“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)
At the beginning of the above passage, it’s significant that Jesus uses the Greek word ὅταν (hotan), meaning “when” not εἰ (ei), meaning “if.” He speaks as if fasting ought to be part of our Christian practice. He does not leave it as a nice little option for the super spiritual. This should cause us to take note and lean into what fasting is and why we do it.
What is fasting? Why should we do it?
In the Bible, fasting is mentioned in a several different contexts: repentance from sin (1 Sam 7:6, Joel 2:12, Jonah 3:5), mourning a death (2 Sam 1:12), pleading with God (2 Sam 12:16, Dan 6:18), making a big decision (Acts 13:3), asking God for help (Ezra 8:21), and fervency in prayer (Ezra 9:3). Moses fasted when he received the Ten Commandments (Deut 9:9). Likewise, Jesus fasted before he resisted the temptation of Satan in the wilderness. (Mat 4:2). Fasting is nearly always coupled with prayer.
Fasting is abstaining from something that’s good and regular in your life. The most common way is to abstain from food for a time. But there are other things to fast from. For example, maybe you stay connected through social media and it’s a habit to check many times a day. Social media is not inherently a negative or sinful thing. But our regular habits, even of good things, can become distractions from what matters most: our relationship with God and our love for our neighbors (see the Greatest Commandment, Mark 12:28–31). As Tim Keller has said, “…the human heart takes good things…and turns them into ultimate things.” Fasting helps to expose the many distractions and idols that are likely present in our lives right now.
So fasting is a sacrifice that exposes our own weakness. And when we feel our weakness from hunger or realize the control our habits have over us, we are humbled. And when we are humbled, God opens our eyes to the supreme truths of our existence: that he is God and we are not; that all good things are from him; that he loves us so deeply that everything he brings about in our lives is ultimately for our good; and that in all things he deserves the glory.
But fasting is also a practice in the pursuit of God. We were created to know and worship God in all things and at all times. God has sent his Son Jesus to reconcile us to himself, that we might know him and that he might be our loving Father. Only in Christ do we know the love of God and thus know the joy and peace and hope and strength that God gives. Make no mistake; all other joys are fleeting.
As we fast together as a local church, as the body of Christ, let’s embrace our own fragile state, and be humbled. We “live and move and have our being” by God’s grace alone (Acts 17:28). Every time you feel a hunger pang or the discomfort from resisting your impulses and habits, let it push you to God. And when we meet God in the clear air of humility, we will see that fasting is a feast without food.
So, as we pray and fast together in these 40 Days, may we seek Jesus with humility, and may God bring us corporate renewal in our mission to live all of life all for Jesus.
“So we fasted and implored our God…and he listened to our entreaty.” (Ezra 8:23)