This Sunday we continue in our series "The Disciplined Christian Life" by looking at the spiritual discipline of fasting from Matthew 6:16-18.
What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘fasting’?
The first thing that comes to my mind is food. To quote Seinfeld, some of the most dreaded words one could ever hear is "No soup for you!" We live in a culture that is pretty obsessed with food. Ever notice how many various TV shows there where food the main subject? For crying out loud, one famous British chef has 5 different TV shows that are all basically different kinds of cooking competitions. And let’s be honest, most of us live to eat rather than eating to live. So, with all this in mind, why would we ever need a discipline like fasting when food is so fantastic?
Context is Key
In Matthew 6, right in the middle of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, we find a clue as to why fasting is important. Remember, this sermon is directed primarily at Jesus’ disciples.
Somewhat surprisingly, the spiritual discipline of fasting doesn’t just stand alone in this chapter but is instead linked with giving and prayer. The timeless truths of how these three practices are linked will better help us understand each one specifically as well.
At the beginning of chapter six, in verse two, Jesus says “when you give to the needy...” and then follows it up by telling them to do their giving in secret and as to not draw attention to themselves for their act of generosity. If they do this in secret, the Father will reward them.
A few verses down in verse five, Jesus says “when you pray...” and then follows it up by telling them to do their praying in secret and as to not draw attention to themselves for their act of talking privately to God. If they do this in secret, the Father will reward them.
Seeing a pattern yet?
In verse sixteen, Jesus says “when you fast...” and then follows it up by telling them to do their fasting in secret and as to not draw attention to themselves for their act of abstaining from food. If they do this in secret, the Father will reward them.
The obvious pattern here in Jesus’ sermon illuminates for us a few timeless principles about performing religious practices like these:
- These are practices that Jesus expects us to do regularly (notice it’s “when you ______” not “If you _____” )
- These are practices that Jesus expects us to do in secret
- These are practices that will please the Father
- These are practices that will be rewarded by the Father
Jesus is clearly very concerned with the internal motivation driving His disciples’ actions and we see from His teaching that doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is not acceptable.
Therefore, when it comes to the spiritual discipline of fasting, we must ask ourselves:
- How will I make a regular habit of fasting? (set a specific day/time frame)
- What should I fast from? (food, social media, entertainment, etc.)
- How can I do this secretly as to not draw attention to myself? (Don’t tell anyone!)
This may seem difficult, but let’s remember that when we obey Jesus’ instructions about living life we actually find a life worth living. When giving, prayer, and fasting are practiced based on Jesus’ instructions and within the framework of the rest of biblical revelation, isn’t that usually a good thing? Of course!
Prayer and fasting was practiced by the early church and every time we see fasting mentioned in the book of Acts, something significant was taking place. I’d go as far as to say that practicing the spiritual discipline of fasting precedes spiritual breakthrough and spiritual movement (Acts 13:2-3, 14:23).
Those who have practiced the discipline of fasting know that denying our physical bodies what it longs for is a beautiful parallel to Jesus' command to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him (Luke 9:23). At the end of the day, fasting teaches us to deny ourselves and choose the way of Jesus in every area of our lives. Fasting is physically painful and uncomfortable yet so is following Jesus. Let the physical hunger pangs remind you to hunger and thirst after spiritual righteousness (Matthew 5:6).
For the Kingdom,