Sunday Sermons

Sunday Sermons

Spiritual Disciplines - Part 2: Fasting


Spiritual Disciplines II







“In a culture where the landscape is dotted with shrines to the Golden Arches and an assortment of Pizza Temples, fasting seems out of place, out of step with the times.  In fact, fasting has been in general disrepute both in and outside the Church for many years.  For example, in my research I could not find a single book published on the subject of Christian fasting from 1861 to 1954.  The constant propaganda fed us today convinces us that if we do not have three large meals each day, with several snacks in between, we are on the verge of starvation.  This coupled with the popular belief that if it is a positive virtue to satisfy every human appetite, has made fasting seem obsolete.  Throughout Scripture, fasting refers to abstaining from food for spiritual purposes.  It stands in distinction to the hunger strike, the purpose of which is to gain political power or attract attention to a good cause.  It is also distinct from health dieting which stresses abstinence from food for physical, not spiritual purposes” (Foster pp. 47-49). 



Fasting in the Scriptures


In the Old Testament there was only one official public fast, which is on the annual Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:27 “you shall humble your souls”; “deny yourselves” NIV).  This is language that is used elsewhere in reference to fasting (Psalm 35:13; Isaiah 58:3,5).  The primary meaning of the Hebrew word translated “humble”, “deny” or “afflict” is “to force” or “to punish or inflict pain upon”, “to find oneself in a stunted, humble, lowly position”.  Here it seems to mean self-inflicted inner pain expressing repentance that was accompanied by fasting (Leviticus 16:29, 31).  We find a similar example of fasting as a demonstration of repentance inJoel 2:13-15. 


There was fasting when God’s people faced a crisis (Esther 4:16).  In the book of Ezra, a fast was proclaimed to seek God’s protection as many Israelites returned to Jerusalem (Ezra 8:21-23).  In the early church, the Christians in Antioch prayed and fasted before sending out Paul and Barnabas on the first missionary journey (Acts 13:3).  Thus we find fasting prior to the selection of men for a certain spiritual work or prior to engaging in some spiritual task.  In 1 Corinthians 7:5 (KJV), Paul advises a period a prayer and fasting if a couple desires to abstain from sexual relations for a period of time.  Jesus noted that after He was removed from this earth, that His disciples would fast and He even left instructions concerning certain aspects of fasting (Matthew 9:15 “But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast”; Matthew 6:16 “And whenever you fast”). 



The Purpose of Fasting


“Fasting must forever center on God.  Like the prophetess Anna, we need to be ‘worshipping with fasting’ (Luke 2:37).  Like that apostolic band at Antioch, ‘fasting’ and ‘worshipping the Lord’ must be said in the same breath (Acts 13:2)” (Foster pp. 54-55).  It is so easy for fasting to become nothing more than an external ritual, for the purpose of self-glorification (Matthew 6:16).  God questioned the people in Zechariah’s day, “When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months these seventy years, was it actually for Me that you fasted?” (Zechariah 7:5).  In the next verse it is revealed that they were doing all these things merely for themselves (7:6).  The purpose of fasting cannot be allowed to degenerate into a diet or some physical cleansing, the primary purpose must be to center our thinking upon God.  Isaiah 58 reveals that one can fast often, and still remain very unspiritual (58:3-5).



The Benefits of Fasting



Fasting reveals the things that control us.  This is a wonderful benefit to the disciple who longs to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ (Philippians 2:3-5).  Foster notes that “we cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface.  If pride controls us, it will be revealed almost immediately.  David writes, ‘I humbled my soul with fasting’ (Psalm 69:10).  Anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear—if they are within us, they will surface during fasting.  At first we will rationalize that our anger is due to our hunger; then we will realize that we are angry because the spirit of anger is within us” (p. 55).    


Fasting reminds us that we are sustained “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).  In the end, food does not sustain us; God sustains us.  “Therefore, in experiences of fasting we are not so much abstaining from food as we are feasting on the word of God.  Fasting is feasting!  When the disciples brought lunch to Jesus, assuming that He would be starving, He declared, ‘I have food to eat of which you do not know…My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to accomplish His work” (John 4:32,34)” (pp. 55-56).  This appears to be one reason behind Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 6, that during fasting we are not to act or look like we are miserable, because, in point of fact, we are not miserable.  We are feeding on our relationship with God. 


Fasting helps us keep our balance in life:  How easily we begin to allow nonessentials to take precedence in our lives, “and the worries of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word” (Mark 4:19); “Do not be anxious for your life, as to what you shall eat’’(Matthew 6:25).  “How quickly we crave things we do not need until we are enslaved to them.  Our human cravings and desires are like rivers that tend to overflow their banks; fasting helps keep them in their proper channels” (p. 56). 


Fasting reminds us that we are a spirit:  Our world is continually attempting to convince us that this world is all there is (Romans 12:1-2).  We are surrounded by a culture whose “god is their appetite….who set their minds on earthly things” (Philippians 3:19). Fasting reminds us that we are a soul that simply happens to be in a physical body, and that the body needs to be in subjection to the spiritual best interests of the soul, “I buffet my body and make it my slave” (1 Corinthians 9:27).  As long as we surround ourselves with instant comforts and continually keep the body well feed and comfortable we can lose sight of the needs of the soul.  This is probably one reason why people do not seem very interested in God during times of prosperity, because the soul can live on physical comforts and diversions for a while. 


Fasting is humbling:  Fasting reminds us how dependent we are for God’s physical blessings.  It reminds us that we are far from invincible, in fact, we are frail, for without such a simple thing as food we will eventually die, and when we miss a meal, we definitely do notice it.  Fasting does remind us that we are like a vapor (James 4:14).  When we are comfortable and have all our physical needs met it is tempting to think that one does not really need God that much in this life.   Fasting can bring us back to reality and remind us that without God’s blessings we are vulnerable and we would not survive very long.


Fasting and repentance:  Fasting is at times linked with repentance in the Old Testament.  It would seem that when we remove ourselves from some of the comforts in this life that we might see ourselves in a clearer light.  When we are full and physically content we can be tempted to fall into a false sense of spiritual contentment as well.  Our society does make the mistake of assuming that if we are blessed materially then we must be right with God.  The Christians in Laodicea had made the same mistake, “Because you say, ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’ and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable, and poor and blind and naked” (Revelation 3:17).


Fasting can help us overcome sinful addictions:  Fasting reminds us that denying ourselves some physical pleasure is not the end of happiness.  Fasting can give us the confidence to say “no” to fleshly temptations.  We learn the lesson that self-control does feel good and has many positive benefits.  We learn that certain things are sweeter when they are given their proper time and place.  The simple pleasure of food is only enhanced by fasting.  Fasting enables us to learn that we can deny ourselves, that we are not slaves to our bodily appetites and that we can muster inner strength if we so desire.  In fasting we can certainly gain a better insight into our own level of spiritual maturity and strength. 


Fasting can help us redeem the time:  Think about how much time we sometimes spend for lunch or some other meal.  Fasting can enable us to accomplish a number of good things without any interruptions. 


An effective way to deal with grief:  “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” (Daniel 10:2-3).  Fasting is an effective way of dealing with serious problems that are bothering you.  Instead of worrying, getting frustrated, or feeling sorry for yourself, fasting places one in utter dependence upon God, who controls this universe.  If you are trying to get over a personal loss, worried about someone, and how to confront them, concerned about problems in the brotherhood and so on, try prayer and fasting.



Practical Applications



“Contemporary men and women are largely ignorant of the practical aspects of fasting” (Foster p. 56).


1.     Begin with a partial fast of twenty-four hours duration; many have found lunch to lunch to be the best time.  This means that you would not eat two meals.  Fresh fruit juices are excellent to drink during the fast.  Break your fast with a light meal of fresh fruits and vegetables and a good deal of inner rejoicing. 


2.     One of the misconceptions about fasting is that such a fast must last for days.  The fast on the Day of Atonement was only for one day. 


3.     A normal fast of 24 hours would include drinking healthy amounts of water while you are abstaining from food. 


Mark Dunagan/Beaverton Church of Christ/503-644-9017