Should I be feasting or fasting?
There are many things I enjoy about living in Langhorne Pennsylvania. Overall, I think the weather is pretty nice for being in a northern climate. I like that our area has a lot of historical buildings and locations of historical significance. I like the fact that it’s not very difficult to find a place to park your car because this area was primarily developed after the invention of the automobile. I also like the fact that most stores or restaurants are within a 5 or 10-minute drive from my house. Having lived in other areas, I can testify that this is unique. The previous community we lived in required us to frequently drive 30-40 minutes to find places to shop or eat.
But there’s also a big downside to living in Langhorne Pennsylvania, and the downside is the same exact thing as the upside. With so many good restaurant options within 5 minutes of my house, I have struggled to practice moderation in my eating habits because of the options that exist essentially right outside my front door. And as someone who doesn’t use drugs or alcohol to help me cope with emotional pain, I have to confess that food is a blessing that I have sometimes turned into a vice, particularly when I’m stressed or in pain.
When we moved to this area and we were in the early phases of our ministry with our church, I was highly excited while also being tremendously stressed, so I medicated my stress with daily lunchtime visits to my favorite restaurants. That eventually resulted in having to buy new pants. It also resulted in me making the decision that I needed to cut back on that kind of eating. At one point, I even tried a juice fast where I replaced all solid foods with freshly prepared fruit and vegetable juices. As a short term idea, it was helpful. As a long-term solution, it wasn’t sustainable.
Have you ever attempted to fast from something you considered unhealthy? What approach did you take? I have heard of people fasting from various things including food, video games, social media, televised sports, etc. I understand the reasoning behind most of these decisions, and I consider fasting to be a helpful activity when done at the right time with the right motives.
The Bible gives us an example of Jesus fasting during a set period of time and for a specific purpose.
“And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry.” (Luke 4:1-2)
What do you think about fasting as a spiritual discipline? I don’t hear people speak of it very much in that respect, but there are definitely times when I believe it’s an appropriate action to take. For example, I think it can be a wise thing to set aside a prescribed amount of time to take a break from eating food in order to dedicate that time to prayer and repentance before the Lord. There is also a reference in Scripture to married couples mutually consenting to take a temporary break from intimate relations for a set period of time so they can spend additional time in prayer.
“Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” (1 Corinthians 7:5)
But not everyone who has historically engaged in a time of fasting was doing so for spiritually pure motives. In the Gospel of Mark, we’re shown examples of people who seemed to practice fasting mainly because it gave off the appearance of spirituality, not because it actually deepened their walk with God.
Now John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, “Why do John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” (Mark 2:18)
Please know that if you ever attempt to do something that goes against the status quo, people are going to have plenty to say about it. This is particularly true when your life is being lived in the public eye like Jesus was living. Every move He made and every word He spoke was being scrutinized. Some who were observing what He was doing wondered why He didn’t operate like some of the other people of religious influence in their community operated.
In particular, Jesus was questioned about His fasting practices. People wanted to know why Jesus and His disciples didn’t appear to be fasting like John the Baptist’s disciples and the Pharisees were known to do.
The disciples of John the Baptist were people who focused on repentance of their sin in preparation for the coming Messiah. It seems likely to me that their motive for fasting was in line with that concern. The Pharisees, however, wanted to make sure everyone knew that they were subjecting themselves to the discomfort of fasting. I have read that they made it a pattern to fast on Mondays and Thursdays (Luke 18:12), and if you didn’t know they did this, they found a way to make sure you found out so you’d think of them as being uncommonly spiritual men.
But Jesus taught something much different about the spiritual discipline of fasting.
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18)
When Jesus answered the question He received about fasting in Mark 2, He wanted those who heard His answer to understand that there’s a time for fasting and a time for feasting. There’s a time for fasting in private without drawing attention to yourself or seeking the praise of others, and there’s a time when fasting isn’t the most appropriate response to what the Lord is showing you. In fact, the people who were asking Jesus this question were living in a time when it didn’t make as much sense to fast as it often does.
And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.” (Mark 2:19-20)
Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah was now in their presence. The bridegroom of the church was speaking with them and ministering among them. The one the prophets had spoken of for thousands of years was right there in their midst. There would be a day of fasting that would come, but the day Jesus spoke these words certainly wasn’t it. This was a day of celebration. This was a day of rejoicing for the prophesies that spoke of His arrival and ministry were being shown to be true.
In the same breath, Jesus also reminded them that a day would certainly come when fasting would be a highly appropriate response for His disciples. Jesus said the day would come when He would be taken away from them. He was speaking of His arrest, crucifixion, and death. But in the meantime, for those who were present with Him, this was a season of celebration and delight.
The people who were interrogating Jesus about His fasting practices in this conversation strike me as the kind of people who go to the company Christmas party and only talk about work the entire time because they can’t think of anything else to speak about. Frankly, I’ll confess to you that sometimes I get a sense of this when I participate in events or conferences for pastors. There’s nothing more joy-stealing than showing up at something like that and getting stuck in a conversation about whether you use plastic or glass cups for communion or whether announcements should be given at the start or the end of a worship service. Please spare me.
When Jesus was talking to this group of people, and as He was teaching large groups of people while traveling around, He was trying to open their eyes to understand things that up to this point had been foreign to them. They were stuck in a belief that in order to please God, we need to keep a list of spiritual looking activities that might somehow earn us God’s favor. But God’s favor isn’t something that can be earned or obtained through our work. The favor of God is an undeserved gift, and the work He wants us to do or the response He desires that we have toward that gift is to believe in the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:29)
But this would require a radical change of thought for people who had grown up thinking that God’s favor could be earned through human effort. So Jesus gave them a couple analogies to help drive this point home and make it a little clearer.
“No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.” (Mark 2:21-22)
New, unshrunk cloth won’t work on an old garment because it will tear away as it shrinks. New wine that’s in the process of fermenting can’t be put in an old, brittle wineskin because it will cause that goatskin bag to burst as it gives off the gasses of fermentation. In the same way, the rigid, inflexible understanding of the religious systems of their day didn’t accommodate the eternal truth of the gospel.
When I read examples like this in Scripture, I can’t help but think about the ways we repeat this mistake in our day. Humanity is good at attempting to impose man-made ideas and man-made systems on God. We try to box Him in according to our expectations and we leave very little room for the counter-cultural approach Jesus took toward helping us understand that nature of genuine faith and why sincere belief matters.
Most people are stuck in a mindset that produces shame and anxiety. Their minds are locked in a system that comes down to the efforts of their hands, not the work Jesus already accomplished on their behalf.
Throughout the course of our lives, my wife and I have told many people about what it means to know Jesus and follow Him. We’ve also coupled many of those conversations with an invitation to worship Jesus with our church family at some point. Some people have responded to those invitations, for which we’re very grateful. But those who reject that invitation often have a common narrative that they repeat in their minds or speak with their mouths. It usually goes something like this…
“You don’t know some of the stuff I’ve done. I’m pretty sure God would strike your church with lightning if I ever walked into that place.”
“I’ve tried all that stuff and it doesn’t interest me. No matter how hard I try, I could never be good enough.”
I’m guessing this was the same kind of mindset that was entrapping people living during the days when Jesus carried out His earthly ministry. People were stuck in the thought that salvation is earned through effort and that a relationship with God was ultimately impossible. But then Jesus arrived and made it clear that eternal life, forgiveness of sin, and a relationship with our Creator isn’t anchored to our effort. All of those things can be obtained when we stop trusting in our hands and start trusting in Jesus, the unshrunk cloth, the new wineskin.
Christ offers anyone who will leave their old mindset of disbelief aside and trust in Him the opportunity to feast at His table forever. He brings us from fasting to feasting. This is His offer to you. Will you trade your old mindset for this new belief?
© John Stange, 2023