By Maureen Diffley
When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. – Jesus in Matthew 6:16-18
It is the disciplined person who can feast when feasting is called for and fast when fasting is called for. In fact, the glutton and the extreme ascetic have exactly the same problem. They cannot live appropriately in life. – Richard J. Foster
As we enter into the Easter season, it’s a safe time (maybe!) to talk about fasting.
(In other words, Lent is over.)
Too often, I see fasting dismissed quickly in terms of disapproval of how other people seem to fast, “just because it’s Lent”, “to lose weight”, or “to spiritualize self-improvement”.
This really has nothing to do with the essence of fasting itself.
We know that people go to church “out of habit”, “because it’s Sunday”, “to earn social standing”, or “to not get grounded by their parents”, but we don’t advise people that corporate worship isn’t important just because motives can get messy. We know that corporate worship can be something we pursue out of a holy desire. When that isn’t someone’s experience, we tend to hope that the practice itself will transform her motives by God’s grace.
Yet when it comes to fasting, there sometimes seems to be a great deal of concern. About legalism. About performing outward rituals without inner meaning. About not fasting from something when the only true fast is aiding the needy. Certainly, like every good thing, fasting can be distorted.
Dismissing fasting altogether is also a distortion.
Jesus said “when you fast“.
Jesus did not say “if you fast” or that the only true fast is x, y or z. (When Isaiah told the Israelites of the fast God requires, he was not talking to people who did not fast at all or had no understanding of the concept.) Simply put, fasting is among the basics of spiritual practice that Jesus taught in Matthew 5-7 and He mentions it in each gospel.
A spiritual discipline that serves to promote self-restraint and perseverance, fasting runs counter to a culture of indulgence, immediate gratification and hyper-distraction.
So maybe the real reason that we have a bunch of reasons not to fast is that we just don’t want to do it.
It is hard. And not just physically.
Fasting helps us to realize how dependent we are on doing what we want to do right when we want to do it. When deprived of the immediate satisfaction of things we need – or simply like, we may find that our character requires more development than we thought. Perhaps, we simply have good manners when we are well-fed. Fasting can serve us by letting us not coddle ourselves for a bit, so we can learn what comes to the front of our minds and out in our behavior when we are tested.
If we were to fast, we might realize individually, as a small group, a corps or a collection of churches that we are too satiated. We need to be tested. We need to listen to what God will say when we open up new ways of being available to hear.
When I have fasted simply because it is good to fast, I have experienced it in different ways – sometimes as encouraging and other times as convicting. And I felt that these feelings were connected to God’s heart; they were the feelings He wanted me to have.
If we faced certain challenges, we might be inspired to fast: after driving a demon out of a boy, following the failure of his disciples to do so, Jesus told them “these kind only come out by prayer and fasting” (Mk 9:29, NKJV). Most English language translations no longer include “and fasting” because of disagreement about the best versions of early Greek texts of the gospel to use. Since many of the earliest texts do not include “and fasting” (some do), many scholars have concluded that “and fasting” was an addition added by some in the early church to add emphasis to the text. However, we can still find it in some translations and it is useful to think of fasting as an emphatic way to pray.
When my faith community responded to a friend’s brain tumor with a fast, it was a sign of the fervency of our prayers to our friend, to each other and to God. When the faith community responded – around the world, with a fast to news that another friend had been kidnapped, it gave us a sense of power in spiritual warfare. When I have fasted for specific situations, I have felt more intentional in my prayer and more connected to what God was working through in the situations.
The sense of unity in the experience of fasting to prepare for a new ministry, to intercede for specific healing, to plead for reconciliation always feels God-given.
Fasting is more than lip service. It is a response with our bodies, as well as our minds, hearts and spirit.
Fasting is more than agreeing with the words we say in our prayers.
Fasting is more than feelings.
Fasting takes time.
Fasting invites us to integrate.
Fasting can be abused and it can be ignored, but neither the extreme ascetic nor the glutton is our best guide. Jesus fasted and expects us to fast.
What do we have to lose by following Jesus’ example to embrace fasting?
Captain Maureen Diffley is the Program Specialist for Women’s Ministries at The Salvation Army’s Territorial Headquarters in Atlanta, GA. For more information about Embrace, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org