This is the third of the “when you …” statements of Jesus. We’ve looked at when you give and we’ve looked at when you pray. Today our subject is fasting. Jesus says, “when you fast …”
Friends, as you’ve noticed by now, Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, is talking about heart religion. He has taught that the Christian faith has as its foundation, an inward work that Christ does in the heart, in the heart that cries out to him in faith. And on this inner foundation, the rest of the Christian life is built. The Christian life, however, is not just an inward thing. It results in,….. it manifest in,….. it bears fruit…… which are outward acts, and they can be summarized as we saw previously in acts of mercy and acts of piety. Acts of piety are things which relate to our love of God. Acts of mercy relate to our love of neighbour. These two don’t so much balance each other as complement each other. Faith in God, without works in the world, is dead faith. It is not faith at all, says James in his letter.
Two weeks ago we looked at Jesus’ teaching on acts of mercy, and in particular we looked at our relationship towards the needy. From that teaching he goes on and speaks of two acts of piety. Now, these are obviously not the only acts of piety that there are, but they are the two that Jesus stresses in the Sermon on the Mount: prayer which we looked at last week, and today we look at fasting.
Now notice that Jesus says in vs 2, vs 5 and vs 16, when you give, when pray, when you fast. That word “when” implies something, doesn’t it? It implies that Jesus expects this of us. If he had said, if you give, if you pray, if you fast – that would imply that we had some sort of choice in the matter. But the word “when” really implies that this is a command. A person who is in authority over you, who says to you, “when you do that” is implying that you will do it. Isn’t that true? The people of Jesus’ day understood this and fasting was a common spiritual discipline among Jewish people. The early church understood this and fasting was a common spiritual discipline in the church. John Wesley understood this – he fasted twice a week, on Wednesdays and on Fridays. And he expected and encouraged the Methodist people to do the same, to fast.
Let’s have a look at what fasting is,
then we’ll have a look at some different types of fasts.
We’ll have a look at why we should fast
and I’ll close with a few practical tips.
What is fasting?
In Scripture, fasting means to go without food. The Greek word which is used in the New Testament, and I am not a Greek scholar as you know, but the Greek word goes something like this: it is nousteou and it means, “no food”. Normal water intake, yes, but no food. That is the normal fast and it is the most common fast that is mentioned in the Scriptures. Going without food for a certain period of time, commonly just a day, but sometimes longer.
Scripture also speaks about two other types of fasts, the absolute fast, which means going without food and water, but this is not a very common fast in Scripture. Then there is the partial fast, sometimes called “the Daniel fast”, which involves abstaining from a particular type of food. This is also a very uncommon type of fast in Scripture, compared to the normal fast….. going without food but still drinking water.
Why should we fast?
There are several very good reasons that Scripture gives to fast. I have just chosen nine or ten for this talk.
Probably first and foremost as an answer to the question, “why fast?” is…. because Jesus did. That’s a good reason, isn’t it?
A second good reason would be because he seems to expect it of us. “When you fast”, he says. I think we need to look long, hard and honestly at ourselves if these two reasons are not enough.
But here are some more:
One of the results of fasting properly (not the way the Pharisees did, which we will examine in the Bible study) is humility. If you read Psalm 69:10 in different translations, particularly in the Revised Standard Version, the Good News Version and the English Standard Version, you will get a good understanding of what that verse is teaching. Essentially it teaches that through fasting comes humility. In 1 Kings 21:29, God himself speaks to the prophet Elijah, and seems to connect Ahab’s fasting with humility coming into his life. And, in fact, Ahab is spared because of this humility. The more a person fasts, the more humble they become. You might remember that spiritual poverty was the first beatitude and it relates to humility. Fasting strengthens spiritual poverty in our lives. Therefore fasting strengthens our foundation in Christ.
Another reason to fast is this: God himself says in Isaiah 58 that when you fast properly it helps your prayers to be heard on high.
Another reason: in Jonah we learn that fasting can actually cause God to change his mind. Isn’t that amazing? God had actually made up his mind about something in that story and fasting on the part of the Ninevites seems to have played an important part in changing God’s mind. Of course their fasting also humbled them as well.
Fasting also helps us to receive revelation and understanding. When you are struggling to understand a Scripture, particularly if it is a Scripture that the Lord has placed on your mind or your heart and you know that he wants you to understand the Scripture, you know that he is perhaps using the Scripture to try and guide you. Fasting can help in receiving revelation and understanding. When you are trying to interpret a dream or a vision, which are other ways of God trying to reveal things to us, fasting can help there as well.
Fasting is also a very useful way of receiving God’s guidance.
Fasting is also an expression of sincere repentance. It helps us to mourn our sin. Do you remember that? It was the second beatitude: blessed are those who mourn. When you fast for strength from God in order to overcome a temptation in your life, in order to grow in holiness, it shows God how serious you really are about growing in that area of your life.
Another reason to fast is this: sometimes it is necessary to fast in order to drive out demons.
Fasting of course serves another very practical purpose: it keeps us from slavery to our stomachs. It helps us to tell our stomachs who is actually the boss. Fasting shows us that we do not live by bread alone.
I hope I have whet your appetite, so to speak, for fasting.
Let’s think very briefly of some of the objections that people have, to fasting.
Firstly, people will often say that it is more important that we, as Christians, should fast from sin and not from food – this is what God really requires from us. Well, this might be true. God certainly wants us to abstain from sin but the command throughout Scripture is also to abstain from food every now and again, in a regular fast.
Another objection is: isn’t it better to abstain from things like pride and vanity, from foolish and harmful desires, from anger and discontent. Isn’t it more important to stay away from these things than from food? And without a doubt, it is important to stay away from those things. But again, let’s remember that one of the reasons we fast is, in fact, to gain strength to overcome sin in our life. We in fact seek to have to the grace of God conveyed into our souls through this outward means of grace.
The third objection to fasting is: we don’t find that it’s very useful in our experience. We have fasted and it doesn’t seem to have helped much. In fact we were not a bit better off. In fact we found that we were a lot worse off. It seems to bring about in us a lot more anger and we were very difficult to live with when we were fasting. Well, this is sometimes the case but the fault does not lie in the fasting itself, it lies in the manner of using this means of grace.
Another objection that people have to fasting is that it is mere superstition. That people use fasting as something they just add on to their prayers or to their life. Well, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, Jehoshaphat, Ezra, Nehemiah, most of the prophets, Jesus himself, many in the early church, Paul and Barnabas – they all used this means of grace and it was not used as a means of superstition.
A few words on how often one should fast.
The early church had fixed fasts, as indeed did the Jewish nation, as in fact does the Jewish nation today. But to get back to the early church. The early church had fixed fasts, annual times of fasting. There were quite a few but the one that has perhaps lasted to this day in some traditions is that it is still done to fast over Easter, sometimes over the so-called Easter weekend – Good Friday through until Easter Sunday morning.
People sometimes embark on fasting over the period that we call Lent. So, there are annual fasts.
There are also, as practiced by the early church, weekly fasts. And in the early church, Friday was set apart as a regular weekly day for fasting. It is sometimes worthwhile to set aside in your church or in the group that you are a part of, to set aside a day of the week – Friday is a good day – that you will fast. So there were fixed fasts, annually and weekly.
Then of course there are also special fasts when, in your own personal life or in the life of the church or the life of the nation, people might be called to fast. This then would be another way of classifying different sorts of fasting: annual, weekly and special fasts.
Let’s have a look at some practical tips regarding fasting.
Friends, always remember that it is God in heaven who is to be impressed by our fasting, rather than people here on earth. So it is generally a good idea to fast in secret, to not advertise the fact that you are fasting because if you do advertise the fact that you are fasting, you will be tempted by pride. “ I can’t have tea afterwards – I’m fasting, you know.” Do it in private.
Some practical tips: If you are on medication, the partial fast might be the fast for you. If you want to embrace fasting in your life and are on chronic medication, you need to check with your doctor whether you can normal fast.
If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, a partial fast is certainly the fast for you.
If you are a tea or a coffee drinker, and my experience is that it seems to be worse with coffee drinkers or any other caffeinated products, you’ll go into caffeine withdrawal about ten hours into your fast and one of the most common withdrawal symptoms from caffeine is a terribly debilitating headache. So if fasting is going to be a regular part of your spiritual lifestyle (and it needs to be) then caffeine free products become more important. If you are going to fast, for example, one day a week, then the day before at least you need to wean yourself off caffeinated products. But it would probably be a good idea to stay away from caffeinated products as much as you can.
Another tip: remember that when you fast, you are going to get very bad breath, even if it is just for a day. You need to take precautions and you need to be sensitive about that.
Perhaps the best tip I can give is this: really try and work through the Bible Study that has been prepared for this week, because in this study we are going to look at all these things and many more in a great deal more detail.
Let me close with a quote and a word. The quote again is from Wesley: “The purpose of fasting is to wean the soul from its natural attachment to earthly things and to keep before us our spiritual destiny. No extreme aesthetic practices are necessary, nothing injurious to health, but a rigid self-denial which expresses the necessity for keeping our attachments to worldly things relative and our concern for our heavenly destiny absolute, is a clear command of Christ. When used in the right way as a means of reminding ourselves of our relationship to God, not as an end for seeking merit, fasting will be blessed.”
That’s the quote I would like to end with.
The word I would like to end with is this: Fast.