“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 saw to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your heard 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.”
This passage comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. For the most part, the Sermon on the Mount up until this point has largely been about things to which most folks can relate. Jesus has drawn attention to the needs of the people. He’s talked about anger, lust, integrity, retaliation, how to treat enemies, how to give to the poor and how to pray. With each of those topics, I believe Jesus is calling us to a new way of doing life, a “new way of being human” if you will. But I’d also admit to a familiarity with them that is common even in the secular world. For instance, I don’t think I’d have to convince anyone that anger affects day to day life. Even prayer is generally known to be a thing by most folks – even those who don’t have a prayer life. But in this passage, we come across something that is perhaps less a given. In a way, it’s the most counter-cultural thing Jesus has mentioned so far, and may also be the thing that we are least familiar with.
It’s possible that when you heard the word “fast” you may have thought: “Ah, that’s only for the super-religious. That’s for monks and nuns and convents and isn’t really a necessary part of faith today.” That being said, it may jolt you a little bit that Jesus’ first words in this passage aren’t “some of you might feel like making fasting a part of your faith.” He doesn’t say “if” you fast; He says, “when” you fast. Just like he said, “when you give to the needy”, and “when you pray.” The implication is that giving to the poor, praying, and now fasting are practices that a Jesus follower would participate in. The challenge from Jesus is that, like giving to the poor and praying, we must be careful for our fasting to be rooted in our relationship to Christ rather than a show we’re putting on for others.
Fasting is the intentional pause of a legitimately good thing for the purposes of temporary, intense spiritual reflection. Like most spiritual disciplines, there are typical ways of fasting and then there are also special kinds of fasts. It’s important that we talk about both modes. In terms of biblical and historical traditions, fasting has most often looked like abstaining from food (but not water) for a short period of time – probably a day or two. That’s typically what fasting looks like, but it’s not always the case. Some choose to fast for longer periods of time. Some choose to fast for only one meal at a time. Some abstain from all food, others abstain from only from certain foods. At the beginning of the book of Daniel, for instance Daniel and his friends go on a 10 day fast from everything except vegetables.
However, if we go back to our working definition of fasting, we’ll see that it doesn’t specify that food is always the thing to abstain from. Many in our day have seen wisdom in media fasts or technology fasts. Some might choose to live without air-conditioning for a few days or other modern conveniences. Ultimately, the most important thing we can again say about fasting is that it is to flow from your relationship with Christ and therefore, we won’t offer strict guidelines as to what a fast should look like for you. That being said, it’s important to remember that fasting is not about mortification. Hear me clearly on this: fasting is not about hurting yourself for God. God does not want you to hurt yourself. He loves you far too much for that. You are precious in His sight, and when He calls you to a fast, it is always to draw you closer to His love. And to return to food for a moment, fasting is not about dieting. There are some diets that advocate going without food for a period of time for health reasons. See a doctor about whether or not that’s right for you; that’s not the spiritual disciple of fasting. Remember the definition, the purpose of fasting is to place a temporary pause on a legitimately good thing for the purpose of spiritual reflection.
Some might immediately start thinking of things they’d like to cut out of their life and then use that as a thing to “fast” from. I don’t want to get too bogged down into the details, but it’s important to say that most often, we should fast from things that are good things, things that God wants us to take joy in. The reason why this is important is because fasting is always, at least in part, about the feast. We fast now, of a good thing, in order to make sure our hearts are aligned with Christ, and focused on the true source of the feast of our generous God’s love. In that light, we should also practice the discipline of feasting. Occasionally, it is right and good for us to gather around a table with friends and family and have a massive feast, praying together, laughing together, and anticipating the feast of New Creation that we will partake of during the consummation of all things.
Christians are people of Thanksgiving. In fact, it could be said that we are people of the first Thanksgiving, which did not happen in 1621 in the Plymouth Colony. We could say that the first Thanksgiving was the meal that Jesus instituted with his followers, when we broke bread and poured wine and told them to do this meal in remembrance of Him. Christians are people of the feast, which means that at times, we should feast. And at other times, we should purposefully withhold the temporary meal in order to focus on the eternal feast that is God’s Kingdom at hand.
4 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” 4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’
Remember that Jesus was both fully God and fully man without division, change, confusion, or separation (wrap your head around that one). Hebrews 4:14 tells us that Jesus is our high priest who is able to sympathize with our weakness because he has in every respect, been tempted as we are, yet did not sin. Just a few verses ago at the end of Matthew 3, Jesus had been baptized by John the Baptist and we’re told that at that moment, the heavens opened up, the Holy Spirit descended like a dove, and a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” So now you see how Satan attempts to pit Jesus’ humanity against His divinity. “Jesus, you haven’t eaten for 40 days, you must be starving. Command these stones to become loaves of bread. You have the power, use it!” Yes, it would have been easy for Jesus to call on his divine powers to transform stones into bread, but he had temporarily placed an intentional pause on a legitimately good thing (namely food) for the purpose of hearing with laser precision what his mission was from His Father. The language here in Matthew is saturated in Torah. Not only did Moses himself fast 40 days and nights on several occasions, and the Israelites spend 40 years wandering in the wilderness, and Jesus quotes Deuteronomy in response to Satan.
Deuteronomy 8 – a long passage, but so good.
8 Be careful to follow every command I am giving you today, so that you may live and increase and may enter and possess the land the Lord promised on oath to your ancestors. 2 Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. 3 He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. 4 Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years. 5 Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you.
6 Observe the commands of the Lord your God, walking in obedience to him and revering him. 7 For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land—a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills; 8 a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; 9 a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills.
10 When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. 11 Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. 12 Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, 13 and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 15 He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. 16 He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you. 17 You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” 18 But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.
19 If you ever forget the Lord your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed. 20 Like the nations the Lord destroyed before you, so you will be destroyed for not obeying the Lord your God.
Jesus would be the ultimate fulfillment of these promises. He was Moses as Moses was meant to be. He was Israel as Israel was meant to be. And he would lead his people, all people, out of bondage and into a Kingdom defined by God’s abundant generosity and love. So just like Israel needed a pause in certain provisions in order to trust that “man does not live by bread alone”, Jesus would also spend a time fasting in order to make sure that the promise and purpose of His Heavenly Father was in complete alignment with his actions. His response to Satan’s temptations show us that his priorities are in the right place and now in the Sermon on the Mount, it looks like he’s calling us to follow suit. As Christians it is vital that we know that “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” So we pause the temporary, in order to focus on the eternal.
2nd Corinthians 4:16
16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. This passage isn’t directly about fasting, but I hope that you can see why it’s pertinent. Christians want their lives to be about eternal things. We want our life to be about the eternal weight of glory, not temporary pleasures. The practice of fasting is not about showing God how serious I am, it’s about a practice that aids us in focusing on His mission, by His method, to His glory. It’s about trusting that He is the one who is ushering us into that promised land, which is His Kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven. There is no denying that fasting will include a temporary discomfort. All practices of discipline do to some degree. But they exist in order to aid us in preparing for the eternal weight of glory. And now we circle back to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount.
The problem was that “the eternal weight of glory” was the farthest thing from some who practiced fasting during the time of Christ. Some had chosen to use fasting, as they used giving and praying to put on a show for others, to make their religious observance more about impressing other people than living out a relationship with God. “Oh, aren’t I something, I’ve fasted for three days!” they might say. In our own day, it’s just as prevalent. “None for me thinks, I’m fasting.” Now don’t get me wrong, sometimes you need to let others know when you’re fasting. Don’t sit in the living room reading your bible while your spouse makes dinner in the kitchen and then say, “Sorry, honey, I’m just not hungry.” Fasting isn’t an excuse for lying. Most likely, I would say that it’s good policy, if you’re married, to let your spouse know if you intend to fast. But you don’t need to make a show of it. You might even decide to do it together. In fact, the most commonly noted fast in Scripture comes from Yom Kippur when God commanded all of Israel to fast.
In church tradition, there have absolutely been times when entire churches have fasted, or groups of Christians have fasted in order to hear from God during a particular season. During Lent, each year, we’ll invite the church to consider giving up something, which is a form of fasting, so it’s likely that we’ll be aware that each other are doing it. Regardless, the point is not that no one would ever learn that you’ve fasted or that you’re current engaged in a fast, the point is that the “reward” you are seeking is not the approval or respect of others, but rather your closer alignment with His Kingdom agenda.