Fasting for religious purposes has seemed to become less normal in modern times. That being said, I don’t think Jesus would give us a protocol for fasting if he did not intend on us doing so. While this is different than other blogs on the Sermon on the Mount, I believe first I need to make the biblical case for fasting before we dive into how we are to fast.
We think we need to to feel like fasting in order to do so. Yet we know concerning other spiritual disciplines such as praying, bible reading, or church going we need to do them regardless of our current feelings towards them.
Why is fasting so different? For me, its uncomfortable. I blame not fasting on my tendencies towards disordered eating, but if I dive deeper into the subject, that’s not necessarily true. As we live in such a social age with media and even a constant wave of music or noise, we are presented with more things to fast than just food itself. So while food is a traditional fast and has plenty of merit, my argument against fasting food crumbles in the light of fasting other distractions that were not present in bible times. In reality, I don’t want to sit with rawness or emptiness. I don’t want to be left alone with my thoughts or problems. I have things such as food and drink and podcasts and tv that can numb the unpleasantries of life. Stripping myself of my fleshly defenses leaves me feeling vulnerable. I don’t want to feel vulnerable.
Yet, many times, vulnerable is the very place God needs us to get to in order to manifest himself in our lives.
Esther and her fellow Jews did a complete fast for three days in preperation for her approaching the king to plead for her people’s lives (Esther 4:15-17). Daniel fasted from the meat and wine from the king’s kitchen in order to obey the commands of the Lord and maintain integrity when served unclean foods and foods sacrificed to idols (Daniel 1:8-14). Jesus himself fasted for 40 days in the wilderness in preperation for his ministry and was tempted by satan while in this time of weakness (Matthew 4:1-2). These are just a few of the biblical accounts of fasting. No example of fasting was a pleasant experience, but each experience drew the person into the place they needed to be. Esther, while abstaining from all food and drink to seek favor from God, put herself into a position for the king to hear her and save the Jews. Daniel, while eating only vegetables and water, kept himself blameless in the eyes of the Lord and maintained great health by doing so. Jesus, while physically weak, was spiritually strong enough to refute the devil’s temptations and was ready to step into ministry.
The vulnerability of fasting highlights our human weaknesses. Yet, in doing so, it gives way for God’s strength in our lives.
In the next passage of the Sermon on the Mount, it says, “when you fast…” which implies that we indeed are to fast. I am not in authority as to tell you how often to fast, but in my research on the subject, I do believe it’s something we should be doing fairly regularly. When approaching a big decision or entering ministry or even simply drawing nearer to God, we need to consider fasting in some capacity. Whether it’s a Daniel fast, a complete fast, or fasting material delicacies this world offers, we should do one with the heart to strip ourselves of our fleshly comforts and defenses in order to seek the face and will of our heavenly Father.
Now that we have made the case for fasting, let us dive into this passage in which Jesus is teaching us how to fast.
When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to other that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Do you know someone who purposely looks miserable for attention? Many times people highlight their misery so others might think a lot of them for going through so much. That is what Jesus is referring to when he talks of how hypocrites fast. When he is referring to people disfiguring themselves, he means they would throw ashes on their face and refuse to comb their fair. They wouldn’t truly disfigure themselves as they still wanted attention, but they would do just enough to look miserable. They were trying to get the compassion and reverence of those around them. Maybe others would think of them as being more spiritual for depriving themselves “for the sake of God.” Really, thet were seeking the praise of man instead of the face of God.
Does this sou like someone you know? I know I can think of a few people! But the deeper question yet, does this sound like you? Do you point out when you are abstaining from something every chance you get? Do you try to make yourself look better than your neighbor, family member, or fellow Christian by in a way looking worse? I know I am convinced by this.
Jesus calls us to a more radical form of fasting than anything we could muster up out of our own works. Will fasting be unpleasant? Absolutely. Will it be worth it if our heart is in the right place? Yes, without a doubt.
When we fast we will be faced will all kinds of adversities. We will be hungry. Hungry for food. Hungry for drinks. Hungry for materialistic pleasures. Hungry for attention. Yet we are called to keep quite about all these hunger pains. We are called to sit with our hunger and face it. This is impossible to do without crying out in some way. But what we we to do if we have to hide this pain we are feeling?
Our heavenly Father sees what is hidden. He wants to be our outlet in times of fasting. Worldly attention is fleeting, yet the eyes of our Savior will rest on us eternally. When we are sitting with this uncomfortable hunger, he his sitting next to us. Our hunger is not meaningless. With the Lord’s help, we can refute our fleshly cravings and drink from the well that never runs dry. Fasting can be a great season of life where we redirect our hunger for earthly nourishment to a hunger for spiritual nourishment. We cannot successfully make it through a fast alone, but with the help of the Holy Spirit, we can quietly come out of it fed and victorious.
If the reward we seek from fasting is attention of our peers, we need to reevaluate our motives. If the reward we seek from fasting is an increased amount of Christ in our lives, we are fasting with the right intention. I want to encourage everyone to see where and what they can fast in their lives, myself included. But I want us to fast with the intention to increase the amount of Christ in your life. Any other motive for fasting will leave us empty and hungry.