“When you fast…” implies that we will fast, if not our Lord Jesus would have said instead ‘if you fast …’ making it optional. Rather fasting is an obligation, an exercise Christians must take pleasure in and adapt to seriously. Fasting is an exercise intended to lift one from the flesh realm into the spiritual realm, making it possible to be receptive to the spiritual things of God.
It was customary for the Jews to fast twice in the week. “I fast twice a week …” (Luke 18.12) The Pharisee stated that he fasted twice a week more as a tradition or in keeping with the laws - therefore as a prescription. To them it would have become most probably a ritual.
The number of times fasting is mentioned in the Bible is rather scanty. In the Old Testament we observe that each time there was some difficulty or biblical characters were physically challenged, they resorted to fasting. They underwent that process in a bid to appeal to God for mercy with respect to the special circumstances they were going through.
One great event for which fasting was worthwhile was when the whole nation of Nineveh was warned of God’s impending wrath. Prophet Jonah had prophesised that in forty days God was going to destroy the land. On hearing such prophecy from the mouth of God’s prophet, the pagan king mobilised his nationals and a nationwide fast was declared. “The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.” (Jonah 3:5) The king decreed, “Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered in sackcloth.” (Jonah 3:7)
Every living creature – animals inclusive -- joined in the declared fast and God was attentive and sympathetic to their cry. “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.” (Jonah 3:10)
Fasting therefore is a useful tool meant to touch God’s heart in a way that would let Him reconsider the punishment that should have been administered for our misdemeanour. He made a move on that instance after that collective fasting, saving the whole nation of Nineveh from imminent death and destruction.
In the Book of Isaiah, the prophet lays down the valid reasons for fasting. We fast for a purpose. Fasting becomes a tool alongside prayer as we knock on God’s door in a bid for Him to intervene in a particular situation. Isaiah draws our attention to the reasons for fasting. “Is it not to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked to cloth him, and not to turn away from your flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:6-7)
When we fast we may be seeking ways of dominating our flesh and subjecting it to the teachings of God in order that we may live lives worthy and acceptable to the Father. It is a time to reflect and re-examine our lives under God’s searchlight - which is His Word; to correct and bring back into focus our stand vis-à-vis the Lord; where we have gone astray, to fall back in line. It may be our wish to draw nearer to God, to seek His face and one way of doing so would be to renew our minds. The flesh has always been a hindrance to things spiritual and getting closer to God requires an absence from oneself – a strict subjection of the flesh to the dictates of the Supreme Being.
Many denominations practise different forms of fasting varying from absence of food for definite periods, shelving a bad habit and offering alms to the less privileged. One necessary ingredient however indispensable for fasting is – reflection on the Word of God. Fasting is not just mere abstinence from food but rather an opportune period to feed on the Word of God.
When we fast without the Word as food, it becomes starvation – depriving oneself from food. Fasting requires an attitude where the soul, mind and body together are attuned to reach spiritual heights. We cannot reach the spiritual world with our carnal selves. Carnal baggage does not form part of the spiritual cargo; these have to be shed or offloaded in transit to a world where God is supposed to speak or act in order to guide or instruct us.
Fasting is a discipline. We cannot “… fast and do as you please and exploit your workers. Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife and in striking each other with wicked fists.” (Isaiah 58:3) This kind of comportment does not bring the expected results. In sum, it annuls the benefits derived from fasting.
In today’s parlance, it means we cannot fast and be watching movies that are violent and pornographic in detail. We are called to humble ourselves and refrain from all adverse forms of behaviour.
Do you wear a long face when you fast or are you joyful throughout the day? Fasting is a personal affair between us and God and not for people’s consumption. Our Lord Jesus gives us this advice. “When you fast, do not look sombre 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. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so 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 6:16-18)
Fasting should bring us much closer to God our Father. Having come thus far, we must endeavour to maintain the level of relationship nurtured for our personal spiritual growth. Shalom!