The irony isn’t lost on me: Jesus said if we draw attention to ourselves when we fast, the attention we get will be our only reward.
But I’m convinced that as 21st century believers, Jesus’ principle of discreetness in Matthew 6 is almost all we think about when we think about fasting. That means almost no one talks about fasting, which means almost no one practices it anymore.
So maybe I’ve just lost my reward. But it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make if I can stir some thoughts about the forgotten discipline of fasting, and help restore it to a place of normality in the Christian life.
Here are three really valuable lessons I learnt from my week of fasting.
1. Food competes with God for my affections
Food is a really good gift from God. But even good gifts from God can compete with him for our affections.
Over and over again this week I found myself thinking instinctively of food as the place to find comfort when my day had been hard or I’d faced a challenge. Apparently this is how I regularly think—but it took a week without food for me to notice.
“Even good gifts from God can compete with him for our affections.”
I experienced very few hunger pains and almost no drop in energy throughout the week.* The confronting conclusion this lead me to is that I don’t actually need food anywhere near as much as I think I do. Mostly, I just like it, and the comfort it brings.
And there’s nothing wrong with that—except when food is my first place of refuge. That’s a title that Jesus is jealous for. He wants to be the all-satisfying one for me.
Psalm 84:2 says, “My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.” The constant companionship of an empty stomach taught me this truth like no amount of prayer, reading or meditation ever could.
*Being a working week, I chose to still drink some tea, coffee, juice and broth—so it was either this or an intervention from God that sustained me.
2. The spirit thrives when the flesh is subdued
By day three or four I had a clarity of mind that I’ve rarely experienced. The best way I can describe it is that my flesh began to diminish, giving way for my spirit to be more in control.
“Fasting is an undiscovered shortcut in learning how to walk by the Spirit.”
In certain conversations, I found myself with words of wisdom and insight that surprised me. When I prayed with others, my mind was sharp and my requests felt more impassioned than normal.
The single greatest takeaway of the week was how the self-control I was practicing with food transferred directly to other areas of my life. Temptations I normally struggle with were noticeably weakened. I told my hunger to bow to Jesus, and it turned out that other desires bowed too.
Our culture believes the myth that indulging every appetite—whether for entertainment or sex or food—is the way to true freedom and happiness. In reality, that path leads to slavery and addiction.
“I told my hunger to bow to Jesus, and it turned out that other desires bowed too.”
The self-control I discovered in fasting felt like the very opposite. I wasn’t playing slave to my desires. After all, true freedom is the ability to say no, not just yes.
I’ve come to believe that fasting is an undiscovered shortcut in learning how to walk by the Spirit so that we don’t gratify the desires of the flesh (Gal. 5:16).
3. Fasting is a means, not an end
Given that I haven’t done it much before, this week I found myself becoming preoccupied with the physical aspects of fasting. In fact, towards the end of the week, I almost lost sight of why I began. If it has no greater purpose, not eating is a strange thing to do and has little value.
“Fasting isn’t an end in itself: it’s a means to seek the presence of God.”
I had to remind myself that biblical fasting isn’t a detox program, and it’s not some form of self-suffering or hunger strike. For all the purposes it has in Scripture—discipline, insight, answered prayer, spiritual breakthrough—its primary purpose is actually to draw near to God.
In a busy week, I found some time to do that. But next time I fast, I’ll be looking to leverage more value out of my fast: more time to be alone with God, to meet and pray with others, to read, and listen to teaching, and ponder. The reason I will is because fasting isn’t an end in itself: it’s a means to seek the presence of God.
The lessons I learnt this week have been invaluable, and I hope they’ve stirred something in you. If they have that’s good, because Jesus didn’t begin his teaching on fasting with the words, “If you fast…” but rather, “When you fast…”
He’s assuming we’ll be doing it again.
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