Jesus assumed his followers would fast. In Matthew 6:16, Jesus begins his teaching on fasting with the words, “And when you fast…” He doesn’t say “if you fast” but “when you fast.” When John’s disciples ask Jesus why his disciples do not fast, he replies, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them and then they will fast.” Again, Jesus says of his followers that after he leaves them “they will fast.”
Anyone familiar with the religions of the world shouldn’t be surprised to find fasting in Christianity. In the Baha’i faith, it is one of the greatest obligations with a nineteen day fast held every March. It is an integral part of Hinduism with different groups worshiping different deities fasting on different days. It is the third pillar of Islam; during the month of Ramadan Muslims fast from sun-up to sun-down. In Judaism, it is traditionally observed on Yom Kippur and five other significant days in the Jewish calendar.
What is all this religious fasting supposed to accomplish? While the goals of fasting are many and varied, they can be organized into three main groups: to gain favor with a deity, to purge the person of worldly desires, or to express solidarity with the poor. None of these are the reasons followers of Jesus fast.
We cannot gain favor with God through religious devotion. We are sinners whose religious acts are ultimately dead works (Heb. 6:1) before a holy God. Our standing with God rests not on fasting but on Christ, the mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5). Some may object that Jesus promised the Father will reward those who fast (Matt. 6:18). But the reward God gives is not his favor, nor material goods, nor special spiritual sense. As John Piper puts it, “…the reward we are to seek from the Father in fasting is not first or mainly the gifts of God, but God himself.” He goes on to write:
The supremacy of God in all things is the great reward we long for in fasting. His supremacy in our own affections and in all our life-choices. His supremacy in the purity of the church. His supremacy in the salvation of the lost. His supremacy in the establishing of righteousness and justice. And his supremacy for the joy of all peoples in the evangelization of the world.
A Christian fasts out of a hunger for God. It begins with mourning, as we encounter our sin, see the brokenness of the world, and realize the need for more of God (Matt. 9:15). This mourning prompts us to fast; leaving behind the needs of the body in the wake of the need for God. Like a lover who has lost the beloved and any desire for food along with them, we long for the One who has loved us. It ends with great joy and satisfaction in God as he fills us more than any cheeseburger ever could (Matt. 4:4, 5:6).
We do not fast to purge the body of worldly desires. Fasting to this end only exchanges the god of our desires for the god of self; puffed up by pride and the power of one’s own will. Paul says in Colossians 2:23 that severe treatment of the body is “self-made religion” and is “of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” The things of this world are not bad things to be rejected by a superior will, but good gifts given by God. The problem is when we have more love of and joy in the gifts than we do in the Giver. Simple pleasures such as food, drink, television, vacation, and sex begin to rule us. Thus, we fast – not to master these desires – but because we yearn to know more of God because Christ has redeemed us and given us this yearning. For the religious, fasting is movement from the feast of the world to the famine of religious devotion and purity. For the Christian, fasting is movement from the feast of the world to the greater feast of all that God is for us.
Christians do not fast to express solidarity with the poor but to defeat sin for the good of the poor. The people of Israel were very religious in performing their fasts. However, during their fasts they were still practicing wickedness and oppressing the poor. So in Isaiah 58, God declares to Israel:
Is this not the fast I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
God is not telling the people to get to work but offering help. Their hearts had become hard and sinful and the only cure was a fast not only from food, but from sin and for the good of the poor. Therefore, to defeat sinful hearts calloused towards others God has prescribed fasting that starves our selfishness while it serves the poor.
Why is fasting so rare in the American church? Instead of being the overflow of our faith, it has been demoted to a tool employed when we need God to bless our plans. It is the occasional emphasis until some other spiritual fad turns our heads. It has even been used as a trendy weight loss program. Could the lack of fasting in our churches be evidence that our hunger for God has been filled by the fat of the world? Could it be because we have allowed life’s pleasures to be our gods and have excused our idolatry with Christian liberty? Could it be because we have surrounded ourselves with enough amusements and comforts to isolate us from the hurt and suffering of the world? What will it take for us to cry out our desperate need for God through fasting? May mourning over sin and hunger for God overtake the church in a wave that shatters our complacency and satisfaction with the world! Then we will fast and delight in God as never before.
Almost everywhere at all times fasting has held a place of great importance since it is closely linked with the intimate sense of religion. Perhaps this is the explanation for the demise of fasting in our day. When the sense of God diminishes, fasting disappears.
I would like to credit John Piper’s book A Hunger for God for giving me the insights and inspiration to write the above.