Have you ever done a fast? Perhaps you’ve fasted for Lent or for your health or for a medical procedure. Fasting is coming back into fashion these days as new studies are being released about its health benefits, but fasting is not a new concept. It is “as old as the hills,” as my grandma would have said. God himself established the practice; the first mention of a fast in the Bible is when Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. Several other times throughout the Old and New Testaments, fasting is mentioned as a way to focus on God and prayer and repentance and as a way to draw strength from him and realize the utter reliance we have on him for daily sustenance.
However, even such a good, God-given practice can be twisted by sinful people. In response to this, Jesus himself told us the proper way to fast as part of his famous Sermon on the Mount:
When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18)
Jesus wasn’t new to fasting. In fact, not long before giving that famous sermon, we read about Jesus’ temptation in the desert (Matthew 4). Jesus fasted an astounding 40 days and 40 nights, and in one of the biggest understatements of the century, Matthew tells us, “He was hungry” (verse 2). And yet, Jesus resisted Satan’s temptation, quoting the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy to make his stand: “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (verse 4).
Our family recently completed a three-day fast together. And before you call social services on me, our kids are not that young, and they all did this willingly (and everyone had a chance to bail if they wanted to). You see, we were watching a show called Limitless with Chris Hemsworth, where he explores all sorts of different practices with the goal of improving his health and increasing longevity. After the episode on fasting, we decided to try it as a family…partly for health and spiritual reasons and partly to prove that we were stronger than Thor. Here are a few things we learned from this experience that apply to our lives as followers of Jesus:
- Community is clutch. A few years back, I did a weeklong fast…by myself…during Memorial Day festivities (timing has always been a strength of mine). I watched as my family ate a variety of delicious grilled meats, watermelon, potato salad, and cookies. And throughout that week, I had to cook meals for the rest of my family and smell the scents rising up from my sauté pan. It was tough to be the only one not eating. This time, our whole family was on board, encouraging one another and keeping each other away from food. We also were able to look forward to something together—when we would break the fast as a family. We distracted each other with board games and other old-timey family activities (turns out you have extra time at night when you don’t have to grocery shop or cook or clean up the kitchen). We kept each other strong and pointed each other to Jesus. We wrote out a prayer list on the kitchen whiteboard and chose things to pray about each time we had the thought, “Man, I’m hungry.” We were all in it together, and we kept each other from caving to temptation. In the same way, our Christian community is so important. We are all in this suffering, hungry world together, and we are all in need of others to help us along, to encourage and support us, to call us out, and to lift us up when we’re falling.
- Hope is huge. After about 70 hours of fasting, we were all feeling a bit weak and run-down. All that day none of us had energy, and none of us were very joyful. But when it got close to the time to eat and we began preparing the food together to break our fast, the attitudes changed dramatically. We hadn’t eaten yet, we didn’t have any physical sustenance yet (and we allowed no snitching during dinner prep), but we went from dragging and tired to cheerful and energetic. All because of hope. Food was coming. We were actively preparing it. An end was in sight. In the same way, we can go through life with a joyful step because we have hope in a better world after this one. Heaven is coming. God is actively preparing a place for us. Hope can get us through a lot of pain and suffering. And being with Jesus will be even better than lemon garlic mahi-mahi with rice and asparagus.
- Appreciation is awakened. Doing this fast together forced our family to slow down and enjoy a meal as a family again. You see, we had just gotten through basketball season (where I somehow ended up with seven different basketball team schedules, and I only have four kids), and we were eating on the run—too much fast food and concession stand junk, scarfing down whatever we could without even thinking about it. In sharp contrast, our first meal to break the fast was so enjoyable…we slowed down and savored the flavors. We took careful bites and tried to appreciate each of them. We relished the time around the table with one another. We had gratitude again for the food that God provided and marveled at how God made our bodies to rely on him for daily bread. Also, for a brief moment we had entered into the suffering of so many people in the world around us, and for the first time we sort of realized what it feels like to be hungry. In the same way, Jesus entered our suffering. He became human, experienced all the pain and hunger and heartache that we face here, and died on a cross to open a path to heaven, where there is no more hunger or pain or trouble. What a gift!
If you’ve thought about doing a fast, I would encourage it. Follow Jesus’ words and check your motives. Be willing to learn and pray and lean into the suffering just a little bit. It might help you to be more grateful for the gifts from God, the community he has given us, and the hope we have in the future.