“When you fast, do not look somber 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. 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, an d your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Matthew 6:16-18
When I was a teenager, my grandma was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
In retrospect, we could see that there had been signs for a number of years, but it was not until my grandpa died that we realized how much he was compensating for her deteriorating ability to remember the most basic things – to eat or shower, how to get to the store and back home, the words for everyday items. Even so, the progression of the disease was painfully slow. Unless you have had a close family member with Alzheimer’s disease, it is difficult to explain what it’s like to lose someone you love, piece by piece, memory by memory, over the course of ten long years.
There are several events in the midst of that sustained grieving that stand out in my memory as particularly difficult for our family. Moving Meme to a nursing home. Selling her house. Having Duchess, her miniature schnauzer, put to sleep. The last time her brother from South Dakota came to see her. But the hardest by far was when she started aspirating her food and they called in hospice. To their credit, every hospice worker I have ever interacted with has been helpful, reassuring, and compassionate.
As gently as she could, the lady who met with us that day explained how these amazing bodies God has given us recognize that our need for oxygen is imminently more pressing than our need for food. While we can live weeks, and in some cases, even months, without food, only a few minutes without drawing a breath can be fatal. So in most cases when, for whatever reason, food begins to pass into our lungs, our hunger mechanism simply shuts down, to preserve our ability to get oxygen to our brains.
What this meant for us was that, in an effort to avoid suffocation, my grandma would more than likely stop eating. Despite the fact that this defense mechanism is at the least life-prolonging, and at best, life-saving, the Hospice lady told us that it is often difficult for family and caregivers to accept.
Who wants to watch their loved ones starve to death?
And then she said something I will remember for the rest of my life. “In our culture,” she explained, “food is how we show love.” When the ability to show love through food is removed from the equation, we often do not know how to respond.
I’ve recalled those words frequently over the last few years during times of fasting. Jason is a huge advocate of fasting, which was a totally new thing for me when we met. I was familiar with it as a spiritual discipline, but it was not something I’d ever participated in myself. But when Jason was hired as youth pastor at the church I was attending, he encouraged all of the volunteer youth leaders to fast and pray on Wednesdays in order to prepare ourselves to serve the students under our ministry.
“Jesus said, ‘when you fast,’” I’ve heard my husband say over and over since those days. And it’s true. His assumption was that all his disciples would fast – not just the super-spiritual ones, and not just when they felt “called” to do so. Fasting is an essential component of following Jesus, just as much as praying and reading the Bible are.
So I fasted with my husband. Together, we prayed for God to do great things in us and through us. To crucify our flesh again and give us the ability to pick up our crosses and follow Him.
And then I got pregnant. I had a sweet baby boy, nursed him for seven months, and then I got pregnant again.
For three straight years, the things I put into my mouth were responsible for nourishing another life. I couldn’t just skip a meal, and especially not several in a row. So when Jason would fast from food, I had mixed feelings. In my flesh, I was happy to have an excuse to keep eating all the time. But spiritually, those were dry and difficult years for me and Jason, years of pleading with God lead us, and then following him by faith, a step at a time, when we finally began to sense that he was asking us to plant a church. I felt handicapped by my inability to fast with my husband.
There were days when it seemed to me that it would have been such a blessing to forgo a meal or two, and be able to simply wait on God. Instead, I was tasked with trying to find the sacred in the midst of the crazy, everyday-ness of staying at home with two boys, and supporting my husband in his efforts to fast.
I would pour Jason a glass of juice and sit by myself at the table with our small children, and remember with the hospice lady told me about food and love. Without cooking for my husband, I felt like I had no idea how to show Jason my love and support as we prayed for answers. And without fasting, I felt like I had no idea how to humble myself before God and seek His will.
Sometimes I tried to deny myself in other ways. I abstained from media or chocolate or coffee. I replaced meals with smoothies. I set aside my much-loved books and feasted on God’s word instead. But as I explained on Saturday, these things are not really fasting.
True fasting, in its most basic sense, consists of two things: going without food, and prayer. But it’s also so much more than that.
In the book of Isaiah, God criticized the Israelites for treating others unjustly while they were fasting. “You cannot fast as you do today, and expect your voice to be heard on high,” he said (Isaiah 58:4). And Jesus called anyone a hypocrite who fasted to show other people how spiritual they were (Matthew 6:16).
Because true fasting comes from a heart of humility.
A heart that wants to see God exalted over all the earth.
A heart that wants to draw closer to Jesus.
Bob Sorge, in his book Secrets of the Secret Place, writes, “Oh, what an awesome little gift this fasting thing is! It’s probably one of the most under-rated, under-employed, misunderstood gifts of grace. There is no spiritual merit in fasting; it doesn’t earn extra points with God. But it does tenderize your spirit, sensitize your hearing, and accelerate the pace of divine flow in and through your life” (p. 43).
And later, “Some might think Jesus is saying, ‘Since I have to suffer so much to procure your salvation, I want you guys to suffer, too.’ But Jesus did not intend this as a morbid invitation to pain; He meant it as a glorious invitation to intimacy with him” (p. 97).
Fasting is a gift God has given us as a means of showing our obedience to him, humbling ourselves before him, a crucifying our flesh so we can better serve him. Fasting is an offering to God as much as tithe or praise or prayers. And as I understand the Bible, if you are physically able to fast from food completely, you should do so.
But what if you can’t? What then?
What encouraged me the most in the times I could not fast because my babies needed food only I could give them was an understanding of the Old Testament law regarding the sin offering. The required offering was a blameless female lamb or goat. But that was an expensive sacrifice. So God made a provision for those who could not bring such a costly gift.
“If he cannot afford a lamb, he is to bring two doves or young pigeons to offer to the Lord…. If, however, he cannot afford two doves or two young pigeons, he is to bring as an offering for his sin a tenth of an ephah of fine flour.” (Leviticus 5:7, 11)
The Israelites were expected to bring to God as much as they were able, their very best. So bring to God as much as you can. But know that the most you can bring will always be enough.
I’d like to encourage you to fast for a meal or an entire day this week, if for no other reason than to be obedient to God. And for those of you from Life360 Church who joined us last week in fasting and praying for Mike, thank you!
This post is part of a 31-day series. A list of all the other posts in this series can be found here.