16″When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6)
I’m not fasting today. I won’t be alone. I’m not sure what percentage of Christians participate in a regular fast, but I’m sure it’s small. You can read a lot about fasting, but I don’t hear many people talking about it much. I live amongst Christians who take scripture very seriously but would consider it odd for anyone to fast.
Why is that? How do we look at the Matthew passage above and not hear it as a call to fasting? Fasting isn’t completely ignored. There are plenty of books that talk about Christian fasting, and the number of books that go into other reasons for fasting are plentiful. The picture that I used above is from a yoga site.
John Wesley fasted regularly and called Methodists to do the same. For generations, Roman Catholics have been instructed to fast, or at least abstain from certain meats, as a means of preparation for the eucharist.
Scot McKnight is working on a book about fasting. He states in his thesis
Fasting is never the central spiritual discipline of the Christian life. Fasting is not a separable spiritual discipline like prayer or study or solitude. Instead, fasting is a physical condition in which all the disciplines can occur. Fasting is not effective in and of itself but is the expression of the kind of person – a person who has given all of herself or himself to God – that stands before God in trust and obedience, yearning for what that person wants in the face of God in the hope that God will hear that yearning.
I plan to read more of what he has to say, but I’m stuck on “effective” at this point. One good word that I heard about fasting was that we should watch out for our need to get something out of fasting. It’s not for losing weight. It’s not for cleansing. Maybe this is what Scot is talking about.
People who are grieving, or in shock, or even very excited sometimes fast without planning to. They don’t do it as a spiritual discipline, they do it because they’re just not hungry, just not able to sit down and think about what they’re going to eat. It’s probably one of the reasons we bring food to wakes. Those who are grieving may not want to eat, but at least they don’t have to prepare anything and will have plenty of choices when they do decide they need something.
There’s plenty more that can be said about fasting. I’d enjoy further discussion either in the comments section or at theologeeks
. Here’s another passage from scripture about fasting, this one from chapter 58 of Isaiah.
6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light
will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness [a]
will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will
call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend
yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The LORD will guide you
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.