Fasting has been a part of every world religion and belief system since the beginning of time. The practice of fasting is not uncommon or unknown in secular culture. But what makes fasting and abstinence a Christian practice? Should Christians consider giving up things for Lent? If so, what do we hope to gain from it?
Some people use fasting as a form of asceticism, “buffeting the body” with self denial in an attempt to gain mastery over the flesh and its appetites. But the apostle Paul warns us in Colossians 2:20-23 that outward practices of self denial do not automatically guarantee inward holiness.
Others use fasting as a talisman to obtain a reward or a goal. By demonstrating piety, these people fast in order to gain God’s attention in hopes of earning grace or obligating God to grant whatever request we desire.
Then there are those who use fasting as a response to a grievous moment, such as our sin or even death. We see this evidenced in the Old Testament in the lives of Job and David, to name two.
But what does the Scripture say about fasting and abstinence? What makes it unique to us as Christians? Check out what Jesus said.
One day the disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus and asked him, “Why don’t your disciples fastf like we do and the Pharisees do?” Jesus replied, “Do wedding guests mourn while celebrating with the groom? Of course not. But someday the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. “Besides, who would patch old clothing with new cloth? For the new patch would shrink and rip away from the old cloth, leaving an even bigger tear than before. “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the old skins would burst from the pressure, spilling the wine and ruining the skins. New wine is stored in new wineskins so that both are preserved” (Matthew 9:14-17, NLT).
Christian fasting, at its root, expresses our longing for God. But this longing is only half of the story of Christian fasting. Half of Christian fasting is that our physical appetite is lost because our longing for God is so intense. The other half is that our longing for God is threatened because our appetites are so intense. In the first half, the appetite is lost. In the second half, the appetite is resisted. In the first, we yield to the higher hunger that is. In the second, we fight for the hunger that isn’t.
The greatest enemy of hunger for God is not the bitter but the sweet. It is not the banquet table of the wicked that dulls our appetite for God, but rather the endless nibbling at those things that become substitutes for God. The greatest adversary of love to God is not his enemies but his gifts. And the most deadly appetites are not the poison of evil, but the simple pleasures of earth. For when those replace an appetite for God himself, the idolatry is scarcely recognizable. They become deadly substitutes, functional idols, if you will. Places and things we turn to in order to find comfort and help with the burdens and challenges of life.
Anything can stand in the way of true discipleship. Not just evil, and not just food. So it should not be surprising that the greatest competitors for our devotion and affection for God would be some of his most precious gifts. This is why fasting and abstinence of the good gifts of God is likely to be more beneficial than using the practice during the Lenten season to break some bad habit.
Christian fasting and abstinence is a test to see what desires control us. What are our bottom line passions? In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster writes, “More than any other spiritual discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. This is a wonderful benefit to the true disciple who longs to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ. We cover up what inside of us with food and other things.”
When our souls are stuffed with small things of life, there is little if any room for the great things of God. The pain and the emptiness we feel that is created by loss reveals how we have stuffed ourselves with substitutes. That pain or loss teaches us important lessons and invites us to draw near to the bread of life and the living water that quenches our thirst.