Jesus said this about it: “And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private” (Matthew 6:16-18).
Jesus says these words right after he teaches his followers to give in secret and to pray without fanfare. He was addressing a cultural problem in which ultra-religious folks would make a show of their piety with a lot of extra drama. Obviously, Jesus’ wisdom here is very important for us to listen to!
But one thing I wonder about, at least in my own Christian tradition, is if we’ve come to make fasting a bit too private, too secret. For good reason, people keep fasting to themselves — to avoid the temptation of making a show of it and to keep it as something meaningful between them and God. Yet it seems that we hardly ever talk about it.
I, for one, would benefit from more examples. From hearing a bit more from others about their own practice — how often do they fast? What do they fast from? What is difficult about it? What is rewarding?
It is possible, too, that we may not talk about fasting much because we do not practice it much. We may neglect it for various reasons — and perhaps we’ll discuss those on the blog this month. I am certainly guilty of long stretches of time in which I neglect this practice! I understand the importance of prayer, of worship, of stewardship . . . but somehow fasting can feel optional. Ever been there?
But notice that Jesus said “And when you fast . . .” In the Old Testament right up to Jesus’ time, fasting was a normative part of life. It was a given. It was certainly not optional — it was part of the rhythm of one’s devotion to God. And this continued on in the early church and throughout church history.
In our understanding of freedom — of eschewing legalism and knowing God loves us for who we are, not what we do — we rightly reject a type of fasting that is done simply to follow rules or, in a misunderstanding of fasting’s purpose, to earn God’s love or try to atone for sin on our own.
Yet, sadly, in this freedom the importance of fasting as a normative, regular part of the Christian life has been lost for many of us (myself included).
This month we’ll learn more about fasting by looking at different types of fasts, entering into the stories of two biblical women who fasted, exploring what God said was the “true fast,” and hearing about one person’s experience with a challenging and unique church-wide fast.
Will you join me in the discussion? And, perhaps more importantly, will you join me in practicing fasting this month? In the next post, we’ll look at a wide variety of types of fasts . . . and hopefully we can talk about them without self-centered fanfare, but instead with honesty and a desire to share and learn from each other about this important spiritual practice.