I invite you to read along with me from the Gospel of Matthew 6:16-18.
As God permits in the due course of time we will talk about what this text means in regards to the methods and attitudes we should employ in fasting. In fact, since you’ve probably gathered by this point that I have every intent of preaching on fasting today you may be hoping that I’ll just get on with it, get over it and I won’t challenge you beyond any particular point of comfort you may have in avoiding the spiritual discipline of fasting. It appears to me that God’s plans may not, in that case, match your own. As God has been leading me on a renewed discovery of this wonderful spiritual discipline I want to bring you along in a sense towards bringing fasting as a means of your own spiritual growth with the Father into your life.
Notice please that Jesus does not say, If you fast, but rather when you fast. This was of course for a couple of reasons. First of all it was a part of the extant culture to fast. Fasting is a component in many world religions for various reasons and it certainly played a role in Jewish history and the religion of the Old Testament and later it became an increasingly common discipline in the practices of early Christianity as well. So the “when” statement is as much a statement acknowledging that fasting was going to happen as much as anything.
But second, I believe that there is in that statement an aspect of expectation that we should fast as well. It is not a question of “Should you fast” it is rather a statement that “you will fast.” Jesus, in this text is giving guidelines (which we will visit at the close of this series) for fasting because he expects his followers to do so in it’s proper time. So he says “When you fast…”
Beyond a shadow of doubt, Fasting is one of the most Revered as well as one of the most Feared of Spiritual Disciplines. It is also, I think, among the most needlessly Neglected.
Fasting is needlessly Revered
I think one of the reasons that it so often neglected is because fasting sounds to many of us like “really advanced” discipleship. I am of the opinion that nothing could be further from the truth.
Fasting is not a discipline reserved only for the highest and holiest of God’s people. Pouring over the scriptures over the next several weeks we are going to see how fasting was used by God’s people on many different occasions and for several different reasons. Neither is it only who you might consider to be the Biblical elite who are always doing the fasting.
In fact fasting is for the weak, the forgetful, the servants prone to wondering and failure. Fasting is for the despised who hope for glory and for the arrogant in search of humility. Fasting is for the common believer who hears the words of Christ dimly as if there were cotton in your ears.
In the old testament God established the day of atonement (Leviticus 16:3-10; 23:26-32; Numbers 29:7-11) as a day to fast for every individual. On the tenth day of the seventh month everyone in Israel was to fast and refrain from work. Fasting was central to the day of atonement in demonstrating repentance and seeking God’s forgiveness.
The Great Day of Atonement teaches us that fasting is not for those who are near to God. It is for those who are far away but who long to draw near to him. Fasting in brief is for you and for me; that we might through self-denial open our arms to God and cry out to him, “There is nothing I desire more than you O God! Even this basic necessity of life I count as secondary to how deeply I need you!”
As wonderful as that sounds, I would guess that for some of you, fasting isn’t a discipline you’re all that eager to employ. In general fasting is the most feared of all spiritual disciplines.
Fasting is needlessly Feared
Fasting at it’s core is simply the withholding of some thing from one’s self. Many of us have had the under-appreciated pleasure of having to fast over night for a blood test. Many of us have endured times of enormous distress (Physical, Mental or Spiritual) or even business which drove away our appetites and thus we did not eat. Every one of those experiences is something that we view as a great big negative.
Besides, we have everything we need. Here in the land of plenty, why would anyone choose intentionally to go hungry? The short answer, as one commentator put it is that “[f]asting from food helps us focus intently on God and expresses the seriousness of our desires.”1
I would imagine that for most people the prospect of fasting looms not as an exciting frontier but as a painful memory to be kept at all cost from repeating itself. Listen to the testimony of one man’s fasting experience.
“I’ve fasted on several occasions; and nothing happened. I just got hungry…. several years ago I heard a couple of pastors discussing fasting. On their recommendation I tried my first fast. They said it was commanded in the Bible and should be practiced by every Christian. Being a Christian, I decided to try it. After putting it off for several days, I mustered up enough courage to start. I couldn’t go to the breakfast table with my family because I didn’t think I would have enough willpower to abstain from eating, so I went on to work. The coffee break was almost unbearable, and I told a little white lie abut why I didn’t go with the group. All I could think about was how hungry I was. I said to myself, “If I ever get through this day, I’ll never try this again.” The afternoon was even worse. I tried to concentrate on my work, but all I could hear was the growling of my stomach. My wife prepared a meal for herself and our child, and the aroma of the food was all I could bear. I figured that if I could make it till midnight, I would have fasted all day. I did- but immediately after the striking of the hour of twelve, I dug into food. I don’t think that day of fasting helped me one bit.”2
I would venture to say that he was right, he didn’t gain anything from that fasting experience. The reason is that he treated the fast as if the fast itself were the whole point. Over in Isaiah 58 the same type of thing happened. People were acting as if the fast itself were the whole point. And then they had the audacity to wonder why they weren’t benefiting from it. God begins to rebuke them saying,
“Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed And for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed? Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the Lord?” (Is 58:5, NASB95)
Being hungry isn’t the goal. The goal of fasting is not to get less food, but to get more of God. But I’m convinced that the main reason fasting is feared is due to the focus being almost entirely upon the hunger pains. Don’t let fasting remain in your mind as terror to avoid, otherwise it will just remain a neglected spiritual discipline for you. By ignoring it you will rob yourself of it’s benefits.
Fasting is needlessly Neglected
Now then, when I say these things I have no intention to make fasting a litmus test of spirituality. Some of you may have medical reasons that you cannot completely fast – diabetes being one such example. But there are many ways to modify your fast as well.
We’ll talk more specifically about types of fasts at the end of this series but let me give you one example. In the book of Daniel we read in the tenth chapter that Daniel took on what I would call a modified fast.
“In those days, I, Daniel, had been mourning for three entire weeks. I did not eat any tasty food, nor did meat or wine enter my mouth, nor did I use any ointment at all until the entire three weeks were completed.” (Da 10:2-3, NASB95)
Over the next several weeks we are going to look at several of the different purposes for fasting in the Bible. I want to invite you to join me, not only in listening and learning but in practicing and doing. It is not going to be easy. After all as Donald Whitney wrote, “Christians in a gluttonous, denial-less, self-indulgent society may struggle to accept and to begin the practice of fasting. Few Disciplines go so radically against the flesh and the mainstream of culture as this one. But we cannot overlook it’s biblical significance.”3
As God permits, we’re going to start fasting next week. Let me encourage you to start slow – especially if you’ve never fasted before. Let me suggest two options for you. (1) If you’re past experiences with fasting have centered entirely around the hunger experience I want to invite you into something greater by starting with something smaller. Start by skipping one meal, and using that mealtime instead as a time to pray about any and all of those things that are on your heart and mind. (2) If even that seems impossible at this point; than seek God with me in this second option. Set aside some time this week if not to fast, to ask God to help you grow in him through this discipline of fasting.
1Robert J. Morgan, Nelson’s Annual Preacher’s Sourcebook : 2002 Edition, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001), 269.
2Anderson, Andy. Fasting Changed my life. (
Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1977). pp 47-48)Quoted by Whitney,
Donald S.. Spiritual Disciplines For the Christian Life. Navpress.
Colorado Springs, Colorado. 1991. p 164-165.