NOTE: This blog post is based on teaching notes from the sermon on 4.18.21. If you would like to listen to the entire sermon, click here.
First, fasting is a matter of Christian freedom
The NT says little about fasting. Aside from this passage in Mark (and the parallel passages in Matthew and Luke), there are only a few other passages that talk about it. Perhaps this is why Calvin warns against thinking of fasting as a work commanded by God. Fasting is a matter of Christian freedom, not an obligation. There is an assumption that Christians will fast (“they will fast” Mark 2:20), but not a command.
In practice, what does it mean to say that fasting is a matter of Christian freedom?
Fasting can be used as an expression of repentance, but repentance doesn’t require fasting. Fasting can be used as preparation for prayer, but prayer doesn’t require fasting. Fasting can be used to deepen devotion to God, but devotion to God doesn’t require fasting.
And so we say this:
On some occasions fasting is appropriate and on other occasions, it is not appropriate. When Jesus is present, the wedding feast is happening, and so fasting on that occasion is inappropriate. But when Jesus is absent, fasting may be desirable, though, the rarity of fasting references in the NT means it is not necessarily a regular Christian practice. Yet, we have to restate that Jesus does assume Christians will fast. Thus, if after 40 years of being a Christian you discover you have never fasted, that may be a spiritual shortcoming and you should engage in self-examination on the matter.
Second, fasting is for times of yearning and aching and longing
We were told, in Mark 2:20, that the time to fast is when our Christ is gone. That time is now. And as we eagerly await the Second Coming of Christ, we live in a broken and sinful world. Sin remains in our lives and our world. And so our hearts will yearn and ache for certain things, as we wait for the Lord. In particular, our hearts will yearn and ache for the manifestation of Christ’s victory to be seen on earth now. When you find your heart longing for this, fasting is appropriate.
Third, eating or not eating is nonessential in itself
Don’t get me wrong, the most basic definition of fasting is to go without food. To be more precise, fasting can occur in three ways: by eating no food for a period of time, by eating lesser quality of foods for a period of time, or by eating a smaller quantity of food for a period of time
In each of those three cases, fasting has occurred. But the point isn’t the lack of food. Fasting is an activity of frugality and sobriety. Fasting withdraws us from our normal regiment of eating IN ORDER TO intensify our love, dependence, and satisfaction in Jesus Christ (Rom. 14:3-6; Col. 2:16; 1 Cor. 8:8). In other words, fasting should get to the heart, not just the body. In fasting, you are depriving the body to intensify the heart’s commitment to the Lord decisive victory. This leads to our next principle of fasting.
Fourth, fasting is feasting
Fasting is designed to intensify the focus of our faith on what Christ accomplished and on what he will accomplish. And so, fasting is a spiritual feast on what Christ has accomplished in his death and resurrection in application to the thing the Christian conscience is burdened to pray for. Our physical hunger awakens a taste for God and for what God has given in Jesus Christ, the bread of life.
Fifth, fasting is part of disciplining the body
1 Cor. 9:26-27 — “I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control.”
Do you have a problem with self-control over your body?
Perhaps the sin of lust repeatedly takes control of your body. Perhaps you are wasteful with how you spend your money. Perhaps your tongue says more than it should.
Do you have a problem living aimlessly?
Does figuring out what to watch next on Netflix take up a lot of your time? Do hours of your week disappear into the activity of scrolling? The Christian life is meant to fervently counteract the modern problem of aimlessness, the modern problem of lack of discipline, the modern problem of no self-control. If you find yourself running aimlessly or undisciplined or lacking self-control, then realize that God has given us fasting as a way to train your body, cultivate your soul, and discipline your life. It may be unpopular in evangelicalism to say this, but apparently, the NT regards some ascetic habits as useful weapons in the fight of faith. Fasting is one such weapon.
Sixth, fasting is not about willpower
Willpower-fasting is precisely the thing Jesus is criticizing. If your fasting stirs up your spiritual pride more than it stirs up confidence in the Lord, you are guilty of willpower-fasting.
The entire point of fasting is to remind us of the feebleness of our body, to remind us of our brokenness, to remind us of our spiritual poverty, so that we may look to Christ and his sweet mercy. Unless fasting creates an inner commitment to the Lord, it is of little value. Indeed, Calvin calls such willpower-fasting “useless.” We must be greatly warned against using fasting as an outward signal of holiness. God does not esteem fasting as such. In other words, God does not esteem fasting for the sake of fasting. The design is that it would renew and intensify our trust in the decisive victory Christ won in application to the particular thing our Christian conscience is burdened to pray for.
Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville, Alabama. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Edited by John T. McNeill. 2 vols. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960.
Piper, John. A Hunger for God: Desiring God Through Fasting and Prayer. Wheaton, ILL: Crossway, 1997.