Last week I gave you a personal testimony about prayer; my sermon was made up mainly of stories about my own personal experiences of the different kinds of prayer. I felt confident in doing that, because I’ve been praying regularly for a long time, and I’ve tried lots of different things.
But this week, the situation is entirely different. Our subject this week is one that I have very little personal experience of, and I’m sure I’ve missed out on a lot of spiritual benefit because of it. Recently, however, I’ve started to work my way back into it, and I’m already seeing some fruit from it. Our subject for this week is fasting.
Let’s back up a bit. This Lent we’re thinking about how we can open ourselves up to the presence of the Lord in a new and fresh way – how we can return to our first love for him, or perhaps take a step forward into a deeper love than we’ve ever known before. Our theme verse is Revelation 3:20, where Jesus says, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me”.
In thinking about how we might go about opening the door to Jesus, we’re being guided by some words from the Ash Wednesday service in the B.A.S.:
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent, by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God.
Here are six concrete habits or practices that we can build into our lives. During the six Sundays of Lent I’m thinking with you about these six habits, and this week, the Fourth Sunday in Lent, we’re going to look at fasting.
Fasting is a spiritual discipline known in almost all of the great religious traditions of the world. For the vast majority of human history, for the vast majority of the human race, it has just been assumed that if you want to find a spiritual path in life, fasting is a useful tool to use. And yet nowadays in mainstream western society fasting is hardly ever practiced - or if it is, it’s just about dieting, not about spiritual growth and seeking God.
I suspect one reason for this is our notion that we just should never say ‘no’ to ourselves. If you want something, why shouldn’t you have it? Food, drink, possessions, luxuries, sex – why would you ever want to deny yourself these things? And yet as Christians we know that the language of self-denial is an integral part of our response to the Gospel. Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Jesus took it for granted that it’s not good for us to have everything we want, and that regularly saying ‘no’ to ourselves can help us grow stronger in body, mind, and spirit. Fasting is an important part of that.
The list of people in the pages of scripture who practiced fasting is a long one; let me remind you of a few of them. In the Old Testament, Moses went through a forty-day fast when he received the Law from God. King David fasted and prayed when his baby son fell sick. Elijah the prophet fasted when he went to the Sinai desert to seek a fresh touch of God’s power in his life. Esther the Queen fasted and prayed for God’s help before taking a potentially life-threatening risk. Daniel the prophet fasted and prayed as a regular part of his spiritual discipline.
In the New Testament we read about an old woman called Anna who ‘never left the temple but worshipped there with prayer and fasting night and day’ (Luke 2:37). Jesus of course went on a forty day fast in the wilderness when he was tempted by the devil; we’re told that it was the Holy Spirit who led him to do this. In the time of Jesus all devout Jews fasted once a year on the Day of Atonement, and many fasted regularly on a weekly basis too. St. Paul fasted for three days after he had his vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus. The Christians in Antioch ‘were worshipping the Lord and fasting’ when the Holy Spirit guided them to send Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey. And so the list goes on.
Jesus assumed that his disciples would fast. In Matthew 6 he describes the spiritual disciplines practiced by all devout Jews in his day: giving to the poor, praying, and fasting. He assumes his disciples will practice all three, and he gives them instructions about how to do so in the right spirit. He doesn’t say “If you give alms…pray…fast”. He says, “Whenever you give alms…” (6:2), “And whenever you pray…” (6:5), “And whenever you fast…” (6:16). To him, these are just the ordinary practices of a healthy spiritual life.
So what do we mean by fasting? Nowadays we need to ask this question, because all sorts of practices have come under this heading. Some Christian traditions abstain from meat on Fridays but eat everything else, and call it ‘fasting’. In many eastern Orthodox churches meatless Lents are still the rule, as they used to be in the western church too. And many people practice forms of self-denial and call it ‘fasting’.
These are all excellent practices, and we might use them as a way of learning to fast, or as a substitute if our health does not allow us to practice the full biblical fast. But a true fast, in the Bible, involves giving up all food, but not usually water, in order to devote yourself more fully to prayer and seeking the Lord. In the forty day fast of Jesus, for instance, we’re told that ‘he ate nothing at all’ and that at the end ‘he was famished’ and Satan tempted him to turn stones into bread. There’s no mention of thirst, so we can assume that he drank water during that time.
What’s the purpose of fasting?
Sometimes, in the Bible, it’s a sign of repentance and mourning for one’s sins. Perhaps people have been coasting along in their lives, but then somehow they’ve heard the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking to them, challenging them about the direction they’re taking, and they’ve realized that they’ve been going the wrong way. They’re cut to the heart, and they’re so upset by the realization of their sins that they even neglect their eating so that they can spend more time in prayer, seeking the Lord, asking his forgiveness and his help to turn things around.
Sometimes it’s not so much about our sins as it is about our deep hunger and thirst for God. Psalm 42 says,
‘As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul longs for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?’ (Psalm 42:1-3).
We human beings have a deep inner hunger to know God, to feel a sense of connection to the one who made us. Sometimes we don’t even know what that hunger is for. Sometimes we mistake it for a desire for possessions, or food and drink, or sex, or the approval of others. Sometimes we know it for what it is, but when we try to turn to God, we don’t get any immediate results, so we give up and try to fill the empty space with something else.
Fasting is a way of refusing to fill that empty space with something else. It’s as if we’re asking our body to join in the prayer of our heart. “God, I’m hungry for you, and I’m not going to accept any substitute. If you won’t fill that empty space, O God, I’m just going to leave it empty. I’m going to cultivate my sense of longing to you, and refuse to be satisfied with second best”. Fasting is way of acting out this prayer, so that we truly feel it, not just in our souls, but in our bodies, too.
In a sense, we could say that fasting is part of the removal of distraction in our spiritual life. In the parable of the sower, Jesus talks about the things that can choke out the word of God in our lives:
“Other (seeds) are sown among the thorns; these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing” (Mark 4:18-19).
These things are not necessarily sinful, you see, but if we seek them and make them the centre of our lives, they prevent us from “seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness”, as Jesus said. So when we fast, we set the distractions aside for a while, and focus our attention wholly on God and God’s word to us.
Fasting is also good spiritual exercise in self-control. We’re told in the Bible that ‘self-control’ is part of the fruit of the Spirit, one of the virtues that the Holy Spirit wants to grow in our lives. But of course, one of the ways the Holy Spirit grows the fruit is through practice! We are never going to grow as Christians if we can’t say ‘no’ to our own desires and turn instead to what God wants us to do. Fasting is good practice in helping us do that. Our body cries out like a spoilt child: “I’m starving! Feed me! Feed me now!” Gradually, as we practice fasting, we learn to reply, “Don’t be ridiculous! It takes more than forty days to starve! Grow up, body, and learn to put up with a little discomfort!”
So here are four good reasons for practicing the discipline of fasting: as a sign of repentance and mourning for our sins, as a sign of our deep hunger and thirst for God, as a way of removing distractions from our spiritual lives, and as a good spiritual exercise in self-control.
Of course, fasting by itself is not enough; it’s usually coupled in the Bible with prayer. So those who fast will often take the time they would have spent at meals and spend it in extra prayer and meditation on the Word of God instead. Of course, some of us have family responsibilities that make it hard for us to do that, but still, while we’re preparing meals and feeding others, we can be turning to the Lord in our hearts. Personally, I find this to be one of the most beneficial aspects of fasting. My days are busy like everyone else’s, but missing a couple of meals frees up some extra time, and I can use it for prayer, reading scripture, and listening for God’s guidance and direction in my life.
Let me say a word of caution: there are some people who cannot fast, for good medical reasons. There are a number of medical conditions, such as diabetes, that would be negatively impacted by fasting. Pregnant women and nursing mothers probably should not fast as well. Also, some medications need to be taken with food, and obviously you can’t skip them. So we need to be sensible about this. If in doubt, it’s wise to ask a doctor.
So – you’ve been listening to the sermon so far, and you’re thinking, “That’s intriguing. I’ve never really thought about fasting as a part of my Christian life, but maybe I should try it. How should I go about starting?”
My response would be, “Start small!” As I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon, I’m just getting back into the practice of fasting after years away from it. The way I’m doing it right now is what I call the ‘twenty-three and a half-hour fast’! In other words, I skip breakfast and lunch, and because I don’t eat between meals, that means I’m fasting from just after supper the first night until just before supper the second night. I’m also not yet at the stage of fully abstaining from any liquids other than water; I still drink some coffee and tea and juice during that time, although I try to cut down a bit on caffeine.
I also found that spending a few weeks learning not to eat between meals was good preparation for this fasting discipline. When I was in the habit of eating between meals regularly, I had lost the ability to say ‘no’ to my appetite. But practicing this for a few weeks first made it much easier for me to get back into fasting.
As I mentioned before, it’s important to fill the empty space; fasting and prayer always go together in the Bible. I’m finding right now on my weekly fast that missing breakfast gives me some extra time in the morning, so I don’t need to be in such a rush about my morning time of prayer and Bible reading. Missing lunch leaves another space for me; sometimes I spend it in self-examination, sometimes in reading a spiritual book and reflecting on how I might learn from what it says and put it into practice in my life.
I should say that there is some very sensible practical information out there about how to eat before and after a fast. It’s not usually a good idea, for instance, to eat a huge meal before you fast; it’s better to cut down a little and ease into it. Coming out, the same rule applies: your stomach will have shrunk a bit, so it’s wise not to stuff yourself. But do a google search on the subject, and you’ll find lots of information about good foods to eat before and after a fast.
Let’s close by reminding ourselves what this is all about. It’s possible to fast for the wrong reasons, and in the wrong spirit. In the Old Testament Book of Zechariah the prophet speaks to the people on the name of the Lord: “When you fasted and lamented in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted?” (Zechariah 7:5). The King James Version says, “did ye at all fast unto me, even unto me?” And in Matthew 6 Jesus talks about those who fast to show off, as a way of impressing other people with how spiritual they are: “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting” (Matthew 6:16). He counsels us to fast and not let anyone know we’re doing it, so we can be sure we’re doing it for God, not to impress others.
And there’s the rub, of course. That’s why we fast, as Christians: because this is one of the ways we can seek the face of God. The motivation for fasting is to seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness. We fast out of the deep longing the psalmist expressed in the words I quoted earlier:
‘As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?’ (Psalm 42:1-2).
In other words, we’re back where we started from. Once again, Jesus is knocking at our door, asking us to let him in so that we can grow a deeper relationship with him. The universal testimony of our Jewish and Christian ancestors through the centuries is that fasting can help us do that. Maybe, today, God is speaking to us through their voices. Maybe God is whispering in our hearts again, reminding us of those gentle words of Jesus, “And when you fast…” Maybe the Spirit is calling us, just as he called Jesus to go out into the desert and fast, so that he could hear the voice of God more clearly.
Might he be inviting us to do something similar?