A Neglected Discipline John Haverland

Have you ever heard a sermon on fasting? Have you read an article on it? Do you fast? Probably the answer to all these questions is, “No.” Fasting is a neglected spiritual discipline. There are various reasons for that, which I will get to in a moment. Let me first of all tell you how I have come to write about this particular matter.

Why This Article?

A few years ago, I read an excellent book by Donald Whitney called "Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian Life". In it he described such disciplines as regular Bible reading, prayer, attendance at worship, and meditation on the Word of God. These are all quite familiar to us - even if we may not practise them as much as we should!

One of the disciplines he described was fasting. He wrote that this was an important and valid spiritual practice for Christians today. I had never read anything about this before. I had never heard a sermon on it. Nor had I ever preached on it myself. So I put the whole matter to one side - into the 'too hard' basket.

Over the past twelve months, I have been preaching through the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 - 7). Last November I was up to the Lord's Prayer, which took me to Matthew 6 verse 15. The next passage (verses 16-18) was on fasting. I wasn't sure what to do with that, so I gratefully followed the Advent theme through the Sundays of December. Then I went away on holidays. I knew, however, that I had to deal with this passage when I arrived back. I thought about skipping over those verses and going on to Jesus' words about storing up treasures in heaven. At least I knew what to do with those verses! However, that didn't seem right either. This passage was part of the Word of God, and I had to deal with it. So I did.

As I studied Jesus' words, I came to the conclusion that fasting is a valid spiritual exercise for today. And as I prepared to preach on these verses, I decided that I, too, should practice a fast before I preached on it. I did not want to urge others to do what I was not doing myself. That may seem a weak reason to fast - but one has to start somewhere - and that's where I started!

What is Fasting?

The word 'fast' appears in our word "breakfast"; during the night you go without food, and in the morning you 'break-your-fast". In this case you fast because you are asleep!

People might go without food for other reasons as well: To be mentally alert, to lose weight, or to be healthy. But biblical fasting is not the ultimate crash diet to lose weight! A biblical fast must have a spiritual reason or purpose behind it. This is why most who do the World Vision 40-hour famine are not fasting in a biblical sense - they are doing this to raise money for the poor - a good motive but not necessarily a spiritual one. In the Bible, fasting is the voluntary denial of food for a spiritual purpose. It is to go without food to express a spiritual concern.

Why Is It Neglected Today?

One reason fasting has fallen into disuse is our church tradition. Many of you may not fast because it has not been part of your Christian heritage. Ministers don't preach on it; no one ever talks about it; few people you know do it. So it lapses. It is not part of the practice and experience of Christians you know.

I should point out that this neglect is only true of some Christian traditions. In our congregation in Bishopdale, we have Christians who come from the Presbyterian Church of Cairo, and others who come from the Presbyterian Churches of South Korea. All of them are familiar with fasting. It is routinely practised by individuals and churches.

Another reason for this neglect is that we live in self-indulgent and undisciplined times. People in our Western world are not used to doing without, or waiting for anything. We expect to have our desires immediately satisfied, our pains taken away, our illnesses cured, our injuries healed, and our hunger satisfied - all this as soon as possible! In this climate, it is hardly surprising that fasting has gone out of fashion - we are not used to self-control and discipline.

Fasting in the Bible

When we look at the Scriptures, we see that many believers fasted. When they did so, they usually went without food but still drank water. (Matt 4:2), although sometimes they went without food and water (Ezra 10:6, Acts 9:9). At other times, people restricted their diet in some way - they ate less than normal, or they ate simple meals (Dan 10:3 cf. 1:12). People could fast by missing one meal; or by fasting for one day; or three days; or a week; or even forty days. A person could also fast on his own in a private fast, or people could fast as a group - in a church or a city.

In biblical times, people fasted in times of great need. Queen Esther called on all the Jews to fast and pray for three days in a time of intense need when they were under great threat (Esther 4). When the Jewish exiles were about to travel home from Babylon, they fasted and prayed for a safe journey (Ezra 8:21-23).

Fasting is often connected with a confession of sin, especially when believers had a strong sense of their sin before God. When Jonah preached in the city of Nineveh, the king and his nobles issued a decree calling the whole Assyrian city of Nineveh to fast and put on sackcloth. (Jonah 3:5-9)

The people of Israel also fasted when they were seeking God's guidance, or when they were fighting temptation, or when they wanted to express their worship and praise. So there were various types of fasts, and people fasted for a variety of reasons. But the common thread was an intense spiritual concern.

Fasting Is a Christian Practice

There is only one fast commanded in the Old Testament. That is in connection with the Day of Atonement (Lev 23:26ff). On that day, the people were to "deny themselves" - that is, to fast. The Day of Atonement, and with it the fast, were fulfilled in the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross. They were completed in him. This command is no longer binding. In Christ, we are free from many of the specific commands given to the Jews in the Old Testament law.

There is no New Testament command to fast but again we have plenty of examples of Christians who did fast. Altogether there are 77 references to fasting in the Bible. One of these is in Matthew 6:16-18. There, Jesus does not command his disciples to fast, but he does assume that there will be times when they will do so; "When you fast...". It is put in the same category as giving to the needy (vs.2) and prayer (vs.5). "When you give to the needy...."; "When you pray...." Jesus assumes that there are times when it is entirely proper to fast. Why is that?

Some Reasons To Fast:

It Encourages Discipline

Earlier, I mentioned that we live in very undisciplined times. In this situation, we need every encouragement to practise discipline and self-control. Fasting teaches us these virtues. It teaches us that our body should be ruled by our mind and will, and it helps us to practice this.

It Encourages Earnestness.

When we face a crisis or a problem in the church, we usually form a committee or we hold extra meetings. A few years ago, the session of the Reformed Church of Bishopdale was considering an important decision. The church had grown and we had to consider whether to expand our facility to accommodate more people, or whether to plant another church. We planned a special meeting for discussion and prayer, and we decided that we would get an early start in the evening and meet for a fish and chip tea. It was a delicious meal and a great meeting! However, if we faced the same situation again I would suggest we still begin early but that we fast and pray rather than eat fish and chips!

Lest you think this is a peculiarly uncalvinistic practice, let me quote from Calvin himself:

Whenever a controversy over religion arises which ought to be settled by either a synod or an ecclesiastical court, whenever there is a question about choosing a minister, whenever, finally, any difficult matter of great importance is to be discussed... - this is a holy ordinance and one salutary for all ages, that pastors urge the people to public fasting and extraordinary prayers.

Calvin based this on the biblical pattern. When believers faced a crisis or a calamity, they fasted. They fasted when they felt strongly about their need for help, or guidance, or comfort, or forgiveness. Fasting expressed their deep need and concern.

You might want to fast when you are beginning a new job, or about to start university, or when you are struggling with temptation, or in preparation for the Lord's Supper, or out of concern for your families and friends who do not know Christ, or when the church is facing a crisis, or when your marriage or family are in trouble. You can use fasting to express the strength of your desire - that you are earnest about this.

Maybe this is part of our problem - that we aren't earnest enough; that we don't have the sense of urgency that we should; that we don't grieve deeply over our sin. All the more reason, then, to consider this practice. Next time you feel strongly about some matter that you want to bring before God, consider prayer and fasting.

Maybe you will decide to miss breakfast, or morning tea, or lunch, or all three.

That is between you and the Lord. There are no instructions about how often you should fast, or for how long. This must never be turned into a legalistic routine. Fasting is between you and the Lord.

When you fast, God will reward you. "Your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." (vs.18b). This doesn't mean that God will automatically give us what we are asking for. This is not a mechanical procedure: Fasting and prayer in - the right answer out. It doesn't work like this. Fasting is not a spiritual hunger strike that will force God to do what you want Him to do. It is an expression of your intense concern about something. And God will answer that in His way, and in His time.

Fasting Keeps us Focused.

I love food as much as any of you. I enjoy my wife's beef curry on rice and my daughter's great apple crumble! God wants us to enjoy the good things of His creation. He even commanded the people of Israel to get together at times for a big feast - a great party! There is a time to eat, drink and be merry!

But there is also a time to abstain from food. The writer of Ecclesiastes tells us; "There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven." (Ecc. 3:1). If I may expand on his comparisons we might also say, There is a time to eat and a time to refrain from eating. There is a time to feast and a time to fast.

Abstaining from food helps focus your mind and your attention. God has made us so that our mind and body and spirit are all connected together. One affects the other. If you eat too much, you will feel lazy and sleepy. If you don't eat anything, you feel hungry. But that hunger can help focus your mind and remind you to pray.

Should You Fast?

There is only one specific command in the Bible that believers must fast. That command was fulfilled in the saving work of the Lord Jesus. However, the Bible gives us many examples of believers in both the Old and New Testament who did fast. Jesus assumes that we will not only be giving to the needy, and praying, but that we will also be fasting.

I believe there are times when we should fast as an aid to prayer and an expression of the earnestness of our desires. We should not fear that we are all going to turn into John-the-Baptist types or become hollow-eyed fanatics! Nor must this be done for the wrong motive - for the praise of men, or our own pride. Nor should we judge others - either for their fasting, or their lack of it.

Having said all that, the Scriptures commend fasting as a spiritual discipline that we may practise according to our own conscience, in response to what is going on in our lives and our churches, as an aid in the life of being a disciple of Christ and for the benefit of our relationship with God.

(The Rev. John Haverland is the minister of the Reformed Church of Bishopdale - Christchurch)

    William Hendrikson, Commentary on Matthew 6:17, p. 342.

    John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV, xii, 14.

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