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The Purpose and Power of Fasting

Fasting is the voluntary denial of an otherwise normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity

The disciplined person is the person who can do what needs to be done when it needs to be done. Now I can take a basketball and I can get it into a basketball hoop eventually, but I cannot take a basketball and get it into the basketball hoop when it needs to be gotten into a basketball hoop. That is, I am not a disciplined basketball player. Now this ability to have the power to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done is so crucial in all of life, but it is never more central than in the life of the spirit because it is this life that impregnates and infiltrates and dominates literally everything that we do.

Now this morning I'm speaking on the topic fasting 20th century style. But, please, don't you dare turn that into another soul killing law, because there is a time to feast and there is a time to fast, and it is the disciplined person who can feast when feasting is called for and fast when fasting is called for. In fact, the glutton and the extreme ascetic have exactly the same problem. They cannot live appropriately in life. They cannot do what needs to be done when it needs to be done.

Now in a world dominated with pizza temples and shrines to the golden arches, fasting seems out of place, out of step with the times. And, in fact, fasting has been in general disrepute in the church for some time. In my research, as far as I know there was not a single book written on the subject of fasting from 1861 to 1954, a period of nearly one hundred years. Now what would account for such an almost total disregard of a discipline so frequently mentioned in Scripture and so ardently practiced by Christians throughout the centuries? At least two things, I believe.

Fasting is a valid, biblical tradition

First, there has been a reaction, and rightly so, to the excessive ascetic practices of the Middle Ages. But, second, there has developed a prevailing philosophy today that has literally dominated American culture including American religious culture that it is a positive virtue to satisfy absolutely every human passion. We've even developed it into a theology today with verses of Scripture to buttress such a teaching. And whole churches have been created around these little tin gods of good feelings and affluence. And if fasting is used at all today it is usually either to lose weight or for political pressure. That is, its function is either vanity or manipulation. And so fasting as a Christian spiritual discipline has had tough sledding in our days.

But if we would take a look at the biblical tradition, it seems to me it would stop us long enough to reevaluate our popular assumptions. I mean, the list of biblical fasters runs like a who's who of Scripture.

Abraham's servant when he was seeking a bride for Isaac

Moses on several occasions

Hannah as she prayed for a child

David on several occasions

Elijah after his victory over Jezebel

Ezra when he was mourning Israel's faithlessness

Nehemiah when he was preparing the trip back to Israel

Esther when God's people were threatened with extermination

Daniel on numerous occasions

The people of Nineveh, including the cattle, involuntarily no doubt

Jesus when he began his public ministry

Paul at the point of his conversion

The Christians at Antioch when they sent off Paul and Barnabas on their mission endeavor

Paul and others when they appointed elders in all of the churches

Not only that, but many of the great Christians throughout church history have fasted—Martin Luther, and John Calvin, John Knox, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, David Brainard, Charles Finney, and many, many others. Obviously, fasting has not been confined to the Christian faith. Zoroaster fasted as did Confucius and the yogis of India. Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, they all fasted. Now the fact that these people both in and out of Scripture fasted does not make it right or even a good thing to do. But it ought to stop us long enough to look at this matter again.

I want to respond at this point to a crucial question. Why should we fast in the first place? Well, the first answer to that, and perhaps the only adequate answer, is an urging, a sense of call to it, a prompting, a sense of rightness. We have heard the call Yahweh, the voice of the Lord, and we must obey.

Do you remember on the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said "When you pray" "When you give" "When you fast" You notice that he did not say If you pray If you give If you fast. Oh no, he was assuming that the children of the kingdom would be doing these things and was giving instruction in how it could be done with spiritual success. I mean, it has always amazed me that we will unquestionably accept giving as a Christian discipline and not fasting. There is at least as much evidence for fasting in the New Testament as there is giving, and I think a bit more. I have wondered if the reason that we do this is because in an affluent culture it involves far less sacrifice to give money than it does to fast.

Fasting reveals what controls us

But then, second, we fast because it reveals the things which control us. You see, we cover up what is inside of us with food and other good things, but in fasting these kinds of things come to the surface. If you want to know one of the first things I learned about myself in experiences in fasting? It was my lust for good feelings. See, I was hungry and I didn't feel good, and pretty soon I begin to realize that I would do just about anything in order to feel good. Now there is not a thing wrong with feeling good, but that has got to be brought into an easy place in our lives where it does not control us.

You know the second thing I learned about myself in fasting? It was my anger. You see, everybody thinks I'm such a nice, easygoing kind of fellow. Nothing ever bothers me. Love to work under pressure. And I'd say, "Lord, I'd so appreciate it if you would reveal to me what is inside of me." The Lord, he'd say, "I'd be delighted." How about a little fast. So I would. And pretty soon I'm exploding with anger. And all of a sudden I think I'm angry because I'm hungry. And I understand all about low blood sugar and so forth. But then I realized I'm angry because there is a spirit of anger within me, and I have to deal with that. Oh, so many things. Pride. Do you know how many religiously respectable ways there are for letting people know that we are okay? Fear, hostility, bitterness, anger. These are the kinds of things that begin to surface.

Fasting should be our response to urgent needs

And then, third, we fast because there's a need, urgency. And certain drastic situations demand drastic means. You see, it is the disciplined person who can do what needs to be done when it needs to be done. And I have found that people who are not trained in these matters cannot do it when the emergency comes even if it is a matter of life and death.

Now if we really expect to fast we need to know the basic notion in the first place. The central idea in fasting is the voluntary denial of an otherwise normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity. Now remember, there is not a thing wrong with these normal functions in life. It is just that there are times when we set them aside in order to concentrate. Now when you see it from that perspective, you can understand both the reasonableness of fasting as well as the broader dimensions to it.

Now contrary to what almost all of you have been thinking, this morning I do not want to speak specifically about fasting from food, which is the normal way Scripture speaks of that subject, and that is an important discipline and I've written on that area. But this morning what I'd like us to do is take a careful look at contemporary culture and see how fasting can speak to those issues. Fasting, 20th century style.

We need times of fasting from people

First, I think there is a great need for us to learn times when we can fast from people. We just have a tendency to devour people, and we usually get severe heartburn from it. When I suggest that we learn to fast from people, it is not because we are antisocial or because we don't like people but precisely because we love people intently and when we are with them we want to be a blessing to them and not a distraction. Thomas Merten observed

It is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brothers. "The more solitary I am, the more affection I have for them. It is pure affection and filled with reverence for the solitude of others. Solitude and silence teach me to love my brothers for who they are, not for what they say."

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a very perceptive little book entitled Life Together. If you have not read it, shame on you. And very perceptively he entitled the first chapter "The Day Together" and the next chapter "The Day Alone." You see, he saw it so clearly. Until we have learned to be with people being alone will be a dangerous thing because it will cut us off from hurting, bleeding humanity. But until we have learned to be alone we cannot be with people in a way that will help them because we will be bringing to that relationship our own , our own , our own and , and we can't listen to them.

Have you ever taken a day just to be alone? The president of Friends University where I teach heard me speak in this way one time. He told me, "I'll try it." And he took a day. Now this was not a time to work on the plan or student retention or faculty problems. This was a time to hear God's speech in his thunderous silence. He said, "One of the best days I've ever experienced in my life." How about you? What could be more recreating, what could be more exhilarating than a day alone with the Lord?

Now I know what you're thinking. I don't have time. Besides, I don't need it. Moses needed it. Elijah needed it. David needed it. Peter needed it. Paul needed it. Jesus Christ himself needed it. Who do we think we are? God Almighty? And if we need it, we'll find the time.

We need times of fasting from the media

Second, it seems to me that there are times when we need to learn to fast from the media. It is amazing to me that many people seem to be incapable or at least unwilling to go through an entire day concentrating on a single thing. Everything breaks up our sense of concentration—the newspaper, the radio, television, magazines. No wonder we feel like fractured people. Some of you right here in this room are so enslaved to television that if it were taken away from you, you'd go through withdrawal. It is incredible. We now have radios that we can strap over our wrists like a watch or put over our ears like mufflers so we will never find ourselves where we will be anywhere where, horror of horrors, we are without noise. Now that is slavery. The apostle Paul said "For freedom Christ has set us free. Submit not again to a yoke of slavery." I think it's amazing. We'll go off to camp for a week. We come back and we say, "God spoke to me." And then we get back into the rush of life and God stops speaking. Right? Oh no, we stop listening. What happened at camp was incredibly simple. All we did was to get rid of enough distractions for along enough period of time in order to concentrate. You don't need camp to do that. You can do that right in the course of your daily life, taking up little disciplines of fasting from the media.

We need times of fasting from the telephone

Then third, I'd like to suggest times when we can fast from the telephone. Now the telephone is a wonderful instrument if it does not control us. I know people who will stop praying to answer the telephone. Can you think of anything more absurd than that?

We had a Christian executive in our home a while back, and we had a meal together and then we were sharing together. And while we were talking the telephone rang, and because what we were talking about was significant, I said to him, "Let it ring. If it's important, they'll call back." And he looked at me and he looked at that telephone and he looked back at me and he said, "I have never done this in my entire life."

Now, really, people will come to our home or perhaps to our office, maybe at some sacrifice and distance, and then we will insult them by interrupting what we are doing to answer a gadget. In our home when we are having a meal together or when I am reading stories to my boys, we do not answer the telephone. You want to know why? I want those boys to know that they are more important than anything that can be on that machine. If it's important, they'll call back. You just try it some time as an experiment. Just let it ring and monitor your own feelings. I'll miss the chance of a lifetime. I know you can't believe this, but people have lived for hundreds of years without that machine. If it's important, they'll call back.

We need times of fasting from conversation

Then fourth, I would like to invite us to consider times when we will fast from conversation. Some people just foam at the mouth constantly. And the discipline of silence is one of the most needed disciplines in our culture. And professors and pastors and politicians, all those who make a living by being good with words, so desperately need this spiritual discipline. Do you know one of the reasons we find it so hard to remain silent? It is because it makes us feel so helpless. We're so accustomed to relying upon words to manage and control other people. If we're silent who will take control? Well, God will take control. But we'll not let him take control unless we can trust him.

You see, there is an intimate connection between trust and silence. The tongue is our most powerful weapon of manipulation. A constant stream of words flow from us because we're in this eternal effort to adjust our public image. You see if I have done some wrong thing or even some good thing that I think you might misunderstand and I find out that you know about it, I am going to be very tempted to speak up and straighten you out on that matter because I so desperately want you to think that I'm good. Do you see? Silence is one of the deepest disciplines of the spiritual life simply because it puts the stopper on all that . James tells us that the tongue is a fire, and it is indeed. May I just urge all of us to discipline our words so that they will be few and full. Bonhoeffer wrote that when the tongue is under our authority much that is unnecessary remains unsaid, but the helpful and essential thing can be said in a few words. Just try it some time in a committee meeting at church. It makes the meetings much shorter.

And you learn so much about prayer. See, perhaps something needs to be said and I think, Oh, oh, but wait a minute, wait a minute, maybe, maybe somebody else needs to deal with that. Lord, would you raise up a vessel?I'm willing to speak if it's right, but maybe somebody else. And after a little bit here comes somebody who speaks to the issue far better than I ever could have done, and they've had a ministry and I've learned something about the work of prayer. Fasting from conversation.

We need times of fasting from billboards

Then fifth, I'd like to urge us to learn the discipline of fasting from billboards. I still remember the day that I was driving the Los Angeles freeway system when all of a sudden I realized that my mind had been dominated by the billboards for a solid hour. Now when you think of it, the idea that you're in good hands with Allstate is a first class heresy. The notion that Pepsi is the real thing or that Coke adds life is pornography of the first magnitude; that is, it is a complete distortion of what is actually the case.

Now when I suggest that we learn to fast from billboards I do not mean that we refrain from looking at billboards but that the billboards be a signal to us of another reality. When the ad man shouts out to us his obscenities "More, More, More" that can trigger into our minds another word, a rich, full bodied word "Less, Less, Less." When we're bombarded with bigger than life pictures of foxy ladies and babies, maybe that can trigger into our minds another world, a world in which 460 million people are the victims of acute hunger. Ten thousand of them will be dead before we go to sleep tonight. A world in which a million hogs in Indiana have superior housing to a billion people on this planet.

We need times of fasting from our consumer culture

And that leads me to my sixth suggestion, which is that we discover times when we will fast from our gluttonous consumer culture that we find so comfortable. For our soul's sake we need times when we can go among Christ's favorites, the broken, the bruised, the dispossessed, not to preach to them but to learn from them. We need to go in F poverty into the slums of our cities to hear the whimpering moaning songs from the slums. We need to force ourselves to look around and see the twins lying naked and unmoving on the small cot. They will soon die, the victims of malnutrition. And like me you want to turn away and forget that world, but we need to stay there and see the little boy. He's a whose brain is already vegetating from marasmus, a severe form of malnutrition. Maria, the mother, tries to speak to us, but words do not come. Tears do come, the tears of a brokenhearted mother.

I say that for the sake of our balance, for the sake of our sanity we need times when we can be among those who, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi, live an eternal compulsory fast.

Richard Foster is professor of spiritual formation at Azusa Pacific University in California. His many books include, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, 25th Anniversary Edition (HarperCollins).

(c) Richard Foster

Preaching Today Tape #16


A resource of Christianity Today International

Richard Foster is professor of spiritual formation at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California, and author of Celebration of Discipline (HarperCollins, 1988).

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Sermon Outline:


I. Fasting is a valid, biblical tradition

II. Fasting reveals what controls us

III. Fasting should be our response to urgent needs

IV. We need times of fasting from people

V. We need times of fasting from the media

VI. We need times of fasting from the telephone

VII. We need times of fasting from conversation

VIII. We need times of fasting from billboards

IX. We need times of fasting from our consumer culture