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In Jesus’ day, fasting was connected first of all with mourning, especially with mourning for sin. The Law of Moses commanded Jewish believers to fast on the Day of Atonement. Leviticus 16.29, 30 said: “you must deny yourselves [i.e., fast] and not do any work—whether native-born or an alien living among you—because on this day atonement will be made to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins.”
Sin is serious business, and eradicating it from our lives requires serious effort. To eradicate it, we must deny ourselves what we want so that we can focus on what we really need. Fasting from food is an excellent way to begin to discipline ourselves for the fight against sin. Why? Because as Jesus said, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4.4).
Several years ago, I took a graduate-level seminar on the history of the desert fathers, those hardly souls who pioneered the practice of Christian monasticism. One of the things that struck me about those men was how disciplined they were in their eating habits. They had discovered how little food it is possible to live on and still be healthy. Since they did not need to spend a lot of time gathering or preparing food, they were able to pay more attention to God.
I thought about my own life in light of their habits. According to my doctor, I am overweight. I eat more than I need to. I especially eat more high fat, high carbohydrate food than I need to. I am undisciplined with regard to food. I wonder, does that lack of discipline carry over into my spiritual life? Does it carry over into yours?
Unfortunately, when we start to exercise a little spiritual discipline in our lives, we often start preening before others. That’s why Jesus told his disciples not to fast like “hypocrites,” who liked to look “somber” so that others would be impressed with their spiritual dedication. Fasting is between you and God only. Your struggle against sin, and your victories over it, are for you to share with God, not to display before others (Matthew 6.16–18).
Interestingly, Jesus’ disciples did not seem to fast much when he was with them. This incensed Jesus’ opponents, who asked him why the disciples didn’t fast. Jesus replied, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast” (Mark 2.19, 20).
As we await Jesus’ Second Coming, we have plenty of opportunity to fast, whether we fast our desire for food, the attention of others, or sin itself. But we should never forget that the purpose of our fasting is to make us hungry for Christ’s perpetual feast—the marriage supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19.7).