Meditating on the Commands of Christ (52): Putting the Feast in Fasting

“When God opens our eyes for his word, we see into a world of miracles. What previously appeared dead to me is full of life, the hard demand becomes the graceful commandment” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer).

Have you ever gotten into the habit of fasting? To date, I have not, but I’ve been thinking very hard about it! As a young person, every once in a while, I would get an ascetic urge to fast out of a desperate desire for God to move in someone’s life (based on Mark 9:29, “And he said unto them, This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting“). I could make it for about one 24-hour period before I’d give up! Man, how did Ghandhi ever do it?? I marveled at his will power and my lack of it!

After marrying, my husband—due to his medical training—did not want me to fast even for one day for my own health’s sake while nursing or pregnant . . . which was most of our married life into my early forties. So, in the spirit of Numbers 30:8 (although I didn’t believe in taking a vow as such, based on James 5:12*), I (somewhat begrudgingly) gave up fasting as a favored means of focusing more on prayer and hoping for deliverance for beloved friends from various maladies.

Fast forward twenty years, and in my sixties, I began partial fasting during Lent, which has definitely had ample benefits: helping me focus on prayer and appreciation for Christ’s sacrificial life for me, as well as weight control, although I never really experienced specific answers to prayer as a result, nor did I end up feeling any more “holy” or “spiritual.”

It wasn’t until just lately, as I studied for this post, that I realized fasting was not a usual part of weekly life for Jewish people during Jesus’s time. In fact, my beloved husband was completely indemnified when I learned that the ancient rabbis forbade scholars and teachers from fasting lest it interfere with their studies! (And, I think caring for infants is every bit as important, don’t you?) I was also surprised to discover that there is really only one official fast day prescribed by the Mosaic Law: The Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29). This is the holiest day of the year in Judaism, also known as Yom Kippur, and it was just observed this past week on October 8. This annual fast lasts approximately 25 hours, from the time the sun sets on Yom Kippur until three stars appear the following evening (October 9). The purpose is to set aside usual pleasures and activities (including eating and drinking) in order to spend the time in reflection both personally and communally, repenting of sins from the past year.

I love this explanation from ReformJudaism.org: “Yom Kippur is the moment in Jewish time when we dedicate our mind, body, and soul to reconciliation with our fellow human beings, ourselves, and God. As the New Year begins, we commit to self-reflection and inner change. As both seekers and givers of pardon, we turn first to those whom we have wronged, acknowledging our sins and the pain we have caused them. We are also commanded to forgive, to be willing to let go of any resentment we feel towards those who have committed offenses against us. Only then can we turn to God and ask for forgiveness. As we read in the Yom Kippur liturgy, ‘And for all these, God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, and grant us atonement.'” Amen? This sounds exactly like the teaching of Christ on forgiveness too: ” For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (Matthew 6:14).

So, what does all this have to do with fasting, or putting the “feast” into fasting, or the opening quote by Dietrich Bonhoeffer? This is what I think after a lot of prayer about fasting: Jesus doesn’t tell us to fast, but he does tell us how to fast when we do. Unlike many religions, which require fasting as a means of obtaining grace or increasing spirituality, the Bible teaches us that holiness comes from trusting in God, repenting from sin and avoiding evil. In Isaiah 58:6, God declares, “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?” God doesn’t require intentional deprivation. Instead, He wants us involved in actively caring for others. And what about this one from Zechariah 8:19? “Thus saith the Lord of hosts; The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be to the house of Judah joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts; therefore love the truth and peace.” God isn’t looking for asceticism; He’s looking for positive action!

I really believe there will be times in our lives when we are so distraught over something that we don’t feel like eating, and we may even intentionally fast for a specific time in order to focus on prayer and seek God’s will and favor. (Jesus fasted for forty days in the wilderness before beginning his public ministry.) However, Jesus’s disciples didn’t fast routinely. In fact, when the Pharisees grumbled against Jesus for not requiring his disciples to fast, he answered, “Can the children of the bride chamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them? as long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days” (Mark 2:19-20). We don’t have Jesus today, but He has given us his Holy Spirit to abide with us forever. Therefore, I think it’s appropriate to turn our weeping into “joy and gladness,” with our thoughts being focused on loving the truth and peace and sharing what we have with others “in cheerful feasts.”

However, when you do feel a need to fast, do it with a pleasant face, uplifted heart, and trusting spirit. Remember that your heavenly Father sees your needs, hears your prayers, and will reward you.

Text for today’s meditation: Matthew 6:16-18, “Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.”

*”But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation” (James 5:12).

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