When You Fast
Fasting is one of the spiritual disciplines that is least practiced nowadays. In Matthew 6, Jesus discusses fasting alongside two other well-known disciplines: giving and praying. While many Christians today admit to suboptimal giving and tepid praying, fasting seems to be rarely practiced or even mentioned. Yet in all three instances in Matthew 6, Jesus indicates that these disciplines are to be naturally performed, as he leads each time by using the following formula: when you give; when you pray; when you fast. He says “when.” Not “if.”
In addition to being regularly and organically performed, these disciplines are to be carried out in a manner that does not draw attention to the practice, but rather honors the Lord in both the manner and purpose for which it is done. Just like giving could be publicized, so prayer can be as well. Christ gives the example of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9-14, to show us how hypocrisy may be manifested, and which heart God accepts. Just like giving and praying, fasting could be also advertised by words, demeanor, and looks. Once again, such fasting could be immediately rewarded by ephemeral and temporal human praise, even as it fails to achieve a true worship of the Lord. True worship is to worship in truth.
The Biblical History of Fasting
The Old Testament Levitical Law mandated one corporate fast only, to take place on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:29-34; 23:26-32). This was instituted following the death of Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, who had disobeyed the Lord (Lev 10:1-3). Over the years, other corporate fasts were added, such as to commemorate the exile into Babylon (Zech 7). Fasts were also personal. David fasted when his son was sick (2 Sam 12:15-23), Nehemiah fasted in exile when he heard Jerusalem’s news (Neh 1:4), as did Daniel (Dan 9:3). Other instances include the people of Israel fasting during times of duress (Jdg 20:26; 2 Chron 20:3). When the people prepared to return from exile to rebuild Jerusalem, they fasted (Ezra 8:21-23). They did so again after their return (Neh 9:1). Fasting was not only limited to the people of God; Gentiles practiced fasting as well, like the people of Nineveh when they heard the Lord’s call to repentance (Jon 3:5-9). In the New Testament, Jesus fasted in the wilderness before beginning his ministry (Matt 4:2). The prophetess Anna fasted and prayed continually in the temple (Lk 2:36-38). Saul fasted after meeting Jesus (Acts 9:9). The early church fasted before sending off Barnabas and Paul (Acts 13:2-3).
The duration of fasting varied considerably. While many instances ranged from one to forty days (Moses, Jesus), other cases had unspecified lengths (David, Anna). It is the reason behind the fast and the manner of fasting that are of utmost importance. In fact, there are many warnings and rebukes for false fasting. In Matthew 6:16-18, Jesus warns of making our fasts public in order to receive praise. Isaiah 58 depicts the people fasting for their own ends and for their own pleasure, thinking that fasting in itself warranted a blessing and provision from God. God rebukes them and redirects them to do what he already commanded: forgo wickedness, free the captive, lighten burdens, feed the hungry, house the homeless, and cover the naked. Similarly, God rebukes the people for their false desires behind fasting in Zechariah 7.
Yet there are many instances where God accepts the prayers and affliction of those who fasted: Daniel received an answer from the angel of God while fasting, praying and confessing his and the people’s sin; Christ overcame the devil’s temptation while fasting; Anna saw the redemption of Jerusalem; the early church witnessed wondrous works of God through Barnabas and Paul.
Fasting and Christian Living
The Word of God teaches us that fasting is a spiritual discipline which ought to be an integral part of the Christian life. To fast is not to merely refrain from eating (or giving up chocolate for a season, or trying to lose weight), though abstaining from food is an important part of it. But it is to be coupled with prayer and humbling oneself before the Lord. The Leviticus passages quoted above use the word affliction to convey this thought. The chief end of fasting is to glorify the Lord not oneself, to grow in prayer, seek his guidance, worship him, repent, grieve, overcome temptation, and rejoice. It is a matter of the heart, not looks. It is not to draw attention to ourselves, but to draw our attention to the Lord. God desires mercy not sacrifice; he wants a broken and a contrite heart. For this reason, fasting is always coupled with prayer. Both disciplines, when done well, put us in a disposition of both realizing our dependence on God and offering him our gratitude.
Fasting at Crosstown
Christ does not direct us when or how long to fast, nor what foods to abstain from. But one thing is sure: he expects us to fast. In the next few weeks, we will have a day of corporate fasting and praying at Crosstown, an opportunity for us to draw together near to God, in humility before him, and in worship.
Our true spirituality ought to be characterized by a desire for God, his holiness, and his glory. It concerns itself with the inner realities of sin and righteousness before busying itself with the consequences of external blessings. It draws from God’s word, hearing it, believing it, and obeying it. This word is always true and still speaks to us today. Let us rejoice in this truth, worshiping God in spirit and truth, giving, praying, and fasting.