‘Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?’ ~ Isaiah 58:5
Fasting is not just about denial, but it is also a yielding to God. Simply denying oneself of food and drink is not fasting, but can be considered a hunger strike or in modern times, dieting. The Pharisees who usually upheld fasts ‘twice a week’ (Luke 18:12) complain to Jesus, ‘John’s disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking’ (5:v33). Jesus then answers them, ‘Can you make the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast’ (v34-35). Jesus alluding to Himself as the Bridegroom describe His disciples as His guests, and says that since He is with them, there is no need for fasting. Jesus conveys that the basis of fasting is to yield to God in order to see Him with the eyes of faith. Thus, when the disciples would not physically see Jesus, then they would fast to see Him with the eyes of faith. Jesus explains, ‘No one tears a patch from a new garment and sews it on an old one. If he does, he will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskin. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says ‘The old is better’ (v36-39).
Since the Pharisees, Jews, and religious leaders had taken the old wine, they thought it better and so could not accept the new wine, Jesus Christ. They held on to their religious rituals as from the Law, even though Jesus had come to fulfil the Law for them. One of the religious duties they held on to was fasting. What started as a humbling and yielding oneself before God, soon became a practice that was done as a show of piety, and as proof of one’s righteousness. That is why Jesus admonishes, ‘When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full’ (Matthew 16:16). Fasting for the religious quickly becomes a game of show, and thus lose its very essence. Religious rules and regulations are considered old wine or an old garment. So, it is only by a full replacement of such views that one can accept fasting from God’s point of view. That is why Jesus says that no one tears a patch from a new garment to sew it on an old one, or pours new wine into old wineskin. In other words, the religious cannot handle God’s truth, because they only accept their own truths. As a result, they only accept their fasts, and not God’s.
‘For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves and you have not noticed?’ (Isaiah 58:2-3). God rebukes this kind of fasting, because such hearts are not right with Him. ‘Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists’ (v3-4). God openly declares, ‘You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high’ (v4). In the spiritual sense, fasting is a forever condition of the born-again Christian. It is a denial of one’s self-will, desires, and ideas in place of God’s will, desires, and ideas for our lives. That is why Jesus says, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me’ (Luke 9:23). This is the fast Jesus introduced that the religious people could not understand. This kind of fasting does not involve piety, but a true surrender and yielding to God’s will.
True fasting is about relinquishing control, but since religion thrives in control, the religious do not truly fast. ‘Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen; to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will appear quickly; then your Righteous One will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard’ (Isaiah 58:6-8). True spiritual fasting has to do with the condition of the heart, which can only be made right by a complete surrender to Jesus Christ. We then are able to be like Jesus who set the oppressed free, broke every yoke, and was considerate to the poor.
The continous spiritual fast does not in any way overrule a physical one, but necessitates it all the more. Paul says, ‘The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual’ (1 Corinthians 15:46). So, once we can overcome our flesh, the spiritual becomes a walk in the park. That is why Jesus could drive out demons easily at one rebuke. One time, when the disciples asked why they could not drive out a certain evil spirit, Jesus replies, ‘This kind (of demon) can come out only by prayer and fasting’ (Mark 9:29). Once a person is born-again, there are some levels in the spirit that can only be unlocked through prayer and fasting. Prayer and fasting go hand-in-hand, because one cannot fast without praying, for it is in God’s presence that one is strengthened in their spiritual man, though their body is weak as a result of not eating. That is why Jesus would say, ‘I have food to eat that you know nothing about . . . My food is to do the will of him who sent me and finish his work’ (John 4:32,34). Jesus accessed higher spiritual dimensions as a result of prayer and fasting, and so every Believer should follow suit.
In fact, there are certain bondages one simply cannot break free without prayer AND fasting, such as the deaf and mute spirit, and sexual sin. One of the ways fasting helps a Believer is to ‘beat my body and make it my slave’ (1 Corinthians 9:27). Suppressing our flesh has a direct correlation to lengthening and strengthening our spiritual antenna. Somehow, the stomach has a direct connection with feeding our lusts. Not only does eating make us full physically, it also produces layers of fat in our spiritual man- causing us to became lax in overcoming temptations. God even notes, ‘Jeshurun grew fat and kicked: filled with food, he became heavy and sleek. He abandoned the God who made him and rejected the Rock his Saviour’ (Deuteronomy 32:15). So, too much spiritual fat requires an actual physical fasting. Paul says, ‘Food for the stomach and the stomach for food’ – but God will destroy them both. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body’ (1 Corinthians 6:13).
Ultimately, fasting physically and spiritually subdues and weakens the desires of the flesh by building up our guard. That is why when Jesus fasted for forty days, He overcome temptation. ‘He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry’ (Luke 4:2). Since Jesus was in the Father’s presence during those days, He did not eat because He had spiritual food. It is spiritual food that makes us strong from within. That is why Moses, while in God’s presence could stay ‘forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water’ (Exodus 34:28). Ultimately, fasting does not need telling, but many times in a Believer’s life, one will discover that the flesh is threatening to subdue the spiritual, and that is why we fast from time to time. We essentially yield to God by ‘offer(ing) the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness’ (Romans 6:13). Frequent fasting thus proves useful and mandatory in a Believer’s life to overcome certain demonic and fleshly forces, for it helps us access new levels of power, strength, authority, and self-control. Fasting is also useful when one is seeking God on a matter, or establishing a matter before God. ‘. . . with prayer and fasting, commended them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust’ (Acts 14:23). The duration and nature of the fast is not cast in stone, but is at a Believer’s discretion- between them and God.
‘But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen: and your Father who sees what is done in secret, will reward you’ ~ Matthew 6:17