And when you fast, do not put on a sad face as the hypocrites do. They neglect their appearance so that everyone will see that they are fasting. I assure you, they have already been paid in full. When you go without food, wash your face and comb your hair, so that others cannot know that you are fasting—only your Father, who is unseen, will know. And your Father, who sees what you do in private, will reward you.
[This is a continuation of Jesus’ teaching about proper performance of religious duties. He is explaining to his disciples how they can be “more faithful than the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees in doing what God requires.” (See Day 23)].
I must say I’ve never seen any flamboyant fasters like those Jesus describes, mainly because nobody fasts nowadays unless they are having surgery or desperately trying to lose weight. According to the statistics we are one of the fattest countries in the world. I know I certainly love to eat. It’s one of life’s pleasures and I can depend on it. Food is a faithful friend. Fasting requires self denial, and that’s not something Americans are very big on. Oh, and by the way, Jesus wasn’t talking about fasting from television or Facebook or even red meat. He was talking about good old traditional Jewish fasting.
Jews have two major fasting days where they fast for 24 hours, and either four or five minor fasts (depending on the congregation) that last from sunrise to sunset. Jewish fasting means no food and no water. Nothing. Nada. The kind of fast you have to do before you go in for surgery. Roman Catholics do a very watered down version of fasting on two days – Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. On these days they are supposed to “eat less than they normally would,” and drinking is allowed – even alcohol. They are also encouraged to abstain from meat on Fridays, especially during Lent. Most Protestants don’t have any fasting days, although they often talk about abstaining from something during Lent. Many Pentecostals fast when they are faced with particularly serious situations and they want to be sure they have God’s attention.
I was raised Methodist and I wasn’t aware of any fasting going on in my church even though the founder John Wesley recommended fasting. Later as an adult I tried to do a modified Weslyan-style fast every Friday with no food until the evening meal. Because I had to work I allowed myself to drink coffee; I really couldn’t work without it.
It was hard working and fasting at the same time. Sometimes people would ask me if I was OK, not because I was putting on a show; it was because I was so slow and lethargic that they thought I was sick. I didn’t tell anyone that I was fasting because I figured they would tell me to knock it off. When it was time to break the fast I ate like a pig from dinner until bedtime. A whole day’s worth of food in about 3 hours.
Although I did this for a couple of years it really didn’t seem to bring me any closer to God, and my driving on the way home was not as good as I would have liked it to be. I eventually decided it was unproductive and possibly dangerous so I stopped.
As a result of this blog I have become much more interested in Jewish tradtions and spiritual disciplines in general. I recently obtained a book called Mudhouse Sabbath by Lauren Winner, a Jew who converted to Christianity. The book has a chapter on her struggles with fasting. In response to her concerns her rabbi advised her that the purpose of fasting is to remember that when you experience the discomfort and fog of physical hunger that you are really hungry for God. She said that from then on every time she felt like cheating during a fast she would say to herself, “I am hungriest for God, my truest hunger is for God.” This helped turn it around for her.
Armed with this advice maybe I will try fasting again and see what happens now that I no longer work full time. Like practically everyone else in America I struggle to maintain appropriate eating habits. Maybe it would be a good start to remind myself, when I go for those extra chips that I don’t need, that what I’m really hungriest for is God. Maybe then I’ll be ready for fasting. Sometimes you have to learn to walk before you can run. Baby steps.
What does this scripture say to you?