For all of our failings, if there’s one place Western culture succeeds it’s indulgence. We are, after all, the home of the cafeteria, the smorgasbord and the all-you-can-eat buffet. Where else, but in the USA, would a place like Ryan’s be a commercial success.
We, especially in The United States, have engendered one of the most self-indulgent, gluttonous and consumptive societies in history.
Our forefathers were hunter-gatherers, we’re just gatherers.
As Dave Ramsey says,
“We spend money we don’t have, to buy things we don’t need, to impress people we don’t like.”
What’s worse is that we all see it yet we continue our self indulgence. We know we’re selfish, we know we’re gluttons, and we just can’t stop.
We’re not alone. Every culture that has ever enjoyed a level of prosperity has eventually been given over to decadence. It was the downfall of Rome, the decline of Greece and the blinders the British wore. We have everything, we need nothing and so we become numb to our ultimate and greatest needs.
Knowing this about humanity, Jesus steps into our story in His Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew chapter 6 He teaches,
“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 ESV)
He takes it for granted that His disciples will fast. He doesn’t say, IF you fast, but WHEN. Fasting is assumed as a basic Christian activity. Prayer and fasting are fundamental to a victorious life as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
In Matthew 17 Jesus and His disciples had an encounter with a family that needed a spiritual victory,
“And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and, kneeling before him, said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.” And Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you. Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.” (Matthew 17:14-21)
They were reminded that simple faith can accomplish great things. Jesus revealed to them that very small faith could move very large things, even mountains. Indeed, the effectual, fervent prayer of a righteous man “availeth much” (James 5:16). However, when it comes to winning spiritual victories against spiritual enemies you need the added strength of natural hunger. You need to add fasting to your prayer. Jesus said spiritual victories are won through prayer and fasting!
This was precisely what God was reminding Israel in Isaiah 58.
“Yet they act so pious! They come to the Temple every day and seem delighted to learn all about me. They act like a righteous nation that would never abandon the laws of its God. They ask me to take action on their behalf, pretending they want to be near me. ‘We have fasted before you!’ they say. ‘Why aren’t you impressed? We have been very hard on ourselves, and you don’t even notice it!’ “I will tell you why!” I respond. “It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves. Even while you fast, you keep oppressing your workers. What good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarreling? This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with me. You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like reeds bending in the wind. You dress in burlap and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the Lord ? “No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help. “Then your salvation will come like the dawn, and your wounds will quickly heal. Your godliness will lead you forward, and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind. Then when you call, the Lord will answer. ‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply. “Remove the heavy yoke of oppression. Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors! Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon. The Lord will guide you continually, giving you water when you are dry and restoring your strength. You will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring.” (Isaiah 58:2-11 NLT)
God, through His prophet Isaiah, calls out Israel on their hypocrisy. He sees through their actions and highlights their motive. They pray and fast, making themselves miserable, hoping to pry good gifts from the hands of God. They get it all wrong.
He says they “act pious” and they “pretend to be near me” but they’re only fasting to please themselves. They’re not really fasting to please God. They’re trying to use religious activity to cajole God to take their side and God rebuked them for it. That’s not how God works.
Fasting is not leveraging God for your interests. It is not divine arm twisting to get God to take your side. To the contrary, fasting doesn’t get God on your page, it gets you on His. It’s about you, humbling yourself, letting go of your self-interest and getting your will aligned with His. Fasting takes the most basic and vital physical need we have, food, and willfully denies the physical man in order to put the spiritual man back in control.
We often forget that we are physical and spiritual. We need to nourish and maintain the health of our entire nature. CS Lewis famously said,
“You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”
The truth is, we are engaged everyday in the care and feeding of our body. Sleep, showers, breakfast, lunch, dinner, radio, music, books, sports, shopping, clothing, friends, vacation and on and on. We do most of what we do to respond to the needs and maintenance of our physical self, often to the detriment and neglect of our spiritual self.
We’re washing the car but we’re not changing the oil. We’re a house of squalor with a manicured lawn. We monitor the externals but we neglect the internals which are exponentially more important and, consequently eternal. The only thing that can treat the malaise of this natural world is both prayer and fasting.
John Piper powerfully writes in His book, A Hunger for God,
“The greatest enemy of hunger for God is not poison but apple pie. It is not the banquet of the wicked that dulls our appetite for heaven, but endless nibbling at the table of the world. It is not the X-rated video, but the prime-time dribble of triviality we drink in every night. For all the ill that Satan can do, when God describes what keeps us from the banquet table of his love, it is a piece of land, a yoke of oxen, and a wife (Luke 14:18-20).
The greatest adversary of love to God is not his enemies but his gifts. And the most deadly appetites are not for the poison of evil, but for the simple pleasures of earth. For when these replace an appetite for God himself, the idolatry is scarcely recognizable, and almost incurable.”
So, in Matthew 6, Jesus gives us instruction for, “When You Fast”.
The first thing He says is, When You Fast, don’t do it for men to see. If you fast only to procure a reputation as a pious and religious individual Jesus said you’re just a hypocrite and the praise of men will be your only reward. However, if you want to fast the way God intends for believers to fast, do it in private.
Don’t fast so that men compliment your piety or applaud you for religious activity. Fast so that your heart seeks the heart of God. Fast to submit your physical man to your spiritual man. Fast, not just to open the hands of God but rather, to hear the voice of God. Fast for joy, and men can’t give you joy.
He then, almost humorously, goes on to say, “wash your face”. When you fast clean yourself up, brush your teeth, do your hair, and use some product. Why? If you’ve ever fasted for several days you know, because you’ll need to!
Also, because you’ll be tempted not to. That will leave you open for questions as to why your appearance is the way it is.
Make no mistake, fasting is not easy on the physical body. You will likely be, if on an extended fast, (what my wife and I refer to as “hangry”) hungry, irritable and possibly a little weakened. It is, however, restorative. Many medical doctors even encourage fasting for it’s beneficial effects, a sabbath of sorts, for your digestive system. Fasting breaks down the physical man to ensure that the spiritual man remains in control of your life.
So, When You Fast, Jesus says let your fasting have one focus, not the applause of men, not divine leverage, but aligning your will with your Father’s will that the joy of the Lord would be your strength.