Fasting: What, Why, When, How?

Audio Player

I want to begin tonight by telling you about the behaviour of two men. They're real men – but I'm not going to tell you their names! The first man prided himself on being a great and loving husband. Then one day his wife got upset when he bought her a bunch of flowers. He asked her why, and her response packed quite a punch. She pointed out that for years he had bought her flowers, but only when they were about to have guests. Implication? He did what he did in order to be seen by others. And admired by them for being such a wonderful husband.

Another posted on Facebook a lovely photo and message to his wife once a year on their anniversary. Only his wife wasn't on Facebook and he didn't show it to her. She just heard about it from others who told her how lucky she was to have such a wonderful and loving husband. She too wasn't impressed. Why? Again, implication: he did what he did in order to be seen by others.

Both claimed to love their wives. Both did a good thing. But they were obviously showing off and it's not a pretty picture is it?

Jesus confronts us with a similar picture tonight in our Bible passage where we again find someone doing a good thing: fasting. But they're not doing it to focus on God. They're doing it to be seen, and no doubt admired, by those who see them doing it.

Turn with me to Matthew 6:16-18 which we're looking at this evening. We're in the middle of a sermon Jesus is teaching to those who have gathered with him on the top of a mount and our verses come in a section that begins from chapter 6, verse 1. Here is what Jesus says:

"Beware of practising your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven."

We see here the general principle Jesus is teaching us. There are things that we're tempted to do for God in order to be seen by those around us. And Jesus says stop it! Having taught the principle, Jesus then gives us three examples. The first is giving. You can see that in verses 2 to 4

"Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you."

The second example Jesus gives is prayer. Look at verses 5 and 6:

"And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you."

So that's the context. Which brings us to our passage for this evening, verses 16 to 18, and fasting:

"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."

So, let me begin by making clear that the main point Jesus makes in this passage is this: do not practising your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them. If we do, then God is not impressed – we will get a reward, but it will not be from God. People's praise may or may not come and even if it does it won't last very long.

That doesn't mean we can't do these things with others. But our motive should not be to seek attention for ourselves. This is quite a challenge – so don't duck it! Jesus tells us to beware. This is a serious warning. So, how are you in danger of doing good things in order to impress others? It's a lifelong battle – this isn't something we'll tick and then move on – we need to remain on our guard.

I hope it's clear that Jesus's main point here is to warn us about the wrong motives we can have when we fast. However, it is good to spend a good chunk of our remaining time thinking about fasting itself. Jesus takes it for granted that his disciples fasted and knew about fasting. That's probably not true of us we and so we also need to slow down somewhat and learn from what Jesus says here about fasting itself.

Before we do that, let me say that I'm aware that for some of us, food is a sensitive area to be talking about because you have a difficult and complex relationship with food – maybe a habit of comfort eating that's beginning to get out of control. Or maybe something more serious. If you're aware that's the case for you then do seek help. I would encourage you to talk to a mature Christian you trust, who can help you. There is also a group at JPC called Celebrate Recovery where you will find to help to work through issues like these. And I'd also recommend the books by Emma Scrivener who knows first-hand the struggle of an eating disorder. You'll likely also need help from the medical profession. You're not alone in this struggle. And you also need to know that fasting is not for everyone, and most probably not for you at this point.

I also know that there is a lot written about fasting by nutritionist and within the sporting world and so increasing numbers of people are building into the regular routines of their lives periods of not eating because of health benefits. It will become obvious when we think about how the Bible defines fasting that this isn't really what we're talking about here. But it is interesting that there is that wider interest in it.

My guess however is that for many Christians today in the UK fasting is hardly ever talked about and (probably) hardly ever practised. I know that for many watching this around the world on Clayton TV that may not be your experience. And I know it's not been the case throughout the world today and back through church history. For example in this country, one of the 33 official sermons of the church of England (called the Homilies) written in 1571 was about fasting. Those sermons were to be read in every church in the land, which shows how important fasting was considered in the life of ordinary Christians at that time.

I recently had a sabbatical and spent a few months at an Anglican church in Singapore. I was really struck by the amazing depth of love the staff team there had for God and that was especially apparent at their staff meetings. It was only in the last week that I began to realise that many of the staff had a habit of fasting each week ending with their weekly staff prayer meeting and staff meal. But no one said anything, and it wasn't obvious – they just politely declined my offers of biscuits and cups of tea! I was quite struck by that. And it got me thinking about fasting and I realised that in my own growth as a Christian I have received very little encouragement or teaching to fast. And I know I'm not alone. So, why is that?

Perhaps part of the answer is because in the New Testament – including in this passage – there are no direct commands to fast and Jesus doesn't make too much of fasting.

True, Jesus does say here "when you fast…", as he said in verse 2 "when you give to the needy" and in verse 5 "when you pray". But that's not quite the same as 'you should fast… and when you do then do this…'

So, fasting is a little different to the first two examples where we can go elsewhere in the New Testament and find teaching that instructs followers of Jesus to give and to pray. So for example even in this passage, with prayer it's not just verse 2, "when you pray" but also verse 9 ''pray then like this". With fasting, however, we find it is just described – there are many examples and we'll look a few of them. But it is not directly commanded. So, it is an area where Christians have freedom.

Put that together with the warnings about fasting – such as the warning here not to fast in a show off-ey way – and maybe it's not surprising that fasting isn't very common.

But maybe it actually says something about us that we note the fact that it's not commanded, and decide in fact not to use our freedom to do it well, but rather not to do it at all.

I think we need to take seriously that Jesus here uses fasting as an example, lined up as it is next to giving and praying. He may not be directly commanding it, but surely it's fair to say that he is assuming it. He doesn't say, 'if you fast'. He says 'when you fast'. On the lips of Jesus, that is very strong.

Flip over to Matthew 9:14-17 and we see Jesus again speaking about fasting.

"Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, 'Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?'"

What we see here is that fasting was a common practice among both disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees. They find it shocking that Jesus' disciples don't fast.

Listen to how Jesus replies.

"And Jesus said to them, 'Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?'"

There was something special about the time when Jesus was with them, that meant it was inappropriate to fast. He links fasting to mourning – which is itself quite interesting. So, fasting while Jesus was with them is just as inappropriate as behaving at a wedding as if you were at a funeral. But he goes on to say that "The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast". Again – its described, not commanded. But it's hard to escape the assumption Jesus makes here that those living in the days between his first coming and his return at the end of this world – that's us – will fast.

So – to recap – we must not give/pray/fast to show off. We are not commanded to fast, but there's a strong assumption made by Jesus that his disciples will fast – just as they will live generous lives and prayerful lives. Jesus clearly expected his followers to fast after he had gone, so it is odd that this is not a widespread habit amongst all Christians.

So, what is fasting?

Now can I say I do want to helpfully define fasting – to explain what it IS and what it IS NOT. But more than that I would love to begin to paint for you a picture to help you see that fasting could be a wonderful thing to add to our lives as disciples of Jesus. Not because we feel we ought to. But because we see how helpful it could be as a spiritual habit in our lives.

Fasting is deliberately going without food to focus on God. It is NOT just eating less, as helpful as some of us find that. In fact, if you view it as a spiritual weight loss programme it's not fasting at all – it's dieting. The purpose is not weight loss or getting cholesterol under control.

We fast to intentionally focus on God in the middle of a busy and distracted life. So, if you fast in order to spend more time on your phone, then you've missed the point! We fast to focus on God.

Fasting is not to earn God's approval or impress him – we cannot do that by what we do. Only Jesus death on the cross can do that. It is not to twist his arm to give us what we ask for in prayer – like a hunger strike till God does as we ask or a toddler having a tantrum to try and get their own way.

Why then do we fast?

Here is Jim Packer:

"In Scripture we see several purposes for fasting. It's a way of sharing that we depend on God alone and draw all our strength and resources from him; it's a way of focusing totally on him when seeking his guidance and help, and of showing that you really are in earnest in your quest; it's also, at times, an expression of sorrow and deep repentance, something that a person or community will do in order to acknowledge failure before God and seek his mercy."

The point of fasting is not simply to free up time for bible reading and prayer. It might help with that. But if you have a family to feed and eat your lunch on the go anyway then it may not. In fact, it may mean you're too weak to properly focus on study and prayer.

The point of fasting is to be hungry; to get us to a place where we acutely feel our need for food. Why on earth would you want to do that? How can that be of any spiritual benefit?

Hunger confronts us with the reality of our own mortality, and that we depend on God for life and what we need to live. It shows us that we are created and not the creator. That we are not God. It humbles us. It helps us approach the throne of grace in an appropriate frame of mind, heart and soul.

It doesn't take a long time without food to feel hungry, weak, tired, and irritable. We're tempted to muster up the strength to prove how invincible we are. To turn fasting into an opportunity for self-righteous pride. But that would be to miss the point and undermine its purpose. Fasting is meant to expose our weakness, vulnerability and impotence before our God, and so our reliance on Him. It does that because we are human. Without food, we die. That fact helps bring us to the right frame of mind.

That's why the giving up TV, or social media or chocolate doesn't really have the same effect. However important we might feel these things are, it isn't life-threatening to go without them! To go without food, however, means giving up something we cannot do without. And so we are forced to realise that we're fragile, created beings.

It can also help us to focus on God our creator instead of the good gifts he has created for us. Food is a God-given gift and given for our enjoyment. But like so many other gifts that God has given us, there is a danger we focus on the gift and not the giver. Fasting can help us focus on God and honour him as the giver of life and all that is good. However, if fasting ends up causing you to focus more on food in an unhealthy way, rather than on God – then fasting would not be good for you spiritually.

And fasting exposes what's really going on inside our heart, and how much we need a saviour. So imagine you're fasting and you're hungry. If you're anything like me, that ends up with you being impatient and irritable. Maybe you blow up in anger at someone. Why? It's because you haven't eaten. Is it really?

What is it about hunger that makes us like that? Did Jesus behave like that when he fasted? No. Hunger brings out what we're really like. Jesus was holy and righteous, and so He didn't sin even in the midst of life-threatening hunger. We sin because we are sinful, not because we are hungry. We behave like that because that is what we are really like. A good meal can help us hide those attitudes from others and even from ourselves. But fasting, and the hunger it brings, exposes the reality of our hearts.

Finally, here is a comment from a Christian blogger called Ian Paul (psephio.com). He makes the point that life between Jesus's first and second coming is a mixture of joy and sorry, of feasting and fasting

"'Feast' days celebrate a world made by God and all the good in it; alongside this, 'fast' days signified repentance, mourning and longing for deliverance – just the sort of practice you might adopt if you were awaiting the deliverance of a Messiah and the breaking in of the age to come. Intermittent fasting is just the sort of thing you might continue to practice if you wanted to continue to both affirm the world you lived in, but also to look for an age to come; it is the dietary expression of the 'now and not yet' of the kingdom of God."

In other words, the biblical pattern of feast time and fast times shows us what is true about this world – that God has broken in and is making everything new. But also that we're not there yet – that there is brokenness and one day – when Jesus returns – all will be right again. One day we will no longer fast, because the bridegroom will be back!

So fasting is the natural thing to do when we face bereavement or brokenness in us or in our world. And feasting is the appropriate thing to do when we celebrate. And life as a Christian should contain both. We may prefer the feast, but until Jesus returns there are also times when fasting is the natural thing to do.

When should we fast?

The Old Testament only directly commands fasting on one occasion a year – on the day of atonement. There was no sign there that it was a regular devotional habit in Old Testament times.

We know it also happened at other times – both individually and together with the people of God – and was often accompanied by an intense period of prayer. Three specific times:

  • At times of repentance
  • When a key decision needed to be made
  • At a time of crisis

By Jesus' time it seems it had developed to be a more regular habit. In Luke 18:12, When Jesus tells the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the Pharisee prays and says "I fast twice a week and I give a tenth of all I get". There are all three of the examples we're just looked at. It seems by the time of Jesus fasting was normal practice.

The New Testament also describes fasting – individually and together as a church. Again: at times of repentance, when key decisions needed to be made (such as choosing elders) and when there was a crisis. So, for example, Acts 13:2-3

"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."

Was fasting a regular spiritual habit for New Testament believers? We don't know. But one of the early Christian teaching documents about church life in the late first century – the Didache – describes Christians fasting twice a week (on Wednesdays and on Fridays) so as to fast on different days to the Jews (who were in the habit of fasting Mondays and Thursdays). And so John Wesley urged Methodists to fast every Wednesday and Friday, and wouldn't ordain anyone to ministry who didn't fast those days!

Remembering the Old Testament pattern of fasting on the Day of Atonement, some Christians still fast before taking Communion and Anglicans, among others, have often fasted on Fridays to mark the crucifixion.

How often is not important. There are no commands about that. It's between you and God. But it does seem that at certain points fasting could be something that helps us as we focus on God and look to him in those situations.

How should we fast?

There is some evidence in the Didache that the regular fasting of the early Christians went from after breakfast until a light evening meal, rather than being a 24-hour period without food. Normally fasting involves not eating food but continuing to drink water.

For some Christians, fasting means replacing normal meals with lighter foods or much smaller portions. For others, it means missing meals altogether. Many spend the time which would have been used for preparing and eating the meal in prayer instead. Others continue with their usual activities and take the pangs of hunger as prompts to prayer.

Of course, some medical conditions (such as diabetes) will mean thinking carefully about how you do this, and so some of us may need to seek medical advice before considering fasting.

And if what Jesus says here prompts you to fast – or talk and think more about this, remember what Jesus had to say why we do what we do and to avoid using this to show off. I'd also like to encourage us to speak and act sensitively, mindful of those who struggle with eating disorders and avoid causing our brothers and sisters to stumble.

One final practical thing to bear in mind. In Matthew 6:16-18 Jesus says this: "when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face". To anoint your head means to put oil on it. Now I would suggest you don't do that. Not because I'm contradicting the Bible. But the point Jesus was making was to look normal. Putting oil on your head may have been normal then – but it's not now! So, wash your face and just look normal!

We need to end. It seems to me we would do well to include fasting in our regular devotional life in much the same way as prayer or Bible reading would be. So let me end with a final quote – and challenge – from a book called God's Chosen Fast by Arthur Wallis:

"In giving us the privilege of fasting as well as praying, God has added a powerful weapon to our spiritual armoury. In her folly and ignorance, the Church has largely looked upon it as obsolete. She has thrown it down some dark corner to rust, and there it has lain forgotten for centuries. An hour of impending crisis for the Church and the world demands its recovery."
[Whitney, Donald S., (1991), Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, p.158 (quoting from Arthur Wallis God's Chosen Fast)]

Some Helpful Resources

  • Quick read: Very helpful series of blog posts on fasting at www.mie.org.uk/blog-fasting
  • Longer read: A Hunger for God: Desiring God Through Fasting and Prayer by John Piper (available free online at www.desiringgod.org/books/a-hunger-for-god)
  • Celebrate Recovery – meets 7:30pm Monday evenings at JPC. Contact catherine.robinson@church.org.uk
  • A New Name (grace and healing for anorexia) and A New Day (moving on from hunger, anxiety, control, shame, anger and despair) both by Emma Scrivener
Back to top