This week we look at a spiritual routine that not many follow these days. It's the practice of fasting. Fasts were a regular part of spiritual discipline in the past, so we'll look into why they aren't practiced anymore, and look at some very good reasons to add fasting to your spiritual practices...
This message is based on Matthew 6:16-18, 9:14-15.
Today is the third week in our four-week series, The Power of Routine. Just to recap a little, the first week we looked at Bible Reading, and how we should make Bible Reading a part of our daily routine. We saw some good reasons why it’s so important to read the bible, and we saw some archeological finds that prove the truth of the bible, including that quote that not one piece of archeological evidence has ever been discovered to disprove a single story in the bible. We can trust the truth of the Word of God. And we should be reading the Word of God.
Last week we talked about prayer. I assume we all want to have a relationship with God, we probably wouldn’t be here if we didn’t. You can’t have a relationship with someone you won’t talk to. Prayer is simply talking to God. And it’s so important to be talking to God throughout the day. We saw that quote from Martin Luther, “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.” So both bible reading and prayer are really important parts to our spiritual journeys.
Today’s topic is fasting. Fasting is another spiritual routine or discipline that we might use in our spiritual journey. Although, while I would venture a guess that most of you read the bible, and most pray, at least occasionally, fasting is probably something that you don’t do. I would guess, anyway, that most probably don’t.
But as we saw in our readings, it was something that was done regularly in Jesus’ time. And He didn’t say don’t do it, instead he taught us how to fast. And when Jesus was questioned about why His own disciples didn’t fast, he said, don’t worry, they will. And they did. And we’ll see that little later. There are references to fasting in much of the New Testament. But we often don’t fast now. Why? Why don’t we fast anymore?
Richard Foster, in his book, Celebration of Discipline, has a chapter on fasting, and he offers two reasons why we might not fast. The first goes back to the middle ages, when many of the ascetic practices were taken to excess. Self-discipline was taken to the extreme of self-mortification and flagellation, beating oneself into submission to the Spirit. And while that excess was wrong, I suspect that we’ve over-corrected, and the pendulum has swung too far the other way, and now we tend to avoid almost anything that involves that self-discipline in our spiritual journey, and I think that’s just as wrong.
A second reason is that we’re bombarded today with, as Foster puts it, “the constant propaganda fed to us” that we have to have three, or even more, large meals a day, with plenty of snacks in between, or we’ll be on the verge of starvation. The truth is, while we won’t survive long without water, we can actually survive quite a while without food. In fact, some studies are showing that a short fast of a couple days is actually good for us in that it helps eliminate toxins from our body.
And the bible says so much about fasting, it would be good for us to at least consider it again. The list of biblical greats who fasted is certainly a long list: Moses, David, Elijah and Elisha, Esther, Daniel, Anna the prophetess, Paul, even Jesus Himself fasted. And throughout church history we see great men who fasted, including Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, John and Charles Wesley, George Whitfield, David Brainerd, Charles Finney. And more recently, Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, not only fasted twice weekly, but held a 30-40 day fast yearly.
So what is fasting in the bible? Essentially, it means abstaining from all food, solid or liquid, but not from water. In Luke 4:2, when Jesus fasted for forty days, it says, “for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.” I’m sure he was! He didn’t eat, but it doesn’t say he didn’t drink. He still drank plenty of water.
Sometimes in the bible we see a partial fast, for example Daniel 10:3, we see Daniel doing a partial fast, he fasted for three weeks, and he said, “I ate no choice food; no meat or wine touched my lips; and I used no lotions at all until the three weeks were over.” Where the NIV said choice foods, other translations said delicacies. I don’t know what a delicacy would have been in Daniels time, but I assume he just ate simple breads and vegetables.
There are times, in emergency situations, where we see an absolute fast, abstaining from both food and water. In Esther 4:16, we see Esther instructing Mordecai to, “go, gather all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will fast as you do.” This is an exception, and it’s probably a dangerous exception, we need water, three days without water is dangerous, if not life-threatening. But maybe dangerous times called for dangerous measures.
In Jesus’ day, it seems that regular 24-hour fasts became the norm. In Luke 18:11-12, the proud Pharisee prayed to God, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” Fasting and giving were both the norm in the Jewish faith.
That carried though in the Christian faith as well. A book called The Didache, or the teaching of the twelve, dates back to the first century, perhaps as early as 50 AD, which means it could have come before the Gospels, or at least a contemporary to the Gospels. It was sort of an early church manual, and it calls for fasting on two days a week, on Wednesday and on Friday. These were 24-hour fasts. If you think about it, that’s only missing two meals. You can fast from dinner to dinner, and only miss breakfast and lunch. Most of us can do that pretty easily.
In the 6th Century, in the Second Council of Orleans fasting became required. By John Wesley’s time in the 1700s it wasn’t practiced as much as it had been, but Wesley urged early Methodists to fast on Wednesday and Fridays, and went so far that he refused to ordain anyone who didn’t fast on those two days.
That being said, there is really no biblical command that says we have to fast. Richard Foster makes an interesting note here as well. “Our freedom in the gospel, however, does not mean license; it means opportunity. Since there are no laws to bind us, we are free to fast on any day.” And when the bible talks about fasting, it’s often in the context of assuming that we will fast, not commanding that we will fast.
Our readings this morning were two passages that both talk about fasting. The first was from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, right after the passage we saw last week talking about prayer. In fact, His teaching on fasting is given in the context of giving in verses 1-4, and praying in verses 5-15, and fasting in verses 16-18. It’s like there are three inner Christian devotions that we should all be doing: giving, praying, and fasting.
In the first reading, Jesus said, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.” Fasting is an inner discipline. It’s something we do that’s between us and God. Even if it’s something we do as a group, outsiders don’t need to know about it. If we fast to look good before others, to look holy, to make others think more of us, it won’t work. Jesus says, we’ll receive our reward from them, not from God. He said the same thing last week about prayer. It’s between God and ourselves.
And don’t miss the whole, “When you fast…” Jesus assumes that we will fast, and so He’s teaching us how to do it properly. “But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face,” in other words, do all the things you would normally do, “so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting... And your father, who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”
So fasting is helpful, in that Jesus tells us we’ll receive a reward for it. Fasting was a common practice that even Jesus did, and He said, going forward, when you fast…. Indicating that we would. So while He doesn’t go so far as to say we have to, it’s something he assumed we would.
In our second reading, we see Jesus respond to a question from some disciples of John the Baptist. “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” So while it was common practice to observe a fast two days each week, Jesus’ disciples apparently didn’t. “Jesus answered, ‘How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them; then they will fast.’”
And apparently the disciples did just that. In Acts 13:2-3, it says, “While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them; So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.” This was the start of Paul’s first missionary journey. And it came out of a time of worshipping, fasting, and prayer. And it didn’t seem to be a special time, it seemed to be their normal practice, it was just what they did. And the Lord spoke to them through that.
Let me move on here to give you some benefits of fasting that Richard Foster talks about.
1. Fasting allows us to be God-Centered. Fasting allows us to shift our focus to God. We fast for God. In fact, if we don’t, if our fasting isn’t for God, then we’ve failed. In Zachariah 7, God questions the motives of the Israelites, not just in fasting, but in everything. But in verse 5, he asked, “Ask all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted?” Their motive wasn’t to focus on God, it was to do something that looked holy to others. We fast so we can focus on God.
2. Fasting reveals what controls us. If you really want to be transformed into the image of Jesus, fasting helps by showing what’s really inside. We tend to try to cover up what’s on the inside, but fasting has a tendency to bring those things to the surface. Foster wrote, “If pride controls us, it will be revealed almost immediately.” In Psalm 90:10, David wrote, “When I humbled my soul with fasting…” (NRSV). David humbled his soul with fasting. When he fasted, he became aware of those things that grieved him, and he was humbled.
If anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife or fear are in you, they will surface during fasting. You may think you’re feeling that way because you’re hungry, but then you’ll come to realize that the feelings are there because they are within you. If you feel angry, it’s because there is a spirit of anger within you. Fasting brings out those spirits so you can deal with them, so you can bring them to the Lord and pray for release from them.
3. Fasting reminds us we live on the Word of God. In Matthew 4:4, when Jesus is doing his forty-day fast and he’s being tempted by Satan, Jesus answered Satan by saying, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” The lesson isn’t that food sustains us, God sustains us. The truth is, we need God at least as much as we need food.
In John 4, when Jesus is talking with the Samaritan woman at the well, His disciples bring lunch to Him, assuming He would be starving. But then in verse 32, He said, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” And in verse 34, “My food, said Jesus, is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” This may sound like a cute little saying, but I think for Jesus it was a reality. He was nourished and sustained by the power of God. And I think when we fast, we are nourished and sustained by the power of God. That’s why, in our first reading, we aren’t supposed to look miserable when we’re fasting, because we’re not miserable. We are feeding on God, we’re being nourished and sustained by God. There’s nothing miserable in that.
4. Fasting helps keep balance. I think when we fast we realize what’s really important in life. Fasting helps us realize that. If we take a close look at our lives, I think we’d be surprised by how many nonessentials we really think we need. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 6:12, “Everything is permissible for me – but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible for me – but I will not be mastered by anything.” Fasting helps us see the difference between what is beneficial, and what’s harmful. It helps us find the balance, and better identify those things that aren’t really necessary.
A couple of caveats here, fasting may not be for everybody. Certainly, if you’re diabetic, or if you have a heart issue, don’t fast. If you’re expecting, or take medications you need to take on a full stomach, maybe you shouldn’t fast. But for the rest of us, fasting may be a great way to shift the focus of our lives back onto God, where it should be. So I encourage you to consider adding fasting to your spiritual routines.