Thursday, January 27, 2011

OnFire # 248 Fasting #3

OnFire Encouragement Letter

OnFire # 248 Fasting #3

Hi Folks:

We’ve been talking about fasting for the past several weeks and finally we arrive at the practice itself.

If we do a quick survey of fasting passages in the Bible, we find several prominent reasons. Fasting was a sign of mourning. People fasted to mourn the passing of king Saul (31:13) and David’s staff questioned his lack of fasting after the death of his child (2 Sam 12:21).

On this theme of mourning, fasting is also a way to grieve over sin as a sign of repentance and turning from idolatry and sin (1 Sam 7:6). Interestingly, both Nehemiah (1:4) and Daniel (9:3) had a sense of collective guilt, and so they personally fasted for the sins of their whole nation.

Fasting in the face of imminent calamity is a common theme in the OT. The people sought God’s direction before going into battle (Judges 20:26). Jehoshaphat proclaimed a fast when he heard an army was coming. (2 Chron 20:3-4). At the order to destroy the Jews, the people fasted in Esther 4:3.

Impending trouble and petition are closely related. David fasted and pleaded with God on behalf of his deathly-ill child (2 Sam 12:16ff). He also humbled himself and fasted for his adversaries when they were ill (Ps 35). Ezra sought direction from the Lord and petitioned for a safe journey (Ezra 8:21-23).

Joel 2:12 sums up a lot of the reasoning behind fasting: “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Fasting is about returning to God. As we saw last week, it is not for us, but for God (Zech 7:5). We fast because we want to draw close to him and so we offer the sacrifice of our personal comfort as a gift to show that we understand life is not about us.

The example of the prophetess Anna adds another facet. She rejoiced upon seeing the infant Jesus and couldn’t help but talk about him to all who longed for “the redemption of Jerusalem.” This longing for the future which God has promised seems to motivate her spiritual disciplines (Lk 2:37-38). Through fasting and prayer we participate in bringing God’s promises and future into being at a deeply spiritual level. God does not need us, but he allows us the privilege of being part of it, of having a front row seat.

We see these elements come together in Acts 13 and Matt 4. The believers in Antioch were fasting when they received direction from the Lord about setting apart Barnabas and Paul for missionary work. They also fasted as part of the act of commissioning (Acts 13:2-3). Fasting was a way to draw close to God, repent of sin, to inquire and seek direction for the future, and participate in God’s broader plan for expanding his kingdom. We should not be surprised that Paul and Barnabas, in turn, appointed elders in the churches through a process of prayer and fasting (14:23).

In Matthew 4, we see that Jesus ate nothing for 40 days in the wilderness just before beginning his public ministry. We can imagine most of these same elements as part of his fast: drawing especially close to the Father, seeking confirmation about direction for the future, and executing the plan for salvation. He did not need to repent, but we see that fasting is spiritual preparation for the testings he will face.

Jesus taught about fasting in Matthew 6:16-18. As with so much of the Sermon on the Mount, the issue seems to be that spiritual matters may become a source of pride and conceit: “Do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting.” In spiritual terms, this is the equivalent of showing off on a bicycle. “Hey everyone, look at how good I am!” In this way Jesus echoes the message we saw in Zechariah and Joel. The fasting of the hypocrite is not for God, but to look good, to earn God’s blessing and favour, or feel good in comparison with others who are “less spiritual.” We must always be careful to examine the motives behind our spiritual disciplines - are they really for God?

This teaching raises the question of how much I should hide my fasting? It is one thing to take a personal retreat or to fast at home where no one will really know, but how do we do this and go to work, for instance, where co-workers may ask why we are not eating? This is not the issue we may fear it is. To begin, we need to live in such a way that no one will even consider that we are being self-righteous. Second, people do not notice as much about us as we might fear. I’ve heard it said that if we really knew how little time people spent thinking about us, we’d be disappointed. Third, while we don’t want to advertise our fasting, we need not fear if people ask us why we are not eating. It may spark a valuable spiritual conversation.

How do we go about fasting? Fasting is a simple concept, but I believe it is something we need to be intentional about.

We need to determine why we are fasting. Is it simply to grow closer to God? To inquire from God? For wisdom or direction? Petition about a personal, family, or church matter? Intercession on behalf of someone or a situation?

We need to determine what we will fast from and for how long. Fasting is normally about giving up food, but may instead involve tv, computer, coffee, meat (sometimes called a “Daniel fast” based on Dan 1:12), or something important to us. For the purpose of this discussion, we’ll use food as the example. How long we fast may vary from a part day to much longer.

We need to pray as we begin. Include confession for our sins. Plan to pray in regular intervals.

One of the great things about fasting is that we can devote the time for food preparation and eating to scripture and prayer. It is amazing how much more time we have when we are not planning to eat.

We can use hunger pangs as prompts for prayer. Hunger was not the issue I thought it would be, but even still we can use it as helpful reminder to pray.

Keeping a journal or notebook through this time is important to record experiences or capture insights and ideas.

I hope this helps. Be on fire.


OnFire is a weekly letter on faith and character written by Troy Dennis. Troy is the Pastor of Family Ministries at Highfield Baptist Church, Moncton NB Canada. This letter published Jan 27, 2010. *Scripture taken from the New International Version. To subscribe or reply, email Archives are located at Blog located at

OnFire #247 Fasting #2 A Table Saw for Jan

OnFire Encouragement Letter

OnFire #247 Fasting #2 A Table Saw for Jan

Last week I recounted some of my early experiences with fasting. Fasting was not part of my upbringing or background, but through scripture and the example of people I respected, my perspective on fasting changed from being something that people on the fringe did, to a deeply meaningful part of my spiritual practices.

This week I want to talk about what fasting is and is not. For this, I want to start with Zechariah 7:5 for the spirit of how we need to see fasting: “... was it really for me that you fasted?” As God spoke through the prophet Zechariah, we see that the people had highly disciplined spiritual practises, including fasting at prescribed times of the year, but their hearts were not in it for God.

Rather than fasting as a gift of devotion from the sincerity of their hearts, they fasted with the hope that God would bless them in some way. It would be like giving Jan a table saw for her birthday. While some women might appreciate this practical and useful woodworking tool, Jan is not among them. The gift really wouldn’t be for her, but for me. If their fasting was really a gift of devotion to God, they would change their ways to bring justice and show compassion because these things are important to God (see vv. 8-12).

This sets us up to talk about what fasting is not. Let me get this one out of the way. Fasting is not about losing weight. I first thought that fasting would have the added benefit of helping me with this, but I have never noticed a difference.

Fasting is not about twisting God’s arm to give us what we want. This is perhaps a crude way to put it, but there is something in us that makes us think that God is obligated to us because we do something for him, that if we just fast and pray hard enough then God will give us what we want. In this case fasting is not for God but for us.

A variation on this theme is that if we fast we will win God’s approval or love. There is something in us which thinks that the more we do, the more God will love us. Until we uproot this dangerous weed, we will always fear that we are not doing enough to win God’s love. We always need to remember that God’s love for us is constant and we do not need to earn it.

Fasting is not about being Pentecostal or Baptist, or Anglican, Presbyterian, United, Catholic, or some other flavour of Christianity. I’ll speak from a Baptist perspective because that’s what I am, but you may identify from your own experience. I’ve heard it put this way... “I don’t fast because that’s Pentecostal.” As I read my Bible, I don’t see anything to point to fasting as a particularly “Pentecostal” experience. Strangely, as Baptists we pride ourselves about being “people of the Book,” but we clearly see Paul fasting in the book of Acts. This attitude may have more to do with an “us and them” perspective on our brothers and sisters in other denominations.

Fasting is not about escaping the evil nature of the flesh. I’m not sure where this teaching comes from, but every once in a while I come across someone who believes that fasting is about escaping or purging ourselves from the flesh. Behind this belief is the thought that the spirit is good and the flesh is bad. This duality does not exist in scripture. And in passages like the one in Zechariah, we see that fasting is about relationship, about drawing near to God and offering ourselves to him.

“... was it really for me that you fasted?” The best kind of gift is the one given without the expectation of a return gift. If someone gives me a gift, but then makes it clear that I am obligated to do something in return, it isn’t much of a gift. But this is not always the way we look at our relationship with God. “I gave my money, so why didn’t God do something?” It is the same with fasting. We need to examine our motives so that our fasting is a gift to God.

We’ll cover some more aspects of fasting next week. I hope this helps. Be on fire.


OnFire is a weekly letter on faith and character written by Troy Dennis. Troy is the Pastor of Family Ministries at Highfield Baptist Church, Moncton NB Canada. This letter published Jan 19, 2011. To subscribe or reply, email Archives are located at Blog located at

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

OnFire #246 Fasting #1

OnFire Encouragement Letter

OnFire #246 Fasting #1

Hi Folks:

Happy New Year. We had a good Christmas. Jan’s parents joined us for Christmas eve and Christmas day. We had lots of family time together since our boys did not go back to school until today. We spent New Years with some church families and other friends.

Mark spent a lot of time working on a video for a class project on stereotypes which is really creative. Ian got his first paying photography job as he was hired by a couple of families to take pictures of their children playing hockey.

At church we’re preparing for the annual meeting. I’m starting a small group emphasis this week, and I’m helping a little more with the music and worship planning at our church as our music director finished at Christmas. Things are busy, but they always are. I guess you could say we are back into routine.

We resume our series on spiritual disciplines. As we come to fasting, I have to say that this is something I am relatively new to, less than 10 years. I don’t remembering hearing about fasting as I grew up, except when a medical test was involved, and then it was something unpleasant to be endured for the hope of a diagnosis.

Of course, I knew Jesus’ teaching about fasting in Matthew 6 and I saw examples in the early church . This led me to understand that Christians may fast, but I never heard of anyone who did this until I went to Christian college, and I must confess, I thought the ones who did were a little weird. They always seemed to be a little odd, a little too zealous, and uncomfortable to be around. It was hard to criticize them since scripture is full of positive examples of fasting, but I wasn’t about to join them, either. In my mind I placed it among the fringe elements of Christianity.

I didn’t think much about it again until I became the pastor of a church on Grand Manan, a small fishing island located two-hours-by-ferry off the coast of New Brunswick. Grand Manan is a tight community of about 2000 people where many are related by blood or marriage, and so when tragedy strikes everyone is affected. Sadly, in one year four young people under the age of 22 were killed in accidents related to alcohol or drugs. The Island was in shock and scared for the next generation growing up.

Amidst the cries for better police presence and more youth activities, someone suggested that the churches have a combined service of prayer for the young people. As this idea picked up steam and a date was set, it was also suggested that we should fast to prepare for the meeting. Again, it was hard to criticize the idea since fasting is plainly modelled in the Bible, so despite my misgivings I went along with the idea.

I really was scared as the day approached. How bad would the hunger pangs be? I remembered feeling really hungry as a child just waiting between lunch and supper. What would it be like to miss a whole day? My boys were young but even still I worried about what they would think when I sat down to supper with them but didn’t eat. As it turned out, my fears were unfounded. When I started to feel hungry, I remembered why we were fasting and prayed for the young people. We explained things to the boys at supper and they accepted it easily.

If you talk to people on Grand Manan who were at that prayer meeting they will recall what a blessing it was. The church was packed and there was such a feeling of the power and presence of God. These combined services continued monthly for a while and eventually waned, but those first meetings were incredible, and sparked something in me about fasting. What seemed weird or strange, only an academic possibility before, became real and exciting. I began to look forward to them because during those times I felt so much closer to God and felt a part of something bigger going on. Since then I have fasted to seek direction from God, petition on behalf of others, and as part of retreats and mission trips.

I tell this story (like a lot of OnFire stories) because I figure that if I have these thoughts and experiences and I’m the “trained professional,” then maybe others have them, too, and by telling my story others might be encouraged and strengthened. I already had the knowledge that fasting was biblical, but no experience. As I tentatively took a few steps I discovered that fasting can be an incredibly rich and rewarding spiritual experience. I’m not going to say it is easy, but it was not as hard as I feared, and I’ve had times during fasting when I’ve thought, “People would pay to feel this good.”

Next week I’ll lay out some biblical foundations and explain a little about what fasting is and is not. Until then, I hope this helps. Be on fire.


OnFire is a weekly letter on faith and character written by Troy Dennis. Troy is the Pastor of Family Ministries at Highfield Baptist Church, Moncton NB Canada. This letter published Jan 11, 2011. To subscribe or reply, email Archives are located at Blog located at