read that he said, “When you fast…”
Look at the flow of the Jesus’ teaching, since the beginning of chapter 6. Jesus says in verses 2 & 3 “When you give,” and our Christian culture generally accepts this teaching as something normal. The result is that we practice giving weekly in worship and in other ways. Then Jesus says in verses 5, 6, & 7, “When you pray” and our Christian culture also generally accepts this as normative, and we have prayer in worship, prayer meetings, and encourage private prayer as well.
Then Jesus says “When you fast” in verses 16 & 17, and we have to be honest and admit that this is NOT a common part of Christian culture and practice. But look at what Jesus has done so far in this chapter: he categorizes these three practices equally. Giving? Total normal and expected. Prayer? Totally normal and expected. Fasting? “Generally speaking out of order”?
Not so for Jesus. He taught fasting as expected and normal.
In Old Testament Jewish culture, and later in the early church, there were a variety of special occasions when fasting took place: sadness, tragedy, demon possession, ordination for ministry. Fasting was considered to be a regular practice. Just as regular as going to worship services.
Sadly over time fasting has gone from a regular practice to an occasional practice.
So first and foremost, we need to see Jesus’ teaching as a corrective. Fasting is to be practiced by all of his disciples regularly.
Having established the regularity of fasting, Jesus goes on to show us that fasting can be done the wrong way!
Fasting can be done the wrong way.
Jesus says in Matthew 6:16 that fasting can be done wrongly by people attempting to build their reputation. Earlier in the sermon in Matthew 6, Jesus said the same thing about giving and prayer: our practice of spiritual disciplines can be abused. He shows how the hypocrites made a mockery of fasting by making a production out of it. He says they disfigure their faces.
My NIV Study Bible notes say that typical custom when fasting was to put ashes on your head to signify that you are fasting.
For many centuries and still to this day, ashes are a traditional way to start Lent. Early Ash Wednesday morning, Christians receive a sign of the cross, written in ash, on their foreheads. Then they wear it all day long to signify that they have begun the period of fasting lasting from that day until Easter.
Jesus is saying that some people in his day would go beyond that. You might not notice that someone had ashes on their head. But you couldn’t miss it if someone’s face was “disfigured.” That word “disfigure” is the same word that Jesus will use a few verses later in 19 & 20 to describe what moths do to clothing and was rust does to iron. What these hypocrites were doing to their faces, then, was very noticeable. And that is a problem. They’re doing a good thing, fasting, but they’re doing it wrongly. They’re using fasting to get a lot of attention. To build up their reputation as being super-spiritual. To get people to think they’re something special. And Jesus says, if that’s what they want, then they got it.
They have their reward already. His point is that their reward is a weak one. It’s a powerless reward.
Is it possible that we might draw attention to ourselves when we practice spiritual disciplines? Might our announcements on Facebook, about fasting or praying or giving, amount to the same kind of self-focused attention that Jesus decries? If so, then the “likes” we receive are our reward. We really want those “likes” on our posts. They can make us feel important and appreciated. But Jesus says that our practice of spiritual discipline should be aimed a much higher reward, that of being noticed by our father in heaven. And the way to get him to reward us is to do our fasting in secret.
Jesus isn’t alone in showing how fasting can be done wrongly. His teaching is very similar to another prominent teaching about fasting in the OT. In Isaiah 58:1-7, God says fasting can be done wrongly by not changing us.
Years ago at Faith Church we showed a film called simply, 58. It is now free to watch online. I encourage you to do so. It talks about how the teaching about fasting in Isaiah 58 can apply to our world, a world in which poverty, human trafficking and injustice are rampant. We can practice fasting all we want, but what if we are never changed by it? What if our fasting doesn’t make a difference to the injustice in our world. In Isaiah 58, God calls this a false fast. In Isaiah 58, just as in Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6, it seems the people doing the fasting are out to get the benefit for themselves alone.
When our church took a mission trip to Costa Rica in the summer of 2009, our group there read this chapter the day before we walked through a deeply impoverished slum neighborhood where a church we visited was located. We decided that those who wanted to could voluntarily forego a meal, and we would donate the funds to the church. Many also selected numerous personal items to give to the needy brothers and sisters in the church. Some in our group were very hungry that day as we walked around that neighborhood. But instead of eating lunch, we prayed as we walked the streets. We had our eyes opened to poverty and gang violence and broken down homes where babies were sick. That was a fast designed to benefit those in need.
Now read the rest of Isaiah 58, verses 8-14 to hear the results of the true kind of fasting. Isn’t that astounding? That is another reason why we practice the right kind of fasting.
But what else happens when we fast. So far we’ve heard that God desires us to fast, and that he blesses and rewards those who fast. That alone is wonderful. But in Scripture we see there is even more to fasting.
Fasting is designed to: Help us concentrate on prayer. Fasting adds intensity to prayer. Jesus once gave his disciples a tip when they were struggling to cast out a demon. They had seen Jesus do it many times and thought they would try. But this demon wasn’t coming out. Jesus said to his disciples, “That kind only comes out by prayer AND fasting.” In the spiritual realm, fasting adds power.
Next, fasting is designed to: Heighten spiritual awareness. Many times fasting was used before a special decision. Acts 13 speaks of a time when the early church fasted. As a result, God set apart Paul & Barnabas as missionaries. Then the church fasted again before laying hands on them. When my denomination, the EC Church, was selecting a new Bishop a few years ago, the leaders called for a special season of fasting before our Bishop was chosen.
Next, fasting is designed to: Teach us dependence on God (rather than food). Fasting flies in the face of American self-sufficiency. Our famous slogan is: “Get R Done.” We are independent. We think we don’t need anyone, and fasting reminds us, YES WE DO. Fasting takes us out of our comfort zone and reminds that we are indulgent, consumers, and it takes us to a place of dependence.
To illustrate our need for dependence on God, in a very weird statement in John 6, Jesus told us that he was to be “eaten”. I’m serious. Look it up.
I encourage you to read all of John 6 because the connections between Jesus and food are many and varied. He carries on a testy conversation with the crowds around him that day, and eventually he says this: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” Weird, huh? I wish I could enter into their hearts and minds of the people listening that day. I wish I could understand what this meant to them. It is such a bizarre statement. We know a bit of how they understood it because toward the end of the chapter, we read that even some of his disciples stopped following him.
So what was going on in this strange chapter? Jesus said more than just “eat my flesh and drink my blood.” Look back at verse 48. He talked about being the Bread of life from heaven.
There was in the history of Israel a story all the people listening to Jesus that day would have known very well. The story of manna, which the people in the crowd refer to in verse 30. It is a story hearkening back to the time when the people of Israel, in the book of Exodus, had left slavery in Egypt and wandering through the desert, heading toward the Promised Land of Canaan, they had very little means to get food. So God provided miraculously for them every morning with flakes called manna. The flakes would lay on the ground like snow, and then would collect enough for that day and use the manna to make bread. Back here in John 6, Jesus says that he, not the manna, is “the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die” (6:48-50). The practice of fasting goes together with this teaching about nourishing ourselves on the person of Jesus. But how?
Author Dallas Willard, in his excellent book about spiritual disciplines, The Spirit of the Disciplines says that fasting “emphasizes the direct availability of God to nourish, sustain, and renew the soul. It is a testimony to the reality of another world from which Jesus and his Father perpetually intermingle their lives with ours. And the effects of our turning strongly to this true “food” will be obvious.”
So we see that fasting teaches us dependence on God.
Next, Fasting is designed to: break the chains of injustice
We have practiced communal fasting like this during lent with our sister church in Chicago, Kimball Avenue. I have written about the Lenten Compact here. Lent is an ancient Christian period of fasting, and the Lenten Compact is a group fast. In this group fast, we agree with one another to participate in a fast, leading up to Easter, using the principles found in Isaiah 58, which I mentioned above. One year was the Compact was designed to teach us about the strangers among us, and many of us fasted by giving extra time and resources to help refugees coming into Lancaster. Another year the Compact was about violence, and we gave up things like violent movies, video games and the like. These are fasts that heighten spiritual awareness, help us prayer, help us depend on God and break the chains of injustice.
So let’s get down to the nitty gritty. How do we actually practice fasting on a regular basis?
There are all kinds of ways to fast.
Fasting is abstaining from anything that hinders prayer. Abstaining from something that would allow more time for prayer. Meal? Football game on TV? All TV for week?
Ideally fasts add more prayer and time with God. But just fasting alone is important because it reminds us that we can have unhealthy dependencies on things in life, and the act of giving them up, just that alone, is a good thing.
Maybe you might try fasting food on Sundays before communion. Start Saturday night after dinner, eating nothing until after communion the next day. Take the extra time that you would have normally spent eating food, and spend more time in prayer confessing your sin and shortcoming, thus preparing you for communion.
Fast during Lent. Catholics have Friday Fish Fries because a traditional fast during Lent is giving up meat. You have probably heard the phrase: “What are you giving up for Lent?” This past Lent I gave up phone games. Some people give up Facebook. Some fast from TV. When we fast during Lent, we are opening up space in our lives to ask God how we can depend on him more during that time. We are seeking to break unhealthy dependency on lesser things. We are seeking to prepare ourselves for the great celebration of Easter.
We should also practice fasting during times of spiritual depression, maybe to get away, go to a mountain and pray. Twin Pines is a great spot for this. When you go to camp or go on a retreat, do you realize that you are actually fasting many of the normal parts of life we are accustomed to? What also happens at camp? We spend extra time with God! Should we be surprised, then, at how many people have amazing experiences with God at camp, or on retreats? Fasting is part and parcel of that.
We also need to practice fasting on a regular basis like we practice weekly worship attendance which includes prayer and giving. In this regard, many American Christians could learn from our brothers and sisters around the world.
I’ll never forget that when I visited our sister churches in Nepal in 2007. I got to talk with their director, and he told us about how much their churches are growing and reaching people, even in the midst of persecution. I had to ask him what their secret was. How could they be growing so much, while we in the USA are seeing churches in decline? You know what he said to me? Our sister Churches in Nepal practice fasting regularly.
And then there was the time our missionaries in Brazil, Dave & Conce Roof, shared this amazing story:
A number of years ago, one of the elders Dave and Conce trained, and who was a dear friend of theirs, started outright lying in a number of the churches. He was causing division and strife, and it seemed he was intentionally trying to destroy the church from within. Dave and Conce were devastated with seeing the destruction of the relationships in the church by this man they had invested so deeply in. The personal hurt and grief were painful.
They asked us to pray for God to give them wisdom as to how to handle the situation for God’s glory and the good of the body, and for the restoration of this dear brother. How could they confront this man effectively and biblically, to bring healing? Dave and Conce decided that this was definitely a time for fasting. I don’t remember how long they fasted, but Dave said they were just finishing praying at the end of the fasting period, and there was a knock at their door. Dave literally got off his knees to answer.
It was the elder. He was weeping. God had spoken to him. This man not only confessed to Dave and Conce and asked their forgiveness, but he also went church to church, and publicly before each and every congregation confessed everything and asked for forgiveness. Some people were very suspicious, but over time the elder proved himself as truly changed. As you can imagine, out of an incredibly difficult situation, the churches came together and were strengthened. It unified them. Fasting can do mighty things in the spiritual realm. Dave and Conce did not have to find a way to deal with the mess, God moved in the elder’s heart.
Some cautions are in order when thinking about fasting:
Be prepared for the battle inside when you fast. Your mind and body will tell you that it is too hard. “What are you going to do without that TV, food, phone, etc? You really enjoy that. You need that.”
What if fasting food is medically detrimental? You should see your doctor before fasting food. If the doctor says, “No,” you can fast other things.
Have you ever considered fasting?
Not for dieting purposes but for spiritual strengthening purposes. In fasting we deny ourselves real food, in order to feast on the Bread of Life. We do this by taking the time we would normally eat and use it to spend more time with Jesus. The implication in this is dependence, trust. We are saying to God that we will trust and depend on him to nourish us more than food.
Remember that we are both body and spirit. What we do in the body affects the spirit and vice-versa. In fasting, we are denying our body, so that we can strengthen our soul. It may seem counterproductive. Wouldn’t denying the body hurt the soul? NO, because if we learn to depend on Jesus while denying the body, we can learn to control ourselves. If I can deny my body food, then I will have greater spiritual strength to deny my body of lustful things as well. I use my soul nourishment to control myself. The desires of my soul to love and obey God become the controlling factor of my life rather than the desires of my flesh.
Remember that time that Jesus practiced a 40-day fast? He was out in the desert by himself, spending time with God. It must have been physically excruciating. I have fasted for a day here and there, and it was hard. One time I fasted food in college during soccer season, including a game day, and it felt really hard. Jesus fasted 40 days. Imagine what that did to his body! Imagine how emaciated he would have been, how weak.
And yet, author Dallas Willard says something shocking: Jesus in the wilderness was actually at a place of spiritual strength. Jesus had just spent 40 straight days with God. 24/7. Total dependence on God. Fasting, in a total surprise move, actually strengthens us. When you consider that in fasting you are spending extra time depending on God, it makes sense that you are strengthened.
What can you give up to nourish yourself on Jesus? All of us should try fasting food if it medically possible. But we could also deny ourselves of things like TV, Facebook, Video games, etc.
Remember to fast in secret:
- Someone who gives up hobby for a month, spends that time in prayer, and tells no one about it!
- Imagine a family that decides to skip a meal a week, and instead of that hour or two spent on meal preparation, eating and clean-up, they spend time in extra Bible devotion, prayer. And they tell no one about it.
What are you going to do to practice fasting? Wait expectantly, then watch God work. Be excited about the connection you will feel to Jesus, the things you will learn and the things you will see. When we willingly sacrifice to spend time with and get to know another person, it is good. Love is received and felt. The relationship grows. How much more should we be excited to deny ourselves and fast to get to know our God more and to have time to commune with him, to reconnect in a deeper way.
Remember that Christ said to us, “WHEN you fast….” So, think about it…What can you fast this week? This month? What area or circumstance in your life needs extra prayer and focus right now?
And if you need help, get a trainer. Be a trainer.