Bonhoeffer :: Chapter 16 Fasting
Last week we talked about the importance of our motives in our prayer life. That was a topic that, hopefully, everyone could relate to. The question was not “do we pray”, but rather “what are my motives for praying.” This week we are in Chapter 16 of Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship and we may have a little more difficulty relating to the subject matter.
The scripture is from Matt 6 verse 6
6 "Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 17 But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.
Now probably, if you’re like me, you have a more difficult time relating to this passage. I don’t fast! Not that I never have, but I don’t do it on a regular basis and I don’t think of it as a regular part of my spiritual life. Is that wrong? Should Christians be fasting? Jesus tells us a little bit here about what constitutes the wrong motives for fasting but what would be the right ones? Why should I fast?
The New Testament does seem to imply that I should fast. Perhaps it would be better to say that it assumes that I will fast (Jesus doesn’t say “you should fast”, he just says “when you fast”). In Mark 9 he advises the disciples after a failed attempt to cast out a demon that “this kind can come out by nothing except by prayer and fasting”. And in John he responds to the Pharisees complaints by commenting that the disciples do not fast while he is with them but that they will fast when he has left them.
So maybe I should make fasting a part of my life. I somehow have difficulty being content, however, with just doing something “because I should”. How will fasting help me? Bonhoeffer insists that the point of fasting is to help us prepare to do God’s will. Look to the example of Jesus: withdrawal into solitude and fasting was sustenance to him in his ministry. Fasting for us can be part of the crucifixion of the flesh that is necessary in a Christian: Paul said it was necessary for him to “buffet [his] body, and lead it captive”
This is a point I think perhaps we are too eager to overlook. Christianity is not supposed to be grim and joyless, we say, and all the asceticism in the world will not bring anyone an iota closer to heaven. This is all true enough. And yet… Look at Paul’s metaphors for what it means to be a Christian: In 1Co 9 he compares the Christian life to athletics: Remember that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize. You also must run in such a way that you will win. All athletes practice strict self-control. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run straight to the goal with purpose in every step. I am not like a boxer who misses his punches. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified. In 2 Timothy Paul tells Timothy to Endure suffering along with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. And as Christ's soldier, do not let yourself become tied up in the affairs of this life, for then you cannot satisfy the one who has enlisted you in his army. Both these metaphors have the same point: to be a useful Christian requires training, focus and discipline. To refuse these in the name of liberty is (too often) to refuse to be useful to anyone besides yourself.
Again, however, we come back to a question of motives. How tricky we are in our humanity! So easily we can twist even our spiritual training that is supposed to deny our “old man” into an exercise in exalting ourselves. This was the case with the Pharisees: when they fasted they adopted a certain look (litererally translated “a sullen face”) and even disfigured themselves all so that those around them would know that they were fasting. Most commentators seem to think this “disfigurement” probably was the custom of putting ashes on their face (a traditional symbol of abasement) and not washing them off. Just as with prayer, however, Jesus says that if our motives are wrong are actions already have all the reward they will receive. Again He tells us that if we will do things in secret (ie, not for anyone else’s notice) the Father will reward us openly.
Now it is no longer the practice to put ashes on your head and if you did so other are more likely to think you dirty than to think you devout. So how might we today be allowing our natural man to flourish through practices designed to kill him? One obvious way to glorify ourselves is to make sure everybody knows that we are doing good things. Have you ever felt that urge? You do something for the right reasons purely out of a desire to serve Christ and then… you find yourself having an urge to tell everybody you talk to about what you have been doing. Ever notice that? It is exactly that urge that Jesus is fighting when he tells us to keep our fasting, our prayer, our good deeds between us and God.
One other key way I think we can fail to gain any benefit from our spiritual discipline is to begin to take credit for ourselves. Nothing can forgive my sin except the blood of Christ. Nothing that I can do can make me righteous in God’s sight. And yet our temptation sometimes is to start approving of ourselves as though the things that we do are an end to themselves. Yeah, I’m doing pretty good, we think, I read two chapters yesterday and spent an hour praying… God’s gotta be pretty happy with me! In reality the only evaluation God hears and blesses is the one that says “God be merciful to me, a sinner”!
So, in closing, by all means try fasting if you never have. I heartily recommend a book we have in our library here at church “Celebration of Discipline” which discusses both the practical and spiritual aspects of fasting (among other topics). But don’t do it so that others will think well of you and don’t do it to think well of yourself. Just think of it as part of your training.