Fasting as Fuel for the Soul
Fasting as Fuel for the Soul
We're in the third week of a series called Fuel For the Soul. We're looking at some ancient Christian disciplines that serve to strengthen us spiritually. Week one I talked about silence and solitudeturning off the noise in your life and listening to the voice of God. Week two was about transformational Bible readingnot reading Scripture for information, but for transformation. This week we will look at one of the most unpopular and least practiced of the ancient disciplines: fasting.
The comedian Gallagher used to ask, "Why do they call it a fast when it goes by sooooo slow?" Many can relate to that. Fasting does seem to bring the movement of time to a standstill. Of all the disciplines it is, in some ways, the most difficult because it requires a level of self-denial that's beyond many of us.
The fact is, we don't talk about fasting nearly enough. In the past ten years, it appears that I have mentioned fasting in only one other sermon. This wasn't an intentional omission, but an omission nonetheless. Today we'll take a step toward correcting it. In preparing for this message, I talked to a number of people about fastingpeople who have never tried it and people who do it regularlyand their perspectives gave me a great deal of insight.
One guy said to me, "The thought of fasting terrifies me. If you tell me I will have no money, I think, 'I will survive.' If you tell me I'll have to sleep on a bare hardwood floor for the next six months, I think, 'No problem. I can do that.' But if you tell me that I won't have anything to eat for the next 24 hours, I panic." I can relate entirely to how he feels.
Last spring, I began studying this subject. Though I had fasted on occasion, it had never been a consistent habit. Last spring I began fasting along the same pattern that I will recommend in this message, and I have noticed a major difference in my spiritual walk and in my prayer life. During the process, I learned some truths and principles about fasting that will help you begin taking steps toward adding this spiritual discipline to your Christian life.
There are no hard-set rules for biblical fasting, but there are some guidelines we can follow. Let's take a look at them.
Avoid improper motives
What are our motives for fasting? It's possible to fast for the wrong reasons, as God said in Zechariah: "When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted?" (Zechariah 7:5)
Obviously, the purpose for fasting is not to impress anyone. This is what the Pharisees did. Jesus said about them, "When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting" (Matthew 6:16). The Pharisees fasted on Mondays and Thursdays because those were the market daysthere were more people in the commerce center to impress with their holiness. Clearly, that's not the right approach. When you fast, it's best not to let anyone know about it, if possibleexcept your family, of course.
Also, there are some health benefits to fasting, but these shouldn't be our primary motivation. Sometimes people say, "I'll fast, and I'll get closer to God, and maybe I'll lose some weight in the process." Maybe so, but in my experience, fasting is a lousy weight-loss strategy. Whatever you lose you tend to gain back rather quickly. Natalia Rose is a nutritional consultant that plans four-day fasting weekends for women at a health spa. The retreat includes a trip to an expensive department store to keep them motivated, to help them remember, as she says, "what it's all for." Fortunately, there's more to fasting than just dropping a few pounds, which we'll look at more closely in a moment.
I've also heard people say that they were afraid to fast because of the health risks involved. I'm not a doctor, and if you're really concerned about it, you need to consult your health professional but most of them would agree that a certain amount of fasting is beneficial. Today's Christian Woman reported a story about a man who announced to his family that he was going to fast and pray. His five-year-old daughter, knowing that fasting meant going without food, said, "No! You can't fast. You'll die!" He explained to his daughter that many men and women fasted in Bible times. The little girl thought for a moment, and then with a flash of insight said, "And they all died, too!" Well, you won't die. At least not immediately. A brief fast won't hurt you; in fact, it will probably help youbut health benefits are not our primary motive for fasting.
What should be our primary motive for fasting? Simply put, to connect with God on a deeper level. As John Piper said, "Christian fasting at its root is the hunger of a homesickness for God." You fast to get closer to God. To be more specific, let's look at five good scriptural motives for fasting.
Five scriptural motives for fasting
1. To hear from God.
"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" (Acts 13:2).
During a time of fasting, the leaders of the church heard from God. This is why church leaders should commit to fasting together. It's also why you personally should commit to fasting. When you fast, God speaks to you.
2. To intercede for others.
"When they were ill, I put on sackcloth and humbled myself with fasting" (Psalm 35:13).
Do you want to add a new element of power to your prayers for others? Go without food. It proves to God, and to yourself, that you mean business. A friend of mine went on an extended fast because his son was going through a divorce and he didn't want it to happen. I asked him, "Do you really think you can change your son's attitude by not eating?" He said, "No, a fast won't circumvent my son's free will. But I am praying that God will intervene in their family situation in such a way that my son will come to his senses. And I'm praying that his family will have the strength to deal with his decision. And I'm praying that I will deal with my son with wisdom and gracenot the frustration and judgment that I feel right now." You can't fast to change others, but you can fast to ask God to intervene in someone's life. Another scriptural motivation for fasting is
3. As an act of repentance.
"Nothing's going on in the place of worship, no offerings, no prayers nothing. Declare a holy fast, call a special meeting, get the leaders together, round up everyone in the country. Get them into God's sanctuary for serious prayer to God" (Joel 1:1314,The Message).
There are times when we as a nation, or we as a church, need to come together in a public expression of repentance through fasting. Recognizing that our country had gotten far off track, in 1863 President Lincoln declared April 30 to be a day of national repentance, fasting, and prayer. He said, "It is the duty of nations as well as of men to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us. We have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has grown, but we have forgotten God."
Maybe this has happened in your lifeyou've forgotten that you need God. One way to express heartfelt repentance is through the act of fasting. I want to make it clear: fasting doesn't earn your forgiveness, or get you forgiven faster or more thoroughly than you would experience otherwise. Fasting does, however, help you come to grips with your sin. It helps you to see sin for what it really is. It helps you to see sin as God sees it. Fasting intensifies the act of repentance, so to speak, so that you understand more about the ugliness of sin and the beauty of God's mercy. Another reason to fast is
4. For Strength and Direction
"Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust" (Acts 14:23).
When Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in the church, they fasted for wisdom and guidance in choosing the right men. They also fasted, presumably along with the elders, for strength for these men to perform their duties effectively. If you don't know the right decision to make, fasting will help you discover God's wisdom. If you know the right thing to do, and need strength to do it, fasting will help you experience more of God's power in your life. Another scriptural reason to fast is
5. An act of worship.
The gospel of Luke says this about a woman named Anna: "She never left the temple, but worshipped night and day, fasting and praying" (Luke 2:37). Fasting is an act of worship. A friend told me that he often fasts on the weekendall day Saturday and Sunday morning----in preparation for the worship service. He said fasting helps him keep his focus on God.
These are five scriptural reasons for fasting. Now, let's look for a moment at the methods of fasting.
Methods of Fasting
Fasting is like walkingit doesn't require a great deal of training or explaining. You just don't eat. However, there are some guidelines that are good to follow.
1. Start with a 24-hour fast.
Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline, recommends beginning with a noon-to-noon fast. This way, you skip two meals. You eat lunch on Monday, for example, and then you begin your fast. You skip dinner and breakfast, and you end your fast with lunch on Tuesday. If you've never fasted before, this is a good place to start. I recommend doing it once a week.
From there you can move to a three day fast, and then to a seven day fast. I have a friend who does a 40 day fast every year, but I have yet to try this myself. Interestingly, he told me that fasting one day a week is better than fasting 40 days at a time, because the one day a week keeps bringing you back, week after week, to focusing on God.
2. Drink Liquid.
The Bible does reference a total fast (i.e. no food, no water) but those are rare exceptions. When you fast, you need to drink liquid. I drink water and green tea, but not coffee or coke. Some people drink juice during a fast. It's a matter of preference, but you do need to drink a lot of liquid.
3. Take a walk.
When I get hungry, drinking some water and taking a ten-minute walk helps alleviate the hunger pains.
4. Resume your eating habits carefully.
If you fast only one day, you won't notice much of a difference. But when you fast three or seven days, you want to be careful with your first couple of meals. I wouldn't recommend breaking a fast with a bag of Doritos or a bowl of chili. Your first meal after a fast should be soup, or something mild.
5. Every month, fast from something.
In addition to fasting one day a week, I recommend fasting each month from something special. Daniel describes a fast in which, "I ate no choice food; no meat or wine touched my lips " (Daniel 10:3). I recommend that each month you choose to fast from somethingone month pizza, the next month ice cream, the next month Mexican food, and so on. This is not a huge sacrifice in that it forces you to go hungry, but it is one more small sacrifice that helps youkeep your focus on God. I do this now and I find it to be helpful; I encourage you to try it.
Jesus used the phrase, "When you fast," not, "if you fast." God wants fasting to be a part of our spiritual discipline. I hope that today you will decide to implement this practice in your Christian walk. I will close now with three tips for more effective fasting.
1. Focus on Jesus when you fast.
I will confess that the first time I fasted I didn't think about Jesus, all I thought about was food and how hungry I was. Needless to say, it wasn't a very effective fast. The next time, during my 24-hour fast, I made it a point to think about Jesus. I thought about the Christmas story, his temptation in the wilderness, his teachings, his miracles, his passion, his death, and his resurrection. I made it a point to focus on Jesus during my fast, and not surprisingly, I drew closer to him.
2. Don't be legalistic.
A few years ago, some friends and I were talking about fasting and one asked, "When you fast, do you brush your teeth? Because if you do, it doesn't count. It's not a real fast!" I said, "What are you talking about?" He said, "It's true! I know all about fasting because I was raised Catholic. If you brush your teeth, then God doesn't see the fast." Well, I'm not an authority on Catholic dogma, so I don't know if he is correct or not. But I am sure of this: brushing your teeth doesn't negate a fast. Neither does taking a cough drop or a vitamin. Don't be legalistic about the "fine print" of your fast, and don't look for loopholes. It's not an international treaty, it's an act of spiritual devotion. If you go on a three-day fast and you fail half way through, don't give up, don't beat yourself up, just pick up where you left off and keep going. Remember, the purpose of the fast is not just to go without food. The purpose is to help you connect with God on a deeper level.
3. Expect results, but not immediately.
Usually, I don't reap the benefits of the fast until later. Fasting has brought me into a closer relationship with God, fasting has enabled me to experience more of God's power, and fasting has improved my prayer lifebut these aren't changes that took place at the snap of a finger. There have been times when I have ended a fast thinking, "It didn't work this time. I didn't accomplish what I wanted to accomplish." But a week or two later, I realized, "God has done a work in me that I didn't recognize at first."
Fasting is a way to connect with God on a deeper level, but don't expect your fast to be full of bliss. It will, most likely, be more than a little challenging. A friend of mine said, "I always have to apologize to my wife after a fast because I tend to get a little irritable." Then he said, "It takes time for the positive effects to set in."
God will move in your life as the result of a fast, but you need to be patient. You may not see it immediately. Jesus said this about fasting, "Your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you" (Matthew 6:18).
We talk a lot about grace. Salvation is a gift of God, not the result of our good works. Our purpose for fasting is not to persuade God to love us more. Our purpose is to not to manipulate him into doing our will. Our purpose in fasting is to connect with him on a deeper level.
When you fast, you demonstrate to God that knowing him is more important than your own personal comfort. When you fast, you demonstrate faith. When you fast you demonstrate commitment. God honors your effortJesus said he rewards you. The greatest reward of this habit is that you will find yourself in a deeper walk with God than ever before.
A resource of Christianity Today International
Steve May has been a pastor to pastors for more than 20 years, helping preachers and teachers to become more effective communicators of the gospel.