It’s obvious why fasting isn’t popular. Deliberately not satisfying our hunger for hours or days at a time does not come easily. At the same time we know that Jesus, our example in all things, fasted and expected that we would too[i]. The result can be that we see fasting as just an “ought to”. But fasting is much more than not eating. And while it will always demand self-discipline, if we see it against a wider biblical backdrop we will fast with a greater understanding and sense of purpose. But first of all, we need to remind ourselves of the unique hope we have.
“The result can be that we see fasting as just an “ought to”. But fasting is much more than not eating.”
What is history’s main theme, the melody to which everything else is merely harmony or counterpoint? Rather than being a succession of random events, scripture depicts history as the story of God’s relationship with his creation. From the beginning, God’s desire has been to live among us as our loving king in the creation fashioned and sustained by him where there is peace, justice and joy, and where death, sickness and tears do not exist.
Despite our rebellion, throughout the centuries God has been working with and through people to bring about this kingdom. So committed to us is he that, in Jesus, he actually became one of us. Jesus not only announced that this Kingdom of God was very close but he also went further, proclaiming that it was already here. As he healed the sick and freed people from demons, Jesus inaugurated the rule of God on earth[ii]. Like the vanguard of a victorious army of liberation, God’s kingdom had arrived and was driving out its enemies.
“From the beginning, God’s desire has been to live among us as our loving king”
Then, in his suffering, death and resurrection, Jesus took all that the powers of evil could throw at him and triumphed over them by rising again. More than this, his resurrection demonstrated that God had begun renewing his whole creation. What started with Jesus’ resurrection is now radiating out. And he did this for us and for all who believe. This is the main theme of history. And we are approaching the climax.
This is the good news that Jesus’ first disciples preached all over the Greco-Roman world; God loves his creation, even in its lostness and brokenness, and he has now come to our rescue. The kingdom of God is coming and its advance guard is already here. Like the first disciples, we know by faith and experience that this is true and that the power of the Kingdom is already at work in and around us. But we also know that it has not yet fully come. Suffering and evil still wreck people’s lives. This is reflected in the prayer Jesus taught us – “your kingdom come”. As this prayer suggests, we are not passively waiting for the complete coming of God’s Kingdom, we are praying and working for it. We live in the time between the victory of Jesus and its complete implementation. As when a stone is thrown into a pond and the ripples begin to spread out and cover the surface, the knowledge of the glory of the Lord will eventually cover the earth[iii].
“God loves his creation, even in its lostness and brokenness, and he has now come to our rescue.”
So what’s all this got to do with fasting? In Matthew 9, we find the disciples of John the Baptist asking Jesus why his disciples did not fast. Listen to Jesus’ answer, “how can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast”[iv]. With Jesus physically present, there was no need to fast. But soon he would be taken away from them and that would be the time for fasting as they waited and worked for his return and the renewal of creation.
As disciples, we have tasted the presence of the King and the powers of the age to come, and that taste makes us hungry for the day when the glory of the kingdom is revealed in every corner of creation, when the dwelling of God is with mankind, and Satan, the great enemy of humanity, is thrown into the burning lake. The joy and the peace we have tasted makes us want more. John Piper expresses this well when he writes “Christian fasting, at its root, is the hunger of a homesickness for God”.
To fast is to express our longing for the fullness of the King and his Kingdom. We fast because we want more of what we have begun to experience; more presence, more power, more peace. We see the impact of fasting as Jesus casts out a demon that his disciples could not deal with, telling them that this kind comes out “only if you use prayer and fasting”[v]. We see how it lays the ground for God to speak as the early church commissioned Paul and Barnabas[vi]. In fasting we bring our whole selves – body as well as mind and spirit into line with our prayer, submitting our urge to eat and drink to a much greater priority. As we take time to focus ourselves on God and deny the demands of our stomach, a deeper hunger emerges. It’s a hunger that other appetites often crowd out – not just the pleasure and satisfaction of eating, but maybe also things like our need to be busy. As we fast we remind ourselves of our greatest hope and desire and we subject everything else to our desire to see God’s kingdom come in me, in my church, in this world. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled”, Jesus says in Matthew 5. Fasting cultivates a hunger for righteousness, for justice, and for the only kingdom that can fully bring them.
“To fast is to express our longing for the fullness of the King and his Kingdom.”
None of this is about punishing our bodies because they, or nice food, are bad. This idea has nothing to do with biblical Christianity. God created the material world, including us, and liked it! Our firm hope is not for an ethereal, sitting-around-on-clouds heaven, but for a renewed creation where heaven comes to earth. But like athletes aiming for a medal, we discipline our minds and bodies in the service of this coming Kingdom. Appetites are fine but we must be able to control them, not vice versa.
Much more can be said about fasting. Richard Foster’s excellent book “Celebration of Discipline” has a very helpful chapter on it. There are practicalities to be observed, particularly if you’ve never fasted before, and many types of fast that can be employed. The main thing however is to do it. Perhaps start by regularly fasting the midday meal, setting the time aside to worship and pray. Then move to fasting breakfast and lunch, and then coming together in the evening with your family or community to break bread and eat together.
“As we take time to focus ourselves on God and deny the demands of our stomach, a deeper hunger emerges.”
So don’t think of fasting as an uncomfortable “ought to”. It is Kingdom hunger; God’s people hastening the fulfillment of the Kingdom, bringing it into the here and now through a discipline fuelled by longing. Come Lord Jesus.
[i] Matt.4:2, 6:16
[vi] Acts 13:2-3