A Forgotten Discipline

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The South Africa fast food market size was valued at $2.7 billion in 2018 and is expected to reach $4.9 billion by 2026, representing an annual growth rate of over those years. In such a context, the concept of fasting seems foreign. Yet Jesus addressed fasting as one manifestation of keeping up religious appearances, which he presented as a barrier to surpassing righteousness.

As with prayer, Jesus assumed that his followers would fast. “When you fast,” he began. Throughout history, religious people of all stripes have practiced fasting. It is really only in the recent Western-influenced world, with its abundance of supply, that fasting has become a foreign concept.

The Old Testament only commanded fasting once a year—on the Day of Atonement—but religious people found it to be such a helpful practice that, by Jesus’ day, it had become a defining mark of the highly religious. Unfortunately, the religious leaders had turned it into a visible mark that attracted attention to themselves and their (supposedly) superior righteousness. Jesus said they got exactly what they wanted—they were seen by others—but their fasting had no significance in their relationship with God.

There is nothing wrong with the practice of fasting, of course. Church leaders combined fasting and prayer in the New Testament. The Didache, a brief manual for Christian living produced before 300AD, recommended fasting twice a week. The Reformers fasted regularly, and John Wesley even required fasting of those whom he ordained into ministry. There is good reason to give thought to the reasons for and benefits of fasting. Here are some reasons Christians might consider fasting.

First, fasting serves to help keep food in its proper place. Food is abundant in our society and gluttony—once one of the seven deadly sins—is a sin that we all too easily overlook. Regular fasting might prove helpful to keep food in its proper place.

Second, fasting helps us to focus on worship. Jesus encouraged his hearers to fast in secret because fasting is an exercise that is meant to aid your devotion. Consistently in Scripture, fasting is tied to prayer. The idea is that, as you fast, and as your stomach reminds you that it is time to eat, you should instead devote that time to prayer, prioritising your relationship to God over your physical needs.

Third, fasting helps us long for Christ’s presence with us. When John’s disciples asked him why his disciples did not fast, he answered that they could not fast while he was with them, but that they would fast when he was taken from them (Mark 9:14–17). When they missed his presence with them, they would have reason to fast. Likewise, fasting is a helpful way for us to express our longing for Christ’s appearing because it is a tangible expression of our hunger for him.

Fourth, fasting can be an expression of our need for provision and guidance. The church leaders in Acts 13:1–3 fasted to express their need for divine guidance. From the context, it appears that they were praying about their involvement in the Great Commission. They combined their prayers with fasting to express their need for guidance and God wonderfully answered.

Christians are not opposed to feasting. When we feast, we express our thanks to God for his good gift of food. But Christians are also not opposed to fasting. When we fast, we forfeit food as an expression of our hunger for God.

As you think about this somewhat obscure discipline of fasting this morning, consider that, while it is not commanded in the New Testament, it can be a tangible way to express supreme love for God, to aid your personal worship of God, to long for Christ’s presence, and to seek his guidance.