OnFire Encouragement Letter
OnFire # 248 Fasting #3
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Archives are located at www.onfireletter.com. Blog located at www.onfireletter.blogspot.com.