“And when you fast……” Matthew 6:16
Fasting. Maybe you have long ago discovered the power and joy of biblical fasting. But maybe this is all new to you? Maybe you are even suspicious of it?
So, what is fasting? Biblical fasting is simply going without food for a certain period of time in order to pray and seek God. It has nothing to do with weight loss, body image, or diet. Rather, it is a physical action taken with a spiritual focus. It says to God: I need you more than I need the good food you made (and that I love!).
Fasting is mentioned about 77 times in the Bible. In the Old Testament it is undertaken by God’s people as a sign of repentance for sin, in times of need or sorrow, to humble themselves before a holy God, and to seek guidance. In the New Testament fasting is mentioned 30 times, nearly all positively. Matthew 6:16-18 is one of those occasions where Jesus says:
And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Jesus says ‘when you fast...’
And again, in verse 17, 'But when you fast….’. Jesus never commands his followers to fast, but he clearly presumes and assumes that his disciples will fast just as the Old Testament believers did.
But what does it look like to incorporate fasting into our Rule of Life?
There are many different ways you might do this, just as there are many types of fasting. It’s also worth noting, fasting needs to be undertaken with considerations for the health and circumstances of each person. What works for me might not work for you. We have freedom in Jesus and are under grace not law.
I have been a Christian for almost 35 years. In this time, I have experimented with different types of fasts. I have tried fasting from some kinds of foods or drinks for extended periods of time (for example from meat or sweets), or limiting my food intake (no seconds), or simply having extended times where I have not eaten at all. All of these have been useful in different ways.
However, about a decade ago I settled on a weekly fast day as part of my personal Rule of Life. This is a weekly 24-hour period where I do not eat any food, but instead focus more earnestly on God in prayer and solitude. I have found that eating dinner at night and then not eating until the next night works well for my rhythm. In some ways it is a cheat 24 hours because I am asleep for a full third of the fast! I know that many others benefit from a more rigorous approach to fasting and of course there are other times to fast, such as times of urgent need for help, guidance, or unusual periods of temptation. However, this is my weekly rhythm in my Rule of Life and it works well for me.
I do not find weekly fasting an easy thing to do, nor do I always find it enjoyable. I often do not see any immediate or tangible results. Sometimes I struggle with headaches and irritability. I still feel like a novice who is half-hearted and weak and who makes many mistakes. Yet, I do see the longer-term fruit in my life. My prayer is more focused and earnest, my body is better under my control, and my spirit and mind are more humbled beneath God’s mighty hand.
And I should expect this to be true. So, I will continue to fast because Jesus says, ‘when you fast your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you’.
Andrew is the Lead Pastor of City on a Hill Geelong. He has spent most of his life as an officer in the Australian Army. Graduating with the Sword of Honour from the Australian Defence Force Academy, he served in Infantry and Intelligence, including operations in East Timor with the commandos. He holds a postgraduate degree in International Relations from Oxford University and an MDiv from Ridley College. Andrew later became an Army Chaplain at the Australian Recruit Training Centre at Kapooka, before leaving the full time Army in 2013 to plant City on a Hill Geelong. Andrew has been married to his beautiful wife Danna for over 20 years and has five young children. He loves the ocean, traveling, camping, playing with his kids (including attending their innumerable sporting matches), and reading military history.