Going without food will not make God love you more…but it will shape your love for God. Fasting is essentially a dead spiritual discipline in the American church today. It’s too hard, too costly, and too inconvenient for many of us. But Jesus assumed that his disciples would indeed fast (Matthew 6:16), so of course the church, seeking to obey Jesus, ought to revisit this discipline. But more than just blind obedience we also need to see that fasting can help shape our love for God. Fasting is a spiritual discipline that shifts our focus away from the temporary satisfactions of this world to the satisfaction that only Jesus provides.
Pastor John Piper has said that he believes Matthew 9:14-17 contains the most important words in all the Bible on fasting. It’s a bold statement, but in light of the text I think it makes sense. The text reads:
Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:14-17 ESV)
There is a season fasting going on in Jewish religious life in the context of this passage, and yet Jesus and his disciples do not participate. It seems a natural question, then, for others to ask, “What’s the deal, Jesus?” The “deal,” Jesus says, is that fasting has a spiritual purpose of helping us to long for Jesus’ coming.
The reason the disciples weren’t fasting in this passage is because they had the very presence of God with them; this was not a time for fasting but of rejoicing. But fasting does have a place in the Christian life and Jesus makes that clear. Fasting is a longing for Jesus’ coming again. There would come a time when the disciples fast, and that is when the bridegroom is taken away. The Christian life should include seasons of fasting because the bridegroom is away and we are longing for His coming. In fact that is partly what marked the fasting of Anna in Luke 2:36-38. She was longing for the first coming of the Messiah, but having seen that should we somehow long less? John Piper asserts, “The absence of fasting is the measure of our contentment with the absence of Christ” (A Hunger for God, 93). Paul says we are to long for His appearing (2 Timothy 4:8), and Jesus taught us to pray “thy Kingdom Come” (Matthew 6:10). Fasting is the exclamation point on the end of that prayer.
Fasting is the cry of our heart calling out to God, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus!” It is a way of saying, Jesus I need you more than I need food. It is a way of saying my most pressing desire is not my next meal, but the satisfaction of Jesus. The theology of fasting might be best summarized as a way of saying, to quote Piper again, “This much, O God, I want you!”
Later this week we will examine the connection between fasting and social justice, so check back.