Following my exhortations in “Forget the Lunch” I received emails outlining how some people had indeed decided to forego meals, and other things, to seek the glory of the Lord. Their seriousness has provoked me to reconsider some aspects of my own lifestyle, particularly in relation to fasting. Lots of believers seem confused about fasting; saved by grace alone we don’t want to be like hypocritical Pharisees (Matt 6:15), monastic legalists or submit to compulsory abstentions like Muslims. At the deepest level however our confusions are probably a sign that we have lost sensitivity to the Spirit who led Jesus into the wilderness precisely to fast (Luke 4:1-2). As an old Puritan put it, “When the sense of God diminishes, fasting disappears.” (Edward Farrell). We have been taken captive by the greedy spirit of the age, but a revival of true understanding and practice in fasting promises to create space for the Spirit to move with liberty and power amongst us (Rom 12:1-2).
Christian apologist Os Guinness comments that for modern secular people when God commanded us “not to live by bread alone but by every word that comes from His mouth” he wasn’t aware of our technological successes. We can, and do, feed ourselves beyond ancient humanity’s wildest dreams. Who needs God when you can be successful without him? This attitude is hardly a new problem. Throughout the Old Testament physical prosperity led to spiritual complacency e.g. ““But Israel soon became fat and unruly; the people grew heavy, plump, and stuffed! Then they abandoned the God who had made them; they made light of the Rock of their salvation.” (Deut 32:15 cf. Jer 2:7; Hos 4:7; 13:6). Paul speaks of those whose “god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.” (Phil 3:19). This is surely the Australian Christmas saga! The fatter we become the less we feel like we need God. Something deeper is at work here.
We all understand how eating our favourite “comfort food” produces a feel-good effect which masks negative emotions. And how in recent years food pornography has established itself as a regular part of our culture. Few will admit however that food fixation is a self medication to relieve stress and sadness. Food is an anaesthetic to dull our sense that we are empty of God. But don’t expect your doctor, or your average pastor, to teach this! It seems near impossible to “hunger and thirst for righteousness” when you are filled with the delicacies of this world (Matt 5:6 cf. Dan 1:12-16). Psychological, biological and cultural dispositions to do with food are so deep that only one is intimate enough to liberate us from our decadence, Jesus.
The Lord of the Fast
Jesus’ 40 day fast to win victory over the tempter in the wilderness is famous (Matt 4:1-11). Few though reflect that in leaving behind his eternal glory with the heavenly Father the whole of Christ’s earthly life in mortal flesh was a fast (John 17:5; 2 Cor 8:9; Phil 2:6-7). The cross is the climax of this fast, where the Lord chooses to be deprived of the presence of the source of all heavenly sustenance, the Father (Mark 15:34; John 6:32-33). Foundational to Christian fasting are Jesus’ prophetic words about what will follow his violent death; ““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.”” (Isa 53:8; Matt 9:15). Between his first and second comings Christ the Bridegroom is separated in a real way from his Bride the Church. As our heavenly Bridegroom is presently fasting from manifesting his full glory upon the earth this is the Church’s time to fast in marital intimacy with her Lord.
The Old Testament describes a time of spiritual urgency when even the pleasures of a honeymoon need to be suspended for prayer and fasting (Joel 2:16). As the prospect of something greater motivated the afflictions of Christ (Heb 12:1-2), so it is that as Christ’s Bride anticipates the final ecstatic consummation of his presence that she can afflict herself with fasting (Ps 35:13; Eph 5:22-23; Rev 19:7-10; 21:2). Secure in the joy of the Lord the early church fasted for the Spirit’s power and guidance (Acts 13:1–3; 14:23 cf. 2 Cor 6:5; 11:27?). The spiritual emptiness symbolised by fasting anticipated the movement and leading of the Spirit as a foretaste of the coming complete presence of Christ. New covenant fasting expresses a positive faith believing that God wills to do much more than we can ask or imagine (Eph 3:20). Sharing in Christ’s self-deprivation for the sake of others we anticipate a release of resurrection power to heal the land (Phil 3:10; Col 1:24; 2 Chron 7:14). Such unselfish self-mastery conforms us to the likeness of Christ and imparts a contentment freed from external circumstances (Gal 5:23; Phil 2:5-7; 4:11-13; 2 Tim 1:7). Fasting opposes the spirit of this age which holds the Church in bondage to creature comforts and renders it spiritually impotent. By sharing in the life of Christ fasting dedicates the body godwards in order to experience resurrection power NOW.
Augustine’s famed quote, “What could be greedier than a man for whom God is not enough?” testifies against the spirituality of mainline Australian Christianity. Wilfully deceived by evil powers we have allowed the feasting element of new covenant life to almost totally overwhelm its fasting dimensions. We have lost sight of the Son’s promise that when we fast in the way he directed, “your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you [with his own presence]” (Matt 6:18). We seem ignorant of the intimate truth that self-deprivation for the sake of Christ and for others vastly intensifies spiritual enjoyment. We seem unable to discern that the Lord has deprived us of the power of his Spirit so that through the inner ache of an empty spiritual stomach (John 7:38 is literally “belly”) we might desperately seek him by all possible means. And throughout scripture and Church history fasting is one such prominent means.
Let us wisely resolve that we will be part of a hungry Bride who in following her Bridegroom boldly testifies, ““One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”” (Matt 4:4). As the Spirit led Jesus as to the nature and extent of his fast we can trust God to do the same for us in the confidence that as Christ went on to destroy the works of the devil we will do the same (John 14:12; 1 John 3:8). I am quietly confident this is the path laid out for 2018, and beyond. PTL
[i]https://www.desiringgod.org/books/a-hunger-for-god is a recommended free John Piper download.