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An Introduction to Fasting

I want to begin today with a clarification:

Christianity is all about our relationship with God. It’s not about following the all rules in the Bible or becoming a better person or going through certain rituals or ceremonies. We may do all those things, but don’t confuse the cause for the effect. All those things we do (like going to church, obeying the Bible, even taking communion or being baptized – those are all the effect – not the cause.

We do those things in response to God’s incredible love for us. We can never cause God to love us. There is nothing we can do to earn his favor or His acceptance. There’s nothing we can do to deserve forgiveness or the promise of eternal life. But yet we have all those things because of God’s incredible love for us.

  • So when I read the Bible, it’s not because I’m trying to earn God’s approval by doing that. It’s because I want to know more about this God who created me and who loves me – I want to know who He is and what He’s like.
  • When I take time out of my day to pray, it’s not because my prayers somehow give me better standing with God. I pray because God is my heavenly Father who cares about me. I want to tell him about my victories and my failures and my struggles. I want to cry out to him for help. I want to thank Him for his goodness. I pray because I know my heaven Father loves me.
  • Even in things like communion or baptism. Those things don’t change our standing with God. I’ve been baptized because I want to make a public declaration that Jesus loves me. He died and rose again for me. And because of that, I’m committing to follow Him for the rest of my life. That’s why I’ve been baptized.

In all of the things that we do as Christians, God’s love is the cause – all of our actions are the effect.

And that’s so important to remember as we talk about these spiritual disciplines.

We’ve spent the last several weeks talking about the Healthy Habits of Christians. These are the things Christians have done over the centuries – not because they earn us salvation or God’s love or God’s approval or anything. We do these things in response to God’s incredible love for us. This is how we get to know Him and trust Him more.

And so far, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about just two of most common spiritual disciplines. We started by looking at reading and studying God’s Word and then after that, we spent some time talking about prayer. I think almost every Christian today would say that they’ve practiced those two disciplines at least a little bit. It’s probably pretty tough say that you’re following Jesus if you’ve never talked to Him and you’ve never read His Word.

But today, we’re going to talk about a spiritual discipline – or a healthy habit – that probably most Christians have never practiced. Which is a real shame, because this healthy habit is an incredibly effective tool in helping us draw near to God.

Which is, of course, the point of all these spiritual disciplines. They help us draw close to God. That’s what the Scriptures do. That’s what praying does. That’s what all these healthy habits do – they help us draw near to God – to know Him and to grow deeper in our relationship with Him. And that’s what our next healthy habit helps us do as well. So hopefully, by the end of the message today, in addition to your Bible and prayer, you’ll have another tool at your disposal to help you grow deeper in your relationship with God.

The healthy habit that I want to talk about today is the habit of fasting. And like I said before, probably most Christians today have never practiced this spiritual discipline. Fasting is just not something we North American Christians have had much experience with. But when you look over the scope of history – we are the odd ones out. Fasting has been practiced since the time of Moses.

Moses fasted on mount Sinai while getting the terms of the covenant from God. King David fasted. Daniel fasted. Esther fasted. Nehemiah fasted. There were times when the entire nation of Israel fasted. In fact, even the Ninevities fasted after hearing Jonah’s message from God. John the Baptist and his disciples fasted. Paul fasted. Barnabas fasted. The entire church at Antioch fasted. Jesus fasted.

Clearly there is a precedent in the Bible for fasting. And while you don’t find any commands in the Bible for us to fast, it really seems like Jesus assumes we will.

Let me show you two verses. The first one is in Matthew 6 – and it comes just after the Lord’s Prayer – which we talked about last week.

So let’s actually read that whole passage (including the Lord’s prayer) because prayer and fasting are very much tied together. It should be no surprise that Jesus teaches about them side by side. Start at verse 5. Jesus says…

5 “When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get. 6 But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.

7 “When you pray, don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again. 8 Don’t be like them, for your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him! 9 Pray like this:

Our Father in heaven,

    may your name be kept holy.

10 May your Kingdom come soon.

May your will be done on earth,

    as it is in heaven.

11 Give us today the food we need,

12 and forgive us our sins,

    as we have forgiven those who sin against us.

13 And don’t let us yield to temptation,

    but rescue us from the evil one.

Jesus then goes on to say…

14 “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. 15 But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.

16 “And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. 17 But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. 18 Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.

Matthew 6:9-18

So there’s our context for prayer and fasting. But before we dig in too deeply, just notice for now verse 16 where Jesus says “And when you fast….”  He doesn’t say “If you fast…” He says “When you fast…” It’s like He assumes we’re going to be fasting.

And then if you jump ahead a few chapters to Matthew chapter 9, Jesus even says that his disciples will fast. Look at Matthew 9:18.

18 Once when John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting, some people came to Jesus and asked, “Why don’t your disciples fast like John’s disciples and the Pharisees do?”

19 Jesus replied, “Do wedding guests fast while celebrating with the groom? Of course not. They can’t fast while the groom is with them. 20 But someday the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.

Matthew 9:18-20

So there’s certainly this idea that Jesus is expecting that his disciples will fast. And this passage actually gives us a good hint as to why we would fast in the first place. But we’ll get to that a little later.

But first of all, maybe we need to define what fasting is. I think most of us probably have a general idea of fasting, but let’s see if we can put a definition to it.

And I think the definition that I’ve found that seems to fit best is this:

“Fasting is voluntarily going without food — or any other regularly enjoyed, good gift from God — for the sake of some spiritual purpose.” ~ David Matthis

Ok, so fasting is not the same as going on a diet. Fasting is not skipping a meal because you just got too busy doing something else. Fasting is not when you’re doctor tells you not to eat for 12 hours before your surgery – (at least its not fasting in the sense that we’re talking about.)

Fasting, as a spiritual discipline, requires that our intentions for this fast are for some spiritual purpose. And there can be many different purposes for why you might fast. As you look through the pages of Scripture, there are all kinds of different motivations for why people have fasted. Don Whitney, in his book on the Spiritual Disciplines, put together this list of why we might fast and He includes some examples from Scripture of people who have fasted for that reason. We might fast to…

  • To seek God’s guidance – Like the Israelites or like Paul & Barnabas (Judges 20:26; Acts 14:23)
  • To express grief or sorrow – Like King David (1 Samuel 31:13; 2 Samuel 1:11–12)
  • To seek deliverance or protection (2 Chronicles 20:3–4; Ezra 8:21–23)
  • Express repentance and a desire to return to God (1 Samuel 7:6; Jonah 3:5–8)
  • To humble oneself before God (1 Kings 21:27–29; Psalm 35:13)
  • To express concern for the work of God (Nehemiah 1:3–4; Daniel 9:3)
  • As you minister to the needs of others (Isaiah 58:3–7)
  • To overcome temptation and to dedicate yourself to God (Matthew 4:1–11)
  • To express love and worship to God (Luke 2:37)

~ Don Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines

So there are all kinds of good spiritual reasons for why we might fast. And that’s certainly not an all-inclusive list. There are lots of other examples, but if you were to read through those passages in that list, I think you’d begin to get a really good handle on what might motivate someone to fast.

And as you’re looking at this list, you might notice that these could also all be motivations to pray as well. Not only are those all great reasons to fast – those are all great reasons to pray as well!

And that’s because prayer and fasting are very much tied together. The whole idea behind fasting is this desire to communicate with God, to draw close to Him. In fact, they are so intertwined that I would say you can pray without fasting, but you can’t fast without praying. Prayer is an integral part of fasting.

But then of course, the question is – well, why don’t we just pray? Prayer is a way for us to do all those things in that list – why do we need to add that element of fasting to our prayers? So how is prayer and fasting better than just prayer? Why should the fact that we’re not eating anything change how we connect with God? How does fasting add anything to our prayers?

Interestingly enough, while the Bible is full of examples of prayer and fasting, it doesn’t give a lot of explanation for what fasting itself actually accomplishes. Prayer – yes. Fasting – not so much. Fasting is always just lumped right in there with prayer. It’s kind of a package deal.

And maybe for all those Bible characters of old who had a rich history of prayer and fasting – who grew up in culture where prayer and fasting were common – maybe they didn’t need any explanation. But for us today, where fasting is really only done for medical reasons or as part of the 30-hour Famine, we really have no idea what this fasting business is all about.

So let me see if I can explain a few of the benefits of fasting. And to be honest, fasting is pretty new for me too. But it’s something I’ve been learning more and more about recently – practicing more often in my own life, and so while some of this information is gleaned from research and reading (For example, the main points in my outline are taken from a book called “Postcards from Corinth”).  But for the most part, I can verify from my own experience, that these really are some of the benefits that come with fasting. And I had originally planned to go through them all in this message, but as it turns out, I’m just going to focus on one point today and we’ll go through the other probably next week.

So here we go. First of all, fasting is a wonderful reminder of our complete reliance on God. I actually shared a little bit about this back in October when we were talking about Eating Evangelism! I don’t know if any remembers that or not?

But one of the ideas that came out of that was that God created us to need food on a regular basis in order to survive. And He didn’t have to do that. God’s creative… He could have created us to run on solar power or to somehow absorb particles in the air or who know what else – but instead, he created us to need food every single day. For most of us, if we go without eating for just one day, in fact, if we go without eating just one meal – our stomachs immediately and with urgency remind us that we need to eat.

It’s pretty hard to forget to eat for very long. That hunger reminds us in no uncertain terms that we must eat to survive.

And I think fasting reminds us that we are just as desperate – even more desperate actually – for God. In reality, we need God even more than we need food. Our physical hunger minds us of a spiritual reality. Paul reminds us in Ephesians that God is the source of our life. We would be spiritual dead – completely bankrupt – without Him. Paul writes in Ephesians 2:4…

“But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, 5 that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead.” Ephesians 2:4-5

God is the source of our life. I think this is one of the reasons the Bible teaches us to fast. That feeling of hunger we get, when we go without eating for set period of time, it’s a picture of how desperate we are for God. It actually ties right into our theme passage for this whole series in John 15 where Jesus tells us how important it is to stay connected to Him, because He is the source of our life. He says in John 15:4…

Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me.

5 “Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers.

John 15:4-6

Again, its a picture of our absolute dependance on Jesus. He is the source of our life. Apart from him, we can do nothing. Apart from Him, we have no life. But I think we often forget that.

You know, as middle-class Canadians in 2017, we don’t often feel very desperate for anything. Most of us have a roof over our head, clothes on our back, and when it comes to food – we pretty much can eat anything we want as often as we want. There’s not much desperation there.

Even in this slower economy, maybe our bills are stacking up and we’re feeling a bit of stress that way, but we’re still a long way from being desperate. I don’t think anyone has gone a week without eating. No one has had to sell their families into slavery to pay their debt. Maybe we’re not in an ideal situation, but for most of us, we’re still quite a ways from desperate.

And that lack of desperation carries over into our relationship with God.

Most Canadians don’t feel any need for God at all. They’re doing just fine without Him. Even as Christians, we tend to be pretty self-reliant. Not many of us would describe ourselves as being in a desperate situation. We’re in pretty good shape. We can handle it.

And we end up sounding a lot like the church in Laodicea. If you’re not familiar with that passage, let me read that for you. It’s Revelation 3:14-17. This is what Jesus says to this church in Laodicea that sounds very much like we sometimes do. Jesus says…

“Write this letter to the angel of the church in Laodicea. This is the message from the one who is the Amen—the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s new creation:

15 “I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other! 16 But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth! 17 You say, ‘I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.” Revelation 3:17

Without digging into the metaphors of this passage too much, the bottom line is that this church forgot how desperate they were for God. I think many times our physical abundance keeps us from seeing our spiritual bankruptcy. We say “I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing”’ And we don’t realize that apart from God, we are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.

And sometimes the only way for God to get through to us again, is to bring us through an actual crisis where we have no other choice but to depend on him. When a loved one gets sick or there’s an accident or a relationship falls apart or we lose our job or whatever it is – in those times we realize how desperate we are for God to act and to sustain us.

In the weeks after 9/11 in New York, many of the churches there saw attendance double as Americans were vividly reminded of their helplessness and their utter dependance on God.

Well, fasting kinda acts like a mini-crisis that causes us remember how much we need God. Rick James writes:

My hunger, which normally arose every 5 or 6 hours, becomes acute every 5 or 6 minutes when I am fasting, and hunger is my trigger to turn to God for strength… Of course, a tragedy in my life accomplishes the same thing, but fasting creates this necessary environment for reliance without the nasty side effects of inoperable brain cancer or the loss of a loved one. While I’m fasting, all day long I call out to God, for strength, endurance, self-control, empowerment, and wisdom, which in fact, should be normative for a Christian, but it is not for me – which is why I fast.

~ Rick James, Postcards from Corinth

And I think this really hits the nail on the head. We have such a tendency be self-reliant and self-sufficient – fasting is a fantastic reminder of how badly we need God. It helps us develop that habit of calling out to God for strength, endurance, self-control, empowerment, and wisdom even when we’re not in the midst of a real crisis.

So here’s my challenge for you today. And I know that we’ve only just begun to talk about fasting. I haven’t even really talked much about how to fast or what you should expect or anything like that. But I would challenge you to try fasting this week. I’m not talking about a 40 day fast or anything, try just one meal for now – start off slow and easy. Maybe skipping a lunch is the easiest. That’s not too hard –  just go from breakfast to supper without eating in between. Drink lots of water to stay hydrated – but don’t eat anything.

Instead, take the time that you would normally spend eating and use that time to pray or read your Bible. Feed your mind and soul instead of your body.

And chances are – even after that short time of not eating, you’re going to start experiencing that hunger – that gnawing and growling in the pit of your stomach. And that’s ok. Hunger is not a bad thing. It’s just telling you that you’re not self-sufficient – that you depend on something outside of yourself to survive.

And while your stomach thinks that its food that you’re desperate for – let that hunger remind you that it’s actually God that you need more than anything else. He is the source of our life. In fact, He is the only one who can truly satisfy. That’s why Jesus says in John 6:35…

Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” John 6:35

He’s not talking about the gnawing and the growling in our stomachs. He’s talking about the gnawing and the growling in our hearts. He satisfies what we are most desperate for. Things like acceptance. Love. Joy. Peace. Jesus is the only one who can satisfy our hunger for those things.

So let your stomach remind of that this week.

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