By Mike Berry
Can I just be honest? I’m not a fan of fasting. Never have been.
The reason is simple: I like food. I like it a little too much, in fact. I’m not overweight, nor do I overeat, but I definitely do not watch what I eat as much as I should. If I’m watching, it’s watching how much is available and how much of it I can eat. Food fills me up, food brings me comfort, food is, well . . . it’s food! It’s a life-giving source we have at our disposal. And there’s so much of it that’s really, really good.
Yeah, I struggle with fasting. Out of all the spiritual disciplines we Christians attempt to put into practice, this one’s the hardest for me. Recently, my wife and I told someone we would fast and pray for them and I did it, but it wasn’t easy. I kept thinking about how hungry I was and how much I wanted a small bite of food. Anything. I nearly had to stay out of our house and away from our kitchen for the 24-hour period that we were fasting and praying.
There’s a part of me that felt like that was on point though. When I was growing up, I was taught that fasting was about giving up food to focus on Christ and that every time I felt the hunger pain from going without food, I was supposed to shift my mind to Jesus. The hunger pains were a reminder. Good thoughts. And for the most part, I agree. Fasting is about giving up food, technology, social media, or whatever else you need to remove in order to focus solely on Jesus. But it’s actually about so much more than that.
It’s about surrender.
The Art of Laying Down
Fasting, from whatever it is you’re fasting from, is not necessarily about getting rid of something for a period of time as much as it’s about surrendering something that you often give God-like attention to. It’s about giving up something you depend on so much that you’re dangerously close to needing that thing more than God. And we all have these things in our life. don’t we?
I don’t struggle with fasting as much as I struggle with surrender. I struggle with giving up food if food has become the thing. I struggle with giving up Twitter if Twitter has become the thing (anyone check social media before they give God time each day?). I struggle with giving up television or money or entertainment or material possessions—whatever the thing may be that I’m allowing to take the place of God in my heart and mind.
Jesus was talking about surrender in Matthew 6:16-18 when he said, “And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you” (New Living Translation).
Surrender. Anytime you do something big but stay private about it, you’re surrendering. Why? Well for starters, we live in a world that prides itself on getting attention. Look no further than Facebook, YouTube, or Instagram to see how attention-seeking we are as a culture. We love the spotlight. Even when we say we don’t like the spotlight, we like the spotlight. A good ole attaboy or attagirl gives us a jolt. But when you fast, no one should know about it, according to Jesus.
When you give up something that holds great value in your life, something that has often taken the place of God in your life, it ought to stay private, just between you and him. That’s surrender. He goes on to say that hypocritical people make their surrender obvious. They make it a show so other people give them a pat on the back. The problem is that they really aren’t giving anything up. They’re actually giving up just to get.
Jesus is talking about surrender. When you fast you lay something of great importance down in order to make him the center of everything in your heart and mind. It may be a surrender of yourself. A surrender of your deepest desires. A surrender of being recognized. Or perhaps a surrender of everything.
The reward? God sees you. He sees your heart. He knows your deepest intention (when you and I don’t do it for show). And he rewards you. I don’t know about you but when I really think about it, I would much rather receive the reward that God gives over rewards the world gives.
Life Is so Much More
I find it no coincidence that just after Jesus talked about fasting, he said this: “Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be. Your eye is a lamp that provides light for your body. When your eye is good, your whole body is filled with light” (Matthew 6:19-22, NLT).
Wow! Is Jesus ever on point with this one. It stings to read his words, to be quite honest with you. I start to feel guilty over my disinterest with fasting because my love for all of my material possessions overtakes me.
We put so much emphasis on stuff in our culture. Even in the Christian culture, the church is guilty of this too. We say we are Christ followers, but we love our stuff. We need our stuff. We wouldn’t think of having it any other way. We even justify all of our stuff by saying clichés like “It’s OK to have nice stuff as long as the nice stuff doesn’t have you.” But is this really truth? In fact, as I thumb through the Bible, I never read anywhere that it’s OK to have lots of stuff. It’s not in there. Now, there’s really no condemnation of nice stuff (although Solomon’s whole ordeal surely makes a case), but there are a lot of strong warnings.
So my question is this: Do we really know what it means to surrender? Do we really know what it means to go without? I’m not sure I do. Trust me, I’m pointing way more fingers back at me than I am at any of you reading this. But I am pointing fingers—at all of us.
The conclusion I’ve come to? Life is so much more than anything this world can offer us. Money. Pleasure. Freedom. Citizenship. You name it. It all pales in comparison. That’s why Jesus is so blunt with his words—keep it private; your Father will reward you; don’t save up all of your possessions; save heavenly treasures.
Surrender all. That’s what life is truly about.
Giving Up to Go and Be
Yes I have a disinterest with fasting. But only because I struggle with surrender. Over the past year, however, my life has been flipped upside down. A year ago I lost the well-paying job I had in a large suburban church. My lofty income was suddenly gone and I had to start over. You never know what you have until it’s taken from you.
That experience, along with a strong realization that I’d been spending too much time living for myself, changed me. It changed my entire family. I read Jesus’ words differently these days. Fasting is way more than giving up food. It’s giving up the very things that I put before Jesus, which is a lot of things at times, I admit.
It’s surrendering all so that I can go and be more. For the Kingdom. For a world in need. For Jesus.
Mike Berry is a blogger, speaker, and author. He lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, with his wife and 8 children (Confessionsofanadoptiveparent.com).