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Fasting Without Ceasing


This kind goeth not out, except through prayer and fasting. (Matthew 17:14-21)

The situation in this story from Matthew 17 is that some of the disciples saw a boy who was devil possessed, and they tried to cast the devil(s) out of him. They were not able to do so. Jesus became frustrated with them, and said that their problem was that they lacked faith. He went on to say that if they had faith, they could order a mountain to move from where it was, and jump into the ocean! And he concluded by saying that the kind of faith that he was looking for would not come without prayer and fasting.

In this article we will consider flaws in the traditional understanding of fasting as well as in the traditional understanding of faith.

The traditional approach to fasting is one of total abstinence for a short period of time, followed by a much longer period of time during which we do not fast at all. All or nothing. Black or white. But I'm not so sure that this is a correct understanding of what fasting represents.

In comparing himself with John the Baptist, Jesus noted that most people saw John as a faster and Jesus as a feaster. And yet when his disciples were unable to drive the evil spirit out of this boy, Jesus told them that the real problem was lack of faith, caused by a lack of prayer and fasting.

From this statement, it appears that Jesus must have fasted himself. It is reasonable to assume that he would not have been reprimanding them for having failed to do something that he had failed to do himself.

It is likely that Jesus did some traditional fasting, i.e. totally missing meals on occasions. But remember that he also taught us to fast secretly. He had so little privacy that it would have been almost impossible for him to miss whole meals without people knowing it. So it is even more likely that his fasting took the form of going through the motions of eating a meal, while at the same time eating less than what his flesh would have liked to eat.

In other words, he would have 'fasted' in a way that would have gone unnoticed by those around him... just by eating small amounts, or by passing up something that was particularly tempting, in favour of something that was less tasty. And I think that he would have learned to listen to God with regard to how much to eat at every single meal.

The importance of this kind of fasting is that it teaches us personal accountability on a moment to moment basis. Paul told the Thessalonians to 'pray without ceasing'. (1 Thessalonians 5:17) Because there appears to be a link between prayer and fasting, perhaps we need to be fasting without ceasing as well.

In Luke 2:37 we read about an 84-year-old widow who fasted and prayed 'continually'. She too, must have practised a kind of fasting that did not require her to skip food altogether. Paul seemed to be advocating this same approach when he wrote to the Corinthians: 'Whether you eat or drink,' he said, 'or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God.' (1 Corinthians 10:31)

This idea of fasting without ceasing (like the concept of praying without ceasing) takes us away from the religious all-or-nothing approach to our relationship with God. It requires us to be instantly obedient in the smallest details of our lives, and constantly in touch with God. This is in contrast to seeing our relationship with him as being something that we got over and done with in a single ritual act at some time in the past.

This approach should not be taken to mean that the person who eats the least is the most spiritual. On the contrary, it could lead some people to be more liberal with regard to what they eat. Their 'fasting' could even require them to eat some things that they were previously afraid to eat. Anorexics, for example, would learn to eat more, and bulemics would learn to eat less. Fasting without ceasing does not need to imply total self-denial. What it really implies is just total obedience.

Asking God for direction with regard to everything that we eat could help us to develop greater thankfulness for every bite of food that God gives us. We really could 'eat and drink to the glory of God' with this approach, as well as being open to his instructions when he wants us to stop.

Now let's relate this approach to fasting to the problem the disciples were having with being unable to cast the devil out of the boy. Jesus chided them for their 'unbelief'. Our natural response to that would be to think that they should have bluffed more, shouting louder at the devils and 'claiming' a victory even if the evidence seemed to indicate a failure.

This is the traditional Pentecostal approach to such things. But it is based more on a lack of faith than any true expression of the kind of faith that Jesus was looking for. The faith he was looking for was only to be found through moment to moment contact with God. Jesus was saying that you do not cast out devils on the basis of your theology, or on the basis of some other doctrinal statement.

The disciples had, in this situation, arrived at the right conclusion, i.e. that they should cast the devil out of the boy. But they had not arrived at it on the basis of personal direction from God, and so they lacked the supernatural power to actually do what they believed was the right thing to do. They had decided to attack the devil on the basis of purely human reasoning: The kid was possessed; he wanted to be delivered; and his relatives had come asking for help. So immediately they leapt into action, in an effort to live up to the expectations of the people.

But there is only one way to do anything that is supernatural, whether it is throwing mountains into the ocean or kicking devils out of people, and that is to do it because God tells you to do it. Of course, if you are not in a moment to moment relationship with God, then you will not know what to do. You will be bluffing... and hoping that he will back you up if you happen to fluke on what it is that he would have told you to do if you had taken the time to ask and listen.

Because of our traditional misunderstanding of faith, we assume that 'great' faith would be able to do spectacular miracles. And because none of us can do spectacular miracles, we each secretly feel like failures. We become intimidated by the bluffers and the counterfeiters, and we become tempted to imitate their lying signs and wonders. But that is not the answer. The flaw in this approach is that it views faith in terms of our selves and the miracle, rather than focusing on ourselves and God.

Miracles are the result of faith, and faith has to do with God, not miracles. Jesus was saying that when we have faith in God, we can do anything that he tells us to do. If he tells us to fly or to cast out devils or to order mountains to be tossed into the sea, then it will be no more daunting than if he tells us to stoop down and pick up a piece of paper. Whatever he tells us to do, he will enable us to do. The decision is his, and the wherewithal to carry it through is his responsibility.

When we have developed this intimate relationship with Christ in the little things (like eating and drinking), and when we have learned to be faithful about doing such things 'without ceasing', then all of the supposedly big things that come along at his direction will take care of themselves. They won't seem to be big when they are just as routine as deciding whether to have another helping of mashed potatoes. The obedient servant will only be doing his or her duty, and the miracle will simply have to happen, because they came as a result of the Master's decision, and not as a result of our own wishful thinking or human reasoning.

(See also Miracles)

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