Scripture records the fasts of numerous people and groups of people. Moses, David, Elijah, Hezekiah, Jesus, and Paul fasted (Deut. 9:9; 2 Sam. 12:16; 1 Kings 19:8; 2 Kings 18:6; Matt. 4:2; Acts 9:9). Jehoshaphat called for the nation of Israel to fast (2 Chron. 20:3). The Gentile king of Nineveh called for the whole region to fast along with their animals (Jonah 3:5). Ezra and the exiles fasted before their return to their homeland (Ezra 8:21). And, Esther and her handmaidens fasted with Mordecai and the Jews in Susa (Esther 4:16).
In Jesus’ day, fasting was a form of self-humiliation meant to communicate grief, mourning, and repentance to God and neighbor. It involved more than refraining from food and drink for a set period. It also included a disregard for clothing, general hygiene, and looks; this took the form of sackcloth and ashes. And a disregard for sleep referred to as keeping vigil (Bruce J. Malina, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 360).
Fasting could be a voluntary or involuntary practice. Involuntary fasting happened in response to the unexpected loss of a loved one or a national tragedy which rendered one overcome with grief. It was therefore meant to communicate to one’s neighbors. On the other hand, voluntary fasting wasn’t in response to an unexpected tragedy, but rather, it was a spiritual habit. The Pharisees practiced fasting twice a week to bring Israel as a nation closer to God. Voluntary fasting was meant to communicate directly to God as a means of piety.
Beyond refraining from food, what does it mean for Christians to fast today? Christians who intentionally fast practice it voluntarily. This means the spiritual discipline is directed to God. Jesus’ words in Matthew help us understand what our attitude toward fasting and other spiritual disciplines should be. “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 6:1).
Jesus categorized fasting and other spiritual disciplines as practices of righteousness. Righteousness is our right-standing before God, and therefore practicing righteousness is how we live in that standing. How we do that depends on where we think our righteousness comes from. Jesus warns that those who practice righteousness for other’s approval will receive just that and nothing more (Matt. 6:2, 5, 16). He says no spiritual habit, no good deed, nor any neighborly endorsement can make us righteous or enough before God. Our enoughness before God cannot be earned by our piety or bestowed by our neighbor. Our righteousness and our justification come from Christ and His work for us.
Our enoughness before God cannot be earned by our piety or bestowed by our neighbor. Our righteousness and our justification come from Christ and His work for us
It is in this truth that we can fast in freedom. But, living in the enoughness of Christ proves more difficult than we often imagine. Robert Farrar Capon brings this to bear when he writes about Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and tax collector (Luke 18:9-14).
Capon argues this parable is not about taking “a humble religious stance rather than a proud one; rather it is a warning to drop all religious stances — and all moral and ethical ones, too — when you try to grasp your justification before God.” It’s this dropping of all religious stances that brings us difficulty. We understand that the Pharisee believed he was righteous because of his works, and his neighbor’s approval of them, that he practiced righteousness based on himself. We also understand that the tax collector recognized he had no righteousness of his own to speak of, but instead that he had only the righteousness and mercy of God to lean on. But, as Capon writes, “our love of justification by works is so profound that at the first opportunity we run from the strange light of grace straight back to the familiar darkness of the law.”
To prove it, Capon asks the reader to imagine the tax collector back in the temple a week later. Has he improved his behavior? Did he refrain from cheating his neighbors? Did he fast or tithe, even just a little? If not, what if he returned to the temple in the same manner as the week before: eyes down, breast beaten, calling on the mercy and righteousness of God? When God sends this unimproved sinner home justified again, how do we feel? Do we, as Capon puts it, “gag on the unfairness of it?”
This is the absurd and beautiful nature of the Gospel that we live in and that we practice our righteousness in, or rather, God’s righteousness which is now ours in Christ Jesus. Whether we succeed or fail in fasting, our forgiveness and life don’t depend on it. Because it never did.
So what is our fasting for? Or who is it for, if it’s not for God or for our salvation? Why fast at all? Let’s return to Jesus’ words on fasting in Matthew. “And when you fast, do not look gloomy as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. 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” (Matt. 6:16-18). Fasting is for the heart of the faster. Not to make one righteous, but, as with other spiritual disciplines, for the Spirit to work to further unite us with God and the truth of the Gospel.
Fasting is for the heart of the faster. Not to make one righteous, but, as with other spiritual disciplines, for the Spirit to work to further unite us with God and the truth of the Gospel
As He did throughout the beginning of His “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus continues to drive home the truth: the unrighteous heart cannot hide from God behind outward “righteous” action. “For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). The hypocrite was the play-actor, the one who put on a mask to be someone they were not. Jesus warns fasters not to put on a mask, so to speak, by looking gloomy or announcing their acts. This way of fasting was not a genuine sign of repentance, but a boast of false righteousness.
The Pharisees did what we all do with spiritual disciplines: they used their piety to communicate self-righteousness as being good enough for God. Fasting in secret, where only God can see, removes any righteousness that may be bestowed by fasting or the faster and instead focuses our attention on God, the giver of every good gift, who daily gives us not only what we need for this body and life, but His righteousness.