The essence of fasting is embracing our weakness, and our need of God. It leads us to a place where we are more deeply connected to our need for Him, where we are joyfully humbled by our utter dependence upon Him. It doesn’t hurt our prayer life, either.
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LENT #2. FASTING. LUKE 4;1-2
1 And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. (Luke 4:1-2, ESV)
Last time we talked about how God often leads those with whom he is pleased into difficult things. This is not because God is mean, or perverse, but rather, because he knows more than us, and sometimes suffering brings us tremendous blessings. Some of the blessings we receive through suffering may not be fully realized until we stand with Jesus in our new, resurrected bodies:
16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.(2 Corinthians 4:16-18, ESV)
This time I want to look at the spiritual discipline that we call “fasting.” As we see from our text in Luke, Jesus went without food during a period of forty days. I used the ESV translation above because it captures the Greek quite well: “And he ate nothing during those days.” This could mean that Jesus had nothing to eat, whatsoever, for forty entire days – in other words, for 960 hours. It could also mean that for forty days, Jesus had nothing to eat while it was daylight. The Greek would support either meaning. If you pushed me, I would say that I think Jesus ate one simple meal each day, after dark for forty days. Again, however, it could mean that he had no food whatsoever during all that time. I also want to point out that it says nothing about drinking, and since the human body cannot survive longer than about three days without liquid, I’m quite sure that Jesus at least had water to drink during this time.
This practice of deliberately going without food for a period of time is called fasting. The English word “breakfast” simply means to break (that is, end) the fast of the night-time hours. Protestant Christians are often both confused, and somewhat ignorant about fasting. One of the things most Christians do know is that fasting from food is not a necessary part of following Jesus. I quoted this same passage last time:
16 So don’t let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. 17 For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality. 18 Don’t let anyone condemn you by insisting on pious self-denial or the worship of angels, saying they have had visions about these things. Their sinful minds have made them proud, 19 and they are not connected to Christ, the head of the body. For he holds the whole body together with its joints and ligaments, and it grows as God nourishes it.(Colossians 2:16-23, NLT)
20 You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the spiritual powers of this world. So why do you keep on following the rules of the world, such as, 21 “Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!”? 22 Such rules are mere human teachings about things that deteriorate as we use them. 23 These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires.
Fasting certainly falls into the category of food and drink, and also practices of pious self-denial. Paul’s point in the Colossians passage is not that you should never have a special holy day, or that you should never fast, but rather that you should not allow anyone to condemn you for what you do, or don’t do, with regard to such things. Fasting, merely for the sake of fasting, accomplishes nothing. Fasting will not make you more holy. If done with the wrong attitude, it will not help you fight temptation. Jesus himself condemned the way some people practiced fasting:
16 “And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. 17 But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. 18 Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.Matthew 6:16-18, NLT.
When we use fasting as an opportunity to show off spiritually, we have made it almost useless. When we make fasting into a rule that we have to follow, we destroy its value.
However – and this is a big however – since at least the time of Moses (that is, for more than three thousand years) followers of God have engaged in fasting. You can find followers of God fasting in almost every Old Testament book. Jesus fasted, obviously, on more than one occasion. His disciples fasted, after Jesus was crucified and raised. In the two-thousand years since then, millions of Christians have engaged in this spiritual discipline, some quite regularly. In short, fasting, done the right way, can be very beneficial in our relationship with God.
I’m going to talk about my own fasting experience. Please understand something however: I am not trying to give you the impression that I fast twice a week for years on end, or anything remotely like that. I believe I have done it often enough to help me teach about fasting, but I’m quite sure I would benefit from fasting a lot more often than I actually do it. Perhaps this message is also for my own sake, to become more regular with it.
Usually, I plan ahead of time the sorts of things I want to bring up with God during a fast. Maybe I’m feeling burdened for a particular person or issue. Maybe I want to be closer to God. Perhaps I want God to address something in my life that I am having a difficult time dealing with. Sometimes I write down my “fasting concerns” in a notebook. Sometimes I don’t.
The normal Biblical model of fasting is going without food for a set period of time. As I mentioned before, sometimes that means not eating while the sun is up for one day, or many (and not “making up” for your missed meals by gorging in the evenings). Sometimes fasting might mean going without food for a set number of hours. I would say that to get any benefit from it, you ought to go without food long enough to develop hunger pangs for a period of time. When the hunger pangs come, you can use them in at least two ways.
First, every time you feel hungry, use that as a reminder that there is something special going on between you and God today. Let the hunger pangs remind you to pray. Briefly pause what you are doing, and pray for the concerns that you want to address in your fasting. You might then continue working, and continue praying as you work, if possible. As you pray, use the hunger. You might think or pray something like this: “Lord, I am hungry, but I want your intervention in these things even more than I want to eat.” Let your hunger become an appeal to God. Present your hunger to God as a prayer.
Second, when you feel hunger (and perhaps weakness along with the hunger) use that feeling to maximize your dependence on God in general. I might think something like this: “Oh wow, I feel weak and hungry right now. God, as much as I feel like I need food right now, I need you, even more. As much as I desire to eat, I have an even greater desire for you, and for your work in my life. I confess to you that I need you even more than I need to eat.” Embrace the weakness you feel. Embrace the desire for food (without satisfying it), and let God turn them into dependence upon Him, and desire for Him.
If you haven’t fasted before, some of what I’m describing might make more sense to you after you have tried it.
Many people have adapted “fasting” to include things like abstaining from only certain kinds of food (like not eating sugar, or red meat). Or, abstaining from watching television, or from watching sports, or playing video games. Some people might even say it like this:
“I’m giving up _________ for lent.”
Myself, every year, I give up football for lent (to my overseas listeners, this is a joke: there is no American football during that time of year).
These are admirable ideas, but to really engage the power of Biblical fasting, I think it needs to be something that provides constant reminders throughout the fast (like hunger pangs), and something that makes you aware of your weakness, and your absolute need for God. You need to abstain from something in such a way that the fasting continually leads you into dependence upon God, into prioritizing him above all else. To be honest, I’m not sure that abstaining from video games or sugar would do that. One thing I can think of that might be comparable to not eating is ceasing smoking. From what I understand, if you are a smoker, and you quit, you will have constant cravings, and you will be reminded of your weakness and need for God. Along those lines, the apostle Paul says it is OK for married couples to fast from sex for a short period of time, as long as they both agree to it (Note: he doesn’t command it!). He does command couples to not take that particular kind of fasting too far. My own struggle with pain has sometimes provided the same sort of experience as fasting: The pain becomes a reminder that is felt by only me. I feel a deep need for God, and I use the pain almost as a prayer.
In spite of these few exceptions, I wonder if it is significant that in scripture, the only kind of fasting it really talks about is fasting from food. One of my concerns about other types of things that are called “fasting” these days, is that they sort of emphasize our own will power and achievement, without emphasizing our weakness and dependence on God. If I “fast” from watching TV, I might be tempted to become proud of my self-discipline, proud of doing something that feels righteous. When I fast from food, I feel too weak, too needy, to become proud. Not only that, but if I fast from sugar, or TV, or video games, basically, I am just becoming a healthier person. I’m not casting myself in dependence upon God, I’m working to make myself a better person. That’s a good thing, but it is definitely not the main spirit or intent behind the discipline of fasting.
I will add two very important things. First, it might be wise to check with a doctor before you fast. Particularly if you are diabetic, or have some other kind of health condition, you ought to make sure it is safe before you try it.
Second is this: If the fast is becoming a hindrance, rather than a help, just stop, and eat something. This doesn’t mean that fasting won’t ever work for you. It means that this particular fast, at this point in time, isn’t helpful, so let it go. A few times, I have fasted, and all I could think about was how hungry I felt. I wasn’t feeling dependence on God, and I wasn’t really praying any more, I was just obsessing about my desire to eat. I talked to the Lord about it, and I felt clear permission to go ahead and eat. At a later time, I fasted again, and that later fasting was very spiritually helpful. So, even if the first time you try it, it doesn’t go well, don’t give up. If you have a time when it doesn’t seem helpful, don’t write it off for the rest of your life.
A few practical thoughts. If you are new to fasting, I would suggest going without food from one evening meal until your next evening meal. In other words, eat the evening meal, and skip snacks for the first evening, and then fast from breakfast and lunch (and any snacks) the next day. Break your fast with the evening meal twenty-four hours after your last meal. This is not too terribly challenging. You should be able to get in a few hours of hunger pangs that way.
While you fast, please be sure to drink plenty of non-caloric fluids – water, black coffee or tea (though be careful with too much caffeine on an empty stomach!), or plain carbonated water. I don’t recommend diet drinks, because they can sometimes fool your body into thinking you’ve had something sweet, which can mess with your blood sugar, and actually make the fast more difficult. If you are really struggling, but you also really want to finish the fast, a cup of broth or bullion sometimes helps you feel better, and contains only a handful of calories.
If you have already done some fasting, and/or if you want to challenge yourself a bit, you could fast from after the evening meal of day 1, throughout all of day two, and then break your fast the morning of day 3. That would make basically a thirty-six hour fast.
People who fast for multiple days in a row are usually only fasting during daylight hours (in other words, they have one meal per day, in the evening). One other approach for multiple-day fasting is to drink broths, and diluted fruit juices throughout the fast. Please do be careful about multi-day fasting without any food at all. Do some research and prepare well before embarking on a long fast.
I also want to reiterate the advice of Jesus. Fast during a “normal,” day, going about your normal routine (apart from food). Don’t advertise the fact that you are fasting – the point of the fast is what is happening in your own relationship with God, and it doesn’t have to concern anyone else. If someone asks you why you aren’t eating, you don’t have to be paranoid about it – you can admit you are fasting without feeling proud or bad. On the other hand, if you start as I suggested, most people won’t even notice you skipping breakfast and lunch – the evening meal is the one you are most likely to share with others, so no one has to know that you’ve been abstaining all day long. Again, you don’t have to be all mysterious – if someone happens to ask why you aren’t eating, you can mention it. But try not to use fasting to make yourself look good in the opinion of yourself, or of others. That’s what Jesus warned about.
Sometimes, in the bible, a group of people would agree to fast together. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with that, and nothing wrong with other people in the group knowing that you are fasting along with them. There is no basis for anyone in the group to become proud, since everyone is doing the same fast. I will say this however: we should be very careful to not coerce anyone into fasting with us. I was once part of a group where two people basically shamed the rest of us into fasting with them. There was no clear purpose or goal for our fasting. It was more that they wanted us all to show what hard core Christians we were. Needless to say, that fast didn’t go very well for me. Don’t let yourself be forced into it, and don’t try to force others to join you, but it isn’t wrong to invite, without pressure, others to join you.
It makes sense to me that Jesus began his ministry work with this long fast. As we will see later, the things gained in fasting tended to counteract the temptations the devil gave Jesus. Fasting leads us to depend on God, not on ourselves, or the resources we might have. So, when the devil tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread, Jesus was already in a place of deep dependence on God.
Even though Jesus had a perfect union with the Father, he found it helpful to fast. Without making it a law, I would like to suggest that if even Jesus practiced fasting, we too, could find tremendous benefit in it. For now, at least let us remember that we need God more than anything, even food. Our need points us to God’s satisfaction of all needs: Jesus Christ. Rely on Him today!