In his book on Spiritual disciplines Donald Whitney writes, “There are times we struggle with temptation, or we anticipate grappling with it, when we need extra spiritual strength to overcome it.” (p175) These are times when we may want to fast as a means of drawing near to God and gaining spiritual strength for the battle.
When Jesus was prepared to begin his ministry he first went to John the Baptist in order to be baptized. During that Baptism, the Father revealed Jesus to John as the Messiah by sending the Holy Spirit to come upon him in the form of a dove; together with a voice from God himself saying, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” As Jesus, now filled and empowered by God's Spirit comes up out of the water the Holy Spirit directs him to walk off into the lonely desert regions. The reason for his Spirit lead journey was for the single purpose that Jesus would be tempted. Over the next forty days and nights Jesus endured unremitting temptation while fasting.
The book of Hebrews tells us that, “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered.” (Heb 5:8 NAU) This period of fasting and testing was an extreme period of intense training for the road ahead.
Please stand as you are able this morning and read with me Matthew 4:1-11.
Fasting Trains You for Self-Denial
It's been said that these days no Olympic gold medalist gets to the top step of the platform without an excellent personal trainer. What is an Olympic league personal trainer going to do? 1. he's going to force you to get up and get going when you don't want to. 2. He's going to watch your mistakes and through repetition teach you to overcome them. 3. When you get that single muscle trained to obey, he's going to move on to the next one without letting you rest on your laurels. 4. But what he isn't going to do: he isn't going to run your race or swim your laps for you.
This morning I want to introduce fasting as your personal trainer to help you gain victory over unrelenting temptation.
Even as I say that I want to lay out this caveat from Colossians 2:16-23.
“...no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink ...Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement...and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body...grows with a growth which is from God.
If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 'Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!; (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)- in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.”
This passage ought to be the filter through which much of our study of fasting passes. Fasting is not a super-spiritual ritual which only the mature can handle. Neither is fasting the pathway to God. But most importantly for today, as we talk about the role of fasting in overcoming temptation it is vital to pay attention to that very last clause: “[fasting is] of no value against fleshly indulgence.”
If you decide to fast, your body, your flesh is going to undergo an increase in temptation. Fasting doesn't help you overcome temptation either by some kind of spiritual magic or even through pulling the basic bait and switch. In other words, men if you're temptation is internet pornography, fasting isn't going to eliminate that temptation and it isn't going to overwhelm that temptation with a greater hunger. What fasting will do, is provide training in the arena of denying the urges of the flesh as it relates to your appetites. That training is what will assist you in overcoming temptations of the flesh. But because fasting is of no value against fleshly indulgence we have to be careful.
Fasting reveals your weakness as you seek strength
As much as fasting will train you for self-denial it will also reveal your weakness. This is captured in Matthew's simple declaration, “And he was hungry”. In fact Jesus had gotten so weak through his fasting that both Matthew and Mark tell us that after it was over the angels came and ministered to Him. My own suspicion is that this was the Father's provision of food.
Jesus had been lead by God's Spirit into the desert for the express purpose of being tested. During that period of testing the Lord Fasted (Mat 4:2). His fasting was invariably about drawing near to God and seeking strength but it also highlighted his frailty.
It has been my purpose to fast at various points in my life in order to help strengthen my soul for some impending difficulty. God uses this time of us seeking Him to strip away all of the things that we usually depend on so that in the time of trial we will depend completely upon Him for our victory. In so doing, fasting becomes one of our greatest tools together with prayer for overcoming difficult circumstances faithfully because it teaches you to rely upon God entirely.
Fasting Isolates your dependence on God.
Jesus' fast is clearly a supernatural fast. He fasts for forty days and nights which for the Jewish mind would immediately make them think of Moses' forty day fasts when he both received the ten commandments from God and when he interceded for the people of Israel. (Exodus 34:28, Deut 9:9,18) But forty days is outside of the human body's ability to endure. Therefore we understand that the fasts of both Moses and Jesus were supernatural fasts, God clearly sustained them during these critical times and thus taught them that they could depend on God.
Consider your temptations for a moment. When you are tempted to lie, to take, to gossip, to give in to lust, to fight, or whatever your temptation – it is usually born around a desire to satisfy your own flesh. In those moments you are not relying upon God to satisfy you, you are relying upon yourself. This is the essence of the first recorded temptation.
We get to the end of the forty day fast in Matthew 4:2 and we're told that Jesus was hungry; the fact is so vital that Luke also mentions it (Luke 4:2).
The fact of his hunger while it might seem obvious is intentionally set out because it highlights the severity of the first recorded temptation. It is important to note that here in Matthew 4:2 as well as in Luke 4:2 that the fast is over, though it apparently has not yet been broken. In other words the temptation is not about ending the fast early, it's about Jesus relying upon himself instead of God.
Remember that Jesus has been brought out to the wilderness by God's Spirit. That same spirit has been directing his fast. If we're walking in obedience to the Holy Spirit He's not going to just drop you midway through obedience – he's going to finish guiding you through.
But the tempter urges Jesus to short circuit the process, after all he doesn't need the Spirit to fix this problem, he is the son of God and can do it Himself. But forty days of fasting have been teaching Jesus to rely upon the Father for everything he needs. It should come as no surprise that when the temptations wind up to the final three the first in line is going to be an all out assault on the source of strength.
The first recorded temptation is directly against the physical result of the fasting. For forty days Jesus had been fasting for strength, direction, guidance, nearness to the Father and obedience; now this first temptation is set against the source of Jesus' strength.
See how little has changed? Where are the sources of temptation directed in your life? They take you away from prayer, from the word of God, from fellowship, from nearness to God. Always the enemy - the tempter he knows where to aim at you. If he can steadily erode your foundation you will be left a hollow and helpless shell.
And so the temptation for us is ever the same the tempter subtly whispers, “You can satisfy that desire you have the capacity just do it without any regard for God or his word.”
But fasting serves as a suitable tool to train you to rely upon God. Yes one of the great dangers of fasting is that it can lead you astray to pride, arrogance or self-sufficiency. Colossians makes a big deal of those who claim the way to righteousness is by obeying the rules, “don't taste, don't touch, etc.” It's not about rules it's about relationship. As long as we maintain that knowledge fasting becomes a useful tool for helping us to grow stronger in the face of temptation, not by establishing boundaries but by drawing near to God.
So again I commend to you this tool of fasting. Not only for drawing near to God but for training you to deny yourself, to reveal your weaknesses and to teach you to rely completely upon God to sustain you. In so doing you may find extra help in overcoming the temptations that overwhelm you.