Sunday, February 21, 2010

Fasting

The church has a long history of fasting, especially during Lent. Now is an appropriate time to look at the discipline of fasting. Lent is the 40 days prior to Easter (not counting Sundays). It is a time when through self denial we especially take note of the death of Jesus and his victorious resurrection.

Fasting is Biblical
Jesus fasted regularly (Luke 4:1, John 4:31-34). He spoke of fasting as something that was expected ("When you fast..." Matt 6:17).

Fasting is Combined with Prayer.
Daniel prayed and fasted (Daniel 9:3). The Israelites prayed and fasted when returning from exile (Ezra 8:21-23). The early church fasted and prayed when seeking guidance (Acts 13:2-3).

Fasting May be Corporate, Especially When Seeking God's Mercy.
The whole city of Nineveh fasted (even livestock!) after the prophet Jonah warned them of their pending destruction (Jonah 3:6-9). Judah fasted when destruction was imminent (2 Chron 20:1-4). During Esther's time the Jews fasted when Haman plotted against them (Esther 4:1-3).

No Extra Points for Fasting.
Jesus saves us by grace through faith. We can't save ourselves by fasting or by any other discipline. Some people think that by their work of self denial they can make God do something that He wouldn't do otherwise. That is self centered, and doesn't move God. Some think they can sin and then fast to cancel it out. Again, this doesn't impress God. God prefers mercy over sacrifice (Hosea 6:6), and justice over fasting (Isaiah 58:3-8).

Fasting Should be God Centered and Combined With Obedience.
Fasting can have health benefits, but the main reason we do it is to seek God's face. When we fast, we wait to hear from God. If He speaks to us, we obey and do what He says. Charles Spurgeon wrote: "Our seasons of fasting and prayer at the tabernacle have been high days indeed; ever has Heaven's gate stood wider; never have our hearts been nearer to the central glory." (quoted in Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster, p 55)

Fasting Allows God to Work in Us With Power.
Fasting is a type of special dependence on God. God can use it to work in us with power and authority. Jesus said that certain types of demons cannot be exorcised without prayer and fasting (Mark 9:29).

Fasting Will Reveal the Sin Inside of Us.
Richard Foster writes: "More than any other Discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. This is a wonderful benefit for the true disciple who longs to be transformed into the image of Christ. We cover up what is inside of us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface. If pride controls us, it will be revealed almost immediately...Anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear - if they are within us, they will surface during fasting. At first we will rationalize that our anger is due to our hunger; then we will realize that we are angry because the spirit of anger is within us. We can rejoice in the knowledge because we know that healing is available through the power of Christ."

Give Something Up, Add Something to Replace It.
Usually the focus on fasting is on giving something up. Thus, a person might fast food. An additional focus can be to add something new to replace what has been given up. Thus, a person might spend more time in prayer, Bible reading, or in service to others. For example, if you fast TV, you could replace the TV time with prayer.

You Can Fast Anything.
Some people can't do a food fast because of heath issues. Is there something else in your life that is too high of a priority? It may be a good candidate for fasting. TV, facebook, blogging, theology books, coffee (these are all things that could apply to me). Ask God to show you something to fast and He will. Replace the time you spent doing the activity with something else, like prayer, worship, or service.

Done in Private
Fasting should only be between the participating parties and the Lord. The only people who should know about your fast are those who must know. If you fast to try and impress others, that will be your only reward (Matt 6:16-18).

Fasting has a long History in the Church
Our society has become accustomed to ease and a "have it now" mentality. Fasting is a largely neglected discipline. But the church has fasted since the beginning, as the book of Acts records. The Didache (an early church manual written around AD 100) encouraged fasting every Wednesday and Friday.

Wesley Advocated Fasting
John Wesley fasted every Friday and sometimes on Wednesdays. He encouraged all of his Methodist pastors to do likewise. For those who don't like Wesley, you can look to Augustine, Luther, Calvin or Spurgeon - who all advocated fasting. As this is the Wesleyan Arminian blog, Wesley gets his props here. :)
Wesley was convinced that fasting, abstaining from food or drink, was a practice firmly grounded in the Bible. People in Old Testament times fasted (Ezra 8:23). So did Jesus and his followers (Matthew 4:2; Acts 13:3), and Wesley saw no reason why modern Christians should not follow the same pattern. His plan of fasting sometimes allowed for limited eating and drinking. He found that fasting advanced holiness. (John Wesley: Holiness of Heart and Life, Charles Yrigoyen)

Tips for an Extended Food Fast
(largely borrowed from Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster).
  • Don't beat yourself up if you fail on the fast. Ask for God's help, and try again.
  • Don't try to stock up with a big meal before fasting. It is better to work into it with light meals of fruits and vegetables.
  • Start with a short fast of just a meal or two "...it is wise to learn to walk well before we try to run."
  • Drink lots of water.
  • During a long fast, the first few days will be the most difficult. You will feel hungry. The body is like a child, and needs to be put in its place. The body will be ridding itself of toxins, you may have bad breath for a day or two. If you fast caffeine you may have withdrawal headaches.
  • As you fast, you will see a progression from the superficial aspects of fasting to the more rewarding ones. You will go from congratulating yourself to reflecting on Christ, to surrender and prayer.
  • "By the sixth or seventh day you will begin to feel stronger and more alert. Hunger pains will continue to diminish until...they are only a minor irritation."
  • "Anywhere between twenty-one and forty days or longer...hunger pains will return. This is the first stage of starvation...the fast should be broken at this time."
  • When you end an extended fast, do it gently. Your digestive system will be out of practice. End the fast with a small meal or two, and with healthy and easily digested foods.

8 comments:

pchurcher87 said...

Thanks for posting this.
I've struggled to find any useful information on fasting in the past. I particularly like the tips at the end!

Plus if its good enough for Mr. Wesley then it's good enough for me! (not to mention Jesus of course!)

Kevin Jackson said...

Pchurcher, Wesley is the man. ;)

The tips at the end are largely based on ideas in Richard Foster's book: The Celebration of Discipline.

Dawn said...

"You Can Fast Anything.
Some people can't do a food fast because of heath issues. Is there something else in your life that is too high of a priority? It may be a good candidate for fasting. TV, facebook, blogging, theology books, coffee (these are all things that could apply to me). Ask God to show you something to fast and He will. Replace the time you spent doing the activity with something else, like prayer, worship, or service."

I'm not saying this isn't true, but where do you find in the scriptures that God acknowledges fasting of things other than food?

Kevin Jackson said...

Hi Dawn, good question. You are right, fasting is almost always associated with abstaining from food. Here's some possible verses that one could use to advocate other types of fasts.

Paul speaks of married couples abstaining from sexual relations for a short time for the purpose of prayer (1 Cor 7:5).

Daniel and his friends abstained from meat and wine, eating only vegetables and drinking water (Daniel 1:11-14).

As part of the Nazarite vow, there were certain things that were abstained from during the duration of the vow. Drinking wine, cutting hair, and touching dead things (Num 6:1-27).

Dawn said...

Kevin,

Thanks for the scriptures.

practic said...

Don't forget this important chapter on fasting:

Isaiah 58
5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast,and a day acceptable to the LORD?

6 “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

8 Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

9 Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,

10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.

11 And the LORD will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.

Kevin Jackson said...

Hi Practic, that's an excellent passage. I cited it under the section "No Extra Points for Fasting."

Thanks for stopping by too.

churchmousec said...

Thank you, Kevin, for a thorough and fascinating examination of fasting.

Interesting to read that Wesley advocated fasting, too!

Churchmouse