Ah, fasting. Willingly going without food. The thought of not eating for a day or any extended period of time is enough to make one’s blood run cold. Not eat? Surely you jest. There are people starving around the world; people who wish that they could have access to the bounty of food we in the western world enjoy. How arrogant of us to take something like that for granted!
Or perhaps we think that fasting is an ancient practice, something that Christians of old had to do, but has since become passé. As modern followers of Jesus, we can rely on the entirety of Scripture. Plus we’ve got prayer and the church. Surely that’s all we need to hear from the Lord.
But what if it’s not that simple? It’s time to unpack some of this and see what place (if any) fasting has as a spiritual discipline for us today.
As we did with solitude, let’s start by checking out how Jesus handled the subject of fasting. When He entered the wilderness, we’re told in Matthew 4 that He “had fasted forty days and forty nights” and that “afterward He was hungry.”
Knowing that Jesus was both 100 percent God and 100 percent man, we can only assume that He was physically and mentally exhausted by the lack of food. At His utmost point of human weakness, the devil shows up to start tempting Jesus and says, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread” (Matthew 4:3).
This first challenge from the tempter is interesting in that it calls out to Jesus’ deity and humanity simultaneously. His human-ness is lured by the fact that He is physically hungry. The temptation to supernaturally lift Himself out of hunger by transforming the surrounding stones to bread questions and mocks Christ’s true nature as the Son of God. “If you really are the Son, then you should be able to do this,” the devil seems to be saying.
In some ways, this scene foreshadows the night before Jesus’ crucifixion. There, as in the wilderness, Jesus would be beyond the human breaking point. How easy would it have been for Him to call down His angels for comfort and rescue? Yet there, as in the wilderness, He perseveres.
We can see through this encounter that Jesus was no stranger to fasting. His response to the devil in the wilderness provides us with a beginning for understanding why fasting is crucial for His followers. “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4).
In quoting from Deuteronomy 8, Jesus not only shows a deep understanding and knowledge of the Word of God (something we’ll examine in the next segment), but He also zeroes in on the main reason why fasting is important: It reminds us that our source of life is found only in God.
Deuteronomy 8 is jam-packed with instructions from Moses to Israel to guard against letting the distractions of the everyday block their relationship with God. Literally, he challenges them not to “forget Him” in midst of ‘regular’ life. It is no accident or happy coincidence that this is the chapter that Jesus quotes when defending against the devil’s temptation.
Additionally, when Jesus begins instructing His disciples later in Matthew, He talks about fasting as if it is a regular part of their lives, not something that is meant to be discouraged or discontinued. He challenges them in Matthew 6 to act properly when fasting: “But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:17-18).
Notice He doesn’t say “if you fast” but “when.” And the key is not to do it for public show or approval, but to do it as an act of sacrifice and remembrance for your Heavenly Father.
Additionally, most people (even ones with a shallow knowledge of the Bible) are familiar with Jesus’ words concerning faith the size of a mustard seed. What can it do? Well, He says that it can move mountains in Matthew 17. But He also says that such faith is only possible through…you guessed it: fasting. “But this kind [of faith] does not go out except by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:21).
So where does that leave us, the modern followers of Jesus? Where does fasting fit in to our lives? At the very least, this cursory glance that we’ve taken into the subject suggests that it is central to our relationship with God. In the same way that time with God and time in the Word are crucial to our spiritual development, this discipline is key to our growth.
It’s not something to flaunt or to use as a bragging point for how “spiritual” we are. We Christians have plenty of “gold stars” that we use to pat ourselves on the back for being good little followers of Christ. But rather, as Jesus portrayed in turning down the temptation in the wilderness, it is a means of reminding ourselves of God’s place as our source.
And how counter-cultural! The developed countries of the world are obsessed with the ease of life and getting whatever you want whenever you want it. Our consumer-obsessed society here in America is focused on “having it your way.”
How often are we bombarded with ads for this new restaurant or that new dish? How much self-centered time is wasted by worrying about diets and body image? Fasting might be the clarion call we each need to re-center our bodies, our minds and our souls. We may say that man doesn’t exist by bread alone, but how often do we actually live it?
–by Jeremy Hunt
For more information about fasting and how to implement it into your walk with Jesus, click here.