Why Don’t Christians Fast?

Photo by Emily Lou

Photo by Emily Lau

Of history’s greatest speeches, few have been more circulated, quoted, or impactful than Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. The Lord’s prayer, the Beatitudes, and the parable of the wise man and the fool in particular have had massive effects on our society today. Even lifelong non-believers know many of the Sermon’s common refrains by heart: whether you grew up in church or not, you have probably heard “turn the other cheek;” “love your enemies;” “you cannot serve two masters;” or “judge not lest you be judged.”

Yet there is one moment in Christ’s compelling oration that many in the modern Christian West seem all too willing to gloss over. While railing against lust, against hating one another, against storing up treasures in the wrong places, Christians rarely touch on one of the key topics Jesus addresses: fasting.

What exactly is fasting? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it clearly enough: fasting is “abstaining from all or some kinds of food or drink, especially as a religious observance.” 1But beneath that definition is a spiritual end that has been ingrained in a multitude of religious traditions for thousands of years: cultures from all times and places have seen fasting as a means of drawing nearer to the Divine. The Jews institutionalized fasting some 3500 years ago with Yom Kippur, and many Muslims fast during the daytime hours of Ramadan, a month on the Islamic calendar that shifts every year. 2 As people from many of the world’s other religions 3 would attest, fasting is not exclusive to these two monotheistic religions, but is a shared spiritual practice of countless faiths all over the world. Despite the diversity of the people who fast, they all do so because they share a common belief: that people who deny themselves physically from time to time will be more able to thrive spiritually.

Despite the massive participation we see from followers of Judaism, Islam, and other belief systems, modern Christians seem to have moved away from fasting. Christian scholar and author David Mathis cites a “massive majority” of Christians who have never truly interacted with the practice. 4 While exceptions certainly exist, 5 the absence of fasting in the West is undeniable; while other religious groups participate in ritual fasting, Christians are far more likely to sit out. This discrepancy raises the question: why don’t Christians fast?

Indeed, the Bible’s New Testament is not ambiguous about fasting. Jesus assumes His followers are fasting and He refers to it only offhand in the aforementioned Sermon on the Mount, mentioning the practice only to illustrate a larger point. “When you fast,” He preaches, “anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” 6 Christ’s underlying expectation here is that the people who follow Him would continue the Jewish practice of fasting, but with an attempt to be internally focused only and away from the view of others. Jesus speaks more clearly to this assumption in the gospel of Mark, when John the Baptist’s disciples and the Jewish religious leaders are fasting while Jesus’ disciples continue to eat. Christ states that His disciples will not fast until He is physically apart from them, but indicates a change in their behaviors that will occur after He has gone. When He leaves earth, Jesus says, “they will fast in that day.” 7 Those first disciples knew full well that their Teacher expected them to fast, as they did so while seeking God’s consultation before making many of their most vital decisions. 8 At its outset, the Christian faith was devoted to fasting as a piece of its framework for spiritual discipline.

To understand the glaring lack of Christian fasting in the West, we ought to examine the indifference and ignorance of modern Christians. I do not merely address my fellow believers, of course, but Western culture as a whole, which can afflict us all with many of the same underlying problems. Even the skeptic of religion will realize that the reasons Christians don’t fast are explained by flaws they themselves may share. A prime example of this connection is perhaps the most compelling argument as to why Western Christians largely do not fast: materialism. While a love for the perishable things of the world is not exclusive to Christianity, Christians certainly do suffer from the pressures of our consumer-absorbed market. We are so deeply saturated in a “me-first” culture that voluntarily giving up an amenity like food seems wholly counterintuitive. The truth of the matter is that, compared to the rest of the world, we live in astounding luxury just because we know when our next meal will come. Experiencing hunger would make us more like our brothers and sisters both at home and abroad who do not have such assurances. In a culture that builds entitlement at every turn, fasting births empathy for those less fortunate. And all of us, Christian or not, could use a bit more of that.

Christians also do not fast because they are not totally sure if they should. Again we see an issue that pertains to both Christians and non-Christians alike. As John Piper points out in his book A Hunger for God, Christians struggle to understand what the Bible says on the subject of fasting because of what can seem to the untrained eye like mixed messages in the Scriptures. The Sermon on the Mount is a prime example of this issue: Jesus is, in a way, critiquing fasting as He discusses it. Piper writes: “in Matthew 6:16-18 Jesus is not teaching on whether we should fast or not. He is assuming we will fast and teaching how to do it and, especially, how not to do it.” 9 Christians often see this discouragement from a particular kind of fasting to be a discouragement from fasting as a whole. Such an overt misinterpretation of the text indicates a failure to interact with biblical texts properly. Scholar S.H. Matthews speaks to the ways we have moved fasting from its initial grounding in the Bible, noting that Christians approach fasting today “in ways not found explicitly articulated in the New Testament.” 10 Those who speak of the Bible as God’s divinely-inspired word should certainly be able to understand its nuances on some level, or at least read the works of thinkers who do. Christians do a disservice to themselves when they misunderstand what the Bible says about a certain topic and never get around to learning about it. Accidental ignorance is acceptable; willful ignorance is not.

But how does Christians’ willful ignorance of fasting tie into how non-Christians live their lives? In short, truth-seeking non-Christians ought to also have an understanding of what the Bible says as well, since it makes important truth claims that should be addressed honestly. Assuming that those who do not follow Christ are still seeking the truth on every front, it should not be difficult for them to have a depth of knowledge about any of the world’s religions. Do not rely on trite observations about the doctrines of any belief system. A faith cannot be summed up in 140 characters or a talk show host’s ten-minute opening monologue. In the information age, there is no reason to have questions about a religion’s doctrine and not get them entirely answered by people who are part of that religion. Regardless of whether you believe in Jesus or not, you should not allow your views of His book to be warped by willful ignorance of its contents.

Ultimately, understanding sacred texts for what they are is a practice in personal discipline, just like fasting. It requires a certain amount of spiritual self-awareness to admit to yourself that you are a finite human being who will never be able to fully suppress your basest desires. You will never be able to stop eating entirely, and you will never be able to learn absolutely everything there is to learn, either. Even still, on both fronts, your goal should be to press forward. Remember your frail humanity as you go through life. Make positive efforts to deny your natural needs to grow closer to the supernatural. Whether you have faith in Him or not, seek God. Because, if He is out there—and we have reason to believe He is—we should all long to reach Him more than we long to eat, to sleep, or to do literally anything else.

It is fitting that Jesus spends a moment in the Sermon on the Mount comparing our desire for betterment to our desire for food. In the famed Beatitudes He says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” 11 Christ wanted His listeners to know that their desire for personal spiritual growth—a loose definition of righteousness—ought to be something they should seek, the way our bodies seek food and drink when we are hungry and thirsty. Many who have fasted could tell you that their hunger for the spiritual only gets stronger when they deny the physical by abstaining from food. The body should not be the master of the spirit, and fasting is a practical way for us to ensure that our stomachs will never take precedence over our souls. Most Christians don’t fast for a variety of reasons, but the ones who do will find themselves more fulfilled, more content, more joyful to be serving at the pleasure of their Savior than they were before. When we fast, Christ shows that our greatest hunger is for fulfillment, for contentedness, and for joy; when we fast, we are able to look forward to a day when we can feast on these better things forever.

Notes:

  1. Taken from OED online, at <https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/fast>.
  2. All of this taken from the Columbia Encyclopedia, at <http://literati.credoreference.com/content/entry/columency/fasting/0>.
  3. Including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, among others.
  4. Mathis, David. “Fasting for Beginners.” Desiring God. DesiringGod.com, August 2015. Web. 2 October 2016. <http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/fasting-for-beginners>.
  5. How could they not in a religion more than 2 billion people strong?
  6. Matthew 6:17-18 NASB.
  7. Mark 2:18-20, emphasis mine.
  8. Acts 13:2 and 14:23 are two of several examples of early Christians fasting intently.
  9. Piper, John. A Hunger for God: Desiring God through Fasting and Prayer. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishing, 2013. 67.
  10. Matthews, S.H. Christian Fasting: Biblical and Evangelical Perspectives. Langham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015.
  11. Matthew 5:6.