Stuart Chase - 12 Jul 2021
The Spiritual Discipline of Fasting (Matthew 6:16–18)
If it is true (and I think it is) that there is no spiritual discipline with which we struggle more than closet prayer, it is probably also true that there is no spiritual discipline that we completely neglect quite like fasting.
When I started preparing for this, I googled “fasting” to see what results were revealed. The first two pages of results were taken entirely with dieting adverts and recommendations. Page 3 started to introduce some Christian reflections on fasting, though even there they were scattered among weight loss tips. But this reflects much of the evangelical culture in which are involved.
Most of us have probably fasted for weight loss or medical purposes. Perhaps you’ve taken tips on intermittent fasting from a dietary consultant. Perhaps you’ve needed to fast ahead of surgery. But when was the last time you fasted for purely spiritual reasons? I wondered that myself as I was thinking about this subject, until a timely social media post reminded me of the answer.
During my preparations, a church member posted that it was the eight-year anniversary of the death of her husband. This young man had been in a coma for eight months before his death. The church had been called to prayer. I remember praying and fasting at one point for his healing. That was the last time I personally fasted (at least for purely spiritual purposes). I say that simply to make the point that I am no experiential expert on fasting. But it has been helpful to consider what the Bible teaches about the discipline.
A Definition of Fasting
Before we dig into the text itself, it may be helpful to offer a definition of fasting. It is commonly said that fasting is the discipline of abstaining from something good to concentrate on our walk with and satisfaction in God. We are encouraged to fast from all sorts of things: entertainment, social media, pleasure, food, etc. So long as we are giving up something in which we find pleasure to focus on God, we are fasting.
Giving up something pleasurable for the sake of devotion to God is commendable, but it is not what the Bible means by fasting. Paul exhorted spouses to only deprive one another of sexual pleasure by mutual consent, and then only for a limited time to “devote yourselves to prayer” (1 Corinthians 7:1–5). He commended the discipline of denying oneself for the sake of focused devotion. But he did not call it fasting. In the Bible, fasting is always related to food. It is about denying oneself that which is necessary to focus on something that is greater. Sex is good; it’s not necessary. You can live without social media or your preferred form of entertainment. You cannot live indefinitely without food. When we fast, we give up what is necessary to the body so that we can devote our attention and affection to something that is greaterand more necessary.
The Distortion of Fasting
When Jesus addressed his disciples about fasting in Matthew 6, he warned them against a distortion of this discipline. “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” (v. 16).
The hypocrites fasted as a show of righteousness. They were always looking for ways to impress people and so they made sure that everyone knew they were fasting. Jesus did not condemn the mere practice of letting others know that you are fasting. We will see below that the practice of communal fasting can be helpful. The problem was not that others knew the hypocrites were fasting. The problem was that the hypocrites were proclaiming what a toll the fasting was taking on them. They wanted people to be impressed by how spiritual they were for denying themselves. They fasted for themselves, not for God or others.
We always face the temptation of seeking to impress others with our spirituality. Jesus may have been using hyperbole but he got to the heart of the matter. We must be careful that we do not fast—or exercise any other spiritual discipline—to impress others.
The Duty of Fasting
Along these lines, we must be careful, as with all the disciplines, of carrying out this discipline out of a sense of rote obligation. Obligation is not always a bad thing. Sometimes, doing something out of obligation is the right thing to do and can even prove beneficial. Michael Horton helps us to understand this when he writes of church attendance, “Sometimes we do not feel like going to church, but if mere obligation gets us to where the gifts are, we return home the richer.” The same can be said of the spiritual disciplines.
At the same time, we must be careful of being guilted into exercising this discipline. Paul warned Timothy of “teachings of demons” that “require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth” (1 Timothy 4:1–3). He gently rebuked the Colossians for “submit[ting] to regulations—‘Do not hand, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings” (Colossians 2:20–21). In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, it was the one who didn’t boast about his fasting who was justified before God (Luke 18:9–14). Beware of teaching that suggests fasting earns favour with God or guarantees answer to prayer in a way that feasting does not.
But we want to be careful of swinging to the opposite extreme. As with prayer, Jesus assumed that his disciples would fast: “When you fast” (v. 16). He spoke of the time when he would be taken from this world “and then [my disciples] willfast” (Matthew 9:14–17). It is rarely helpful, over the long haul, to do what is right out of rote obligation, but that doesn’t mean that we should give up what is good for us because we don’t feel like it. It means that we should check our affections and learn to align them with biblical values so that our desires are rightly ordered.
The Desire for Fasting
How do we rightly order our desires in this respect? It may help for us to consider the biblical purpose of fasting, which Jesus explained in Matthew 9:14–17:
Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “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. No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”
John Piper says that “the birthplace of Christian fasting is homesickness for God.” When John’s disciples asked why Jesus’ disciples did not fast, he answered that it was because he was with them. Fasting made no sense when the one in whom they found their satisfaction was with them daily. The time would come when he would be taken from them, and then they would fast. They would fast then because they would long for something greater. Life in eternity will be a life of feasting, not fasting, because there our longing for God will be fully met. But here, while we long for another kingdom, fasting is entirely appropriate. It is a testimony that our desires are rightly ordered.
The Design of Fasting
As we consider the practice of fasting in the Bible, we observe that people fasted in different ways and for different reasons. As I studied fasting in the Bible, looking at every instance in which fasting is specifically mentioned, a few things became apparent.
First, more often than not, fasting in the Bible is a corporate discipline. Or, at least, it is a discipline to which people are corporately called. Fasts are proclaimed and observed, more often than not, by God’s people together. This is not a discipline that must be entered into privately. It is perfectly consistent with Scripture for leaders to call for fasts and for believers to join in fasting. While we want to avoid fasting corporately as a show of spirituality (Matthew 6:16–18), we need not avoid corporate fasting entirely.
Second, though fasting, in the Bible, is ordinarily practiced in community, there are a number of examples of individuals practising fasting. This is not a discipline that must wait until a corporate call is made. It is perfectly in keeping with Scripture for individual Christians to fast before God.
Third, while God’s people frequently fasted as a spiritual discipline—whether corporate or personal—there was only one God-commanded fast in the Bible: for the old covenant people of God on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29–34; 23:26–32; Numbers 29:7–11). On that day, God commanded, “You shall afflict yourselves,” which is a reference to fasting. Every other reference to fasting was either a personal decision or a call by God’s leaders to God’s people to fast.
The Details of Fasting
Christians are no longer obligated to observe old covenant festivals. These were but a shadow of Christ and, having been fulfilled in him, no longer serve their God-ordained purpose. There is, therefore, no divine command for Christians to fast once a year. We fast by personal choice or in response to the call of God’s leaders. Under what circumstances, then, might we consider fasting? In Scripture, fasting typically happens in Scripture for one of six reasons.
First, people fasted in Scripture for direction. Personally, Jesus spent forty days fasting following his baptism before entering public ministry. It was a time of preparation for him in which he sought direction from his father. The Israelites in the days of the judges sought direction from God before entering war (Judges 20:24–28) and the early church sought direction from God before appointing missionaries (Acts 13:1–3) and elders (Acts 14:23). We might, therefore, consider fasting when we are seeking God’s direction for our lives or our church.
Second, people fasted in Scripture in confession and repentance. Both Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1:4–11) and Daniel (Daniel 9:3ff) fasted and prayed as they confessed their sins and the sins of their people. Calls for public fasting, as a sign of repentance, were made in 1 Samuel 7:5–6; Nehemiah 9:1ff; Joel 1:13–14ff; 2:12–17; and Jonah 3:5. It might be helpful, therefore, to consider fasting when God brings you or your church under the conviction of a particular sin. This is a means of showing true humility in your confession.
Third, people fasted in Scripture as an act of mourning. David personally mourned that God’s glory was not sought by his people as it should be (Psalm 69:9–10) while Israel corporately mourned King Saul’s death (1 Samuel 31:11–13; 2 Samuel 1:11–12; 1 Chronicles 10:11–12). It is entirely appropriate to fast while mourning, when you are seeking to find your utter dependence and satisfaction in Christ alone in the midst of grief.
Fourth, people fasted in Scripture to seek God’s favour in prayer. Prayer and fasting are linked as closely in Scripture as repentance and baptism. Fasting never guaranteed an answer to prayer but it displayed humility and dependence. David fasted personally as he prayed for healing for his son (2 Samuel 12:16–23)—a prayer that was answered with a resounding no!—and when he prayed for healing for his enemies (Psalm 35:13). He fasted and prayed for protection from his enemies in Psalm 109:21–26 and King Darius fasted as he prayed for Daniel’s deliverance from the lion’s den (Daniel 6:18). Corporately, God’s people repeatedly proclaimed and observed fasts to beseech God for his protection (2 Chronicles 20:1–4; Ezra 8:21–23; Esther 4:1–3, 16–17). While prayer with fasting carries no greater power than prayer without fasting, it is a tangible way to express your dependence on God as you seek his favour in prayer.
Fifth, people fasted in Scripture in grateful remembrance of what God had done for them. This was the purpose of the fast on the Day of Atonement. Esther and Mordecai similarly proclaimed an annual fast in joyful remembrance of God’s deliverance from the hateful partiality of Haman (Esther 9:29–32). Sometimes, fasting is simply an expression of gratitude in remembrance of God’s answered prayer.
Finally, people fasted in Scripture as a plea for justice (Isaiah 58; Zechariah 7; 8:19). Isaiah 58 is particularly interesting in this respect. In that chapter, fasting had less to do with self-deprivation than with corporate justice. When the people complained that God had not responded to their fasting with blessing (v. 3), God responded that they had fasted for their own benefit, not for the benefit of others. They sought their own pleasure and oppressed their workers (v. 3). They quarrelled with one another (v. 4). They oppressed the vulnerable (v. 6) and greedily hoarded rather than sharing (v. 7). While their fasting ought to have benefited others, it actually resulted in greater oppression of the vulnerable.
Fasting in Christian history has often been tied to justice and social concern. First century theologian, Gregory the Great, observed that “a man fasts not to God but to himself, if he does not give to the poor what he denies his belly for a time, but reserves it to be given to his belly later.” Aristides, a Greek philosopher who wrote about Christianity in the second century, noted that “if anyone among [the Christians] comes into want while they themselves have nothing to spare, they fast for two or three days for him. In this way they can supply any poor man with the food he needs.”
When last did you connect your spiritual discipline of fasting with providing for others in need?
The Discipline of Fasting
If we are persuaded that fasting is a good discipline to practise, how do we go about it? Let me make a few practical suggestions—borrowing somewhat from Daniel Doriani—as we bring our time to a close.
First, fast deliberately. As we have already seen, Jesus assumed that his disciples would fast (Matthew 6:16–18; Matthew 9:14–17). If you wait until you feel like it, you will probably never fast. Since fasting does not come naturally, it is something that we must decide to do.
Second, fast prayerfully. As I have said, prayer and fasting in Scripture are as inseparable as repentance and baptism. Those who fast pray. If you have a particular pressing burden, pray about it with fasting. If you are seeking direction for something, pray about it with fasting. If you are burdened about sin in your life, confess it with fasting. If you are celebrating something that God has done in your life, do it with fasting. When you fast, fill the time you would normally be eating (breakfast, lunch, dinner) with prayer. Use your grumbling stomach as a reminder to pray.
Third, fast secretly. As we have seen, fasting is not always a private discipline, but even while fasting corporately, it should be an act between you and God. As Jesus said, “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 6:17–18). Never fast to seek the applause of men. Always fast to pursue a greater, more pressing need.
Fourth, fast corporately. I do not mean to contradict myself, but sometimes it may be helpful to invite others into your fasting. Ask brothers and sisters to join you in fasting for your particular burdens. Fast with the church when the church is called to fast and pray.
Fifth, fast humbly. Fasting is a means of desiring something greater than food. It is a way to deny your bodily needs in pursuit of something more important. It is a way to say that there is more that I desire than what I have in this life. Humble yourself before God and fast in dependence on him.
Sixth, fast hopefully. That is, allow your fasting to be an intentional manifestation and deliberate a reminder of your hunger for God. Realise that you fast now because the bridegroom has gone but that a day is coming in which the groom will return and we will fast no more. When Christ returns, every longing and every satisfaction will be realised. We will feast for all eternity around the table prepared for us. As you fast, therefore, focus on your homesickness for God and allow your focus to be shifted to Christ, for whose coming you long.
I cannot tell you when or how you should fast. I can point to Scripture and church history to show that it is a discipline in which Christians have long invested themselves, and which will, exercised properly, aid your growth in grace.
Kaitlyn Schiess has written, “The spiritual disciplines are always about the long game—bodily inhabiting big ideals, teaching our hearts and minds to want things we don’t naturally want, and forming a community that witnesses to another kingdom.” Will you consider adding fasting to your plan for the long game?