There are many doctrines in the Bible that receive light billing today. Though the Bible is not silent on the matter, the pulpit is strangely mute. Which of you has heard a sermon on sleep? Indeed, we spend one-third of our lives in slumber, yet even though the Bible speaks of our nocturnal habits, few ministers preach on the matter. The same goes for other dogmas such as hell, meditation, tongues, and, of course that which the text mentions, fasting!
Today, let us seek to remedy at least one portion of this abysmal situation and open the book on fasting.
What is Fasting?
Jesus said, “When you fast . . .” (Mt. 6:16) In the Greek, “fasting” is “nesteuo,” meaning, “not to eat.”
Three sorts of fasts are taught in Scripture.
- The normal fast. This is to abstain from food, solid or liquid, except for water for a set period of time. Matthew 4 describes Christ fasting for 40 days in the wilderness.
- The absolute fast. This is to abstain from food and drink, including water for three days. In Acts 9:9 Saul, after being blinded on Damascus Road, resorted to a total fast for three days.
- The partial fast. This is to restrict one’s diet in some manner, such as giving up sweets or meat. It represents self-denial. Matthew 3:4 explains such habits in John the Baptizer’s life. And Daniel 1:15 says it was a portion of Daniel’s life also.
However one fasts, we must remember Jesus who gave us His own body and blood. Our fasting is a faith response to Him. It is the sacrifice of our own flesh to Him.
Is fasting for you? Or is it a form of spiritual discipline no longer relevant? Scouring the Scriptures, one compiles a list of fasting adherents that reads like a Who’s Who in the Testaments.
Moses is the first recorded person in Scripture who fasted (Exodus 34:28).
King Davis fasted when Saul perished in battle (2 Samuel 1:12).
Others who practiced fasting include the prophet Elijah, Daniel, the seer (Daniel 9:3), Nehemiah the builder (Nehemiah 1:4), Job the sufferer, the children of Israel (Judges 20:26), the people of Nineveh (Jonah 3:5-7), Anna, Hannah, Esther (Esther 4:6), and the apostles (Acts 9:9). Jesus even fasted (Luke 4:2). And great stalwarts of the later church such as Luther, Calvin Knox, and Wesley fasted.
Now for the question . . .
Should Christians Fast Today?
Jesus said in Matthew 6:16, “When you fast . . .” He did not say “If you fast . . .” But “When.” Furthermore, in Matthew 9:15 Jesus explained, “When the bridegroom is taken away, then they will fast.” Clearly Jesus expected fasting to be a part of our spiritual discipline. Why, here in Matthew 6 Jesus counts fasting as a normal piety right alongside prayer and tithing.
Now, for another question . . .
What Happens When One Fasts?
The text mentions the word “reward” twice. Of what possible benefit is fasting? What reward is there?
Our physical bodies are like that of a camel. We can store up food and water in our inner pantry. But when we begin to fast, several things start to occur.
- The body begins to use up excess fat.
- The body is purged of toxins. A sort of physical “spring cleaning” goes on.
- One has an extra 3 or 4 hours a day to pursue
spiritual matters since one doesn’t have to prepare food, stop to eat, or clean up three times.
During a fast the volume of the physical world is turned down, while the volume of the spiritual world is turned up. This is at least partially because the oxygen and blood normally going to one’s stomach to aide digestion goes instead to one’s brain, thus aiding clear thinking. Carnality is diminished. Spirituality is increased. Self-control, a fruit of the Holy Spirit is matured. (Galatians 5:22). And one enters a period of greater sensitivity to Jesus.
You’ve, no doubt, heard the saying, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” Satan knows it’s true. He used food to tempt Adam and Eve. Esau sold his birthright for a mess of porridge. The Hebrew children went to Egypt for food. God warned Israel against eating their fill and forgetting Him in their new homeland.
Jesus even predicted eating and drinking to the full would be a sign of His return. (Luke 12:45, Matthew 24:37-38). So, Christ warned, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:3-11).
So, when we fast, we set food aside for a while to focus on God.
This engenders several splendid things!
- It allows our digestive system to rest. By fasting 1 day each week your stomach will have nearly 2 months rest a year! And just as we rest our eyes or feet or minds, so we can rest our digestive track.
- It allows us extra time to seek God.
- It increases our spiritual sensitivity.
- It fosters self-control
Now for a fifth question . . .
When Should One Fast
Let’s not become legalistic! The Pharisees fasted regularly for outward show of piety. For them it was rote and devoid of spirit. It was “to be seen by men.” (Mt. 6:16).
Simply fast when God moves you to do so. It is a matter of individual conscience.
In Scripture, here are some examples of when God’s people made the choice to fast.
- For national repentance (Joel 2:12, Jonah 3:5, 10).
- During a crisis. Jehoshaphat, 2 Chronicles 19. Paul Blinded, Acts 9:9.
- When power to intercess in prayer was needed. Nehemiah 1:1-11, Ezra 8:23.
- Before big decisions. Acts 13:3, 14:23.
- To return to the Lord. 2 Samuel 12:7-17, Psalm 69:10.
- For health and healing. 1 Samuel 30:11-15, Acts 9:9. There is an interesting 3,700 year old Egyptian papyrus that quotes a physician, saying, “Man eats too much. He lives on only a quarter of what he consumes. The doctors, however, live on the other three-fourths.”
- To seek God’s revelation. Daniel 9:2, 3, 21, 22; Acts 10:10;
- To free the captives. Mark 9:29.
Now, for a final, sixth, question . . .
How Do I Get Started Fasting as a Spiritual Discipline in My Life?
Let me make a few trenchant suggestions. Begin with the book, God’s Chosen Fast by Arthur Wallis. Next, go through the Scripture references and read each one. Next, pray asking the Lord to show you what he wants from you. Begin slowly. Partially fast by missing a meal. Graduate to a 24 hour fast. And take it from there. God will show you. But like the text says, always fast in secret. Keep the discipline between you and Him alone.
Always, though, as Matthew 6:16-17 warns, keep your fasting a secret. Don’t tell anyone. Only Jesus should know.
When one goes to war, he must not forget his weapons. And fasting is a forgotten part of our spiritual arsenal. Let’s pick it up. Let’s choose what God has chosen.
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