Exciting phrases, easy acronyms, and memorable lists formed from dense works of systematic theology can be helpful for the everyday Christian. While these reductions of God’s Word and His nature help us understand general frameworks, they are unable to help us understand everything the Bible teaches. It is one thing...
I like eating. It’s enjoyable to taste things; it feels good to feel full.
But we are called as Christians to be filled first with Jesus and his Word, the love of the Father, and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit (Deuteronomy 8:3, Ephesians 3:19, Romans 15:13). It’s too easy to try and fill our lives with the things of the world, especially in those areas where we still struggle to submit to God’s control.
I’ve learned a lot about my tendency to fill up those “empty” places with things other than Jesus over the last 10 years, and much of it I learned when I started exploring fasting. But fasting can seem like a hard practice to get into. Here are three reasons we neglect this discipline.
Three Reasons We Neglect Fasting:
1. It’s not understood
I personally believe that fasting is the least understood spiritual discipline. From the pulpit, Bible studies, and Sunday school, we hear about the importance of spending time in the Bible, in prayer, and in God-given rest. We hear how we need to be active in the body of believers and support the work of the Church. But we rarely have a deep, informative discussion on how and why we are commanded to fast.
2. It seems joyless
We often focus on the command to rejoice in Jesus and in his work (1 Thessalonians 5:16), celebrating our Savior and our new status as children of God who are part of his family. Fasting—since it means giving up something enjoyable—doesn’t seem to complement such joy. Celebration usually includes food, so fasting seems joyless.
3. It’s painful
Fasting means depriving oneself, which is not something we do well, or easily. One of the most pervasive and ingrained effects of sin is a feeling of entitlement, which goes directly against the idea of submitting to suffering, much less choosing to suffer hunger pains of our own accord.
Even though it can seem painful, joyless, and unfamiliar, fasting is a spiritual practice that complements other spiritual disciplines such as praying and daily Bible reading. It is also something that Jesus expected of his followers.
And with regard to any of Jesus’ commands, we know that:
For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. (1 John 5:3)
What Jesus Tells Us About Fasting
Jesus did a prolonged fast before the true start of his earthly ministry.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” (Matthew 4:1-3)
It’s dependence on God’s Word.
Jesus was about to begin his official ministry. Just prior to this, it says in Matthew 4:1 that, “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” The very first temptation that Satan tried was the one that appealed directly to Jesus’s physical state as if to say, Use your phenomenal cosmic powers to feed yourself, Jesus.
But he answered, “It is written,‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4)
Jesus overcomes this temptation with Scripture, showing that the needs of the soul are more important than the needs of the body. No matter how pressing physical desires may seem, God’s Word is sufficient for our needs. Jesus fasted to identify with us in our suffering and temptations (Hebrews 2:18), but also to prove that God’s Word takes priority over our physical urges. Jesus fasts to exercise his dependence on God’s Word.
Fasting reveals a very small taste of the suffering Jesus went through for humankind. It’s a small experiential example of what he gave up for us to save us from our sin. When we fast, we exercise dependence on Christ and him alone.
It’s an act of obedience, humbling ourselves before God.
Jesus also taught about fasting in the Sermon on the Mount.
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)
Notice that Jesus says “when you fast,” not “if”. Fasting is a command from the Father to his children to be obeyed in humility.
As with any practice of righteousness, it’s tempting to fast for the attention of others. Jesus admonishes those who show the discomfort of their fasting outwardly. You should not fast for others, but in obedience to God and to seek to deepen your relationship with him. Fasting is an act of humbling oneself—actively putting our desires behind those of God.
Jesus taught about when it’s appropriate to fast when asked about the behavior of his disciples:
Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.” (Mark 2:18-20)
First, notice that Jesus says that the wedding guests “will fast” when the bridegroom is taken away. While not a command directly to his followers, Jesus’s words make it obvious that fasting is expected of us.
More importantly, notice the reason Jesus gives why the disciples don’t fast yet: Jesus is God with us, the Messiah, the Savior of the world. He is the King of all creation, and he is the bridegroom of the Church. In his presence, there is eternal joy and unending celebration—no need to fast.
Fast in Faith
But, while we wait for him on earth now, there are reasons to fast. We’re commanded to share in Christ’s suffering, and to humble ourselves before God (2 Corinthians 1:5). Forgoing our physical needs helps us to focus on our spiritual needs. And, we let our physical hunger mirror the hunger we should have for God, and for Jesus’s triumphant return.
For, when he returns, fasting will pass away. And those who belong to Christ will have an eternity of closeness with God, the abolition of sorrow, and the satisfaction of all longing.
For those in Christ, fasting allows us to share in his suffering, and humble ourselves in obedience before God. It also exercises our faith in the truth that our dependence for our provision is on Christ alone.