The Lost Art of Fasting
"Whenever you fast, don't be sad-faced like the hypocrites. For they make their faces unattractive so their fasting is obvious to people. I assure you: They've got their reward! But when you fast, put oil on your head, and wash your face, so that you don't show your fasting to people but to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you"
(Matt. 6:16-18, Holman Christian Standard Bible).
Jesus cautioned us never to make a public show of fasting. When it's sincere, fasting is a deeply personal act. We may share our decision to fast with a few of those closest to us to garner their support or ask them to fast with us, but for the most part, fasting is a choice best kept to yourself.
Sadly enough, many Christians have used Jesus' command to fast in private as a loophole to abandon the practice altogether. This is a serious error in judgment, but even more, it says something alarming about the condition of our hearts. Why have so many of us discarded this ancient, hallowed practice from our lives?
Certainly, for Christians, fasting is not an issue of the law as it was for the Israelites. In Christ, we're free to choose whether and when we want to include it in our lives. But it's still an issue of the heart. What does it say about our desire for God, our hunger for His presence, and our passion for His will that we fast so little in seeking Him?
Perhaps it's not only our hearts but also our lack of understanding that makes fasting seem so archaic to our sensibilities. After all, what does fasting really accomplish in the end? How can such a practice fit into the busy life of the postmodern world?
"Let us search out and examine our ways," cries the prophet Jeremiah, "and turn back to the Lord" (Lam. 3:40, HCSB). Perhaps it's time we examined our ways with respect to fasting, so that we might come to the Lord with fresh hearts and a renewed understanding of what it means to seek Him with our whole being.
The fast of repentance
The logistics of a biblical fast vary by circumstance in Scripture. Sometimes it was a 24-hour void of food or drink. Other times it was a longer period, but the fast was observed only from dawn to dusk. And yet, whatever the form, the cry of the human heart to reconnect with God was always central to its purpose.
Fasting, by its nature, awakens us to repentance. It reconnects us to our inability to live without the sustaining blessings of God. It humbles us to remember that we are not, after all, the self-sufficient lords of our own lives. But most importantly, it refocuses our hearts to see what we truly need for genuine life in this world, and it helps us recognize where we have wasted our energy on the frivolous and profane.
Ultimately, this is not a fast we do for God's benefit but rather for our own. We cry out as David did, "Search me, God, and know my heart" (Ps. 139:23a, HCSB). We, in turn, are doing the same when we choose to fast. We fast to search our own souls in tandem with Christ. Without the distracting crutches of worldly comforts and with an ever-increasing awareness of our need, we look within, holding in our spirits this singular purpose: to uproot and toss aside anything He finds within us that is not pleasing to Him.
The fast of supplication
There comes a time in everyone's life when the only thing left in you to do is collapse on the ground in desperation and plead with God. The world is too much for all of us. It's unfair, and it frequently deals us blows that shatter our souls without reason or cause. It doesn't care that your heart is breaking or that your strength is spent. Sometimes it doesn't even notice you're here.
But God does. He sees us all and listens to our every passing thought with love and captive interest. And it's precisely for that reason that we seek Him in faith through fasting and prayer.
The fast of supplication is the fast of Daniel to see his nation delivered from captivity. It's the fast of David to save the life of his infant son. It's the fast of Esther to deliver her people from certain destruction. And it's the fast that you will choose at the moment when you recognize your own powerlessness, and you'll turn your heart to seek God's intervening strength.
The fast of supplication is the fast of longing, pleading, and seeking to move the hand of God to change some circumstance in the world. But it's also the fast of pleading with God to change you - by bringing your heart in line with His highest purpose and opening your eyes to the deeper revelation of Himself that He is longing for you to see.
The fast of restoration
Once you have integrated the discipline of fasting into your walk with God, do not be surprised when He begins to speak to you out of the fast, calling you to be someone you did not think you were and to do things you did not think you could do. The story of God encompasses far more than any one of our lives alone, and if given the chance, God will call you to step into the larger story He is telling - to become an emissary of His power and will in the world and a minister of His freedom and restoration to the lost and oppressed.
In the end, isn't that what our fasting and prayer have been for all along? We want God to redeem the world. We want Him to rescue the oppressed, to free captive hearts and lives, to feed the hungry, to heal our diseases, to fill the empty and dark places of the world with His hope and light.
Perhaps what the discipline of fasting ultimately teaches us is not merely that God shares our desire to redeem the world, but that He has chosen to redeem the world through us.