When You Fast

By Evan Scamman

Fasting is not an American virtue, and so this biblical discipline can seem very foreign to American Christians. We’ve been taught to indulge every desire, to scratch every itch, to sate ourselves with food and drink, pleasure and luxury. Why wait for good things? Have them all now, with no payments or interest for ninety days. This way of thinking makes for a strong consumer index, but it doesn’t make for strong Christians.

The Ten Commandments don’t specifically command fasting, but neither do they command prayer or almsgiving, things that all Christians do or ought to do. Likewise, Jesus simply assumes that Christians will be fasting as they have always done since the time of Moses. Jesus said to His disciples: “When you fast, do not be like the hypocrites …”(Matt. 6:16). There’s no “if” here; it’s “when.” When you fast, don’t do it improperly like the hypocrites. Don’t make a big production of your fasting. Don’t do it for show. But certainly, do fast. It’s what our Lord expects. It’s what Christians do.

Perhaps you’ve heard people say, “This year, instead of giving up something for Lent, how about adding something?” This appeals to the part of us that doesn’t like giving things up. It’s very American. Why give anything up when we can just have more? Supersize my order, please, with a side of self-righteousness and extra piety. Not only do I get to have more, I get to feel good about it while I do it. Except, this is the opposite of what Jesus said. Did He say, “Instead of fasting, try adding something”? No. He said, “When you fast.”

Of course, if “adding something” means spending more time studying the Scriptures and going to church, then by all means, add these things for Lent. By doing so, you will indeed be giving something up: whatever would otherwise be occupying your time and energy.

Some people might say, “This year, I’m giving up my favorite sin for Lent.” But this too is the wrong idea. You don’t “fast” from sins — you shouldn’t be doing those anyway. A “fast” is, properly, to abstain from something good, something that God has given you to enjoy. Food and drink are good things, and they are necessary for earthly life. But we fast from these good and necessary things for a time in order to be reminded of what is most good and most necessary for eternal life. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God”(Matt. 4:4).

We’ve discussed what fasting is not. But what is it? Why is it good? What does it do for us? Why have Christians practiced this discipline for thousands of years, and why should we endeavor to emulate them?

Fasting is not, as some think, a holdover from the Roman Catholic Church. It’s true, the Roman Church is known for enforcing man-made laws about fasting, for example as a requirement before reception of the Lord’s Supper. We cannot bind consciences to laws that are not in Scripture. Even so, we shouldn’t jettison fasting simply because others have made a mess of it.  

Fasting is spiritual training. This is why it has been practiced by the Church Militant for centuries. Let us never forget that we are soldiers, and soldiers are always training for battle. Our battle, though, is not “against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age…” (Eph. 6:12). The battle is spiritual, but the battleground is often a physical one. Consider that both Adam and Jesus were tempted with food. For this reason, Christians have practiced the discipline of temporarily going without food, or other good things, as spiritual training for our ongoing battle with the world, the sinful flesh, and the devil.

Soldiers engage in mock contests, in low stakes struggles, so that in the thick of battle their training will take over. And the same is true for us. While we will never be able to free ourselves from our sinful nature, resisting thousands of small temptations can help us, by God’s grace, to resist great temptation when it comes. Fasting, one might say, is the cultivation of spiritual muscles. With use, muscles grow stronger. With neglect, they shrivel and atrophy.

Have you practiced the spiritual discipline of saying “no” at times to physical desires of the body? If not, it will be even more difficult to say “no” to sinful desires of the carnal mind. This is why we learn from the Christians of old to make fasting a regular part of our lives on earth. Teach your Old Adam (the sinful nature) to get used to not getting everything he wants when he wants it. Strengthen your ability to resist every urge and impulse that pops into your head. If you practice when the stakes are small, such as in matters of food and drink, then you are better equipped to resist when the stakes are truly a matter of life and death, when your soul hangs in the balance.

But discipline is not the only benefit of fasting. Fasting is also an expression of faith. Fasting takes our eyes off of the things of this world, the things that are perishing, and directs them to heavenly things. When you fast, you go without something good for a time in order to enjoy it more fully later. Such is our hope as Christians — hope not in this world, but in the world to come. Fasting reminds us of this: Don’t get too comfortable here; this is not our home. Don’t invest all your time and energy chasing the fading joys and comforts of this life. These cannot compare to what God has prepared for those who love Him. Fasting is an expression of faith in Christ and His promises. We can endure hardship now, not as an end in itself, not because we like being miserable, but because hardship causes us to hold on more tightly to Jesus and the hope of heaven.

So, when you fast, Jesus says, don’t be gloomy like the hypocrites. Instead, fast in the joyous hope of the glorious future that awaits us. Fast so that you will not be so easily deceived by the wiles of Satan and the urgings of the sinful nature. Practice forgoing the instant pleasures of this broken world in order to more fully enjoy them without the possibility of vice when they are reborn as true joys in heaven. May the Holy Spirit strengthen you throughout the days of this Lenten pilgrimage until the day of the Resurrection of our Lord. Amen.

Image: “Adam and Eve” by Titian, ca. 1550, Museo del Prado.

1 thought on “When You Fast”

  1. “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.” — Ro. 14:5-6 ESV

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