We don’t like to give up, well, anything. We live in a prosperous world and while some may have less than others, the reality is we all have more than most of the world. The fact that you are reading this demonstrates the prosperity we all have, whether you’re reading this in a web browser or in an email client. To do so requires first that you have such a device and second that it’s connected to the internet so as to receive this communication. Even if you’re at the public library using the library’s computer and internet connection, that our community can support such a thing is a demonstration of our relative prosperity. The reason we don’t like to give up much is because we have so much.
For much of human history the problem with food has been one of too few calories. For many throughout history the primary struggle to live was the struggle to consume enough calories. Crops were entirely dependent on the weather. The hunt was dependent entirely on the skill of the hunter but also of the hunted. Little was wasted because food resources were too precious. We still feel the lingering effects of this when we remember parents requiring that we finish our plates. You can’t just throw away food!
Today we have the opposite problem: too many calories. Food is abundant, and it’s all dense with calories. We don’t plan meals based merely on what foods are available to us but on what we have a hankerin’ for. Another evidence of our prosperity is pickiness when it comes to food. We have choices and we regularly exercise those choices. For much of human history folk ate what was in season. Some foods could be stored, especially grains, but many could not. Fruit was very seasonal, though wine has long been made from grapes, thus ensuring the availability of the calories throughout the year. Animals were kept for milk and cheese and meat, though if a person ate too many goats, he’d soon have no more goats. Even flocks and herds were a limited supply of food.
Imagine a world in which food was scarce. Imagine eating seasonally—the amount of food available varied according to the time of year. I read an article years ago about a study done in India. Folk were given financial literacy tests on a monthly basis. One group in particular had a very interesting and consistent result. Farmers’ financial literacy would decline throughout the year, then suddenly peak, then begin the decline again. The peak always happened right after harvest. Remember, these farmers do not receive a regular paycheck; they harvest their crops and either sell them or store them for the coming year. The farmers performed consistently better when they were well fed on account of harvesting their crops. Each month after, as they began to budget out their food as they awaited the next harvest, their ability to perform on these tests would decline, growing worse with each passing month. This may be an extreme example, but much of world history would have been like this. The times of real prosperity were tied directly to the harvest. If it had been a good year the people prospered. If it had been excessively dry or if storms had damaged the crops the people would not have prospered.
It’s really difficult for us to deny ourselves earthly pleasures like eating a pile of bacon or another piece of cake or an entire bucket of studio popcorn when we have so much. Imagine denying yourself not just earthly pleasures but real, actual sustenance! This is exactly what Jesus expected us to do. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6 he said this:
“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 6:15–18 ESV
It is very telling that he says “when you”, not “if you” fast. He expected his disciples to fast! This expectation was the standard practice in the early church. In fact, during Jesus’ ministry prior to his death and resurrection, he was asked why his disciples do not fast when the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees fast (Matthew 9:14). Here is his response.
And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”Matthew 9:15–16 ESV
It is clear that Jesus expects his followers to fast when he is not present with them. This led the early church to fast regularly after Jesus’ ascension into heaven. The late first century document known as “the Didache” gave instructions for fasting.
But do not let your fasts coincide with those of the hypocrites. They fast on Monday and Thursday, so you must fast on Wednesday and Friday.The Didache 8:1
The hypocrites, of course, were the Pharisees. These early Christians did not want to be conflated with them so they fasted on different days. It is important to note that they still fasted! Just because the hypocrites fasted for the wrong reasons did not mean Christians should not fast for the right reasons. This is what Jesus was getting at in the Sermon on the Mount. He himself said to not fast like the hypocrites fast, though his emphasis was not on the days and times they fasted, but on the manner or purpose they fasted. They did so to be seen by others!
This is why Jesus said to not look gloomy like them when you fast. Don’t make a show of it. Don’t go around saying, “Woe is me…I’m sooooo hungry.” Some have taken this too far and think that Jesus is requiring absolute secrecy when fasting, as if Jesus were saying that no one should ever know but God. In this same sermon Jesus also said that when you pray you shouldn’t be like the hypocrites who pray in public. Instead, he says to pray privately and in your room with the door closed! Does this obviate public prayer? Of course not! What it prohibits is intentionally flashy and showy prayer designed to cause others to notice you! Jesus does not want his followers to fast in such a way that causes others to notice their piety and devotion. There are times of fasting that should be very personal and private but there are also times when fasting should be in community. This was the very earliest church’s understanding. Fasting in community is very different from fasting in public.
It should not be surprising, then, that in the first few centuries there were a wide variety of fasting practices. Many of these longer, extended fasts were regional. Churches in North Africa had one practice while churches in Asia had another and those in Italy had yet another. Sometime around the Council of Nicea many of these disparate practices began to be combined into a single spring fast—a Lenten fast. The word Lent comes from the old Anglo-Saxon word “lencten” or “spring”. In many Eastern churches this fast is called simply “The Forty”—as in 40 days of fasting.
It should come as no surprise that the fast became a 40-day fast given the number of 40-day fasts in Scripture. Moses fasted for 40 days—twice! Elijah traveled for 40 days after defeating the prophets of Baal and fleeing from Jezebel. He did this while fasting. The Ninevites fasted for 40 days after hearing Jonah’s message from the Lord. There are numerous other incidents of 40-day fasts in extrabiblical literature of the time. The Lord himself fasted for 40 days. Further, we see the significance of the number 40 all over the place. The flood lasted 40 days. The embalming of Jacob in Egypt lasted 40 days. The Israelites wandered for 40 years. The varied practices of fasting before Easter became standardized around the Council of Nicea into a 40-day fast leading up to the Easter celebration.
One common objection to observing Lent is this: nowhere does Scripture command it. This is true. It would be easy to also point out that neither Christmas nor Easter are commands in Scripture, but I think this misses the point. Jesus expects his followers to fast. He gave them instructions for how to fast and he told others that they would fast when he had left them. No, Scripture does not directly command us to fast, but the Lord Jesus expects us to. It is precisely because it is not commanded that you and I should fast. The lack of an explicit command makes it voluntary and sacrificial. We do not fast out of duty or requirement or even out of an expectation of blessing from God. Instead, we choose to voluntarily give up something good so as to be reminded that the Lord is already the source of all that is truly good.
It is very interesting how Jesus follows up his comments about fasting in the Sermon on the Mount. The very next thing he says is this:
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.Matthew 6:18–21 ESV
Jesus talks about his disciples fasting—voluntarily giving up sustenance in a world of scarcity—and then immediately speaks about laying up treasures in heaven. If the disciples needed to be reminded that their hope was in God in a world of relative scarcity, how much more do we need that reminder in a world of plenty! Fasting helps us orient our thinking from the pleasures of this world to the treasures of the next. Notice that Jesus says where our treasure is there our heart will be. He does not say where our heart is our treasure will be. Where we place our real value determines where our hearts will be. In other words, our hearts follow our treasure.
Fasting is an opportunity for us to reorient our hearts and minds around what is truly important. This world is growing old and passing away. It is rusting and breaking down. Only the treasures of the world to come will last forever. Fasting helps us break the grip this present world holds over our hearts and enables us to focus on the Lord and his kingdom instead.
The Lenten fast begins next Wednesday on March 2 and lasts until Easter on April 17. It’s a 40-day fast that takes place over 46 days. We do not fast on Sundays because Jesus said that when the bridegroom is present, his wedding guests do not fast. Jesus is present in our gathered assembly on Sundays so we don’t fast on the six Sundays during Lent. (That doesn’t mean you should be on Facebook during the worship service!) On the other days, however, we choose to give up something good that we enjoy regularly, whether that is our favorite food or beverage or some other good and enjoyable activity. (Sorry; giving up liver doesn’t really count—unless you’re weird.) Use that time to pray and focus on the Lord and his purposes for this world and for your life. Let’s fast from the abundance of this world, whether that is food or free time spent on social media or video games or some other recreation. Let’s give up some of this prosperous abundance that we have in order that we might gain more of the Lord in our lives.