Fasting I find I’m not at the mercy of my appetite – instead You satisfy me more than the richest of foods. Manna, bread of heaven, bread of life broken for me, nourish my flesh-bound soul with words from the mouth of God – His mouth to my heart, growth-food designed perfectly: whole-grain hot from the oven, fresh with the taste of the Real.
Fasting did not attract me, for years. I had relegated it to ritual practices of other religions or denominations. Living among people who practiced Ramadan fasts, it seemed like an attempt to gain points in righteousness. Besides all that I was not jumping at a chance to ignore my hunger pangs.
And I knew that Jesus had said to do it in private. How could a mom do that? How on earth could I fast without my kids and my husband knowing about it? And when friends came over, how could I serve them but not eat with them? Jesus had warned:
When you fast, do not look sullen like the hypocrites, for they make their faces unattractive so that people will see them fasting. I tell you the truth,they have their reward. 17 When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others when you are fasting, but only to your Father who is in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you. (Matt. 6:16-18 NET)
Then there came a time when Glenn and I were being faced with a major decision. He had been chosen by our field to take over the job of field treasurer, and the leadership assumed that it would mean moving from Ferkessédougou, where we lived, to Korhogo, where there was access to mission accounts at the banks as well as proximity to the other leaders. It had become like a “field headquarters.” I was stunned. Korhogo was not Nyarafolo territory! I was deeply involved in digging into that language, preparing for translation. Glenn and I were just starting to disciple a small group of Nyarafolo believers. How could we leave all this? Glenn was in a quandary. What should he do: obey the leaders, or refuse their direction?
I decided it was time to fast. I needed space to truly study the Word about discovering God’s will, and to pray. So I explained to my kids that they were not to worry about my avoiding meals, that I was going to spend mealtimes in prayer. I still put food on the table for the family, then retreated. They accepted it.
After a few days, I was increasingly convinced that we should not move. And Glenn found a solution: he offered to take that financial responsibility but said that he would need to stay in Ferke, making trips over to Korhogo as necessary. The leadership accepted his offer! The two of us breathed relief.
It was a learning curve for me in more ways than one. Yes, the hunger pangs were impossible to ignore, so they truly reminded me to keep praying and to seek my Father’s direction. And I began to understand that what Jesus was teaching was not that I had to find a way to fast without anyone knowing it, but that I should do it in such a way that it was not being advertised in order that others would be impressed with me. It also was not about trying to force God to give me what I was demanding, but rather should be a time to focus on truly searching for direction from him. I could share my concerns with him, and then see how he would respond. I can attest to the truth that, with practice, sweet moments of delight can come with it, when the presence of Jesus becomes very real, when his promises or his word of direction become clear.
Our reactions as evangelicals to the rituals of fasting have led many of us to erase that practice from our lives, just as I had been doing. But it is obvious here that Jesus assumed that his disciples would fast: “When you fast . . .” he said. He also explained that while he was physically on earth his disciples would not fast, since he (the “bridegroom”) was present, but “the days are coming when the bridegroom will be taken from them,37 and then they will fast. (Matt. 9:15 NET).
And in the New Testament there are examples of fasting (Acts 13:2, 14:23). It was done to ask the Lord for discernment of his will, as well as to spend time in prayer for leaders they had just selected in the church.
The Hebrew word for fasting implies humbling oneself and repenting. I can attest that it is indeed humbling to fast from food or something else that I rely on for comfort: I discover how much those things control me. Yes, I know of one time in particular when I did something that was not only unwise but wrong, and it incited a period of repentance with fasting so that I could commit myself to prayer concerning the situation, and how I should proceed. It was worth it!
What is taught in the Sermon on the Mount is that fasting for Jesus-followers is not to be a religious rite that is done for the approval of others. Instead, it is a spiritual discipline, “an opportunity to lay down an appetite . . . This act of self-denial may not seem huge . . . but it brings us face to face with the hunger at the core of our being. . . .Through self-denial we begin to recognize what controls us . . . Fasting reminds us that we care about ‘soul’ things. We care about the church. We care about the world. We care about doing God’s will. Thus we willingly set aside a little comfort so we can listen and attend to the voice and nourishment of God alone.”
Setting aside time to practice this does require solitude. It is a way to let go of our natural routine and focus on listening to the Father. No wonder this teaching follows the Lord’s Prayer, with its emphasis on private conversation:
But whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you. (Matt. 6:6 NET)
The secrecy is the performance of the practice in such a way that it is done for the Father alone, not for the approval of others. In fact, that teaching is applied to doing good works like giving to the poor, as well. And it is an application of the general command that begins this entire section:
“Be careful not to display your righteousness merely to be seen by people.Otherwise you have no reward with your Father in heaven. (Matt. 6:1 NET)
Jesus is talking about personal spiritual practices; he is not prohibiting community fasting. That was what God had prescribed for Israel, still practiced in the festivals of the Day of Atonement and New Year. We, as his disciples, are also expected to practice fasting and to learn, in the process, how to spend time focusing more intently on our relationship with our Father, listening to him.
This is freedom! It is relishing the bread of life (cf John 6:35,48)!
God, you are my God! I long for you! My soul thirsts for you, my flesh yearns for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water. Yes, in the sanctuary I have seen you, and witnessed your power and splendor. Because experiencing your loyal love is better than life itself, my lips will praise you. For this reason I will praise you while I live; in your name I will lift up my hands. As if with choice meat you satisfy my soul. My mouth joyfully praises you, whenever I remember you on my bed, and think about you during the nighttime hours. For you are my deliverer; under your wings I rejoice. My soul pursues you; your right hand upholds me. (Ps. 63:2-8 NET)
 Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 220.