The principle of “fasting” sometimes gets pushed to the fringes of society, even among those who follow Jesus Christ. If you’re not familiar with fasting, it is generally a voluntary choice to go without something – often food – for a period of time. (“Fasting” might sound like what a race car driver does, which might be fun, but that’s not the actual definition.)
When I get my cholesterol checked, I’m told to fast for 12 hours prior to the lab appointment. As a result, when I get scheduled for that test in the morning, that means I can’t eat anything after a certain time in the previous evening. Some people fast for weight control. (I can neither confirm nor deny the effectivity of that, but I do suggest consulting a medical professional – instead of random posts on the Internet – for anything that could significantly impact your health.)
For people of faith, though, fasting is often a time to give up one thing in order to focus on something else. For instance, someone may give up a meal (or several) in order to spend time in prayer to God, whether to seek an answer to a specific question, or just to show respect to Him. Fasting is also sometimes a symbol of mourning or repentance. In fact, mourning, repentance, and seeking God can be closely related, such as when we are mourning our sin – or the consequences of it – as part of our repentance, and calling out to God for forgiveness and help.
Fasting is a good practice, and I think that many people (including myself) who are seeking or developing a healthy relationship with God don’t do it enough (especially in the Western world). Can you imagine what would happen if every Christian in your country gave up one meal a week (or, something similar, if they aren’t medically able to not eat for that time) and spent just 30 minutes in prayer, asking God for revival and peace?
So, I encourage you to consider what you could fast from, and what you could do with that time instead for God’s kingdom.
However, if fasting is a good thing to do, why would Jesus justify His disciples not fasting in the following passage?
Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.
Matthew 9:14-15 NIV
It is my understanding that the Pharisees fasted on a regular basis (like the Pharisee in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, recorded in Luke 18:9-14), and when we do something on a regular basis, there’s a risk that it becomes a religious ritual, rather than a reverent reminder. (For a good read about those who fast for the wrong reasons, and what they should do instead, see Isaiah 58.)
Still, if entered into with sincerity and a desire to seek God, I don’t see any reason why it would have been inherently wrong for Jesus’ disciples to fast. After all, Jesus went without food for 40 days and 40 nights (see Luke 4:1-2).
However, there are a couple of reasons why Jesus’ disciples didn’t need to fast while He was with them.
For one thing, as mentioned above, fasting is sometimes associated with mourning. This might be the fasting of repentance, or fasting of suffering (as we cry out to God). The lesson material [see the first reference, below] points out that the disciples’ time with Jesus (in-person, no less) was cause for celebration, and not sadness.
And, for a second reason, let’s note a key part of Jesus’ response: His disciples will fast. What was going to be be different for the disciples when Jesus was no longer present in a physical body on earth? Well, let’s go back to why people fast. One reason is to become closer to God: to listen for His voice and to spend time with Him. This is literally what Jesus’ disciples got to do – as near as I can tell – every single day! They were walking and talking with God the Son. For a full-time disciple, there was no need to get away from distractions or to stop other activities in order to hear from God. This was what they did basically all the time. When they did eat, it was probably with Jesus, so they could hear from Him without needing to fast.
After Jesus returned to Heaven after His resurrection, I’m sure that there were certainly times – both to talk with God, and when experiencing sadness – when fasting became appropriate for Jesus’ disciples.
So, for those who follow Jesus Christ – who celebrate and rejoice in being part of His family, and who can talk with Him daily through prayer – should we fast? I think so. Jesus said that His disciples would fast in the future, and if we consider ourselves to be Jesus’ disciples, that would seem like a logical extension. Despite the privilege of our fellowship with God the Father (through Jesus Christ, God the Son) and having the presence of God the Holy Spirit in our hearts, it’s still good to slow down a little bit, set some things aside, and seek God even more deeply.
And, we can also look forward to the day when we are reunited with Jesus in Heaven. I’m pretty sure that no fasting will be required, there!
From Sunday School lesson prepared for April 11, 2021
- Christian Standard, Volume CLVI, Number 4, pages 85-86. © 2021 Christian Standard Media.
- Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
- The College Press Commentary, Matthew, by Larry Chouinard. College Press Publishing Company, © 1997, p.167-174.