Over the past three weeks, we examined a time in the life of Jesus wherein he fasted for 40 days, and as a part of that experience was tested directly by the devil himself. Similarly, Moses fasted for 40 days as he spent time with God on Mount Sinai, receiving and writing the words of the covenant from God.1
The Prayer and Fasting Link
It seems that prayer and fasting are intimately linked, somewhat as are peanut butter and jelly. It is possible to eat peanut butter by itself, just as it is possible to eat jelly by itself; but they complement one another so well that it is more pleasant to eat them together. Having fasted once a week for two years, one gentleman remarked, “I now know that prayer and fasting must be intricately bound together. There is no other way, and yet that way is not yet combined in me.”2
We do often speak of prayer alone but rarely do so of fasting. Rather we speak of prayer and fasting, almost as if they are a single entity – yet Jesus addresses them as distinct practices.
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.
– Matthew 6:16-18, ESV
It strikes me as significant that Jesus said “When you fast,” rather than something less certain, like “If you decide to do this…” There is no question in the mind of Jesus that I will do this; I will engage in this practice, and most likely on a regular basis.
Many well-known biblical characters fasted.3 If I am striving to be a Christ-follower, a life of regular fasting will be part of that quest. If my soul pants for God as the deer pants for the water, fasting will be a part of that longing. There are yearnings in life for which we ache even more than we do for food.
Jesus assumes that we will fast, and he expresses his concern that we do so in a proper manner, using “the hypocrites” as a contrasting example. It is possible to fast for credit, to do so in a way that assures others will notice, and hopefully applaud my obvious piety. A devoted Christ-follower will not fast in such a way.
While specific mannerisms will have changed over time, the parallels to Jesus’ directives are easy for us to identify. Jesus cautions his audience to have no disfigurement of the face, no ashes on the head, no unkempt hair, no unwashed faces, no torn garments, and no bare feet. Instead, wash your face, shampoo and comb your hair, straighten your tie, walk with a spring in your step, have a pleasant tone in your speech, and a smile on your face. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you openly.
Motivation for Fasting
It is a sad commentary on humanity’s religious snobbery that Jesus has to address this issue as it relates to our giving, our prayer, and our fasting, a triad that one writer calls the “threefold cord” of the disciple’s life.4 There is a short-sighted, carnal, spiritual showmanship that gains the coveted approval of unwitting onlookers, but carries no significance before God. Inherent to this is a motivational tension because clearly, Jesus is denouncing the practice of displaying our religious fealty before men for their acknowledgment and approval. Do not give to the needy for the purpose of receiving public praise.5 Neither pray to be seen by men.5 And finally, do not fast to gain approval of men.7
Yet this same Jesus told his listeners just one chapter previous that they (we) are the light of the world, a city on the hill that cannot be hidden, the salt of the earth.8 He then charges them with the following:
Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.
– Matthew 5:16, NASB
This seems to fly in the face of the “do nots” related to our giving, prayer, and fasting. The differentiator between a fast that honors God and one that does not, then, is my motivation for the fast. Am I fasting to be thought well of by others, or am I fasting for a holy purpose and God’s glory? In either case, people will know that I am fasting. My wife will know. If you have children living at home, they will know you are fasting. However, there is a significant difference between fasting and they know, and fasting so that they will know. God knows the motivation of my heart. “I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind, Even to give to each man according to his ways…”9 and this is said immediately following the statement that the heart is deceitful above all things.10 My heart can deceive me, and I can follow it to deceive others, but it will never deceive God.
The God-ordained motivation for our fasting is offered by Jesus in his next recorded statement:
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
– Matthew 6:19-21, ESV
We fast (and give and pray) with eternity in view. It is Long-View Living in a Short-View World. It is knowing where my citizenship lies, knowing my treasure, and knowing the longings of my heart. It is prioritizing eternal matters over temporal ones.
Fasting and Forty
I have never fasted for longer than one weekend. To be completely transparent, while I find fasting to be a great blessing, it is also a difficult exercise. I cannot fathom what it must be like to fast for forty days. In fact, I do not know how, outside of supernatural intervention, one survives forty days of fasting.
The number forty seems to be significant in the pages of scripture. The flood in Noah’s day was brought on for forty days as the fountains of the deep and windows of heaven opened.11 The twelve spies were sent into the promised land for forty days to search it out before reporting back.12 God gave the city of Nineveh forty days to repent, else he would destroy it.13 Ezekiel laid on his right side for forty days as a testimony, one day for each year of the sins of Judah.14 The maximum number of lashes a man could receive as punishment was forty.15 Israel wandered in the desert for forty years.16 The giant Goliath taunted Saul’s army for forty days.17 Elijah fled from Jezebel, traveling for forty days and nights to Mount Horeb.18
We have already seen how Jesus fasted for forty days when he was being tempted by Satan.19 The forty-day fast of Moses, on the mountain with God, involved abstaining from both food and water.20 Medical science declares that an impossibility. Supposedly a man or woman can survive roughly three weeks without food, but not without water.21 Mahatma Gandhi is said to have survived twenty-one days without food.22 End-of-life observation has demonstrated that cellular deterioration begins after three days without water, and a generous estimate states that about one week without water is fatal, yet God . . .
Next week, we will look at Fasting with a Purpose, and Fasting with New Wineskins.
Until then . . .
1. Exodus 34:27-28
2. Laubach, F. C., (1946). Prayer – The Mightiest Force in the World. (p. 31). New York: Fleming H. Revell
3. Moses – Exodus 34:28; David – 2nd Samuel 12:16, Elijah – 1st Kings 19:8; Esther – Esther 4:16; Daniel – Daniel 10:2-3; Anna – Luke 2:37; Paul – 2nd Corinthians 6:5, Jesus – Matthew 4:2, Luke 4:2
4. Franklin, J. (2014). Fasting. (p. 11). Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House.
5. Matthew 6:2
6. Matthew 6:5-8
7. Matthew 6:16-18
8. Matthew 5:13-15
9. Jeremiah 17:10, NASB
10. Jeremiah 17:9
11. Genesis 17:11
12. Numbers 13:25
13. Jonah 3:4
14. Ezekiel 4:6
15. Deuteronomy 25:3
16. Deuteronomy 8:2
17. 1 Samuel 17:16
18. 1 Kings 19:8
19. Matthew 4:2
20. Exodus 34:27-28
21. Binns, C., (November 30, 2012). How Long Can a Person Survive Without Water?. Retrieved 04/16/2016 from http://www.livescience.com/32320-how-long-can-a-person-survive-without-water.html
22. Spector, D., (February 6, 2016). Here’s how long a person can survive without water. Retrieved 04/16/2016 from http://www.businessinsider.com/how-long-can-humans-survive-without-water-2016-2?op=1?r=UK&IR=T