Fasting: Denial & Pursuit

Matthew 6:16-18

Fasting embodies denial and pursuit. The denial shows the pursuit worthy. The pursuit makes the denial meaningful. The pursuit may proceed without denial but, enjoined by denial, would quicken its pace. Many a religion exercises fasting to obtain something else e.g. purity of soul. Others pursue it as an end on their path toward nothingness. How then does Bible speak on this matter? Fasting is neither a mean to a certain end nor an end of our pursuit. It is not a way to achieve a desired end. It is not in itself something to be pursued for the sake of pursuing. Instead, it is a natural outgrowth of our pursuit of higher needs. Confronted with the pressing needs we voluntarily deny ourselves the basic subsistence. The pressing needs behoove us and so attract our entire being as to put other things to secondary—even the once primary supports of physical life. Our attention and pursuit is singularly turned to those needs for which we willingly degrade the rest. Put succinctly, we deny because we obtain. As suggested, the denial however must not stand alone unaccompanied by the pursuit. Otherwise, daily morning breakfast would itself have alluded a mere night sleep to fasting.

In fasting, the refrained objects, by assumption, necessitate them being dearest to us as well as lawfully legitimate. To illustrate, for a meat-lover it is hardly considered a fast by refraining from a plateful cabbage. Neither will it be sensible to talk of a fasting from homicide. Since the veggies are by no means dear to a meat-lover so is killing any lawful to anyone. Conversely, the denial of dear and lawful objects should be presumed and the exercise of which could cause much discomfort. Notwithstanding this, the pressing needs set before us have so gripped our mind to surrender of the dearest object. The shift of priority has voluntarily taken place.

To put fasting in this light neither exaggerates nor undermines its significance. In its proper place, fasting is still important to guard the singularity of heart, to imbue the transient sense of life and, to exercise the dependency on God alone. The fast is not the focus of attention but yet it helps shape our motivation. When we allow ourselves to be denied the basic subsistence, we confess its fleeting and insupportable nature as compared to God's providence. We admit its secondary nature relative to the urgency of His task. We also acknowledge God's preeminence and providence and, accordingly tune our heart to His will.

Having discussed the nature of fasting, we turn to the audiences of it. By audience, I mean the observer not the observant. The first audience is people around us and the second is God. In Matthew 6: 16-18, it is interesting that the onus lies on the observant to hide oneself with care so as to conceal his fasting from others. The chief purpose is not to boast of it like hypocrites. The observant is taken to task to hide his fast with the necessary efforts. He is not to leave to chance the concealment effort. In this sense, the fasting is radically exercised to the extent of the anticipatory denial of other's recognition. The denial of vainglory decidedly marks if one's fasting is acceptable to God. To God alone should the fasting be held accountable.

It is worth noting Matt 6: 16-18 appears to be echoing Matt 6: 5-6 on prayers. The warning of hypocrisy and the call for secrecy equally mark these two passages. Indeed in few occasions (Acts 13: 3, 14: 23), fasting and prayer do occur side by side. In fact, fasting is inseparable from prayer. The interwoven relationship between the two could not be overemphasized. Whereas fasting gives us unequivocally to fervent prayer, our prayer shares similar denial-pursuit pattern. Prayer manifests our departure from self-reliance to God-reliance. We deny self-trust for the trust in God. At this juncture, the denial-pursuit pattern remains but the refrained object is no longer external and material. It is our very ownself that is denied for the pursuit of God. Likewise, fasting at its heart lies on the denial of self and the pursuit of God. When fasting from food, we in essence deny ourselves from the desire of it. As such, we do not approach fasting by discussing the objectionable food or drink on a specific period. We should focus on the pressing needs from God and the denial of self. The expression of refrained objects, naturally, shall follow.

The heart of the question Is not if we fast? Rather ought we to ask, Any burden that breaks our heart?

David Thia
Pemuda GRII Singapura

David Thia

September 2011

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