“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. 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 6:16-18)
We come this week to a subject that really doesn’t make sense to the natural mind. Why would anyone want to ‘not eat’? Surely God has provided food for us to enjoy and satisfy our hunger, not to punish our bodies?
In our minds we can probably imagine religious fanatics following a strict ascetic lifestyle. These people can have rather unhealthy masochistic tendencies. Definitely not normal.
It’s certainly true that fasting is not commanded in the bible, but in these verses today, Jesus undoubtedly makes the assumption that we will fast. Twice He says “When you fast”
It’s important firstly to see what fasting is not.
It is surely not ‘hunger striking.’ We are not trying to twist God’s arm. We are not fasting to feel pain and it’s not an extension of health dieting either.
So why do we fast?
Actually, fasting is not suppressing our desire for something but rather our intense pursuit of something else. Let me explain. We are placing our desire for God above our desire for food, we are saying our spiritual hunger is greater than our physical hunger. In Matthew 9, John’s disciples question Jesus as to why His disciples were not fasting. Jesus responded:
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. (Matthew 9:15)
Fasting has a strong link to sadness and mourning, it suggests something that is longed for. Jesus’ disciples didn’t need to feel sad while He was with them, but as soon as He left them and until His second coming there is a longing for His return amongst all His followers. You can hear the longing in Revelation 22:20 He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
There is a fascinating link between fasting and the Lord’s supper. With the Lord’s supper we are eating and drinking to remember the past. With fasting we are not eating to look forward to the future.
Let’s look at a few more examples from the bible about fasting;
(1) Fasting was done by God’s people after they had displeased Him
So they gathered at Mizpah and drew water and poured it out before the Lord and fasted on that day and said there, “We have sinned against the Lord.” And Samuel judged the people of Israel at Mizpah. (1 Samuel 7:6) See also; Joel 2:12, Jonah 3:5-8, Judges 20:26
(2) Fasting was done to prepare hearts and seek God’s help in preparation for battle
Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; (Joel 2:15)
See also 2 Chronicles 20:1-4
(3) Fasting was a sign of sincere and humble repentance from sin
Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes. (Daniel 9:3)
See also Nehemiah 9:1-2 and Joel 2:12-13
(4) Fasting teaches us self-control and sometimes reveals what controls us
More than any other spiritual discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. Things like; anger, bitterness, jealousy and fear will all rise to the surface as soon as we start fasting.
Our belly is not to be our God. Describing the enemies of God, The apostle Paul says;
Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. (Philippians 3:19)
See also Romans 16:18. Paul also talked about Self-discipline when he explained his attitude in 1 Corinthians 9:25-27
Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:25-27)
(5) Fasting is a powerful weapon in spiritual warfare
Fasting is humbling and reveals our complete dependence upon God and forces us to draw on him and his power, and to believe fully in his strength. This is what Jesus did when He fasted for 40 days and nights at the beginning of His ministry (See Matthew 4:1-11)
When Jesus heals a boy with an unclean spirit in Mark 9:14-29 Jesus says at the end “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” (Mark 9:29) Many manuscripts have “and fasting” at the end.
(6) Fasting helps us to discern God’s voice
Fasting helps us tune into the Holy Spirit’s leading and guiding and we are able to discern His will much more easily. In Acts 13:2-3 it mentions fasting in preparation and then the commissioning of Barnabus and Saul.
While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.
These are just a few aspects of the huge subject of fasting. If you’re spiritual life is a bit static and you find yourself not getting breakthrough in certain areas, why not try fasting?
The beauty in the context of Jesus’ teaching on the ‘sermon on the mount’ is that this spiritual discipline is done in secret. It’s just between us and God. We do it to please Him and Him alone and what a promise goes with it – He will reward us!