16 – “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.
17 – But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face,
18 – so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, Who is unseen; and your Father, Who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Have you ever been positively impacted by a religious practice that seems old-fashioned and perhaps behind the times?
A long time ago in a galaxy far away—I was having a dispute with a fellow staff member. Now—don’t try and figure out who I’m talking about—because the vast majority of you don’t know this person and the rest of you won’t remember anyway. Remember, this happened a long time ago in a galaxy far away. And besides the identity of this person isn’t important. What happened to both of us is what I want us to focus on.
So—back to my story. Things were bad between the two of us for various reasons and I hoped things would just get better on their own, but they didn’t. Tension grew and it got to the point that I lost hope of things ever improving—so, with my fellow staff member’s permission, I contacted a man in the church who both of us respected highly and asked if he would meet with us.
I had hoped that after hearing all that had gone on—he would pronounce judgment. I would be completely vindicated. My co-worker would be pronounced completely guilty. He would realize the error of his ways, apologize, and repent and everything would be hunky dory. But that’s not what happened.
The three of us gathered in my office and after my co-worker and I each shared our side of the dispute our mutual friend stood up and left the room. My co-worker and I exchanged puzzled looks. I think we both wondered if he had decided there was nothing to be done and had just left—but a few seconds later he came back in carrying a large bowl of soapy water and two towels. He had obviously—prayerfully—prepared for what he did next.
Without saying a word, he knelt down and took off my shoes and socks and washed my feet. And as he did that—something wonderful happened. Not only did my feet get clean—my heart did. I was humbled—humbled enough to confess my part in our disputes. The same wonderful thing happened to my co-worker as his feet were washed by our friend. In the end, with clean feet and humbled hearts we apologized to each other, embraced, prayed with our foot-washing friend—and from then on things were indeed hunky dory—but it didn’t happen the way I thought it would. Things were resolved because this powerful, ancient, old-fashioned, out-of-style, discipline of foot-washing humbled us both.
How many of you have ever been a part of a foot-washing service? How many have heard a sermon on foot-washing—as something we should still practice here in the 21st century? Me neither.
I bring this up because today I want us to look at another spiritual discipline that is at least as unheard of—another discipline that helps us become more like Jesus—and therefore the best kind of neighbor. As you can see in the bulletin, I’m referring to the spiritual discipline of FASTING.
I checked my preaching history and I’ve only talked about fasting in a sermon twice—and both times fasting was more of an introduction to a sermon on prayer. I mean, it definitely took the back-seat in each of those messages. And I’m not the only pastor to neglect teaching on this discipline. I read this week that there were almost NO books written on the Christian practice of fasting before1954. I checked this week and only found a handful of books on the subject available on Amazon. And most of them didn’t look like they would be worth my money. My point is—this is a spiritual discipline that has been avoided—for a long time.
Yet—it was both practiced and taught by Jesus—and verses like the ones we read a moment ago indicate that Jesus EXPECTS us to fast. Remember? Our Lord says, “WHEN you fast” not “if.”
So, it’s something Jesus assumed we would do.
Here’s some more facts about this spiritual discipline. Fasting is mentioned in Scripture more than baptism and as much as giving. Plus, the list of people who the Bible says fasted runs like a who’s who of Scripture:
- Abraham’s servant fasted when he was seeking a bride for Isaac
- Moses did—on several occasions
- Hannah fasted as she prayed for a child
- David fasted—as did Elijah.
- Ezra did when he was mourning Israel’s faithlessness.
- Nehemiah fasted in preparation for his request to return to Israel to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem.
- Esther fasted when she learned the Hebrews were threatened with extermination.
- Daniel fasted frequently.
- The people—and even the CATTLE—of Nineveh fasted in repentance after they heard from God through Jonah.
- Paul fasted before he was converted—and years later when they appointed elders in the churches.
- The Christians at Antioch did when they sent off Paul and Barnabas on their mission endeavor.
Not only that, but many of the great Christians throughout church history have fasted— Martin Luther, and John Calvin, John Knox—John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, David Brainard, Charles Finney, and many, many others.
That begs the question—why don’t Christians talk about fasting more these days? Why don’t we embrace this spiritual discipline? Why is fasting ignored?
Well, one reason is that FOOD is such a big part of our culture. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a MacDonald’s. Nor can you watch TV for five minutes without some food commercial popping up. I’ve been in the hospital several times with abdominal obstructions where they put a tube down my nose, and I was not allowed to eat for several days. I remember thinking they should provide a TV channel for people who were being forced to fast for medical reasons—a channel that doesn’t have food commercials because they were non-stop. I mean, when you’re starving is so hard to see all that food on the television! My point is—our culture’s saturation with food makes going without it seem—behind the times.
Here’s something else—fasting has an “extremist” feeling to it. I mean, many people think fasting will make us look like hollow-eyed fanatics or “odd for God.” In our minds fasting is right up there with walking barefoot across hot coals or handling poisonous snakes while singing “Kum By Yah.”
Fasting also takes a high level of self-denial—and we are just not into that kind of thing these days. Ours is a culture that encourages serving self—not denying it.
I’ve also heard people say that they were afraid to fast because of potential health risks. I’m reminded of a story that was in Today’s Christian Woman not too long ago—a story about a man who announced to his family that he was going to fast and pray about something. His five-year-old daughter, knowing that fasting meant going without food, said, “No! You can’t fast daddy. You’ll die!” He explained to his daughter that many men and women fasted in Bible times. The little girl thought for a moment, and then with a flash of insight said, “Yeah—and they all died!”
Well, you won’t die from fasting. Unless you have a serious health issue to begin with—a brief food fast won’t hurt you; in fact, it will probably help you—but health benefits are not the focus here—spiritual benefits are.
Before we go any further let’s agree on a definition. Christian fasting is, “a believer’s voluntary abstinence from food for the purpose of growing spiritually.” Fasting can also involve abstinence from other things—social media, television, speaking—we could even fast from other people—by withdrawing to be alone with God for a time. The entire Lenten season is a time to abstain from or FAST from things in order to be closer to God.
But let’s focus on what the Bible says about fasting from food. It mentions several types of food fasts.
a. First, a NORMAL food fast involves no food—but still allows you to drink water.
Jesus’ 40-day fast in the desert is described in Matthew 4:2: “After fasting forty days and forty nights, He was hungry.” Matthew says nothing about Jesus being thirsty. Since the body can normally function only a few days without water, we can assume our Lord drank during these weeks in the wilderness. If He did without fluid—I’m sure the Bible would have said so—and that leads to the second kind of fast we read about in God’s Word:
b. An ABSOLUTE fast—no food or liquid.
We’re told that “Ezra withdrew neither eating bread nor drinking water for he was morning over the faithlessness of the exiles.” (Ezra 10:6). Can anyone think of another example of an ABSOLUTE fast? Right—Esther. When she learned of that law that had been passed in Persia making it legal to kill the Jews, and realized she had to go before the king without his summoning her, she said, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day.”
I’m reminded of the story of a youth group that had been studying the book of Esther. The father of one of the teens shares, “I knew my daughter had been paying attention when we had brussels sprouts for supper. Spearing one and looking at it distastefully, she prepared to place it in her mouth saying, ‘If I perish, I perish.’” For those of you who fear perishing there is a third kind of fast:
c. A PARTIAL fast.
This is abstaining from certain food—but not all food. Can anyone think of an example of a PARTIAL fast in the Bible? Right! Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—they had only vegetables and water. Another example is John the Baptist who subsisted on locusts and wild honey while in the wilderness.
d. But the Bible also teaches that fasting is not something limited to individuals—an entire nation can fast.
King Jehoshaphat called for one in 2nd Chronicles 20:3 when he received word that a huge army was threatening Judah. There have been three national fasts called for here in the good ole U.S. of A.—fasts that were called for by congress in the early days of our nation’s history. Presidents have called for them as well. John Adams and James Monroe proclaimed national times of fasting and prayer.
Okay—let’s get practical. HOW DO YOU FAST? What are the guidelines for this spiritual discipline?
(1) Here’s the first—we must fast in the right WAY.
Here are some basic tips that I got from good ole Richard Foster.
a. Always combine fasting with prayer.
Otherwise it’s just a diet—and as I said this is not about losing weight—it’s about growing closer to and more like Jesus.
b. Start with a 24-hour fast—noon-to-noon.
This way, you skip two meals. For example, eat lunch on Monday and then you begin your fast. You skip dinner and breakfast, and you end your fast with lunch on Tuesday. If you’ve never fasted before, this is a good place to start.
Foster recommends doing it once a week. From there you can move to a three day fast, and then to a seven day fast. Some have said that fasting one day a week is better than fasting 40 days at a time, because the one day a week keeps bringing you back, week after week, to focusing on God.
c. Unless there is a serious issue involved, drink liquid.
As I said, the Bible does reference a total fast (i.e. no food, no water) but those are rare exceptions. Some drink liquid—water, green tea, fruit juice, soda—it’s just a matter of preference.
d. Take a walk.
Drinking some water and taking a ten-minute walk helps alleviate the hunger pains so you can better concentrate on hearing from our Lord.
e. After the fast, resume your eating habits carefullfy.
If you fast only one day, you won’t notice much of a difference. But when you fast three or seven days, you want to be careful with your first couple of meals. I remember the first time our youth did a 30-hour famine we broke our fast with teens pigging out on greasy pizza. We learned that wasn’t a good idea. Your first meal after a fast should be soup, or something mild.
f. Don’t limit your fast to food.
Prayerfully determine to abstain from things that interfere with your relationship with God. You could realize you need to stay off Facebook or any social media for a time. You might see it would be good to steer clear of TV for a couple weeks. Perhaps you feel the need to cut the caffeine for a while. I read this week that there are a potential of 80,000 different kinds of coffee you could buy at STARBUCKS. Just going in there having to decide WHICH of those 80,000 choices seems to take a lot of time and brain power! The idea is to fast from something that is getting too much attention in your life—something that keeps you from hearing from God—something that is approaching idol status. I remember when I was a young teen I LOVED the MONKEES. I purchased all their albums—and this was back when an album was an actual ALBUM! I knew all of their songs by heart. I tried to dress like them.
I remember being thrilled when my dad bought us a new Pontiac station wagon because it was the model the made the famous MONKEY MOBILE out of. I had even filled my wall with pictures of Michael, Mickey, Peter, and Davey. But, I remember a time when I began to feel guilt for all that. And one night it got so bad God wouldn’t let me sleep. I got up and took all their pictures off the wall—threw them in the trash—and slept like a baby. I think that was God telling me I needed to “fast” from those guys. They were filling a place in my life reserved for Him.
That leads to another tip.
g. Don’t be legalistic.
Don’t be legalistic about the “fine print” of your fast, and don’t look for loopholes. I mean, we’re not talking about an international peace treaty here. This is an act of spiritual devotion. I mean, if you go on a three-day fast and you fail half way through, don’t give up, don’t beat yourself up, just pick up where you left off and keep going. Remember, the purpose of the fast is not just to go without food. The purpose is to help you connect with God on a deeper level. One more tip.
h. Expect results, but not immediately.
You might not see the benefits of the fast until days AFTER you finish. Be patient. As Jesus said in our text, “Your Father, Who sees what is done in secret, will reward you (Matthew 6:18).”
So—first fast in the right WAY.
(2) Here’s a second guideline, we must fast to be seen by the right PERSON.
We fast to grow closer to our Lord—so He’s the only one Who should see. I mean, your spouse may have to know you are fasting—your kids may—but that’s it. In a Biblical fast, the only ones who should see you fast are the ones who HAVE to. If you ignore this teaching and call attention to your fasting, people may be impressed but as Jesus said, that will be your only reward. This would be foolish because we fast for far greater and deeper rewards than the applause of others.
You know, the Pharisees Jesus was addressing here WANTED attention. They WANTED people to know they were fasting. They would decide to fast twice a week on market days—so more people would be around to notice their gaunt appearance—a manufactured appearance because they “disfigured their faces” with make-up.
And—sadly things haven’t changed much since Jesus’ day—because there are still people who think they will appear more spiritual if they look like an unmade bed. Well, Jesus says to knock off that hypocritical behavior. He says, “When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face.” In other words, when you fast, comb your hear, brush your teeth—take a shower. Like the discipline of prayer—we can say, “The secret to fasting is SECRET fasting.”
(3) That leads to another guideline: We must fast for the right REASON.
Remember, as I said when we started this series, the spiritual disciplines—fasting included—are not an indicator of our spiritual maturity. Nor do we do them to earn favor with God. And, as I said, Christians trying to mature don’t fast to shed the pounds.
Natalia Rose is a nutritional consultant who plans four-day fasting weekends for women at a health spa. The retreat includes a trip to an expensive department store to keep them motivated, to help them remember, as she says, “what it’s all for.” Well, that’s not what we’re talking about here. Christian fasting is not about losing weight so we can look better in new clothes. Okay—what ARE the right reasons to fast?
a. We fast to better hear from God.
We abstain from food and/or water in times when we need to get specific guidance from God. In Act 13:2 it says that the church at Antioch was fasting. Listen to what happened:
“While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’”
Fasting enabled this church to hear God’s specific will when it came to who they were to send out as missionaries. Then in Acts 14 it says that Paul and Barnabas fasted to help them get God’s guidance when it came to the elders they chose to serve the churches they founded. So—if you have a tough decision to make, fasting can help you discover God’s wisdom. I’m thinking any time a church adds a staff member—it would be a good idea for members to commit to a time of fasting and prayer. Speaking of prayer—fasting HELPS us pray more rightly. Donald Whitney writes, “There’s something about fasting that sharpens the edge of our intercessions and deepens the passion of our supplications.” When Ezra was about to lead a group of exiles back to Jerusalem he proclaimed a fast in order for the people to seek the Lord earnestly for a safe passage. (Ezra 8:23)
But don’t misunderstand me. The Bible does not teach that fasting is a kind of “spiritual hunger strike” that compels God to do our bidding. No—fasting does not change God’s hearing. It changes our praying. Fasting humbles us—it helps us pray more rightly—more sincerely.
b. Another good reason to fast is to reveal what controls us.
Through fasting we begin to see how easily we allow non-essentials to take precedence—how quickly we allow our desire for things and worldly pleasures to enslave us. Richard Foster writes, “Our human cravings and desires are like a river that tends to overflow its banks; fasting helps keep them in their proper channel.” And Foster is right. Let me put it this way: More than any other discipline fasting reveals the things that control us. In fact, just looking at the size and shapes of our bodies shows that FOOD has too much control over many of us—and fasting brings “controlling” things like this to the light. For example, if pride controls us, it will be revealed through fasting. In Psalm 69:10 David said, “I HUMBLED my soul with fasting.”
And that’s not all. If anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, or fear are within us, they will surface during fasting. Then we can take steps to deal with these shortcomings.
I’ve only fasted a couple times—back in my youth ministry days as we did those 30-hour famines I mentioned. One thing I remember discovering is that I was controlled too much by good feelings—and let’s face it—eating is an easy way—a quick convenient way—to feel good.
I learned that many of us tend to cover up what is inside of us with food—and other good things—and fasting brings this to the surface.
c. That leads to another proper motive behind fasting: to repent of sin.
Fasting can be a powerful way to express grief for our sins—and our commitment to turn from them. The Israelites did this in 1st Samuel 7:6 when they “drew water and poured it out before the LORD and fasted on that day and said there, ‘We have sinned against the LORD.’” This can be an individual thing—as well as a corporate thing. In Joel 1:13-14 we read: “Nothing’s going on in the place of worship, no offerings, no prayers—nothing. Declare a holy fast, call a special meeting, get the leaders together, round up everyone in the country. Get them into God/s sanctuary for serious prayer to God.” (The Message).
As I said earlier there are even times when as a nation there is a need to come together in a public expression of repentance through fasting. Back in 1863, recognizing that our country had gotten far off track, President Lincoln declared April 30 to be a day of national repentance, fasting, and prayer. He said:
“It is the duty of nations—as well as of men—to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us. We have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has grown, but we have forgotten God.”
Maybe this has happened in your life—you’ve forgotten that you need God. One way to get back on track—one way to express heartfelt repentance is through the act of fasting. But, I want to make it clear: fasting doesn’t earn your forgiveness, or get you forgiven faster or more thoroughly than you would experience otherwise. Fasting does, however, help you come to grips with your sin. It helps you to see sin for what it really is. It helps you to see sin as God sees it. Fasting intensifies the act of repentance, so to speak, so that you understand more about the ugliness of sin and the beauty of God’s mercy. And fasting in this way can indeed be a powerful thing. This week I read that back in 1935, Blasio Kugosi, a schoolteacher in Rwanda, Central Africa, became deeply discouraged by his own sin and failures. He decided to spend a week alone in fasting and prayer. He emerged from his time of fasting a changed man. He confessed his sins to those he had wronged, including his wife and children. Fasting helped him see he had fallen short in obeying Jesus’ command to share our faith and so he got serious about that. He proclaimed the Gospel in the school where he taught, and revival broke out there, resulting in students and teachers being saved. These believers who accepted Jesus through the witness of Blasio were called abaka, meaning “people on fire” — on fire for the Lord.
Shortly after that, Blasio was invited to Uganda to share with the Anglican Church there. As he called the leaders to repentance, the fire of the Spirit descended again on the place. Several days later, Blasio died of fever. His ministry lasted only a few weeks, but the revival fires sparked through his experience of fasting swept throughout East Africa and continue to the present.
Hundreds of thousands of lives have been transformed over the decades through this mighty East African revival. It all began with a discouraged Christian setting himself apart to hear from God through this discipline.
d. Another motive to fast is as an act of Worship.
Fasting can be used purely as an expression of love and devotion to God. The gospel of Luke says this about a woman named Anna: “She never left the temple, but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.” (Luke 2:37) Anna was married only seven years before being widowed. Assuming she married as a young lady, this Godly woman devoted at least half a century to a worship of God characterized by fasting and prayer. Those disciplines helped sharpen her spiritual senses so she could hear God’s still small voice pointing out the Messiah when His parents brought Him to the temple. Like Anna—we can use fasting as a time to simply worship God—a time to say, “Father, You are more important to me than food.” The words to my favorite Psalm—the 63rd—come to mind. “O God, you are my God; I earnestly search for you. My soul thirsts for you; my whole body longs for you in this parched and weary land where there is no water. I have seen you in your sanctuary and gazed upon your power and glory. Your unfailing love is better than life itself; how I praise you! You satisfy me more than the richest feast!”
I want us to close now with a time of prayer. I want to invite each of you to ask God if there is a good reason for you to fast. Maybe there is a sin that you feel is taking over your life—and you see that a fast could help you see the seriousness of it and how vital it is for you to confess and ask for God’s help. Maybe you realize you have come to be too rooted in the approval of others—and God is telling you to fast from social media. Perhaps you feel led to begin to practice a weekly fast—as an offering of worship to God. Pray—and in a moment I’ll close our prayer time.