Hungry for God – fasting and feasting on Jesus
Jesus presumes that Christians today will fast. ‘When you fast…’ he says in Matthew 6:16. But what is fasting? What does the Bible say about fasting? Why and how could I do it?
What is fasting?Fasting is voluntarily making ourselves hungry and weak by removing both what we need and what we want, to awaken a longing for God. The idea is that the physical weakness caused by lack of sustenance is used by God to remind us of our need for him and his provision. It breaks unhealthy bonds we may have formed with things we can become wrongly attached to such as food, wealth, or comfort. It is even seen as a source of supernatural power (e.g. Mark 9:29). It is not always food we abstain from – Paul talks about married couples ‘fasting’ from sex for spiritual benefit (1Corinthains 7). At its simplest fasting cultivates a hunger for God.
The Old Testament and fasting
In the Old Testament, as well as records of individuals fasting, there are five formal ‘fasts’. The obligatory one marked the ‘Day of Atonement’ which was a celebration of the great restoration God had promised (Leviticus 16:29, 31; 23:27-32). The other four mourned past national tragedies and were optional (e.g. Zechariah 8:19). In the Old Testament fasting was used personally, to humble leaders’ pride, for guidance, or for celebration. However there was always an element of mourning linked to fasting as a reminder of what they had not fully got – God. Examples include: 1Samuel 7:6; 31:13; 2Samuel 1:12; 3:35; 12:16-23; 1Kings 21:27; Ezra 8:21; 10:6; Psalm 69:10; Exodus 34:38; Deuteronomy 9:9; Esther 4:15-17.
Throughout the Old Testament fasting with wrong motivates, without right conduct in life, or for the admiration of people neuters the fast’s power (e.g. Jeremiah 14:11-12).
The New Testament and fasting
The practice of the early church seems to revolve around three sorts of fasts. Firstly, on the ‘Day of Atonement’ as commanded by the Old Testament (Acts 27:9). Secondly, Pharisees and godly Jews fasted on Monday and Thursday (Luke 18:12). Finally, personal fasts generated by life events (e.g. Luke 2:37).
Jesus and fasting
The only fast by Jesus we know of was potentially forced not voluntary (Matthew 4:1-4), but he surely fasted as was the practice of all good Jews, and as we have seen he assumes his followers would fast. Jesus has the strongest of warnings that fasting must be done before God not man (Matthew 6:16-18).
Jesus our all-satisfying feast
Jesus is the ultimate ‘feast’ who satisfies us (e.g. Mark 2:18-20 with Revelation 19:7-9). He is what all the Old Testament fasting was ultimately for – a feast of God that permanently satisfies. So we no longer fast simply to awaken a hunger for God, but we fast because we have tasted the feast of Jesus. We fast from food to help us feast on Jesus. The Old Testament form of fasting was marked by sadness because they wanted God but did not have him. We fast in gladness because we know we have God and want to feast on him more. We empty our stomachs of food so to fill our hearts with Christ.
Us and fasting
Each Christian should practice the discipline of fasting, without feeling unduly forced. Some of us will already engage in fasting. However, some of us may be uncertain of how to use or experience this spiritual discipline. If you have any medical condition or a history of eating disorders do not fast without first speaking to your doctor and/or pastor.
What might you cultivate through fasting that feasts on Jesus?
- Remind yourself of your need for Jesus through your need for food.
- Remind yourself you are weak without food like you are weak without Jesus.
- Remind yourself that your dependence on Jesus is greater than your dependence on food.
- Remind yourself of your ultimate satisfaction in Jesus through your temporary satisfaction in food.
- Remind yourself of the pleasure of Jesus through the pleasure of food
For the last two deliberately pick a favoured meal to break your fast with – use the added delighted you feel in what you are eating to remind yourself of how much greater our delight in Jesus, our true feast, should be.
- Start in a way that you can finish – one meal; one item; one day.
- We are certainly not meant to neuter our fast by making a big public deal of it, but doing it with someone else initially helps accountability. Maybe as a family?
- Expect it to be difficult – it is meant to be. We are meant to feel the pain of hunger and the wobble of weakness.
- Choose food or something else that matters to you – fast from technology, TV, cigarettes.
- Remember it is more about filling your heart than emptying your stomach.