On the Spiritual Fast Track
November 10, 1996
Fasting, too much neglected and ignored among us, is a good and beautiful thing. It gives a more realistic form to the spiritual thoughts that should habitually dominate us, such as those of our unworthiness and our dependence upon God. It restores to the mind what it takes away from the flesh, and by relieving the soul from the general oppression of fleshly burden, it facilitates the soaring freedom of the spirit towards the invisible things of greater worth. Finally, by the voluntary deprivation it imposes, it increases our compassion for the involuntary deprivation of so many others whose life may be a perpetual fast. Dr. Vinet. (So we fast for a spiritual purpose, to do a spiritual work, and to gain a spiritual understanding.)
Self-indulgence is the enemy of gratitude, and self-discipline usually its friend and generator. That is why gluttony is a deadly sin. The early desert fathers believed that a person’s appetites are linked: full stomachs and jaded palates take the edge from our hunger and thirst for righteousness. They spoil the appetite for God. Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.
There are Christians whose “flesh,” whether by its quantity or natural temperament, renders them sluggish, slothful, wavering, and physically by far too fond of the “good things” of the table---. Grosart. (The flesh and the spirit are opposed. Continually feed the flesh, its lusts and appetites and you starve the spirit. But temporarily starve the flesh and the spirit thrives in the midst of a symbolic and purposeful dedication of the death of the flesh to the life of the spirit.)
The object of fasting is the mortification of sin. Is your mind distempered, your heart hard, your grace weak, and corruptions strong? Does pride, envy, malice, the love of the world, or any other filthiness of the flesh or spirit prevail? Fasting is then your duty. Some demons will not come out except by fasting and much prayer. When this is the case, fasting is the most proper remedy, and should be used as the chief means to accomplish it.
Although Christians did not retire from the business of life, yet they were accustomed to devote many separate days entirely to examining their own hearts, and pouring them out before God, while they dedicated their lives anew to him with uninterrupted prayers, in order that they might again return to their ordinary occupations with a renewed spirit of zeal and seriousness. These days of holy devotion, days of prayer and penitence, which individual Christians appointed for themselves, were often a kind of fast-days. They were accustomed to limit their worldly and fleshly wants on those days, or to fast entirely. That which was spared by their abstinence was applied to the support of the poor among them. R. Watson.
Jesus has many who love his heavenly kingdom, but few who bear his cross. Many want consolation, but few desire adversity. Many are eager to share Jesus' table, but few will join him in fasting.
Thomas À Kempis (C. 1380–1471)
I. Explanation of Fasting
The definition of fasting is to abstain from food for a period of time. There may be either physical (health/weight loss) or spiritual purposes for this. The subject of this message is the spiritual fast and how to get on track with the purity of its intent, purpose and accomplishment. This is especially important in regard to the Prayer and Fasting ‘96 initiative for our church and nation being carried out in St. Louis by many national evangelical Christian leaders this Thursday through Saturday. As a part of the body of Christ, we are invited to be a part of this focus on humility and intercession regarding national, corporate and individual sins that have caused our downfall and erected a barrier against the grace of God that He desires to lavish on those who are obedient.
Most Americans, and I would say many Christians, in our over indulgent and affluent society would discount, even abhor, the idea of abstaining from food for any reason. It seems to go so radically against the flesh and the mainstream of our culture. It is relegated to some ancient, fanatical, religious idea that has no bearing in the present day. But the Bible does significantly mention fasting at least 77 times. A spiritual fast can legitimately take many forms regarding length (from one meal to several days) and content (to abstain from all food and water, just solid foods, just rich foods) as well as purpose. We might even have a fast from television, telephone or transportation. In any case it is the voluntary self-denial of some function or privilege for the sake of spiritual devotion.
A normal fast would be to abstain from all food but to drink water or perhaps fruit juices for one to three days. Without supernatural intervention, the body cannot go longer than three days without water. No one should fast who has a questionable medical condition where fasting would prove to be physically harmful. In such case there may be modifications that can be made or fasting from something other than food. At least, the intake of food could probably be limited in some way.
The purpose of a fast can be private, congregational, or national in scope. It could include all three, but your purpose for the fast should be specifically ironed out before God before starting. Otherwise it becomes only a physical exercise rather than a spiritual awakening. It is nothing new for our nation to have a time of fasting just like Jehoshaphat did for the nation of Judah in 2Chron. 20. And we may be in just as dire need as a nation now.
During the early days of our nation, Congress proclaimed three national fasts. And Presidents John Adams and James Madison each called all Americans to fast. Also Abraham Lincoln called for national fasts three separate times during the Civil War. The early Christians had regular days of fasting each week. This week we are calling on you to make a vow to God to fast in some way for all or part of this national time of prayer and fasting from Thursday through Saturday. Commit your purpose to Him and ask Him to give you the strength to carry it out and to reveal to you the spiritual blessing for having done so. Even after this week is over, I would call upon you to fast at least one day per week, preferably on Wednesdays in preparation for our weekly prayer meeting. Fasting is never to become just a legalistic exercise to feed our spiritual pride as it did with the Pharisees as in Luke 18:9-14. Spiritual fasting without a humble heart, painfully aware of our own sin, and seeking God through the spiritual purpose we have committed to Him, is useless.
II. Expectation of Fasting
Christ Jesus expected us to fast. In the passage in Matthew 6:2-18 we see this in the context that He not only expects us to give and to pray but to also fast. And He gives us some instructions about it that it should be between us and God and not pandered about. His instructions include a negative command, a positive command, and a promise. There are no commands about how long or how often we should fast. It is both a calling and an inquiry between us and the Holy Spirit.
(We see in Acts 13:2 and Acts 14:23 that the early Christians fasted.)
We also see Jesus’ expectation that we will fast in the passage in Matthew 9:14-15 where He answers John’s disciples that when He is gone there will be ample reason to fast. And here we are still today. Christ has not yet returned. Spiritual reasons to fast abound. We will review ten possible reasons that Donald S. Whitney has outlined in his book, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life.
III. Purpose of Fasting
Your fast must have a spiritual purpose, otherwise it is a miserable, self-centered experience. Fasting cannot be a way to earn God’s favor and it will not earn God’s favor. It will not impress Him or make us acceptable to God. That happened once and only through the work of Jesus Christ and we cannot add to it. Fasting can have no benefit aside from repentance and faith.
A. To Strengthen Prayer
Whether it can be explained or not, fasting applies a greater depth and passion to our intercession and supplication before God. But it is not a spiritual hunger strike that compels God to do our bidding. It will not cause God to reconsider something outside His will. The secret of fasting lies not so much in changing God’s hearing as it does in changing our praying. In his book God’s Chosen Fast, Arthur Wallis offers this insight:
Fasting is calculated to bring a note of urgency and importunity into our praying, and to give force to our pleading in the court of heaven. The man who prays with fasting is giving heaven notice that he is truly in earnest---Not only so, but he is expressing his earnestness in a divinely-appointed way. He is using a means that God has chosen to make his voice to be heard on high.
God is pleased when we apply the means He has ordained to strengthen our prayers. It would seem then that fasting is a means by which we can increase the sincerity and urgency of our prayers. All the biblical purposes of fasting relate to prayer in one way or another. Fasting enhances our prayer life. Wallis says again:
In giving us the privilege of fasting as well as praying, God has added a powerful weapon to our spiritual armory. In her folly and ignorance the Church has largely looked upon it as obsolete. She has thrown it down in some dark corner to rust, and there it has lain forgotten for centuries. This hour of impending crisis for the church and the world demands its recovery.
B. To Seek God’s Guidance
Fasting enables us to more clearly discern God’s will. Although it does not guarantee the certainty of receiving clear guidance, we can be sure that, if done in the right way, it will make us more receptive to the guidance from God that we seek. If done in the right way we will have humbled ourselves before Him so that we can hear the still, small voice of spiritual reason. In other words, we must want to do God’s will in order to hear God’s will.
David Brainerd prayed with fasting for the Lord’s leadership regarding his entry into ministry. On Monday, April 19, 1742, he recorded in his journal: “I set apart this day for fasting and prayer to God for His grace; especially to prepare me for the work of the ministry, to give me divine aid and direction in my preparations for the great work, and in His own time to send me into His harvest.” He said of his experience during that day,
I felt the power of intercession for precious, immortal souls; for the advancement of the kingdom of my dear Lord and Saviour in the world; and withal, a most sweet resignation and even consolation and joy in the thoughts of suffering hardships, distresses, and even death itself, in the promotion of it---My soul was drawn out very much for the world, for multitudes of souls. I think I had more enlargement for sinners than for the children of God, though I felt as if I could spend my life in cries for both. I enjoyed great sweetness in communion with my dear Saviour. I think I never in my life felt such an entire weanedness from this world and so much resigned to God in everything.
C. To Express Grief
Fasting can also be an expression of grief because of death, particular events or sin. But the emphasis on sin is grief over sin and not that we can expect in any way to pay for our sins by such a practice as fasting. We are not required to pay for our sins, indeed we cannot pay for our sins because Christ has done that once for all (1Pet. 3:18). He has promised to forgive our sins if we confess them (1John 1:9). Fasting can and should be a part of heartfelt confession as an expression of grief that words cannot express. We are to grieve over sin as God does and we may, in the grieving process be even unable to eat food like David when he grieved for the life of the child of adultery with Bathsheba. Fasting expresses the depth of our feelings to God even as our prayers are often accompanied by tears.
D. To Seek Deliverance of Protection
We may fast to seek salvation from enemies or circumstances. Sins often turn up enemies in a sort of spiritually divine retribution. When we are prompted to fast and pray in repentance for sins, we should also fast and pray for protection from the damage that those sins have caused. National sin is a reality, and as Christians that reside in the nation, unless Jesus comes, we will also have to endure whatever national judgment that comes even though we may not have directly contributed to the national sin.
And what about persecution from the various fronts we face from family, work, school, or neighbors. Fasting and prayer in an appeal to God for protection and deliverance should be our first line of defense in such cases rather than fleshly reactions of anger, accusation, gossip or political maneuvering.
E. To Express Repentance and the Return to God
But as repentance is a change of mind resulting in a change of action, fasting can represent more than just grief over sin. It also can signal a commitment to obedience and a new direction. Jonah’s preaching prompted Nineveh to repent and change course through the declaration of a national fast. Fasting can express repentance, but fasting for sin without repentance is useless. We must deal honestly with sin, calling it what it is and agreeing with God about it or we drown out His voice with our own delusion. It is a perversion of fasting to try to use it to balance self-punishment for a sinful part of life we want to continue feeding. Puritan, Thomas Boston, said,
In vain will ye fast, and pretend to be humbled for our sins, and make confession of them, if our love of sin be not turned into hatred; our liking of it into loathing; and our cleaving to it, into a longing to be rid of it; with full purpose to resist the motions of it in our heart, and the outbreakings thereof in our life; and if we turn not unto God as our rightful Lord and Master, and return to our duty again.
F. To Humble Oneself Before God
Fasting, when practiced with the right motives, is a physical expression of humility before God, just as kneeling or prostrating yourself in prayer can reflect humility before Him. Even wicked King Ahab finally humbled himself and fasted in repentance at the Word of God through Elijah in 1Kings 21:27-29 when he was called to account for the prearranged death of Naboth. In response, God said He would not bring disaster upon Ahab’s house during his lifetime but during the lifetime of his son. This demonstrates that no matter what our sin, God is willing to forgive if we are willing to humble ourselves and turn from it. We should remember that fasting itself is not humility before God, but merely an expression of humility. David Smith, in his book, Fasting: A Neglected Discipline, said:
By this we must not conclude that the act of fasting has some virtuous power, and that we have made ourselves more humble; there is no virtue in fallen man by which he can make himself more godly; there is, however, virtue in the divinely appointed means of grace. If we, by the power of the Holy Spirit, mortify the deeds of the body (through fasting), we shall grow in grace, but the glory of such change will be God’s alone.
G. To Express Concern for the Work of God
Just as a parent might fast and pray out of concern for the work of God in the life of a child, so Christians may fast and pray because they feel a burden for the work of God in a broader scope. A Christian might feel compelled to fast and pray for the work of God in a place that has experienced tragedy, disappointment, or apparent defeat such as for the current tragedy in Zaire even though Christian missionaries have been active there for some time. Nehemiah’s fast and Daniel’s fast over the plight of Jerusalem fit into this category. In our own recent past, to quote David Brainerd again in his concern to fast and pray for the work of God as he entered his thoughts is his journal on June 14, 1742,
I set apart this day for secret fasting and prayer, to entreat God to direct and bless me with regard to the great work I have in view, of preaching the gospel---God enabled me to wrestle ardently in intercession for absent friends---The Lord visited me marvelously in prayer; I think my soul never was in such an agony before. I felt no restraint, for the treasures of divine grace were opened to me. I wrestled for absent friends, for the ingathering of souls, for multitudes of poor souls, and for many that I thought were the children of God, personally, in many distant places.
Obviously we can’t fast continually, but may the Lord at least occasionally give us a concern for His work so great that our normal concern for food will seem secondary in comparison.
H. To Minister to the Needs of Others
Fasting need not always be for purposes of introspection. The longest passage in the Bible on fasting in Isaiah 58, especially verses 6-7, emphasizes fasting for the purpose of meeting the needs of others. The people referred to in this passage had fasted and humbled themselves before God but He had not heard them. God tells them that He did not answer them because of their disobedience. Their lives were in hypocritical contrast to their fasting and praying. Fasting cannot be compartmentalized from the rest of our lives. God will not bless our seeking Him, even in fasting, when we reject His Word regarding relationships with others. How can we carry this out? Fast for one meal a day and use that time to minister to others in some way. That way you don’t lose any time from your other commitments. Use the money you saved by not eating to minister to someone who needs it.
I. To Overcome Temptation and Dedicate Yourself to God
If you want to overcome temptation, it is a good thing to do to fast. In so doing you overcome the desire of the flesh through which temptation will come. Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness in His spiritual battle with Satan in Matthew 4:1-11 and dedicated himself to the ministry which lay directly ahead. We too can fast for the purpose of victory and dedication, although a 40 day supernatural fast is probably out of the question for us. There may be times when we particularly anticipate struggling with some temptation to which we have a weakness and we need extra spiritual strength to overcome it. Fasting would then seem to be the Christlike response. In times of exceptional temptation, exceptional measures are required.
J. To Express Love and Worship to God
Fasting need not only be associated with dire circumstances and great troubles. It can also be an act of sheer devotion to God. Anna in Luke 2:37 was one of those. She worshipped night and day, fasting and praying until the Christ-child came. What a more devoted purpose can we find? She did this for probably 60 years. Fasting can be an expression of finding your greatest pleasure and enjoyment in life from God, meaning that you love God more than food, that seeking Him is more important to you than eating. This honors and worships God, meaning that your stomach isn’t your god (Php. 3:19). Instead, you make it into God’s servant, and fasting proves it because you’re willing to sublimate its desires to those of the Spirit. The time you save eating can be given to expressions of love, worship, praise and adoration towards God.
Remember that fasting is a privilege and not an obligation. It is the acceptance of a divine invitation to experience His grace in a special way. May we yearn for days when God will cause us to crave the spiritual banquet of worship more than any earthly meal. Remember that fasting must always have a spiritual purpose, not a self-centered one. This is the way God will bless our fast. Thoughts of food must prompt thoughts of God. They must not distract us but remind and motivate us toward our purpose. Remember that we cannot manipulate God to do our bidding by fasting any more that we can by any other means. As with prayer, we fast in hope that by His grace He will bless us and the seriousness of our intended purpose. And when our fast is rightly motivated, we can be sure He will bless us, although we must be prepared to be blessed in a way that we may not have thought of. Author, David Smith, said:
Any blessing which is bestowed by the Father upon His undeserving children must be considered to be an act of grace. We fail to appreciate the mercy of the Lord if we think that by our doing something we have forced or coerced the hand of God to grant that blessing which we asked for---All of our fasting, therefore, must be on this basis; we should use it as a scriptural means whereby we are melted into a more complete realization of the purposes of the Lord in our life, church, community, and nation.
So fasting should always have a purpose, but we must learn to elevate His purposes over ours. Even at our best we do not deserve what we desire. And whether or not we receive the blessing we hope for, one thing is sure: If you knew what God knew, you would give yourself the identical blessing that He does. And none of His rewards are worthless.
A. Will you confess and repent of any fear of fasting?
Let’s face it, when you are really involved in something you want to do you have missed a meal before, perhaps while working, shopping, recreating. Whenever we believe another activity is at that moment more important, we will go without food without complaint. We need to learn that there are times when it can be not only more important, but much more rewarding to feast on God than on food (Matthew 4:4). We should not fear the blessings of fasting.
B. Will you fast as the Holy Spirit directs?
One of the ways the Holy Spirit prompts us to fast is through a need in our lives. If you need stronger prayer about a matter, that’s an invitation from the Lord to fast. If you need God’s guidance in an issue in your life, that’s and encouragement to fast. If you need deliverance or protection, that’s a time to fast. Will you do it? Or will you miss the unique opportunities for grace that He would extend to you through fasting. If you have never fasted before, start with a one, two or, at most, a three meal fast. But start somewhere.
Fasting hoists the sails of the soul in hopes of experiencing the gracious wind of God’s Spirit. But fasting also adds a unique dimension to your spiritual life and helps you grow in Christlikeness in ways that are unavailable through any other means. If this were not so, there would have been no need for Jesus to model and teach fasting.
C. Will you plan a fast of dedication now as an expression of your willingness to fast from now on?
Prayer and Fasting ‘96 is a good place to start on the spiritual fast track. You’ll be the winner, and you just might bring someone else along with you in your prayers for them and for our church and nation.
Illustration “A” (for the nation)
Many are unaware that the Declaration of Independence did not come into being until a day of fasting and prayer had been observed. Appointed by the Continental Congress, it was kept by all the colonies on May 17, 1776. At that time in our history, God and the Bible were given more reverence and recognition than they are today. When the nation was finally born, our forefathers rang the Liberty Bell with great enthusiasm, and a legend says that it cracked as they zealously proclaimed their freedom. Years later the White Chapel Foundry of London offered to recast the huge carillon, but their proposal was refused. Apparently the symbolic value of the damaged bell, which recalled the religious and patriotic fervor of those early days, was something that America still wished to preserve.
This in itself is good; but in view of our nation's moral decline, the crack may also suggest a break in our basic ideals and a serious defect in our spiritual attitudes. We can remedy the situation and avert the judgment of the Lord only by repentance, fasting, prayer, and a return to the faith of our fathers. In this sense, there is no time for delay in "mending the bell."
Illustration “B” (for the church)
Some churches have parking problems, some other churches don't.
Some churches have kids running around making a lot of noise some other churches tend to be very quiet.
Some churches usually have more expenses than money, some other churches don't need to spend much money.
Some churches are growing so fast you don't always know everybody's name, in some other churches everybody has known everybody's name for years.
Some churches enthusiastically and generously support missions, some other churches keep it all at home.
Some churches are filled with tithers, some other churches are filled with tippers.
Some churches evangelize, some other churches fossilize.
Some churches are always planning for the future, some other churches live in the past.
Some churches seek new ministries and new methods, some other churches do not need to.
If you sense God calling you this morning to make more of an active difference in the church at large, even our church, by fasting and praying for her, the Bride of Christ, why don’t you take a moment right now to make that commitment to Him. Let us become a willing part of this national initiative of fasting and prayer for both our nation and our church as we hold fast to the truth we know and love as Jesus Christ himself, and our freedom to proclaim it. The question is, do we care enough, as the people of God, to fast for the purposes of God.
Illustration “C” (obedience)
We have to treat our body as the servant of Jesus Christ: when the body says, "Sit," and he says, "Go," then go! When the body says, "Eat," and he says, "Fast," then fast! When the body says, "Yawn," and he says, "Pray," then pray!
Oswald Chambers (1874–1917)