Written by Joel Branscomb, Pastoral Intern
Fasting often conjures up images of emaciated monks with terrible stomachaches or well-dressed Pharisees who appear to be lacking anything but a good meal. To many, it is a discipline (or perhaps better, a punishment) that is ancient and irrelevant. It is, we hope, an outdated practice. Today, when someone mentions the word, the response is a mixture of questions, fear, and shame. “What is it?” “Will it hurt?” and “Am I condemned if I don’t?” are the types of questions that come to mind. But these questions miss the point of fasting. We need to remember what—and who—fasting is all about.
One of the first questions people ask when they are encouraged to fast is what—or how much—they need to give up. Yes…fasting will always include self-denial, but that shouldn’t be the focus of our fasting. The self-denial is merely a means to an end. But what is that end? Some would say it’s God’s love or blessing. Fasting is essentially a way to corner God into doing what you want him to do. Please understand: that’s not what we’re saying at all! The gospel tells us that Christ suffered the ultimate fast. He gave up everything he enjoyed at the right hand of the Father to suffer and die for us. Because of Christ’s fast, God’s love and acceptance are secured. No amount of fasting can make God love us any more that he already does.
So why fast?
Often, our lives can become very cluttered, and when our lives become cluttered, it’s easy for idols to slip in, steal our affections, and rob our experience of God’s beauty. When we fast, when we “do without” something, we remind ourselves where real beauty comes from. You see, in as much as we are enjoying a good thing, we are enjoying God himself. Take food for instance: The momentary comfort, community, and pleasure that come with food are not ultimately created by the food itself. These things ultimately come from God. He, alone, is the source of ultimate comfort, perfect community, and pure pleasure. But this is easy to forget. It’s easy to start believing that food, rather than God, is the true source of joy. When we fast, we remind ourselves that we are dependent on God, not food (or any other thing) because he is the ultimate source of all that it is good and we have received his goodness in Christ.
So fasting is about remembering our dependence on God. It’s about simplifying our lives so that God’s beauty is seen more clearly and enjoyed more intensely. God’s glory is a ray of light refracted through the prism of his blessings. Sometimes we are deceived into thinking the prism itself is the true source of light. Fasting reminds us that the prism is just that, a prism, and worthless if there is no light behind it. Fasting helps us see Christ as the true source of light. It is only when we worship Christ, when we fix our eyes on the source of the light, that we will truly grasp the beauty of both God and his blessings.
As we approach the second week of our Forty Days of Unusual Prayer, consider what good things in your life have the potential to become ultimate things. Remember that God is author of all beauty and goodness. Consider fasting as a way to remind yourself that God’s ultimate blessing is not found in food, sex, entertainment, or anything else. God’s ultimate blessing is found in his presence, which has come to us in Christ—our Immanuel—our “God with us.”