- Matthew 6:16–18:
16 “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. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 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.”
Here are 7 things to remember about fasting.
- Fasting is meant to be physical.
When used in the Bible, fasting refers to abstaining from food. As such, there is an inherent physicality. When we abstain from food, we are abstaining from nourishing our bodies in order to focus ourselves on our even deeper need for God. As much as we need sustenance, we need God more. We should also remember that abstaining from food might not be advisable for all people (e.g. people with diabetes, pregnant women, or others with strict dietary regulations), and in that case one should consider other ways to make our need for God tangible, just like hunger does.
- Fasting is meant to be spiritual.
While the physical aspect can be clearly seen, fasting is not a hunger strike, a way to lose weight, or a mere show on how long one can go without food. Fasting is not just about the physical, but it is about the spiritual as well. Fasting should be intimately associated with communion with God. It is meant to help us focus our attention on seeking God in difficult times of life, when searching for wisdom, with repenting of sin, and as a regular and consistent practice of the Christian life. We act like hypocrites when we abstain from food without incorporating an intentional spiritual focus on God, and call it: fasting.
- The physical and the spiritual aspects of fasting are meant to be connected.
It is amazing how God can teach us spiritual truths through physical means. By abstaining from food, God can teach us about depending on him. By feeling hunger and our dependency on food, God can teach us how helpless we are in light of our own sin. Moreover, the Bible often uses physical metaphors to describe spiritual realities—i.e. “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). The physical and the spiritual are as intimately and necessarily related in fasting.
- We can become overly focused on the physical aspect of fasting.
If we’re not careful, we can make the physical part of fasting an idol. When this happens, we become more focused on impressing people with our “Christian commitment” or on fasting just so that we can say that we have done it before. Fasting is not merely a physical activity to be checked off a list.
- We can become overly focused on the spiritual aspect of fasting.
We can become so worried about not letting anyone know that we’re fasting that we approach fasting as if it is a superstitious activity—“I better not let anyone know, even accidentally, because if I do, then God won’t do what I’m hoping he will.” Fasting is not a superstitious activity that controls the outcome of history. Treating it like this pretends that God is an impersonal force that we can control. God is not manipulated or forced.
- Fasting is a response to life.
Fasting in the Bible is often initiated by a particular situation of life—i.e. difficult life situation, death, recognition of sin, Jesus being led by God into the desert, the church at Antioch seeking wisdom from God (Acts 13), etc. In these situations, fasting is a response, and it is born out of the desires of our heart. This is a reminder that fasting is an appropriate expression of a heart that is seeking God.
- Fasting leads us to think about the world rightly.
We should also remember that fasting can catalyze our hearts into a deeper relationship with God. We may not always “feel” like fasting, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fast. Fasting is not always a response to a life situation or the overflow of our spiritual lives. God can use the regular practice of fasting in our lives to guide our hearts, thoughts, and desires, as he forms to be more like Christ.
The bottom line is: Fasting is a practice that God uses to form us into the people he intends for us to be—i.e. more like Christ in every way. It also reminds us of our utter dependence on Christ to accomplish for us what we never could on our own.
When we fast and pray, may the words of Psalm 73:25–26 be an ever-growing reality in our lives:
“Whom have I in heaven but you [God]?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”