Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the spiritual discipline of fasting. I personally believe that fasting is a very important and very powerful spiritual discipline. Despite this, it seems to be largely neglected by the modern church, me included. As neglected as this spiritual discipline is in the modern church you can’t read the Bible without finding out that fasting was an important part of the lives of the great heroes of the faith. At the same time you can’t read the biographies of more modern heroes of the faith without finding out that fasting was an important part of their lives as well.
I think part of the problem with fasting is that many people have a lot of unanswered questions about fasting. Can I eat at all? Can I drink water? What does fasting do? Why is it important? This week I’m going to write some of what the Bible has to say about fasting. A part of what we need to understand about fasting is what fasting is not.
Fasting is not dieting in Jesus name. Several years ago I heard a preacher make this statement when he taught on fasting. I’ve used it every time I’ve taught on fasting since then. I’m not sure I remember anything else he said, but I liked this. It seems doubtful many people would use it for this, however if we were thinking about it we need to realize this is a wrong motive for fasting.
Fasting is not an empty ritual. “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.” Luke 18:12 (NKJV)
This statement was made by a self-righteous Pharisee attempting to justify himself to God by showing how religious he was. It’s my understanding that the Pharisees fasted every Monday and Thursday. Nothing in the Law required a regular time of fasting. However let me also say that nothing in the Law prohibited a regular time of fasting. The regular time of fasting wasn’t the problem. The problem was that it became an empty ritual that they went through to show how pious and righteous they were. I firmly believe that when something becomes an empty ritual it loses any power or significance it may have.
Fasting is not done for show. “Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.” Matthew 6:16 (NKJV)
One of the things that I think is really interesting about Jesus is that He was always as—if not more—concerned about motives as He was actions. Not only had the Pharisees turned fasting into an empty ritual, they also made a huge show out of it. Jesus calls them hypocrites. The word hypocrite refers to a Greek actor. It was someone who put on a mask and pretended to be something they weren’t. In this case they pretended to be devoted to God by fasting when they really weren’t. It was all for a show.
Jesus also gives us the reason why they did this. It was so that others would honor them for their devotion. In another place the Bible tells us that they cared more about the honor that comes from people than they do the honor that comes from God (John 5:44) and that they loved human praise more than the praise of God (John 12:43). They did what they did so that others would say, “Oh my, Bob is such a good Jew. Wow he is awesome!” They did the right things but with the wrong motives. Jesus goes on to say that if we fast for a show then we may well receive honor from others. But if that is our goal, we should not expect anything further. God will not reward us for right actions that have been done with wrong motives.
Fasting is not effective or even acceptable unless we are in a right relationship with God. “Cry aloud, spare not; Lift up your voice like a trumpet; Tell My people their transgression, And the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek Me daily, And delight to know My ways, As a nation that did righteousness, And did not forsake the ordinance of their God. They ask of Me the ordinances of justice; They take delight in approaching God. ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and You have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls, and You take no notice?’ “In fact, in the day of your fast you find pleasure, And exploit all your laborers. Indeed you fast for strife and debate, And to strike with the fist of wickedness. You will not fast as you do this day, To make your voice heard on high. Is it a fast that I have chosen, A day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, And to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, And an acceptable day to the LORD?” Isaiah 58:1-5 (NKJV)
Here God is rebuking the Israelites for going through the motions of fasting without making sure their hearts are right with Him. They looked pious and devoted but in reality they had abandoned their God. I’m wasting my time when I fast without first make sure my relationship with God is as it should be.
Fasting is not merely an external practice. “Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness, To undo the heavy burdens, To let the oppressed go free, And that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; When you see the naked, that you cover him, And not hide yourself from your own flesh?” Isaiah 58:6-7 (NKJV)
The type of fasting that God wanted them to do was the kind of fast that resulted in them drawing closer to and being more committed to God. As we fast there should be a legitimate change in our lives as we draw closer to God.
Fasting is not God’s quit pro quo program. Biblical fasting is not a something for something arrangement with God. In fact, fasting does not guarantee that our requests will be granted.
“So David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” And Nathan said to David, “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die. However, because by this deed you have given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also who is born to you shall surely die.” Then Nathan departed to his house. And the LORD struck the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and it became ill. David therefore pleaded with God for the child, and David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground. So the elders of his house arose and went to him, to raise him up from the ground. But he would not, nor did he eat food with them. Then on the seventh day it came to pass that the child died. And the servants of David were afraid to tell him that the child was dead. For they said, “Indeed, while the child was alive, we spoke to him, and he would not heed our voice. How can we tell him that the child is dead? He may do some harm!” When David saw that his servants were whispering, David perceived that the child was dead. Therefore David said to his servants, “Is the child dead?” And they said, “He is dead.” 2 Samuel 12:13-19 (NKJV)
Despite the fact that David fasted for seven days, his request was still not granted.
Tomorrow we will look to see some of what the Bible says fasting is.