Last week in our sermon series in the Gospel of Mark, we came across this verse in Mark 2:20:
“The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.”
Jesus is refuting the accusations of the Pharisees that his disciples don’t fast, and he corrects their legalistic view of fasting by using the word picture of a wedding. Wedding receptions are for feasting, not fasting, and while the bridegroom (Jesus) is present, there is no need to fast. His wrinkle in this word picture, however, is when he forecasts his arrest and death on the cross (even though essentially no one understands it) by saying soon the bridegroom will be taken from the wedding, and in THAT DAY, Jesus says, they will fast.
With that said, fasting is perhaps the most oft-neglected spiritual discipline in the church today and so here’s the difficult reality to come to terms with: The reason that Christians by and large don’t fast is not because it was deemed optional, but rather because it’s hard. Jesus didn’t mix his words; he didn’t say they can fast or that they have the option of fasting. No, he says simply but powerfully, they will fast. So, there it is, the punch in the gut that we needed, right? Everyone will start forcing themselves to fast now, counting down the seconds until we can eat again through the power of white-knuckled, reluctant obedience? No, we’re not at the end of blog. In order to approach fasting in a way that is both fruitful and glorifying to God, we need two things: the right convictions and the right purposes.
Convictions for Fasting
When you dig into the passage in Mark 2 a bit deeper, it provides some revealing truth about what should fuel and motivate us to fast in the church. The disciples didn’t fast during Jesus’ earthly ministry because they had Him physically in their midst, but once He died, rose again, and ascended to the Father, they again would be without Him and would fast.
To fast is to give up of food for the purpose of a greater and angst-filled longing for both the physical presence of Jesus and for the implications of Jesus power in our lives. (Yes, it’s possible to “fast” something else like television or social media if there are diet needs or other concerns, but by and large, fasting in the Bible and across church history pertains to the consumption of food).
This is the negative/positive dynamic of fasting: stopping the food that our body needs for a period of time (negative), for the purpose of longing for more of the Christ that our soul needs for all time (positive). Nearly every day, you serve your hunger by consuming food, and so fasting is purposefully having your hunger serve you by allowing it to create a greater, more intense longing for the person and power of Jesus Christ.
So what’s the right conviction to fast? A desire for more of Christ! For a growing hunger for Him in the here and now, to provide a glimpse into the Kingdom of God when we will be fully reunited with our Saviour for all of eternity. The fast is not meant to be a burden that we merely push through, it’s a means of grace that is actually meant to restore us and keep Christ at the center of our desires and longings. Jesus says His disciples will fast because it’s a gift to do so, and in doing so, His name is glorified.
Purposes for Fasting
With a right conviction in mind, Christians should still aim to be specific with a purpose going into each and every fast. Very practically speaking, we replace the times we would be eating with times of prayer where we express our longing for Jesus and his power in our lives. But if we stay overly-general and don’t have a Biblical purpose for fasting, we can often view our fast as solely an absence of food without replacing it with a specific longing in our heart.
With that said, I’ve benefitted greatly from Don Whitney’s “10 Biblical Purposes for Fasting”. We should pick one of these purposes to “feast upon” for every fast we partake in:
- To strengthen prayer (Ezra 8:23, Neh 1:4, Dan 9:3, Joel 2:12-17, Acts 13:3)
- To seek God’s guidance (Judges 20:26-28, Acts 14:23)
- To express grief (Judges 20:26, 1 Sam 31:11-13, 2 Sam 1:11-12)
- To seek from God deliverance or protection (2 Chron 20:3-4, Ezra 8:21-23, Esth 4:16, Ps 109)
- To express repentance and the return to God (1 Sam 7:6, Joel 2:12, Jonah 3:5-8)
- To humble oneself before God (1 Kings 21:27-29, Psalm 35:13)
- To express concern for the work of God (Neh 1:3-4, Isaiah 58:6-7, Dan 9:3)
- To minister to the needs of others (Is 58:6-7)
- To overcome temptation and dedicate yourself to God (Matthew 4:1-11)
- To express love and worship to God (Luke 2:37)
When the topic of fasting comes up, many (if not most?) Christians get a pit in their stomach from the guilt they feel that they don’t do it. In that sense, fasting becomes this burden that weighs us down as opposed to a gift that serves to restore us and lift us up.
What will it take for you to build in the rhythm of fasting in your walk with Christ? Let me encourage us all (for I am in the same boat as you) to start small. Perhaps you can fast one meal a day once a week for the next month. Perhaps you can fast one day a month for the next year. Perhaps you can do a 3-day fast one time in the next 12 months. The point is not the kind of fast you choose, the point is the fruit that comes from fasting and the glory God receives.
The day is coming when the bridegroom will return, and we will rejoice together with Christ at the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:6-8). Yet, until that day, we will fast. Let it be true for us.