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I am thinking this part of the Jesus Manifesto has been ripped out of most Evangelical and Protestant bibles. I don’t know the last time (if ever) I’ve heard a sermon or teaching on fasting. This is a Jesus thing, not an old covenant (aka testament) thing.

Is it not an Old Testament exercise, we ask, enjoined by Moses for the Day of Atonement, and after the return from Babylonian exile required on some other annual days, but now abrogated by the Messiah?

Did not people come to Jesus and ask: ‘Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast’? And is fasting not a Roman Catholic practice, so that the medieval church developed an elaborate calendar of ‘feast days’ and ‘fast days’? Did it not also become associated with a superstitious view of the mass and of ‘fasting communion’?

Jesus clearly says, when you fast.

Do I believe Him? Do I practice “Jesus fasting”?

I must choose God for my audience. As Jesus watched the people putting their gifts into the temple treasury, so God watches me as I give. As I pray and fast secretly, he is there in the secret place. God hates hypocrisy but loves reality. That is why it is only when I am aware of his presence that my giving, praying and fasting will be real.

And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” ~Jesus| Matthew 6:16-18

Here are some other and balancing facts: Jesus himself, our Lord and Master, fasted for forty days and nights in the wilderness; in reply to the question people asked him, he said, ‘When the bridegroom is taken away, … then they (i.e. my disciples) will fast.’ In this Jesus Manifesto he told us how to fast, on the assumption that we would. And in the Acts and the New Testament letters there are several references to the apostles fasting. So we cannot dismiss fasting as either an Old Testament practice abrogated in the New or a Catholic practice rejected by Protestants.

What is fasting? Strictly speaking, it is a total abstention from food. It can be legitimately extended, however, to mean going without food partially or totally, for shorter or longer periods. Hence of course the naming of each day’s first meal as ‘breakfast’, since at it we ‘break our fast’, the night period during which we ate nothing.

There can be no doubt that in Scripture fasting has to do in various ways with self-denial and self-discipline. First and foremost, to ‘fast’ and to ‘humble ourselves before God’ are virtually equivalent terms (e.g. Ps. 35:13; Is. 58:3, 5).

Sometimes this was an expression of penitence for past sin. When people were deeply distressed over their sin and guilt, they would both weep and fast. For example, Nehemiah assembled the people ‘with fasting and in sackcloth’, and they ‘stood and confessed their sins’; the people of Nineveh repented at Jonah’s preaching, proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth; Daniel sought God ‘by prayer and supplications with fasting, sackcloth and ashes’, prayed to the Lord his God and made confession of the sins of his people; and Saul of Tarsus (the Apostle Paul) after his conversion, moved to penitence for his persecution of the Messiah, for three days neither ate nor drank.

Sometimes still today, when the people of God are convicted of sin and moved to repentance, it is not inappropriate as a token of penitence to mourn, to weep and to fast. Fasting is a way to apply to ourselves the word of Jesus that ‘when the bridegroom is taken away, then my disciples will fast’. It argues that the Messiah, the bridegroom may be said to be ‘with us’ and we may be said to be enjoying the marriage feast, when we are rejoicing in him and his salvation. But the bridegroom may be said to be ‘taken away from us’ and the feast to be suspended when we are oppressed by defeat, affliction and adversity. ‘Then is it a fit time’, says the Homily, ‘for that man to humble himself to Almighty God by fasting, and to mourn and bewail his sins with a sorrowful heart.’

Fasting may express our self-humbling before God. For if ‘penitence and fasting’ go together in Scripture, ‘prayer and fasting’ are even more often coupled. This is not so much a regular practice, so that whenever we pray we fast, as an occasional and special arrangement, so that when we need to seek God for some particular direction or blessing we turn aside from food and other distractions in order to do so. Our Lord Jesus himself fasted immediately before his public ministry began; and the early church followed his example, the church of Antioch before Paul and Barnabas were sent out on the first missionary journey, and Paul and Barnabas themselves before appointing elders in every new church which they had planted. The evidence is plain that special enterprises need special prayer, and that special prayer may well involve fasting.

Hunger is one of our basic human appetites, and greed one of our basic human sins. So ‘self-control’ is meaningless unless it includes the control of our bodies, and is impossible without self-discipline. Paul uses the athlete as his example. To compete in the games he must be physically fit, and therefore he goes into training. His training will include a disciplined regime of food, sleep and exercise: ‘every athlete exercises self-control in all things’. And followers of Jesus engaged in the race of faith should do the same. Paul writes of ‘pommeling’ his body (beating it black and blue) and ‘subduing’ it (leading it about as a slave). This is neither masochism (finding pleasure in self-inflicted pain), nor false asceticism (like wearing a hair shirt or sleeping on a bed of spikes), nor an attempt to win merit like the Pharisee in the temple. Paul would reject all such ideas, and so must we. We have no cause to ‘punish’ our bodies (for they are God’s creation), but must discipline them to make them obey us. And fasting (a voluntary abstinence from food) is one way of increasing our self-control.

One further reason for fasting should be mentioned, namely a deliberate doing without in order to share what we might have eaten (or its cost) with the undernourished. There is biblical warrant for this practice. Job could say that he had not ‘eaten his morsel alone’ but shared it with orphans and widows.’ By contrast, when through Isaiah God condemned the hypocritical fasting of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, his complaint was that they were seeking their own pleasure and oppressing their workers on the very day of their fast. This meant partly that there was no correlation in their mind or actions between the food they did without and the material need of their employees. Theirs was a religion without justice or charity.

So God said:

Isaiah 58:5-7 New International Version (NIV)

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?

Jesus implied something similar when he told of the rich man feasting sumptuously every day while the beggar lay at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from his table.

So whether for penitence or for prayer, for self-discipline or for solidary love, there are good biblical reasons for fasting. Whatever our reasons, Jesus took it for granted that fasting would have a place in our life. His concern was that, as with our giving and praying so with our fasting, we should not, like the hypocrites, draw attention to ourselves. Their practice was to look dismal and disfigure their faces. The word translated ‘disfigure’ (aphanizo) means literally to ‘make to disappear’ and so to ‘render invisible or unrecognizable’. They may have neglected personal hygiene, or covered their heads with sackcloth, or perhaps smeared their faces with ashes in order to look pale, wan, melancholy and so outstandingly holy. All so that their fasting might be seen and known by everybody. The admiration of the onlookers would be all the reward they got. ‘But as for you, my disciples,’ Jesus went on, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that is, ‘brush your hair and wash your face’.

Jesus was not recommending anything unusual, as if they were now to affect a particular kind of lightheartedness or cheerfulness. Jesus assumed that they would have a ‘wash and brush up’ every day, and on fast days they were to do it as usual, so that nobody would suspect that they were fasting. Then once again our Father who sees in secret will reward you. For the purpose of fasting is not to advertise ourselves but to discipline ourselves, not to gain a reputation for ourselves but to express our humility before God and our concern for others in need. If these purposes are fulfilled, it will be reward enough.

Looking back over these verses, it is evident that throughout Jesus has been contrasting two alternative kinds of piety, pharisaic and disciples. Pharisaic piety is ostentatious, motivated by vanity and rewarded by men. Discipleship piety is secret, motivated by humility and rewarded by God.

In order to grasp the alternative even more clearly, it may be helpful to look at the cause and effect of both forms.

First the effect. Hypocritical religion is perverse because it is destructive. We have seen that praying, giving and fasting are all authentic activities in their own right. To pray is to seek God, to give is to serve others, to fast is to discipline oneself. But the effect of hypocrisy is to destroy the integrity of these practices by turning each of them into an occasion for self-display.

What, then, is the cause? If we can isolate this, we can also find the remedy. Although one of the refrains of this passage is ‘before men in order to be seen and praised by men’, it is not men with whom the hypocrite is obsessed, but himself.

The remedy then is obvious. We have to become so conscious of God that we cease to be self-conscious. And it is on this that Jesus concentrates.

Perhaps I can put it in this way: absolute secrecy is impossible for any of us. It is not possible to do, say or think anything in the absence of spectators. For even if no human being is there, God is watching us. Not as a species of celestial policeman ‘snooping’ in order to catch us out, but as our loving heavenly Father, who is ever looking for opportunities to bless us. So the question is: which spectator matters to us the more, earthly or heavenly, men or God?

The hypocrite performs his rituals ‘in order to be seen by men’. The Greek verb is theathēnai. That is, they are in a theatre giving a performance. Their religion is a public spectacle. The true disciple is also aware that he is being watched, but for him the audience is God.

But why is it, someone may ask, that a different audience causes a different performance? Surely the answer is this. We can bluff a human audience; they can be taken in by our performance. We can fool them into supposing that we are genuine in our giving, praying, fasting, when we are only acting. But God is not mocked; we cannot deceive him. For God looks on the heart. That is why to do anything in order to be seen by men is bound to degrade it, while to do it to be seen by God is equally bound to ennoble it.

So we must choose our audience carefully. If we prefer human spectators, we shall lose our integrity. The same will happen if we become our own audience. As Bonhoeffer put it: ‘It is even more pernicious if I turn myself into a spectator of my own prayer performance … I can lay on a very nice show for myself even in the privacy of my own room.’

I must choose God for my audience. As Jesus watched the people putting their gifts into the temple treasury, so God watches me as I give. As I pray and fast secretly, he is there in the secret place. God hates hypocrisy but loves reality. That is why it is only when I am aware of his presence that my giving, praying and fasting will be real.