Summary: Fasting is a spiritual discipline of temporary self-denial in order to focus on and process matters of great concern. It’s about God, not about food.
“When You Fast” Matthew 6:16-18
-Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
With “Turkey Day” approaching, this is a difficult message to deliver…also because Saugus seems to be the restaurant capital of Massachusetts. With Kowloons, Prince, Hilltop and the Continental, we’ve plenty of dining options. Whenever we gather together, food’s a big part of our fellowship. Although our “daily bread” is a necessary gift from God, there’s a time to refrain from eating. Food is temporal, and fasting shows that there is more to life than eating. Fasting focuses on that which is spiritual and eternal.
I remember the first time I ever fasted. I was in the 11th Grade. Rather than think about God, I spent the day thinking about food. Instead of gaining insight, I got irritable. That evening I went to my church youth group leader’s home for prayer. After a brief fellowship—without refreshments—we prayed. We prayed till midnight, and for a significant reason…when the day was officially over, we sent out for pizza!
Fasting is defined as a practice or spiritual discipline of temporary self-denial in order to focus on and process matters of great concern.
In ancient Israel, there was only one day of compulsory, prescribed fasting--Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Voluntary fasting was the norm, but for a variety of causes: First, to express grief when a loved one died. People would tear their garments, showing how torn they were on the inside, and would fast. Fasting also followed times of personal disappointment, like when Hannah acknowledged her despair over her infertility (I Sam 1:7). Fasting also came during times of national crises, for instance the despair the exiled Jews felt over the fallen walls of Jerusalem. Fasting often accompanied repentance, as a sign of sorrow over sin. And before receiving a revelation from God, prophets would fast in preparation.
The normal period of fasting is one day; there were a few exceptions, like the 3-day fast in the Book of Esther when the Jewish nation was threatened with extermination. While Jesus fasted for 40 days, that is not the norm. God wants us to focus, not harm ourselves.
Fasting is a means of helping us humble ourselves before God. Some fasts are unintentional and unplanned; rather than say, “I will not eat,” some say, “I cannot eat.” They’re so preoccupied emotionally by the need at hand that food is forgotten. As such, fasting is a natural expression of angst or distress. We all have our favorite “comfort foods,” yet there’s a time to be uncomfortable. God is our portion.
In time fasting was abused. It became an empty, formal ritual, a tradition rather than a heartfelt need. People began to regard fasting as a tool to control God, to influence His will…as if we could or would want to change God’s plans. Without sincere devotion, fasting is a waste of time.
Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness. He did so to prepare Himself for His ministry of teaching and suffering. During His fast He was fully absorbed with His approaching mission. This doesn’t mean Jesus always did without. We read a lot of His table fellowship in the Gospels. But there were times His attention was fixed elsewhere. When we’re facing some major transition or decision, a time apart along with fasting may help us gain insight and better determine God’s will.
Jesus taught that fasting is best practiced in private, without any fanfare. We need to appraise our motives for fasting. In Jesus’ day, in order to impress people, some people made a very public and pious show of their fasting, so that everyone would be impressed with their spirituality. That’s like saying you’re proud of your humility! The Pharisees would fast on market days, looking miserable, so there’d be plenty of people around to witness their piety (Foster). Fasting became a legalistic means of working one’s way to Heaven, as an ascetic ritual…but fasting is not a “work”.
Fasting is an exercise in self-denial and self-control. If we can say no to food for awhile, perhaps we can have the power to say no to other things, particularly things that may harm us. In his book Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster observes, “More than any other discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us.”
The purpose of fasting is to interrupt our normal routine and focus on God. We forsake food to sharpen our awareness of spiritual essentials. Fasting can be a physical aid toward spiritual clarity. A heavy meal tends to make people drowsy; eating sparingly helps us better concentrate, resulting in mental alertness. Fasting helps get us in spiritual shape so that we’re more attuned to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
When Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, His disciples were scrounging for food; when they rejoined Him, they figured He was hungry, but Jesus told them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know…My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to accomplish His work” (John 4:32 & 34). Jesus was nourished by His mission. Fasting places our entire concentration upon God with clarity of mind and purpose.