“Some have exalted religious fasting beyond all Scripture and reason; and others have utterly disregarded it.” John Wesley
There is a certain irony in Wesley’s observation of fasting as he points out that a spiritual discipline that helps us to recognize the spiritually-dividing excesses in our life can, in itself, become an excess of its own. Fasting has largely fallen from favor as a spiritual discipline. Through the centuries excesses in asceticism gave the practice an undeserved reputation as a form of mortification but it also contrasts deeply with modern culture in a Church that views any deprivation as suffering.
The lack of understanding about the purposes of fasting also contributes to its negative reputation. Many continue to view it as a hair shirt, a form of self-imposed castigation but that is a flawed view. The singular purpose of fasting is to become more intimate with God. A fast is a personal matter between you and God in which you do without food in order to focus on how you are sustained by God alone. Spiritual fasting for any other reason is extra-biblical and borders on self worship. It is never to be used as leverage to gain favor from God or as an effort to divert His will.
The Bible Speaks on Fasting
Christians since the earliest days have sought the biblical mandate for all Christians to fast regularly, only to be disappointed in their efforts. There is no biblical law that commands regular fasting. Every case of fasting in the Scriptures is initiated by the Lord, as He sees necessary. The majority of the instances are individual in nature though, on occasion, God has called for corporate fasts. The discipline of fasting, its method and frequency are initiated by God and conveyed to the believer through the intimacy of relationship. We should interpret these facts cautiously. The spiritual discipline of fasting is a release of control on our lives meant to help deepen our intimacy with God. It is a privilege which we can practice as a part of our regular devotional life as long as we are certain of its purpose. If there is a specific reason for a fast (repentance, et. al) God will guide his people to it.
As people have searched the Scriptures to determine if there is a commandment to fast, the disciple discovers that Jesus simply takes for granted that you will include fasting in your devotional practices. In the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “When you fast” (Mt 6:16). It is not offered as one selection among many (‘if you choose fasting’) or as an optional endeavor (‘IF you fast’). Instead, the Lord speaks to the topic as a regular component of the devotions of a disciple as are prayer and charity.
What Jesus brings to light in this passage is a warning against ostentation when one does fast. Our fasting is to remain a private matter between us and God. To make a public spectacle of ourselves in the process draws attention to us and immediately defeats the purpose of the fast. Glory shifts from God to ourselves and the growth and strength that derives from the fast is destroyed. We might as well not have fasted at all. If those around us become aware of our fast they should not be asking how we endure such torture. Rather, they should be seeking for themselves the source of our nourishment which, for the disciple, is the very word of God (Jn 4:32-34).
The real you and me that we mask with comforting things will also be revealed when we fast. It’s no secret that we are vulnerable to revelation when we are uncomfortable. Our irritations, feelings, and sometimes our actions bubble to the surface when our discomfort overrides our ability to suppress them. This is our true self that we contain under normal circumstances. This is the true self that Jesus directs the Spirit to address within us. Our deceitful minds are more than capable of convincing us that these attitudes are not a problem but the Lord knows the truth. Just as the desert revealed the purity of Jesus Christ, our 24 hours of fasting reveal the flaws within us that demand attention.
It’s Time to Stop Avoiding Fasting
Fasting can bring unparalleled vitality to our spiritual life in a way that none of the other disciplines can. Wesley closes the thoughts, “…it was not merely by the light of reason…that the people of God have been, in all ages, directed to use fasting as a means:…but they have been…taught it of God Himself, by clear and open revelations of His Will…Now, whatever reasons there were to quicken those of old, in the zealous and constant discharge of this duty, they are of equal force still to quicken us.” (Sermons on Several Occasions)
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