Fasting has become a hot topic lately. Several diet fads have popped up that include some sort of fasting. Friends of mine a little over a year ago began fasting one day a week following one of these diets. Lately the idea of “intermittent fasting” has caught on. Fasting has been around a long time and practiced among many spiritual traditions for millennia. Today’s fad of fasting is slightly different than the practices of old though. These fads are for the goal of losing weight and overall physical health, but the ancient practice is usually for spiritual growth.
Jesus talks about fasting in his ministry. His teaching on fasting is part of what we typically call the Sermon on the Mount. In his sermon Jesus warns of several outside actions that seem to be pious but without the inward focus can lead to further spiritual blindness over growth. Jesus says,
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.”
Jesus is making it clear that fasting is not a practice for outward appearance. Many in his day would practice fasting and make sure that everyone knew what they were doing. This is a theme of this part of his sermon in general. He repeats the phrase “they have their reward in full” many times in this section of the sermon. Those practicing fasting and other spiritual disciplines in this way, are likely to receive the human adoration they are seeking. Jesus is challenging his listener to recognize that this form of “reward” is not what they should be seeking after.
What is fasting for? Jesus assumes that his listener would fast. He states it in the next verses;
“when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
For Jesus this practice is not a bad practice. The way you do it must be with a pure intention. Jesus fasted himself on at least one occasion and likely it was a regular practice of his.
One pastor I heard talk about fasting equated it to this analogy; he said fasting was like giving up McDonalds for a home cooked meal. What he meant is that our culture has settled for fast food. Hardly anyone would choose McDonalds over a nice and balanced home cooked meal if all things were equal. We choose fast food because of it’s consistency, price, and convenience. Most of us know that we don’t feel physically good after eating fast food. Choosing a balanced home cooked meal is the far better choice in every way but millions every day choose the lesser of those two choices.
We do the same thing when it comes to our spiritual lives. I know that I am guilty of easing my guilt, stress, or other emotions with eating or other physical means, when I should be seeking after God. The practice of fasting in Christian history has been to intentionally give up that which is lesser, physical satisfaction, for that which is greater, spiritual satisfaction. This is usually done for a period of time in order to hone our desires toward that which is greater.
You don’t need to fast with food. You can choose any physical or material satisfaction and give that up for a time in order to spend more time seeking encounter with God. These days we have a slew of things we can give up; television, internet, smart phones, social media, coffee, chocolate, or any other thing that you feel you have chosen over spiritual pursuit. Challenge yourself to fast in the near future. Don’t do it for bragging rights, or to loose weight, or as some magic bullet. Fast so that you would seek after God first and make God your number one desire. Oh, and while you fast don’t go around telling people because you will surely “receive your reward in full.”