No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved (Matt 9:16-17).
This little saying has perplexed me for years. Jesus is answering a question as to why his disciples don’t fast, and he concludes his answer with this phrase. Why? What does it have to do with fasting? What does it even mean?
I was driving to work and thinking about being a new creation and this image popped back into my head: someone trying to put new patches on an old, ragged shirt.
This is something that I think many, many Christians are guilty of doing in their lives.
So often, we spend our time not trying to be new creations, but simply trying to add the things we want from God onto our current lives. We don’t want to get rid of our old, torn clothes: they’re comfortable; they’re what we know. Instead, we want to just cover up the holes in them with God.
Yet another God of the Gaps. This God of the Gaps fills the holes in our lives rather than being the basis of our lives, just as the theological God of the Gaps fills the holes that science has yet to explain rather than being the God who created the order of the universe, which is assumed by science in the first place. Both are hugely faulty and not worthy of someone who truly wishes to follow Christ.
As the parable illustrates, if you try to apply the new to what is old, it only destroys what is old. A patch of new cloth put onto an old shirt will just tear away, tearing the shirt even more. New wine—which will bubble and ferment and expand—will not do well in an old, hard, inflexible wineskin, but will burst it. Both the new wine and the wineskin will be destroyed. The wineskin will burst and the wine will be poured out on the ground, wasted.
If we try to add Jesus to our old lives, we blaspheme Jesus, wasting the blood he spilled for us and ruining our lives.
The only true solution is to let God make us new.
So what does this have to do with fasting?
Fasting is one of the ways by which we discipline ourselves. It is a way by which we put to death our old selves that it may be raised with Christ.
In fasting, we throw away our old wineskin so God can give us the new. And so we can be filled with the new wine: the Holy Spirit!
Fasting is a strong spiritual discipline. But it can absolutely be done in vain.
Read Isaiah 58. There God talks about real fasting, contrasting it with fasting that he rejects.
I’ll quote a little bit to give you a glimpse:
‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
and oppress all your workers.
Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to hit with a wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
will not make your voice to be heard on high (vv. 3-4).
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ (vv. 6-9a).
While we fast food, it is also a fast of the heart. Because we are not just disciplining our bodies, though that is part of it. Because our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces of evil—including that within ourselves.
In the fast, we discipline our bodies and our hearts and our minds. ALL of us must be made new by Christ, just as the very heavens and earth will be made new in him. So we fast—not just to discipline our bodies, but to discipline the whole of us.
Fasting is, I think, something of a forgotten art in much of today’s Christianity. So often today, when our community does our semesterly fast, I hear people say, “I can’t do ____, so I’m just going to fast ____.”
If you’re just going to fast something, then you have to ask yourself: Is this truly a fast?
A fast is a sacrifice. It should not be easy. It should require real effort.
“I work out every day, I run 3 miles every day, so I can’t fast food.”
Let me tell you, the people in the Bible lived a lot closer to starvation than you, often living in hunger for weeks or even months at a time. Yet they fasted food; in fact, if they were not giving up food, it wasn’t a fast to them. And they did a lot more physical labor than you do on a lot less food. You will be all right. Unless you have a legitimate medical condition, like diabetes, you’ll be fine.
Learn the art of fasting. God works in you through fasting. And who wouldn’t want that?