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Fasting

April 14th, 2013

Fasting

The Christian life is a life defined by joy. However, it is also a life marked by discipline. Just as in any human relationship we must discipline ourselves to enjoy that relationship fully, the same is true of our relationship with God.

Fasting- abstaining from food for a period of time- is such a discipline.

Fasting is a funny one as there is no explicit command in the Bible to tell us that we must fast. However, it is just assumed that we will do it. Jesus begins his teaching on fasting with the words- ‘when you fast…’ not ‘if you fast’ (Matthew 6:16) and it is a practice that Bile heroes in the Old and New Testament thrived off- Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Paul, even Jesus himself.

If you’ve not heard my sermon on this, download it from the website, but this blog post should go into a bit more detail on the practical ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of fasting.

Why should we fast?

Maybe the best way to answer this question is to ask why people in the Bible fasted. Here is a non comprehensive list:

1)     To seek God’s guidance (Judges 20:24-27, 2 Chronicles 20:3-4, Matthew 4:2, Acts 13:1-3)

2)     Repentance (Joel 2:12-14, Jonah 3:5, Nehemiah 9:1-2, Daniel 9:16-19)

3)     Seeking answer to specific prayers (2 Samuel 12:22-23, Ezra 8:21, Joel 1:13-14, Esther 4:3)

It is clear in both the Old and New Testaments that fasting can be practised wrongly as well. It shouldn’t be directed towards people, to impress them or make you look very pious (Matthew 6:16-18), it shouldn’t just be performed as a religious duty just because it’s the done thing either (Zec 7:4-5) and just because you’re fasting it doesn’t mean that you can stop obeying God in other areas! (Isaiah 58:1-11)

Basically, the kind of fasting God rewards does not just involve going without food, but it involves a specific attitude: a desire for God.

In Psalm 109, David describes one of the times when he is fasting (109:10), and his motivation is clear:

‘My eyes fail,
looking for my God.’ (Ps 109:3)

 True fasting, it seems, is not fasting done to impress people, not even fasting done primarily to get stuff off God, it comes from a deep desire for God himself.

And this is the result of true fasting, as Isaiah makes clear in Isaiah 58:9:

‘Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: here am I.’

 This is the amazing thing about fasting, its reward is the most valuable thing of all: the presence of God. Hearing his voice saying that He is right here by our side.

So you’re sold? Good. But how do we do it?

How should we fast?

I’ll break this down into a few other questions to help:

1)     Does a fast have to be a food-fast?

Fasting is nearly always going without food in the Bible. People often ask though, ‘can I fast something other than food?’ Of course you can. You can do or not do what you want (within reason) and taking a break from things like television, music, social media sites or computer games might be a good idea sometimes. However, I’d encourage you that if you want to fast to do it the way the Bible suggests. I’ve always found that there is something about going without food that complements seeking after God. There is something about physical hunger that mirrors the spiritual hunger we feel (or want to feel) when we fast.

2)     What counts as food though?

Is toothpaste food? What about a milk shake? How about chewing gum? Soup? Muslims fasting during Ramadan won’t let anything pass their lips and some Christians seem to get themselves in a similar state of legalism about fasting. Basically, you don’t have to fast and the manner in which you fast is largely up to you. This is a matter of your heart to seek God, he is much more concerned about your heart than whether you inadvertently swallow a fly or start munching a biscuit because you forgot you were fasting.

For me, I avoid things that I would normally count as food and be reasonably relaxed about the types of drink I have. I would adopt as many breath freshening methods as possible as well (if you don’t know why, try fasting and breathing on people at the end of the day, you’ll soon find out!)

 3)     What should I do while fasting?

I have fasted for several days in my life that I am almost certain have had no spiritual benefit at all. Some have been spent working so solidly that I forgot to eat, other times I was ill! Not wanting to sound repetitive, but fasting is not just an external action, it is a way of seeking God. Therefore, I would doubt the effectiveness of fasting and simply missing lunch and dinner to put in extra time at work.

Prayer is fasting’s perfect partner, but I would also spend time reading God’s word when I’m fasting and spend other time quietly, listening to the Holy Spirit’s voice. Remember fasting is about seeking God. One of the reasons its helpful is that it frees up time to do just that.

I find it helpful to extend my morning quiet time instead of having breakfast and to go for a walk during my lunch break and sometimes at dinner time as well to pray. Not eating can actually free up about 2 hours of your day; my advice would be to use this time wisely.

4)     How long should I fast?

Again this is up to you. Some people suggest starting by just fasting one meal, but again there is no biblical precedent for this. An averagely healthy human being can go at least 3 weeks without food without suffering any lasting damage, so a day is not going to kill you! Its not easy though. My advice would be to start with a day. There may never be a need to do a longer fast or you may feel like you want to fast for longer next time.

5)     How often should I fast?

Fasting is not something we do to tick off our Christian bucket list. It is a practice that we have up our sleeve to do whenever we feel prompted by the Spirit. Some people find it helpful to fast one day every week, and that’s fine. I avoid this, as it can become legalistic and when I’ve done this before I’ve tended to end up fasting mainly because that’s what I do and not to seek God urgently for his presence. I fast when there is something particularly pressing to pray for, or when I really need God’s guidance. I’m glad that as of today I can add a new reason to this list: when my church gathers together to pray and fast together!

Will you join us this week, on future prayer and fasting weeks and build this joyful discipline into your life too? If you do, avoiding some of the pitfalls I’ve mentioned, Jesus promises that the Father will reward you. Yes, he promises it. Check out Matthew 6:18 if you don’t believe me.

Oh yeah, one more thing, stock up on some tasty breakfasts as well ;)

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