written by: Mary Gautreaux
This week we are in the beginning stages of a 40-day period of prayer and fasting. This Thursday night at the Chi Alpha service, the sermon will address “What Fasting Is”, and this accompanying devotional will explore “What Fasting is Not”.
Isaiah 58: 1-9 (NIV)
“Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the descendants of Jacob their sins. For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them.
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?” Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: 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 clothe them and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.”
The Bible is filled with instances of people who fasted in both the Old and New Testaments. Jesus personally fasted, and furthermore instructed us what to do when (not if) we fast. Without a doubt, fasting is a spiritual discipline that has been practiced by many of history’s most influential Christians. Rather than spend any time further substantiating the idea that fasting is something we should do as Christians, let’s look at some of the spiritual dangers that lurk in the shadows for anyone who fasts.
One of the great dangers of fasting is that of fasting only for the way it makes us look in the eyes of others. Inside each Christian man or woman lurks the old, sinful nature that loves nothing more than to be praised and noticed. There is always such a fine line between legitimately wanting to do things for God’s sake, and overly enjoying the recognition we receive for doing those great things – not even recognition from God, but from the people around us. Fasting is a tremendous and important spiritual discipline, and Jesus teaches about fasting in a manner that makes it clear He expects us to follow this practice. We should fast, but we must guard our hearts when we do.
In Matthew 6:1-18, Jesus shares a great truth:
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, 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 others 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.”
This is not a new danger – doing things for attention and glory are as old as the fall of mankind. It is impossible to fool the very One who can hear our thoughts and who sees the desires of our hearts. We are wasting everyone’s time when we fast just to be seen. It does not do anyone any good, and there is no power in it. Rather than furthering the Kingdom of God in our hearts and on earth, it serves only to feed our sinful nature. Rather than loosing chains and setting the oppressed free like Isaiah 58 mentions, fasting to be seen only yields a reward something like a trophy like you could get out of a gumball machine.
A great way to guard against this trap is to frequently check your motive. Ask yourself this question: Why do I do the things I do, and who do I do them for? Be honest with yourself when you answer this question. Are you manipulating conversations so that you will have opportunity to share boastfully about your fasting? Are you saying and doing things just to make yourself look better in the eyes of people around you? Are you fasting often so that you will become known as the guru in this area? Unfortunately, almost all of us can admit to the reality of these scenarios. But the situation is not hopeless! Jesus is our example, and we are being transformed into His image. This means that, through Christ, we are capable of doing things for God’s Kingdom with true, pure motives. When the line between true fasting and fasting to be seen gets blurry, simply ask God to help you grow in this area and He will.
This is arguably the worst danger in fasting. The very nature of fasting is one of self-denial – so it is incredibly ironic that the great risk here involves feeding our self-will to the point of danger. All of us, even the most shy in the bunch, struggle with a sinful nature that wants nothing less than to rule the world. Even when we become spiritually mature enough to no longer say wicked things out loud, our thoughts still too-frequently ring with words like, “I could have done that/sung that/preached that better.” Or, “Well, nobody asked me – they never do.” Somewhere in out hearts, we really do believe that we are better than everyone else – it is such a deeply ingrained part of our old nature.
What does this have to do with fasting? When we deny our bodies food, we face the risk of feeding that old nature that wants to conquer everything. CS Lewis said this beautifully in The Problem of Pain:
“Everyone knows that fasting is a different experience from missing your dinner by accident or through poverty. Fasting asserts the will against the appetite—the reward being self-mastery and the danger pride. Ascetic practices, which in themselves strengthen the will, are only useful in so far as they enable the will to put its own house (the passions) in order, as a preparation for offering the whole man to God. They are necessary as a means; as an end, they would be abominable, for in substituting will for appetite and there stopping, they would merely exchange the animal self for the diabolical self.”
Again, a constant checking of motive is necessary to guard against this danger. We need to stay away from fasting that serves to feed our will – this is the last thing that any of us need. If your fasting devolves into something that involves stepping on scales and glancing into mirrors to check your ‘progress’, or into thinking conquering thoughts over food or anything else, then step back and reevaluate. Fasting is not about me – it is about God. It is not about me being able to conquer my appetites and desires, it is about humbling myself before God and seeking His presence over everything else.