This blog post is part of a series of posts that will explore the Atonement by studying Christ’s life in the New Testament. If you want to find the assignments, you can download my eBooks for Matthew, Mark, and Luke. (John coming soon.)
The Atonement and Your Personal Relationship with Christ – Assignment for Matthew 6
“1. In Matthew 6, Christ is still teaching the Sermon on the Mount that began in chapter 5. Specifically, He is speaking to His apostles and servants in the church. His teachings—His ministry—are a part of His primary purpose and are the set up to His eventual Atonement. See if you can find how the Savior’s teachings in this chapter fit into the work of the Atonement, the Plan of Salvation, and your life, personally.
2. In this chapter, we have examples of how not to do and how to do certain things. What are these things? What does Christ teach about them? Can you think of times when Christ models the way to do what He is teaching? How does His example help you to better understand Christ and your relationship with Him? How does understanding the way He serves, fasts, and prays help you to gain insight on the act of the Atonement?
3. Think of the last major section of this chapter (“Take no thought for your own life…” in verse 25). How did Christ exemplify this? How does the Atonement help us “not to take thought of our own lives”? Is there anything we can do to work out our salvation on our own? What do we rely on in order to receive salvation? How can you apply His example in your own life?” – New Testament Study Companion: Matthew
So – in Matthew 6, Christ continues with the Sermon on the Mount. As I studied this chapter, I found that there are six main categories of advice that He gives (both a do and a do not). He teaches us how to give alms, pray, forgive, fast, manage our finances/materialism, remain loyal to God.
Today, we’ll focus on fasting.
- Do anoint thy head and wash thy face
- Do fast in a manner which is only obvious to God
- Don’t have a sad countenance so that you appear to be fasting to others.
Before exploring how Christ exemplified this during His act of the Atonement, I think that it is helpful to consider why Christ gave us this advice in the first place.
What does the Savior mean when He teaches us to “anoint thy head and was thy face”? I have to admit, I’ve never thought much about this before.
We learn more about anointing in the Bible Dictionary:
“To apply oil or ointment to the head or the person. Anciently anointing was done for reasons both secular and sacred. It is a sign of hospitality in Luke 7:46 and of routine personal grooming in 2 Sam. 12:20 and Matt. 6:17.” – Bible Dictionary: Anoint
I can’t say that I completely understand what is meant by Matthew 6:17 – other than we can approach our fast in a very reverent manner. The fast isn’t something we do to show off to others. It is a serious practice that can result in miraculous blessings. So – when we fast, we ought to prepare appropriately.
Additionally, we should avoid fasting as the hypocrites do – which is to fast in an ostentatious way: so everyone knows we are fasting. In Matthew 6, we are warned not to have a sad countenance or to disfigure our face. I interpret this to mean that we shouldn’t go about having a sour expression.
I think that this is true for a few reasons.
1) Like prayer, fasting is very personal and is an intimate practice that can help us to focus our thoughts, meditation, and prayers on the Lord. We don’t need to let any other noise into this process. Fasting helps us to remain free from distraction.
Lately, I’ve also learned a lot about fasting. When we are fasting, we start to burn ketones for energy, rather than glucose. Provided that we aren’t addicted to sugar (so we aren’t busy going through the withdrawal symptoms of sugar addiction), fasting can be a way that our body moves into a ketotic state. Our brains are primarily made up of fat and really benefit from burning ketones. When we are fasting, and burning those ketones, our brains are quite alert, and we’re thinking very clearly. I think that this explains why fasting can be such a beneficial thing for us spiritually. Instead of worrying about sugars and our next meal, Insulin is quiet, ketones are being spent, and we’re able to focus more on our thoughts. We experience clarity and closeness to our spirits. This is why fasting has always been beneficial to every religious group. It truly changes us – on a spiritual and physiological level.
In this way, we can be freed from some of the distractions that come from constant feeding, and then let our brains be filled with elevated thoughts and inspiration.
2) We shouldn’t “disfigure our faces” or have a sad countenance because fasting is a joyful exercise.
In the Doctrine and Covenants, we learn:
And on this day thou shalt do none other thing, only let thy food be prepared with singleness of heart that thy fasting may be perfect, or, in other words, that thy joy may be full.
Verily, this is fasting and prayer, or in other words, rejoicing and prayer.” – Doctrine and Covenants 59:13-14
There is a connection between fasting and joy. Interesting. At first, this seems nearly impossible. But I think that’s because we get so wrapped up in our physical needs and limitations.
When we learn to put off the natural man, (and what better way to do that than through fasting!), we become liberated. We experience joy and progression when we jump off the hamster wheel that is the “natural man.”
Now, I recognize that fasting can be difficult. I have faced this. If you are finding fasting difficult -rather than joyful – I invite you to examine your diet. Are you eating too much sugar? Are you eating foods that drive up insulin, cause leptin resistance, throw all of your hormones out of whack, and continually reinforce hunger? I have and currently am in a struggle with this. However, I have found that with cutting sugar and drastically reducing my consumption of processed foods (and most grains), and instead eating more fats, I’ve been able to fast more. I’ve been liberated from that constant hunger. And finally, I am beginning to understand what it means to experience REJOICING and prayer when I am fasting. Diet seriously makes a difference. That’s not the point of this blog post, but I wanted to include it because it’s possible.
And maybe our diet on regular days has more to do with fasting than we realize.
Maybe fasting often, in a true manner, will help us to maintain control in our lives on a regular basis. I don’t think that the Lord wants us to fast one day a month, and then live an unhealthy and gluttonous life for 30 days. Ultimately, we should become masters of our entire lives – spirits, emotions, minds, and bodies. Fasting can help us to achieve this.
Okay…sorry about that diversion. I’m kind of thinking out loud here, I know.
3)I think that Christ addressed fasting in this way – associated with sorrow and with the instruction to be anointed and washed because of the customs common in His day. In the Bible Dictionary, we learn:
“The Day of Atonement appears to be the only fast ordered by the law. Other fasts were instituted during the exile (Zech. 7:3–5; 8:19); and after the return, fasting is shown to be a regular custom (Luke 5:33; 18:12). It was regarded as a natural way of showing sorrow. Along with the fasting were often combined other ceremonies, such as rending of the garments, putting on sackcloth, refraining from washing the face or anointing with oil (2 Sam. 12:20; 1 Kgs. 21:27; Isa. 58:5). All such observances were, of course, liable to become mere formalities, and the danger of this was recognized by the prophets (Isa. 58:3–7; Joel 2:12–13; Zech. 7:5–6; see also Matt. 6:16–18).
By Christ’s time, fasting was associated with the one formal fast ordered by Mosaic Law – The Day of Atonement. That Day was set apart for showing the sorrow for sin and promising not to do them again. I suppose that, over time, fasting became associated with this holy day, and not much else.
I kind of wonder if something similar has happened in our own day.
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also have a day that is set aside for fasting – Fast Sunday. On the first Sunday of each month, we fast by skipping two meals (or refraining from eating and drinking for 24 hours). It is suggest then use the money that we would have spent on our food and donate it to the poor.
It’s a nice tradition.
However, I must admit, I usually fast only once a month. I have grown accustomed to it. Often, I have looked at it like a chore – rather than a gateway to enlightenment and joy.
Fasting is so much more than a demonstration of sorrow. It is so much more than something Mormons do on the first of the month. Fasting strengthens us and teaches us.
When explaining how he had received His testimony, Alma the Younger explains:
“Behold, I say unto you they are made known unto me by the Holy Spirit of God. Behold, I have fasted and prayed many days that I might know these things of myself. And now I do know of myself that they are true; for the Lord God hath made them manifest unto me by his Holy Spirit; and this is the spirit of revelation which is in me.” – Alma 5:46
When the apostles were unable to cast out a devil, the Lord told them how to develop their faith:
“Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.” – Matthew 17:21
The Sons of Mosiah were men of a “sound understanding.” This came because they had searched the scriptures. We also learn this about them:
“But this is not all; they had given themselves to much prayer, and fasting; therefore they had the spirit of prophecy, and the spirit of revelation, and when they taught, they taught with power and authority of God.” – Alma 17:3
I guess, what I’m trying to say is – fasting should be more than the tradition. It is a method to unlocking the mysteries of God in our own lives. If we approach it this way – rather than by rote mindlessness, we will find fasting to be a source of strength, joy, and enlightenment.
Why else would we go without food?!
Christ, the Atonement, and Fasting
I have no real reason to guess that Christ was fasting while He peformed the Atonement. Okay, I have no idea, actually.
The whole event really started at the Last Supper. So, He ate and drank there. Then, Christ went and suffered in the garden of Gethsemane. No mention of food or drink. So – he might not have been eating. I’m not sure if this would be considered a formal fast or not. Like I said, I have no idea.
After suffering in the garden of Gethsemane, He was betrayed, judged, and condemned. He suffered on the Christ, and finally, when His work was complete, He asked for a little to drink. He was thirsty and was handed a cup of vinegar.
Even though there is nothing to suggest that Christ fasted formally during the period of the Atonement, we know that He did fast for 40 days and nights before He began His ministry. This practice is an example of what would be necessary in order for Christ to perform His great work of the Atonement and to give the ultimate sacrifice of His life. Christ understood the power of the fast, employed it in His life, and taught His disciples to use it as a tool to sharpen their faith and grow closer to the Spirit.
What does this part of Christ’s sermon on the mount teach you about fasting? How has fasting been a benefit to you in your life? If you haven’t fasted, what do you think that you can do to implement it in your life?