In John Piper’s excellent book on fasting titled, “A Hunger for God” (Buy it at Christian Book Distributors | Amazon.com) he talks about the power of both feasting and fasting to bring glory to Christ.
“The apostle Paul said, ‘I will not be mastered by anything’ (1 Corinthians 6:12). Fasting reveals the measure of food’s mastery over us – or television or computers or whatever we submit to again and again to conceal the weakness of our hunger for God. … One of the reasons food has this amazing power is that it is so basic to our existence. Why is this? … why did God create bread and design human beings to need it for life? … He created bread so that we would have some idea of what the son of God is like when he says, ‘I am the bread of life’ (John 6:35). And he created the rhythm of thirst and satisfaction so that we would have some idea of what faith in Christ is like when Jesus said, ‘He who believes in me shall never thirst’ (John 6:35).
But man is not the center of the universe, God is. And everything, as Paul says, is ‘from him and through him and to him’ (Romans 11:36). ‘to him’ means everything exists to call attention to him and to bring admiration to him. In Colossians 1:16, Paul says more specifically that ‘all things were created by [Christ] and for [Christ].’ Therefore bread was created for the glory of Christ. Hunger and thirst were created for the glory of Christ. And fasting was created for the glory of Christ.
Which means that bread magnifies Christ in two ways: by being eaten with gratitude for his goodness, and by being forfeited out of hunger for God himself. When we eat, we taste the emblem of our heavenly food – the Bread of Life. And when we fast we say, ‘I love the Reality above the emblem.’ In the heart of the saint both eating and fasting are worship. Both magnify Christ. Both send the heart – grateful and yearning – to the Giver.
Each has it’s appointed place, and each has its danger. The danger of eating is that we fall in love with the gift; the danger of fasting is that we belittle the gift and glory in our willpower.”
Confronted with that startling contrast, Let’s look into the scriptures to determine how
we should fast.
In one sense, fasting is as simple as "doing without" but in another sense fasting, like any spiritual discipline can be misused for personal aggrandizement. Looking through the texts there are some guidelines to exactly how we should fast. Beginning with that same text we read last week, Matthew 6:16-18. Please stand with me as we read God’s word together. (
Read Matthew 6:16-18
Fast to be seen by God
The very first method of fasting needs to come from this passage’s direct meaning. Your motivation for fasting mustn’t be so that others can see you doing it, so that they can in turn be impressed with how holy you are.
Looking at the text you might first imagine that the command to conceal your fast from people means that you should lie about it if someone asks. Like so many behaviors described in the Bible, it’s not the action but the heart attitude that matters.
Note the behavior of the hypocrite here. It’s Tuesday and he’s fasting so he puts on doesn’t wash his face. He gets up, stares mournfully at the breakfast table and then passing by the mirror on the way out, he messes up his hair so it looks like he’s been fasting, he puts on a gloomy face and ruffles his shirt so that he looks a bit of a mess. Fran at the office comes up and says, “Oh, my looks like you had a rough night, are you doing OK?” He looks at her and proclaims a little too loudly so that Jeeves in the next office over there can hear, “OH, I’m fine I suppose – I’m just fasting you see.”
His behavior, his demeanor and all that accompanies his fasting is indication that he’s not seeking God’s approval as his main goal in fasting. If anything that goal is apparently secondary to his desire to be noticed. Why with any luck the pastor will find out he was fasting this week and will praise him in front of the congregation.
It’s all about your motivation. Your fasting only matters to God if it is meant only for God. Back in the text here it means that what you should do is, if anything take a little extra care getting ready that morning so you don’t look like a slob. Keep your fast between you and God instead of taking out a television commercial about it God who sees the things done in secret will know your motivation and he will reward you for it.
Now does all of this mean that you ought to lie about your fasting if you’re asked? I don’t think so. Again it all comes down not to behavior but to heart intent.
Imagine how rude it would be for me to fast and yet not to inform my wife, because after all it’s supposed to be a secret. If I don’t tell my wife and she decides that day to fix my favorite meal for dinner and all I do is sit down at the dinner table with her and say, “Sorry dear, not hungry tonight!” Do you suppose that’s going to accomplish much good? Surely not and there will be a bit of trouble from it as well.
Go ahead and tell your wife, not to fix dinner for you if it’s her night to do so. Let her know you’ll be fasting that day, she may even join you in fasting or at least praying for the same purpose. Theresa is a great blessing to me in this. When I share with her a particular burden she prays for me. That is how marriages work.
When at work the guys ask you to come to lunch with them, simply tell them you can’t today – you’ve had other plans made. And I suggest withdrawing to a quiet place for that lunch time and spending it feasting on the word of God and praying.
But above all: check your heart. Are you fasting to be noticed by God or by men?
Fast For God
Turn back to Zechariah 7:5-7 and read that together with me. I would also like to read that Zechariah passage in connection with another passage in Luke 18:10-12, 13-14. So keep a finger in both passages and read them with me.
A good many people assume that fasting somehow twists God’s arm and bends him to our will. Nothing could be further from the truth. For whatever reason we fast, our fast is not a coercion of God. Donald Whitney writes,
The Bible does not teach that fasting is a kind of spiritual hunger strike that compels God to do our bidding…Fasting does not change God’s hearing so much as it changes our praying.
2 The means by which it does so is perhaps to force us to think about the reason we are depriving ourselves.
Turning to the arrogant self-aggrandizing Pharisee in Luke’s gospel, he apparently didn’t understand the purpose of fasting. He thought he could wear it like some kind of a merit badge – or use it as a bargaining chip with God. Imagine telling God, “
You owe me, because I skipped lunch
!” My friends, if that is the attitude of your heart in fasting than you may as well eat. Nothing is gained in such a fast and perhaps to the contrary damage is done.
Taken together with Zechariah 7, the Jews of Babylon, where in the practice of fasting on these dates. The origin of the fast however was commemoration. Each of the fasts were created by men in order to commemorate some horror related to Judah and Jerusalem falling captive to Babylon. They were “
expressing grief at their situation, not sorrow that they had sinned so terribly against God.
Fasting is not a bargaining chip is is a tool of personal heart preparation
intended to express mourning for sin, yearning for Christ and desperation for the things of God. Fasting for God means that we fast for His Glory and not for our own. As we separate ourselves from food and toward God for a brief period of time, we learn the beautiful passion of fully relying on God. When we fast we must fast towards God with His perspective.
An acceptable fast is a fast for God’s purpose, for God’s desire
5 and God’s passions to be fulfilled. If we are not yearning for God than our fasting is left hungering for more.
Fast Focused on God
Last week we talked about the power of fasting for our prayer life and I mentioned that there were different ways to fast if, for example a food fast is rendered nearly impossible by diabetes.
Daniel continued to eat, but kept himself from certain meats, wine and even ointments. If there is one thing that teaches us about the form of fasting, it is that the form itself doesn’t matter much. The heart of the issue is to temporarily eliminate something good in favor of drawing near to God.
There’s even a fast mentioned in 1 Corinthians 7:5 which most of us may not have thought of; that is a fast from marital intimacy. Listen to what the Bible says here,
“Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” (1Co 7:5 NAU)
Notice the way that it’s phrased there however. If, as husband and wife you agree
to restrain yourselves so that you can commit yourselves to prayer, that’s fine. However don’t miss the warnings in the text. Such a fast should be agreed to by both spouses and it should be limited in scope in order to prevent Satan from gaining an upper hand in tempting you.
It is that last warning which should fill us with a sense of seriousness regarding fasts. Anyone who has ever tried fasting will certainly testify that as soon as an appetite is ignored, it acts like an unruly child. Whatever appetite you reserve for fasting will stamp, scream and shout to be satisfied.
Satan is no fool. He will not miss the opportunity to tempt you to satisfy that newly awakened hunger as quickly as possible and if possible he will tempt you to satisfy that desire with sin.
As Jesus fasted in the desert for forty days, we are told at the close of the passage that he was hungry. It is no surprise to me that Satan’s very first temptation was leveled at this very basic need for food.
When you fast; do so for the purpose of being seen by God. Ensure that your purpose in fasting is God’s purpose, and fast focused on God – prepared to be tested and eager to be faithful.
1Piper, John. A Hunger For God: Desiring God Through Fasting and Prayer
. Crossway Books. Wheaton, Illinois. 1997. pp 20-21
2Whitney, Donald S.. Spiritual Disciplines For the Christian Life. Navpress. Colorado Springs, Colorado. 1991. p 160.
3Lawrence O. Richards, The Bible Readers Companion, electronic ed. (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1991; Published in electronic form by Logos Research Systems, 1996), 579.
4Thomas D. Elliff, A Passion for Prayer : Experiencing Deeper Intimacy With God, Includes Indexes. (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1998), 84.
5Lawrence O. Richards, The Bible Readers Companion, electronic ed. (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1991; Published in electronic form by Logos Research Systems, 1996), 579.