How To Fast
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Scripture: Matthew 6:16-18
Most people reading this post, at least in the United States, will never have fasted in the biblical sense. This is despite the fact that fasting has such a strong presence in the Bible. In fact, according to Donald Whitney of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, fasting is mentioned some 77 times in the Bible, while baptism is mentioned approximately 75 times. This does not mean that fasting is more important than baptism, but it does make us stop and think about the amount of emphasis we place on fasting over against the emphasis placed on fasting in Scripture. Fasting also has a strong presence in the history of the Church, and it appears to be only more recently (in the big picture) that fasting has gone out of style among Christians. This raises the question of why we do not fast. Let me share some of my thoughts on this.
It seems to me that many Christians do not fast because they do not value it. That is, it is not important to them, and therefore they do not become involved with the discipline. Others may not become involved in fasting because they do not see it modeled by the leadership of the Church. I suspect that there are a good number of pastors who do not fast as part of their regular spiritual disciplines. If the pastor does not model fasting, how can we expect the membership of the Church to fast? The short answer is that we cannot expect anything from the members of our churches that we are not willing to model for them.
Others may not fast because it seems like too much. My entire generation grew up having more than enough. Food is not an exception to this. We live in an era of convenience, where I do not have to wait more than 3 minutes for a full meal to get out of the microwave. To go from this type of lifestyle to one of regular fasting may seem like a culture shock to many. If this is the case, then it would make sense why many Christians in my generation would shy away from something like this. Imagine, if you would, that you were one day transported to a country where you were only able to eat every other day. That would be a culture shock on the same level as that of someone who has always had, yet is expected to fast.
Others may not even know that fasting is expected of them. We live in a society that is, quite frankly, marked by a widespread biblical illiteracy. If people don't know that Jesus expects them to fast, we should not be surprised when they do not fast.
Finally, there are some who do not fast because of health reasons. This is perhaps the only excusable reason not to fast that I have listed in this post. Despite all of these reasons not to fast, with one exception (the medical exception), I believe that Jesus expects us to fast.
As we look at this passage, I want us to take notice of the way that Jesus addresses his disciples. Jesus assumes that his disciples would fast. This would not be much different than the religious practices of the day. The major difference is in how Jesus expects his disciples to carry out their fasts. Not only did Jesus expect the disciples to fast, but the early disciples actually took this command very seriously. A cursory survey of early Church history shows the importance that was placed on spiritual disciplines, including prayer and fasting. In fact, even the modern Church, until recently, took fasting seriously. John Wesley fasted twice each week until 3 in the evening. This was in keeping with the tradition of the early Church. Jesus did not command his disciples to fast for arbitrary reasons. Rather, there are major spiritual benefits to fasting, such as making it easier to reprioritize our lives and learning that man does not live on bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4).
Notice also that Jesus expects certain behavior when we fast. In verse 16, Jesus bans hypocrisy. Jesus forbids his disciples from seeking public praise for their fasting. He makes it clear that those who seek public accolades for fasting do not get a reward from God. In fact, Jesus uses a specific phrase in verse 16 that usually signified that a contract had been completed or fulfilled. In other words, there was nothing left to be paid. The lesson is clear, we must either choose public reward or choose to receive a reward from God. We cannot have both. The principle in verse 24 that no one can serve two masters can easily be applied here, as well. The opposite is also true. Jesus expects our fast to be seen by God. Those who only seek praise from God will obey him and receive a reward from God (v. 18). Despite this, keep the motive in mind. It is not the reward be seek, but God's will.
Jesus also expects us to watch even our appearance as we fast. Jesus commands his disciples to go out of their way to avoid even the appearance of fasting in front of others. We need to remember that washing the face and anointing the head may have been more difficult in the disciples' culture than it would be in our own. We should also note that Jesus is replacing something negative (disheveling the face) with something positive (anointing the head). This entire passage shows the loving care that Jesus has for the disciples.
In short, should we fast? Yes, if we are medically able. Is it going to be difficult? Probably. However, at the end of the day, it is a practice that we cannot afford not to do.