Why Don’t We Talk About Fasting?
It has been said on more than one occasion that members of the church cannot get together without eating. In fact, some of my own seminars have been graded on the number of pounds I gained: “Well, that was a five pound meeting.” We love to eat. We eat when we are happy and celebrating (birthdays, VBS, camp, anniversaries) and we eat when we are sad (deaths, sickness, hospital stays, or even breakups). Eating can bring comfort, allow for fellowship, and may even serve as a distraction.
Eating is a major part of our culture. We define our day around meals or what we are eating. And rare is the parent who has not heard hundreds of times: “What are we eating for dinner?” It is no surprise then that many pulpits remain silent on fasting—after all who wants to upset the applecart (unless those spilled apples could be put into a pie)? Preachers will readily joke about their stomachs being “chicken graveyards,” but how many will touch on the Biblical topic of fasting?
Here’s what I intend to teach my children regarding fasting.
I have a weakness for food. I love to eat good food. In fact, about the only thing I just won’t eat is liver. Aside from that, I’m game to try just about anything. You know firsthand that I normally keep a stash of ice cream in the freezer, and it’s not hard to talk me into stopping by a restaurant on the weekends. So understand what I’m about to share with you goes against my nature, and is something I have to work hard on.
The Bible records over twenty times this experience known as fasting (e.g., Jeremiah 36:6; Daniel 6:18; Daniel 9:3; Joel 2:12). Probably the most prominent example and most familiar passages come from Jesus. In Matthew chapter four we find Jesus fasting when he is tempted by Satan. Just a few chapters later Jesus instructs: “Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.” (Matthew 6:16)
In Matthew chapter nine Jesus is questioned about his disciples and their fasting: “Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.’” (Matthew 9:14-15, emp. added).
So here is what we know. Jesus fasted. Jesus instructed us how to fast. And Jesus’ disciples fasted. There are many more passages we could examine, but this is ample evidence that we should also be fasting.
Why? What is the purpose of fasting? Fasting is to make us more focused and more aware of our need for God. It is a temporary measure that reminds us that life is not about earthly pleasure, but rather there is a day coming when we will no longer need to fast! Fasting helps us to grow spiritually as we deny ourselves something in order to glorify and grow closer to God.
While Jesus does give some instruction in Matthew chapter six on fasting, He does not indicate things like how often or specifics on how. Many individuals try to jump in and do day long (or even week-long) fasts having never fasted before. These individuals are setting themselves up for failure.
Let me recommend you start out purposefully fasting through a single meal. Then increase it to that same meal two or three days in a row. After that try fasting for an entire day. Many scholars recommend continuing to drink water (so you don’t become dehydrated) and others recommend doing a juice fast—which would cut out solid foods, but would still give you some nutrients and sugars to give you enough strength to continue on throughout the day.
My recommendation is you start out small and increase from there. Be very conscientious of how your fasting causes you to treat others (in other words, it does no good to fast to get closer to God if you are grumpy all day with your siblings and parents!). And plan ahead! How will you deal with those times when you get really hungry? Will you use this time to read your Bible, take a walk outside, pray, etc.?
Fasting is not something I’ve perfected. But it is something that is in the Bible and we should work on. I’ll make you a deal: you encourage me when I’m fasting, and I’ll do my best not to put my big bowl of ice cream in front of you when you are fasting. Keep growing and keep studying.