“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18)
Earlier, in the same sermon, Jesus also said: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5:6)
So here, in what is arguably the most important sermon ever preached, fasting is mentioned twice: once rather prominently and a second time veiled in mystery; nevertheless, twice. I suppose Jesus could have preached many sermons about many things, and, to be sure, he probably did. John reminds us Jesus did and said many other things that are not written about in these books (or at least his). I sometimes like to imagine what Jesus would think of the sermons we humans have preached. When I was preaching regularly, that was always my deepest caution: what would Jesus think of this word or that word, this idea or that. I think more preachers would do well to imagine Jesus reading their sermons before they preached them. Yet I digress.
In this sermon, Jesus mentions fasting. He doesn’t talk about justification by faith. He doesn’t talk about substitutionary atonement. He doesn’t mention the cross or his resurrection. But he does mention fasting. This leads me to wonder why: why would Jesus, in this most important sermon, mention fasting so prominently?
Fasting, by Scott McKnight, is one book in a series of books published by Thomas Nelson in their The Ancient Practices Series of books that also includes titles such as Sabbath, Tithing, The Liturgical Meal, and In Constant Prayer. This is the first book (Fasting, that is) I have read in the series. I have to say that I thoroughly, 100% enjoyed this book. I was refreshed. I was strengthened. I was renewed. McKnight found a way to take a topic usually reserved for Lent and show how it is, and should be, an everyday practice among those who follow Jesus. (For example, he wrote, “More attention needs to be given by proponents of body discipline to the A Column—to the grievous sacred moments that prompt fasting as a daily, rather than occasional, response” 63.)
I love this book, and, frankly, that is saying something because I am very hard to please when it comes to books (there’s only a handful of authors who get instant approval from me—authors like Eugene Peterson and NT Wright and Stephen Ambrose to name a few.) It is also important for me to note my love of this book because I opened the pages with a healthy dose of skepticism. The series of books of which this one is a member includes a book by Brian McLaren and the series itself is edited by Phyllis Tickle and I thought at the beginning, “Why would McKnight include his name among people who have been relentless dogged as heretics and who are famous for the theological scandals they create?” By the time I was finished I was saying, “How could Brian McLaren and Phyllis Tickle, famous for their willingness to kick against theologically orthodox goads have their names associated with something so thoroughly and theologically orthodox, something so profoundly, deeply, thoroughly Scriptural?”
Yes. This is, in my estimation, the most important aspect of McKnight’s work: it is deeply Scriptural and when he ventures into the area of personal conjecture or historical church tradition, he is always careful to say something like, “we don’t know” (73) or “[B]ut we have to be fair with what the Bible says and doesn’t say” (69). He is extremely careful to note for his readers when the Bible does and does not say something and is willing to criticize authors (like Dallas Willard) who make conjectures which may not be explicitly spelled out in Scripture.
Another important aspect of this book is that McKnight is also extremely aware of church history. He makes more than passing references to Andrew Murray, John Calvin, John Wesley, Jerome, Tertullian, Augustine, Martin Luther, and more. Modern authors find their way into the book also. One particular moment caught me by surprise and made me laugh. He may or may not have done it intentionally, but I was amused the find the name of John Piper in the book—actually in the introduction to the work. He is tracing a line from the Scripture to the early church all the way to the modern church. So he mentions Dallas Willard (a Protestant author), then he mentions John Piper (a Reformed Pastor), then Thomas Ryan (a Roman Catholic Priest). I found it amusing that John Piper finds himself in agreement with a Roman Catholic and Dallas Willard.
The importance of this, however, is that it demonstrates a connectivity in the major streams of Christian thinking: we are not all so different after all. Here John Piper can be quoted as freely as Joe Biden or Dallas Willard or Thomas Ryan or Tony Hall or Paul the Apostle or Abraham Heschel. We have something to learn from one another. In this sense, McKnight is not the author of the book as much as he is the editor, bringing together all these wise words and putting them before us in order that we might see the connection and understand: now is the time for fasting!
The book is rooted deep in Scripture and tradition. There is a healthy, wholesome balance—but tradition never trumps Scripture. McKnight is a careful scholar who respects the traditions of the church, but who is also determined to demonstrate that perhaps there is something greater, more important that binds us together than our strange theological traditions.
Fasting serves a purpose, but it is not often what we might expect. Consider:
I have come to this conclusion about fasting: when the grievous sacred moment is neglected and instead we focus on the results, fasting becomes a manipulative device instead of a genuine, Christian spiritual discipline. Far too much of the conversation about fasting is about what we can get and not enough about the serious and severe sacred moments that prompt fasting. (xxi)
This is the echo that continues to reverberate throughout this book: we fast not to get something even if we get something from fasting. The end of fasting is not losing weight or answered prayers or healing or anything but God himself. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” Jesus said, “for they will be filled.” Our goal is not the self-centered ideas we have, “Oh, if I just fast for a few days God will see me, reward me, and bless me. Yet the Scripture is fairly clear, “If you would humble yourself, and before God, in secret, fast, you will be rewarded—you will get God.” Thus he can write, “Because the Israelites yearned for God’s presence, they fasted; that yearning was blessed by God” (30).
He goes on later to say something similar:
The emphasis of these passages in the Bible is not that fasting clears the mind and opens the windows for God’s light to enter. Instead, the emphasis is on the yearning of God’s people to know God’s will. They are focused on the sacred moment more than the use of fasting as an instrument to get what they want. To be sure, they wanted something and they pleaded with God to get it, but I want to emphasize that there is genuine spiritual balance here: these good folks encountered the serious sacredness of wanted to know God’s will, and that yearning prompted their body plea. (49)
And so it goes for one-hundred and sixty nine pages. He continually draws us back to this simple fact that fasting is not about what we get (sometimes we get nothing) but about being with God, hungering and thirsting for God, finding our appetites sated only by the presence of God. McKnight concludes, “Ultimately, then, fasting is being with God and on God’s side in the midst of life’s grievous sacred moments” (169). This is key to understanding the position he takes and he consistently emphasizes and reinforces this point: fasting is about God, seeking him, searching him, hungering for him.
I love this book and there is so much more I want to say about it, but I want you to read it for yourself and discover these gems and jewels and graces. He has very important points to make about fasting and justice, fasting and suffering, fasting and sacraments, and more. The overall layout of the book is superb and flows beautifully. Still, what I want to emphasize is something I scribbled in the margin on page 59: I continue to be amaze at McKnight’s overwhelming dependence on Scripture to make his case. This is an especially wonderful exposition of Scripture and its implications for the everyday life of the Christian. Why? Because we will need such wisdom to help us through dark times—such as the times currently upon us—in this life. Life, by any measure, is long, and the journey is complicated with all sorts of grief and frustration. Peter wrote that we should be ‘alert and of sober mind’ (1 Peter 5:8). Fasting is an important and necessary way to stay disciplined, to focus on our hunger for righteousness, to respond to the grievous, sacred moments of life, to earnestly seek God and his will:
Body discipline is not about the immediate resolution; instead, body discipline prepares the Christian for the long haul. This kind of discipline, like all the other kinds of fasting described in this volume, brings to expression an overall yearning to be more holy, to be more loving, and to be more responsive to God, self, others, and the entire world….Progress is measured in decades, not days. (67)
I highly recommend this book and give it a robust 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Scott McKnight @ Jesus Creed
Buy Fasting @amazon.com
**I received Fasting free for writing this review. Visit BookSneeze for more information.