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.