Summary: The practice of fasting focuses our desire on God and enriches the soul.
True Spirituality Series
Fasting: Hungry for God
Matthew 6:1, 16-18
Dr. Roger W. Thomas, Preaching Minister
First Christian Church, Vandalia, MO
Today we come to the third of three illustrations Jesus uses to teach that motives matter to God. It is possible to do a good thing for the wrong reason. He outlines the principle in verse one. “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness before men,’ to be seen by them.” He first applies the principle to giving to those in need. Of course, sharing is good. Doing it to show off, however, doesn’t impress God.
The same principle applies to praying. The Lord wants us to pray. But he wants us to remember who we are praying to when we do. This is not just an old problem. I know that preachers and leaders who lead public prayer have to deal with this. We can be tempted to use big words or fancy phrases so that we sound “religious.” It is all too easy to forget who you’re talking to.
We can even confuse prayer time and announcement time. I’ve never seen it here, but I have known prayers that almost sounded like this. “Lord, we thank you for your blessings. We ask for your forgiveness. And Lord help everyone remember the potluck dinner next Tuesday, at 6:30 in the fellowship hall. Lord we are grateful that those whose last names begin with A-J are bringing vegetables, those with last names beginning with J-S, salads, and names starting with T-Z, desserts. In Jesus Name, Amen.”
Jesus’ third illustration may seem less familiar to us. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if most of you have never heard a sermon or lesson on fasting. It is altogether possible that this topic has never been addressed from this pulpit in the last fifty years except in passing. Why are so many of us inclined to view fasting as out-dated and maybe even weird? I suspect there are a number of reasons. First, going without anything, especially food, is contrary to everything we consider normal. Self-gratification is almost an American right.
Secondly, we are almost obsessed with food. As the observation goes, some folk eat to live, others live to eat. Most of us know which category we fall into. That’s part of the reason that we have such an over weight problem in our country right now. Most of us think we are starving to death if we a miss a meal or, heaven forbid, a bedtime snack. This is nothing new. Sometime ago while researching the Sermon on the Mount, I came across this quote. In a 1902 article in the Christian Evangelist, D. R. Dungan observed, “If the American people are conspicuous for any one characteristic it is the habit of eating regularly and as much as they want.”
Fasting has also fallen off our radar screens because of an over reaction to ritual. For some who grew up in the Roman Catholic Church and many who didn’t, ceremonies and outward forms are viewed as empty and legalistic. That certainly can be the case. But to conclude that spirituality is completely internal or that physical activities have nothing to do with our relationship with God, would be a mistake. Some physical acts have great spiritual effects. Fasting is one of those!
Today, I want to examine the biblical background of fasting, the spiritual benefits of fasting, and finally the proper behavior when fasting. This last part is where we will come back to the heart of Jesus’ teachings in our text.
First, fasting is biblical. Just because we don’t hear much about fasting now days doesn’t mean it’s not in scripture. Let me first offer a definition. Fasting is voluntarily abstaining from something (most often food and/or water) for spiritual purposes. A fast can be total or partial, short or long (from a few hours to a few weeks). It is closely associated with other activities such as sorrow, repentance, and especially prayer.
The Old Testament Law required all Israel to observe one annual fast, the Day of Atonement (Lev 23:27). Most other Jewish holy days were feasts. Jews fasted on the Day of Atonement because they were to be conscious of their sin and their need of divine forgiveness. Israel also fasted when seeking God’s protection from an enemy (Judges 20:26) or when mourning the death of a leader (1 Sam 31:13; 2 Sam 1:12).
When praying for the life of his sick baby, David fasted for seven days (2 Sam 12:16-23). Nehemiah prayed and fasted for days at a time out of concern for his fellow Jews who were still in exile. Queen Esther and her hand-maidens fasted for three days when preparing to ask for the king’s help to stop a plot against the Jewish people. Daniel abstained from meat and wine for three weeks while he mourned the fate of his fellow Jews. The king of Nineveh called for the entire city to fast, pray, and dress in sackcloth and ashes when he learned from Jonah that God’s judgment was coming (Jonah 3:5-9).