Our failure to fast from crass consumerism stems from our failure to say “Enough.” For those hooked on the drugs of materialism and consumption, there is no such thing as enough. Instead, our mantra is “More,” a command that by definition cannot be satisfied. Fasting from anything is a sign that we are denying “more” and saying “enough.”
But the reason we have trouble saying “enough” in the first place is because of the appetites of our flesh and desires of our heart: our spiritual senses. Just because we fast from things that do not satisfy our spiritual senses does not mean we have tamed our senses or that they somehow go into hibernation. In order to truly say “enough” we have to experience satisfaction of our spiritual senses. And the only satisfaction that truly satisfies is Jesus Christ himself.
In the middle of the Beatitudes we find this central tenet of the kingdom: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”
This means that only God’s kingdom is broadcasting on the frequency to which our spiritual senses are tuned. Nothing else satisfies our inward groaning for righteousness. Psalm 42:1 speaks to this perfect fit, as David cries:
As a deer longs for streams of water, so I long for You, God.
We take that longing, however, and instead of seeing satisfaction in the living water of God, try out the toxic sludge of whatever is offered outside the kingdom. We see that verse and don’t see our means to assassinating idols but something nice to slap on a coffee mug below a picture of a deer and sell for $9.95 at the Christian bookstore.
This hunger and thirst for righteousness, this panting of our soul for water, is the seeking of our spiritual senses for a larger sense, for the completion of our longing, for the great metronome that has set the tick-tock of our insidest insides. In short, we are a spiritual instrument aching from artificial rhythms, aching for true Spiritual rhythms.
Fasting is one of these rhythms, a crucial one in fact, because it involves repenting from the weight of all that slows us down. Fasting is a rhythm in the same way not fasting is a rhythm. It is the way we live in service to something outside of ourselves. As we saw above, the big house isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but orienting your life around paying for, building, and maintaining a big house can be very often. We make sacrifices already, we are just making them for stuff. The rhythms of our life already portray our willingness to go without things like wise financial management, time to rest, anonymity, and even our health in order to get what we want. And those sacrifices are silly! All the rhythm of fasting asks us to do is sacrifice for better, permanent, more fulfilling things.
The late comedian George Carlin was an angry guy who mocked the very idea of God, but even he understood the superficial fulfillment of consumerism. One of his most famous routines involved the relation of the American dream to “stuff.” Carlin mused that we buy a home so that our stuff will fit in it, but then proceed to “need” a bigger home because our accumulation of stuff doesn’t end. “That’s all a house is,” he says, “a place to keep your stuff while you’re out getting more stuff.” Even the biggest house is not big enough to contain the fruit of conspicuous consumption.
Meanwhile Jesus draws near and—ready to rebuke materialism (Luke 12:33) and rescue the weary (Matthew 11:28)—he stands over us with arms outstretched, and to all of us moving to the rhythm of “more” he shouts, “Enough!”
The temptation we face in reading the Beatitudes and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount is to put on the behavioral expectations like a costume and play a religious part without undergoing any heart change at all, which is frankly how millions of Christians live their lives. Jesus himself calls us out on this when he speaks specifically on fasting in the Sermon:
And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18)
Jesus warns against the behavioral alignment with the kingdom that lacks heart alignment. To act humble is not necessarily to be humble.
This is a powerful truth. When we skim it, it seems reasonable enough. None of us likes hypocritical people. None of us likes people who pretend to be something they’re not. And none of us wants to be those people. But the way Jesus commands humble fasting cuts right to the heart of pretense. He actually encourages “keeping up appearances” as a means of not keeping up appearances. Jesus tells those who fast to clean themselves up a bit. Fix your hair, shave, put on some deodorant. Why?
Because trying to look like you’re fasting is as fake as trying to look like you have it all together. The difference is not appearances but attitudes. The different is the heart.
If following Jesus is all an exercise for you in looking more spiritual, you will have missed the point. The whole point of abiding in Christ according to the rhythms of the kingdom is that life is found outside of your efforts and that the rhythms do not originate with you. You can study your Bible, pray, fast, give to charity, and go to church all you want, but if it is not the work of a heart for God, the prophet Isaiah calls it “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6 NIV).
The New Testament church at various times had to ward off the infiltration of a group of heretics called ascetics. (Paul’s letter to the Colossians, for instance, offers instruction in response to the threat of self-righteous asceticism.) Ascetics were those who abstained from certain food or drink, who disengaged from the wider culture, and who adopted rigorous religious disciplines in pursuit of transcendence, enlightenment, or holiness. The bottom line is that for these guys, fasting was the end, not a means to the end. Ascetics trusted their own works to merit salvation.
Joyful fasting is not about asceticism or performance, either to impress God or to impress others. Fasting is a posture. It is a posture of denial we take toward the consumer offerings of the world and of submission toward the loving care and provision of God.
This kingdom rhythm is called “joyful fasting” because the true posture of self-denial is joy. If we are weaning ourselves off of the wares of the world, what do we draw worth from? Where do we place our hopes? What entertains our heart? If it’s not movies, television, the Web, food, drink, or shopping, I mean.
True fasting is joyful fasting for one primary reason: because it is worship of God.
One of the reasons we are tempted to let everyone know we’re fasting, to broadcast from the rooftops that we don’t have cable or that we only buy from Goodwill, is because we aren’t worshiping God so much as the religious admiration of others. False fasting stems even from pleasant hypocrisy and polite self-righteousness; it doesn’t have to be “mean” like the Pharisees’. But looking for the strength to fast from others’ admiration or approval or even our own good feeling and self-satisfaction over jobs well done will not work out. That well dries up. But a heart tuned to God, drawing strength from him, will have ample supply from which to self-deny. When fasting is an act of worship, practiced as a regular rhythm of life in Christ’s kingdom, the Spirit of worship sustains us, a peace that is beyond understanding overcomes us, and a joy unspeakable flows from us.
We do not live in a world where self-denial is encouraged. I have heard maturity defined as “the ability to delay gratification.” If this is true, consumer culture is itself immature and is designed to cultivate immaturity. A daily perusal of Twitter and Facebook updates reveals to me the complaints of friends and family (and myself) when the drive-thru line is long, when the lady in front of us at the checkout is digging in her purse for her billfold at the last second, when the airline doesn’t serve a meal on a lunchtime flight, when the DVR cut off the end of our favorite show. In none of these petty irritations over invented problems that don’t mean anything in the economy of eternity is there the pure joy found inside the “enough-ness” of the kingdom.
It is in this world of imaginary problems and required self-service that the cross of Christ is foolishness. Because the cross is the very emblem of self-denial, self-emptying, self-sacrifice. The cross is the polar opposite of heartfelt wrath felt over someone’s taking our parking space.
But the cross—the place of death and, thereby, life—is the symbol of kingdom fasting, of joyful fasting. The author of Hebrews frames it this way:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)
This passage tells us that Jesus endured the cross “for the joy that was set before him.” He did not see the sort of gratification in the cross many of us see in the golden arches or the little green mermaid (or whatever it is Starbucks has in their logo). He saw the gratification of joy beyond the cross, seeing the cross as the means to the gratification of renewed intimacy with the Father (“at the right hand of the throne of God”).
You will not be able to say “no thanks” to everything that belongs to the world if you are not already full, as Jesus was filled with the joy of communion with God. And to commune with God is to listen to him You will find it easier to fast joyfully if you are feasting on the revelation of his word.
Content taken from Supernatural Power for Everyday People: Experiencing God's Extraordinary Spirit in Your Ordinary Life by Jared Wilson, 2018.
Jared C. Wilson is the Director of Content Strategy for Midwestern Seminary, managing editor of For The Church, and author of more than ten books, including Gospel Wakefulness, The Pastor’s Justification, and The Prodigal Church. You can follow him on Twitter.