Fasting (Matt 6:16-18) – Some thoughts

Today we are going to turn our attention to fasting. In the modern world fasting has some weird relationships in peoples minds. When I think about fasting two things come to mind. 1) Fad diet, 2) Ramadan.

Both of these have no relation to Christianity, and so I rarely think about it. (Also, as you can tell when you meet me. Doing without food is not one of my top habits.) But I have, on occasion fasted as a spiritual discipline. In Christianity fasting serves two major purposes as far as I can tell (I am sure there are more, and would love for people to share them with me). One is us focused and the other is aimed at God.

It’s effect on us – When we fast we start to embrace lack, or discomfort. We feel the pangs of hunger, or desire for an object. In doing this it highlights our dependence on the Lord, and we can use it to build up our resilience as we come to rely on him more and more. Mark Sayer, talks to this in a sermon of his (here) where he reflects that in our current society most people (our children especially) don’t lack for anything. Because of this we have lost any sense of desire, of loss, of doing without and so it robs us of perspective. This lack of lack also makes it harder to turn to the Lord for our needs. Why would we, don’t seem to have any. It robs us of hope, of desire, of drive. So fasting brings this back into our lives and helps shape our mind.

Relating to God – In the book of 2 Kings 12 King David shows us another purpose for fasting is to underscore how significant our current need or desire is. In the story King David’s Son has been struck down as a direct consequence of David’s sin. David fasts, wears sack cloth and ashes, etc as a sign to God that he is both sorry and repentant of his sin, and also that he is desperate for the child to live. It is important to note that this action is not an attempt to bribe God, it is not a way of twisting God’s arm (often called sympathetic magic) it is a genuine heartfelt demonstration of David’s contrition and grief. And in this instance David doesn’t get what he wants.

So if fasting is aimed at helping provide us with a helpful orientation towards God and as a means of highlighting or living out our desire for something to God what are some principles we can apply in the home:

  1. Fasting is not a diet – If you or your family choose to fast for a diet then this is not the same as spiritual fasting. whilst it has the same biological effect (you are hungry) the psychological and spiritual effect is totally different and irrelevant. Your intention is of vital importance when thinking through biblical fasting. The lack of food is simply a means to the end, your will and desires will dictate the outcome.
  2. Fasting doesn’t have to be food – In a society that’s only lack is lack then fasting does not have to be around food. Food is a good one because it brings about a physiological response, and also is fundamental to our survival. But in todays world it can be anything that you are addicted too, reliant on, or is a habitual part of your life. Technology, video games, your phone, social time, Facebook, furniture. What is important is that the fast is sacrificial, that it costs the faster something… doing without sprouts when you hate them is not a sacrifice. Giving up coffee when your a 5 cup a day person is.
  3. be careful of your health – Pregnant woman, children or people with pre-existing health conditions (including eating disorders) should be careful about fasting (there are serious child protection issues around fasting from food with children) as such the above point is helpful. If you and your family are going to fast then choose something that is going to be a sacrifice for you to do with out, but also not going to kill you or get you in to serious trouble.
  4. Make it for a specific period of time – David fasted for the duration of his son’s illness, but once that was over he cleaned himself up and ate. with your family if you wish to engage in fasting do it for a set time or times. For instance, maybe a significant choice is coming up for your family and you wish to petition the Lord for guidance. Maybe the family can make a contract to fast (from the thing they are doing without) every Monday for 5 weeks whilst you pray for the decision. by putting some parameters around the fast you ensure that you are behaving purposefully and also protecting people from developing unhelpful and healthy habits.
  5. Keep it Secret – As Jesus says in the above passage, keep it secret. David was public in his fast, but his audience was only God; He didn’t care what others thought. So to, if you, a member of your family, or your whole family is fasting keep it to yourselves. If you make a song and dance about it so people can be impressed by your holiness, your resilience or even feel sorry for you then you have missed the point and as Jesus says you have your reward. Keep it between you and God. Note: I do suggest that at least one other person knows what is going on (especially for fasting from food) just for safety reasons. This can be a family member (if you are doing it together, that is sufficient) or simply a confidant who you can share this in privacy and they will understand the intent and provide you with accountability.
  6. Be aware of heightened emotional responses – when you fast from something, be it food, games, whatever you will feel the lack; especially if it is something that you habitually use or enjoy. This may lead to you being irritable or moody. Be aware of this before you (youse) begin and make a conscious effort to maintain a positive attitude. It is no one elses fault you are doing this but yours, so don’t take it out on them.

Final note, be expectant! You and your family are seeking to engage with the Lord with your entire being and God promises that those who turn to him will not be left wanting. God will do great things in you and through you when you turn to him in such a way.

God bless