Summary: This message looks at what the Scriptures teach us about fasting.
Introduction: A funny thing happened this week as I was searching through the myriad of resources available to pastors to illustrate key biblical truths and principles such as the priority of fasting, the topic for today’s message. I could hardly find any! I did manage to locate several extended quotations from books about the subject, but as for personal examples, they were strangely absent. Lest you think I didn’t try very hard, I will tell you that I looked at five websites and seven books that contain nothing but illustrations for sermons. Though their combined totals probably exceed 10,000 stories, I found only two that related to fasting and one was in the form of a joke, and not a very good one at that. What kind of conclusions should we draw from this statistic? Well, either pastors are simply too humble to use their times of fasting as illustrations (which is hard to imagine) or the spiritual discipline of fasting has been cast aside as unimportant and unnecessary by many believers, including those who are leading the church in the 21st century. If this is the case, it is surely not good news and reveals a substantial level of ignorance about the value of fasting and its place in the body of Christ.
In our fourth message on the Disciplines of a Disciple, I invite you to take the next twenty-five minutes or so and join me as we look at what the Bible teaches us about this neglected spiritual discipline.
I. What is fasting? It is a believer’s voluntary abstinence from any legitimate pursuit for spiritual reasons. It is not considered fasting if we choose to withhold something from ourselves that is regarded as unholy. The normal procedure for Christians is to let those things go because we are new creatures in Christ (See Ephesians 4:22-24). Most examples of fasting found in the Scriptures relate to food, and on occasion, water. Moses and Jesus are but two examples (See Deuteronomy 9:9; Matthew 4:2). There are at least two others, however. (1) The Jews fasted not only from food but also from work on the Day of Atonement. They did this to symbolize that it was God’s work and not their own that would atone for their sins (See Leviticus 23:26-28). (2) Likewise, the Apostle Paul addresses the topic of fasting in 1 Corinthians 7:4-5. There he provides some guidelines for married couples who have elected to fast from their sexual relationship with each other for a time of prayer.
II. What is the purpose of fasting? The passage that was read this morning explains what it should not be...to draw attention to ourselves (See Matthew 6:16-18). Isaiah 58 provides us with a little more insight. In this passage the Jews thought their fasting would bring them into the good graces of God. It did not, because their lifestyles were steeped in sin (See Isaiah 58:3-4). This is an important reminder to all of us to carefully weigh our motives before we choose to fast over something. On the more positive side, Donald Whitney, author of Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, tells us that fasting "hoists the sails of the soul in the hopes of experiencing the gracious wind of God’s Spirit." It doesn’t guarantee spiritual blessing, but it often puts us in position to experience it as God moves. J. I Packer provides additional insight..."When friends need to be together," he says, "they will cancel all other activities in order to make that possible. There’s nothing magical about fasting. It’s just one way of telling God that your priority at that moment is to be alone with him..." The Bible gives us several reasons for considering a fast. Here they are for your consideration.
A. We fast to strengthen our prayers. Fasting has often been used by God’s people when there is a special urgency about the concerns they lift to the Father. This was Ezra’s motivation as he was about to lead a group of exiles back to Jerusalem (See Ezra 8:21-23). The result was that God heard and granted his requests and brought success to his mission. Application: Of course, this is not to say that if we fast God is required to do as we ask. Fasting is not and never has been a way of pressuring God into giving us something. Rather it is a way of giving ourselves more fully to God so that we can say with confidence...Thy will be done.
B. We fast to express grief and repentance.
1. For some, it can be a way to express to God the depth of what we’re feeling. You may remember that when Haman convinced King Xerxes to permit him to eliminate the Jews in the book of Esther, this was the response of God’s people to the news (See Esther 3:8-11; 4:3). They even went so far as to cover themselves with sackcloth and ashes, a sign of great lamentation.