Fasting is a fascinating subject. When I bring it up in conversation or in a lesson, some have a knee jerk reaction and quickly say “there are no commands in the New Testament for us to fast!” I get it. That’s what I was taught, too. I agree that there is no explicit command and I truly believe we are not to bind upon others (or ourselves) anything other than that which God has bound. That said, it is interesting that Jesus said, “when you fast” (Matthew 6:16-18) and the early church fasted before making decisions or commissioning Christians for specific work.
When I ask people what it means to fast, they almost always say “To not eat for a period of time” and they are correct, but only in part. You can fast from food for a day or longer, or you can fast from a particular food as many do during Lent. You can fast from an activity, again, as some of my friends do when they withdraw from social media or TV and movies during Lent. There are severe fasts where you neither eat nor drink during the daylight hours, as my Muslim friends do during Ramadan. I have sat with them as the evening sun is setting and they are finally allowed to eat and drink. It is a remarkable experience.
Isaiah 58 makes it very plain that fasting is not about us. It is not about trying to force God’s hand or prove our righteousness. Rather, fasting is about handing over our lives to God and allowing Him to live through us and that all starts with a lovely little word: no.
“No” is a spiritual word and it is a complete sentence. (My thanks to John Laster, my executive minister who taught me this when I was serving in Rochester, Michigan) You are allowed to use that word and, in fact, you must. It is important to learn how to use that word to protect yourself from the demands and noises of this world. It is also important to learn how to use that word to police your own behavior. We’ve all met people who have never been told “no.” I knew kids in high school that got whatever they wanted – including cars, clothes, gear – whenever they wanted it. Their parents just couldn’t say no and, thereby, they ruined their children’s lives and their children’s sense of entitlement and lack of boundaries ruined the lives of others. We see millionaire sports stars spend their money on bling and sabotage their lives with risky behavior because no one tells them no. We see entitled politicians and bureaucrats who assume the rules do not apply to them for who will tell them no?
I believe that fasting is given to us as a gift from God so that we can learn the power of the word “no.” Think about it for a moment: we were designed to need food. And, look! There is food available for us! We are blessed to live in a land of abundance full of places that will even provide us with a dollar menu (because fat is cheap). So, to review, we were designed to need food, and there is food available to us. Add to that the fact that food is a gift from God (1st Timothy 4:3) and you can make a good case for sitting down and enjoying your meal. But…think about this…
You are hungry. You have food available. And then you say no to yourself and yes to whatever God needs you to do for Him (Isaiah 58 again). You learn the power to say no to yourself. You make a decision to lay aside your rights and your needs for a time. The world may be calling you to join them in a meal or to take part in an activity, but you have the power to say no. You’ve learned how by fasting (in whatever form) regularly. It can change your life. It did mine.
I was raised in a strict, pain filled home. I was taught to judge and hate anyone who was not like us or in full agreement with us (we didn’t use the word “hate” but that was what we felt and projected). From my middle school years, I debated my peers and those older than I. I lived for that and, in my eyes, never lost a debate. I almost never won over my opponent but that, to me, was beside the point. I made the superior argument. In my opinion, if they did not acquiesce, it was due to their moral deficiency or intellectual cowardice. My arrogance was only exceeded by my failure to love. Early in my marriage, my attitude and my “take no prisoners” attitude began to hurt my relationship with my wife. It took years for me to understand what I was doing and how it affected others. Once I “got it” I had to find a way to modify my behavior and I am here to tell you it was not easy.
I decided I could no longer be a predator, but I knew I would need a constant reminder of my decision. I carried a small metal cross in my pocket so that, every time I put my hand in my pocket to retrieve keys or change, I would remember that the people around me at that moment were beloved by God and it would be wise for me to treat His kids with kindness, especially since I believed I had an appointment to face Him one day. I knew I needed to go further so I made two more changes that seemed extreme at the time. First, I vowed to say nothing negative about any person for the next six months. That was brutal. I still had to drive and negotiate my way through the day to day world but, now, I couldn’t complain about the traffic or how I was treated at the repair shop… Wow. That was harder than I thought, but it taught me to say “no” to my instincts and training.
Adding to the cross in my pocket and the vow to speak no negative words about others, I added one more reminder: I stopped eating meat. I loved meat. My family still ate meat and I still bought it for them. I was not opposed to eating meat or even to hunting. I stopped eating meat to remind myself I was not a predator anymore and, by that, I meant that I was not to prey on humans with my words and attitude. I remained a vegetarian for more than 10 years. After our children left home, my wife sat me down and said I had changed my life and personality long ago and that I should allow myself to eat meat again. Besides, she said, with only two of us in the home, it was difficult to make a meal we could share if I continued being vegetarian. I started eating meat that day.
Learning how to say no to myself was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. And I still have to fast from time to time to remind myself of my need to hear that word. I also have to constantly remind myself of the other side of the fasting coin: saying no to myself and saying yes to whatever God needs from me at that moment. I am not at all the man I want to be, but I am far from the man I was and fasting played a big part in that journey. I am sure it will play a big – and necessary – part in the rest of my journey. So, I do not fast because I believe I was commanded to fast. I fast because I need to fast.