(Preached at First Baptist, Pauls Valley, OK 10-26-14)
A Christian disciple from India came to the United States a few years ago, and made the tour of a number of our Baptist churches, both observing and speaking. After a few weeks, he asked a question of his host. He said he had enjoyed the worship services, and the preaching, and the fellowships, and he noted all the good food they had eaten together at their Baptist churches. “But,” he asked: “When do you fast?” That’s a good question. When DO we fast?
As we continue our series, “The Disciplines of Disciples”, we have seen that Jesus commands those who would come after Him to deny themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow Him. And we have seen that there are a number of spiritual disciplines which we are to adopt as His disciples, including daily time in God’s word & prayer, spontaneous praying throughout the day, and scripture memory. This morning we will look at another discipline, but one which has received scant attention from most Baptists, and that is the discipline of fasting.
I will say up front that I am not the world’s greatest authority on fasting. I grew up a Southern Baptist, and we are much more famous for our fellowships than our fasting! But I have fasted some in recent years, and God has been speaking to me more about it. In fact, a few weeks ago, I was considering fasting about something important to me, and then in the course of my daily Bible reading I came across a passage in Ezra which speaks about fasting, and it confirmed some things in my heart about it. I think it would be good for all of us to look at this passage together. Ezra 8:21 will be our text this morning as we consider “The Discipline of Fasting.”
“Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God to seek from Him a safe journey for us, our little ones, and all our possessions.”
We learn several things about fasting from this passage in Ezra:
I. The Practice of Fasting
“Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava …”
Before they headed out on their journey back to the Promised Land, Ezra “proclaimed a fast.” Fasting is when you neglect food for a time, in order to seek God, often with a special request or purpose in mind. In this case, Ezra and the others were fasting to seek God’s blessing on their trip, which was arduous and potentially dangerous. He said in :22 that he “was ashamed to request from the king troops and horsemen to protect us from the enemy on the way” because he had told the king that God protects His people. But the point is that there WERE “enemies on the way”, and so they sought God in fasting and prayer for the special cause of asking for His protection on the journey they were about to undertake.
We see examples of the practice of fasting, for various reasons, all through scripture:
— Exodus 34:28 says that when Moses went up on Mt. Sinai to get the 10 Commandments from the Lord, “he did not eat bread or drink water”, so he fasted that whole time he was with God.
— In I Samuel 7:5, when Israel was being oppressed by the Philistines, Samuel gathered the people together to seek the Lord’s deliverance, and it says they fasted, and confessed their sins.
— In Nehemiah 1:4 it tells us that when Nehemiah heard of the distress of Jerusalem, he fasted and prayed to God for the city and his people.
— Esther 4:3 tells of how during the crisis of their day, the Jews fasted and sought God.
— Several times in the book of Psalms (35:13, 69:10, 109:24), David refers to his fasting.
— In Joel 2:12, God commands His people through the prophet to seek Him with mourning, weeping, and fasting.
And importantly, we find plenty of New Testament references to fasting as well:
— Luke 2:37 tells of how the widow Anna served God with fasting and prayers.
— We see the example of Jesus in Matthew 4:1-2, where it says that just before beginning His public ministry, He “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after He had fasted 40 days and 40 nights, He then became hungry.”
— But it was not only Jesus who fasted, but in the Sermon on the Mount He commanded in Matthew 6:16, “WHEN you fast …”, thus assuming that His followers would indeed fast.
— In Matthew 9:14 the disciples of John asked Jesus why His disciples were not fasting like they were, and Jesus said “the attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them … but they days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” So He did declare that after He (the Bridegroom) was taken away, His disciples would fast. And indeed we see in a couple of places in the Book of Acts that after His ascension His disciples did fast during the course of their service:
— Acts 13:2 tells how the church at Antioch fasted and prayed when they set Paul & Barnabas apart for their mission to the Gentiles.
— Acts 14:23 tells us that when Paul & Barnabas appointed elders in every city, they did it “having prayed and fasted” before they set them aside.
So far from being merely an Old Testament practice only, fasting is taught and commended in the New Testament as well. In fact, fasting has more support from the New Testament than the practice of tithing. As we talked about last week, I do believe in tithing as a principle for minimum giving, but if we practice that, then we should also be committed to the practice of fasting. People remark at how the number of Christians who actually give a tithe is small, but I warrant that the percentage of us who fast would be even smaller! As the Apostle Paul said, “Brethren, these things ought not to be this way”! The practice of fasting has much Biblical support, from both the Old and New Testaments, and yet most Southern Baptist Christians would probably admit that we have rarely — or perhaps even never — practiced it. It is Biblical, and should be part of our “Disciplines of Disciples.”
II. The Attitude of Fasting: not a proclamation of our spirituality, but an admission of our need.
“… that we might humble ourselves before our God …”
As we consider the discipline of fasting, is important that we understand the attitude behind it. It is not merely important that we perform the “deed” of fasting, but that we do it with the right attitude, and aim, in mind. The attitude we are to exhibit during fasting is that of humility towards God. Ezra says they fasted “that we might humble ourselves before God.” Fasting is not an opportunity to “build up our spiritual resume”; but is a means of humbling ourselves and asking God to do what only He can do for us.
— In Psalm 35:13 David says, “I humbled my soul with fasting.” David says that he fasted in order to humble himself before God. That is what Ezra had said too, and that attitude is vital.
When we fast and seek God for something, we humble ourselves by admitting that on our own, we can’t do what we are seeking, but we are looking to God instead. It is in a sense the opposite of “action.” When we fast and pray, we are saying, “We don’t have any answers; we don’t know what else to do. God, we need YOU to do something that we ourselves cannot.”
— That is why Jesus gave such a warning about fasting in Matthew 6. He says there that we aren’t to be like the hypocrites, who “neglect their appearance, so that they may be seen fasting by men.” He said, “Anoint your head, and wash your face, that you may not be seen fasting by men, but by your Father who is in secret.” Here he reminds us that fasting is something that is between us and God, to humble ourselves before Him. But when we “display” our fasting like the hypocrites, and become proud of how “religious” we are because of it, it is the very OPPOSITE fasting’s aim, which is HUMBLING ourselves before God, and asking Him to do what we admit we cannot do for ourselves.
So we need to heed Jesus’ warning, and understand that any pride which might come from fasting, which very subtly says, “I am very spiritual, because I am fasting” is insidious and is totally counterproductive. We must put that idea and that attitude to death. In fact, instead of thinking that we are very “spiritual” because we are fasting, let’s adopt the idea instead that we are fasting because we are very NEEDY!
My wife Cheryl often tells the story on herself that in her early years, she thought she must be something special, because God chose her to be a pastor’s wife. As the years went by, she said she came to realize that God didn’t make her a pastor’s wife because she was so “spiritual”, but rather because she was so needy, He had to give her her own full-time pastor in her home 24 hours a day!
We need to have that attitude about fasting. FASTING IS NOT A PROCLAMATION OF OUR SPIRITUALITY; IT IS AN ADMISSION OF OUR NEED! We need the Lord; we need His help desperately; we need Him to do what only He can do for us and THAT is why we are fasting. It is vital that we keep the attitude of humility in our fasting, or we lose every possibility of benefit from it.
III. The Object of Fasting
“… to seek from Him a safe journey for us, our little ones, and all our possessions.”
The object of fasting is that we seek some specific objective from God in prayer. In fact, we need to notice the CONNECTION BETWEEN FASTING & PRAYING. In so many of these scriptural instances, it is not merely fasting itself which is exemplified, but almost always “fasting & praying.” They go together. In fact, I think we should probably view it as fasting in order to spend more time praying and seeking God about some particular matter in a special way.
What we also see throughout scripture is that on most occasions of fasting, there is some specific object in mind which was the aim of the fast:
— In this passage, Ezra and his people fasted and sought “from God” the specific aim of a safe journey to Israel.
— Nehemiah did the same thing when he received reports about the distress of the Jerusalem while he was in Babylon; he responded by seeking God in days of fasting and prayer (1:4).
— Moses fasted on Mt. Sinai in order to be with God and receive the Commandments.
— Daniel 9:3 “So I gave my attention to The Lord God, to seek Him by prayer .. with fasting …” for the prayer request he was making for the restoration of the people of Israel.
— Acts 13:2 says they fasted to set aside the missionary team they were sending out.
— Acts 14:23 says they fasted when they appointed elders (pastors) for each of the churches.
In each of these cases, the people involved in fasting were seeking God in prayer upon some specific occasion or for some specific request they were making of Him. We should do the same thing.
A couple of years ago, thousands of Christians gathered in Houston, Texas to seek God on behalf of our nation in a special way, and Cheryl & I, along with a group from our church, and thousands of others, fasted and prayed during that time. We were seeking God in prayer, and we were doing it with the specific aim of praying for our country.
That is the kind of thing you want to do when you fast: use the fasting to seek God in greater ways in prayer.
— Use the time you would have spent eating, in order to pray. For example, you might give up eating lunch one noon, and spend your lunch hour in prayer. (In fact, as we shall see, that is a good way to begin to fast, by just missing a meal and spending that time in prayer instead.)
— Since the focus of the fast is to pray, then let every aspect of the fast turn you again to pray. For example, when I fast what I usually try to do is to let the hunger pangs remind me to pray for whatever my special request is. When I fasted and prayed for someone in our church in Norman who was sick, whenever my stomach would rumble, I would let that rumbling be a “call to prayer” to pray for that person again. So the more my stomach rumbled, the more I would pray. That’s a pretty effective reminder — and keeps you praying!
So there is often a particular aim that one has in mind for prayer when they fast. You want to humble yourself and seek God when you fast, and that seeking of Him is the most important thing. But you are usually seeking Him for some particular purpose.
It is instructive that when this passage says that Ezra and his people were fasting and seeking God for a “safe journey”, the phrase “safe journey” in Hebrew is literally, a “straight course”. That can help direct us in our fasting. Whenever we need God’s direction for a “straight course” it is a good time to fast.
Proverbs 3:5-6 says: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your path straight.”
That is just what Ezra was praying for here: a “straight course”, a straight path. That is what many of us here today are seeking from God as well:
— that is what this church is seeking, as you search for a new pastor. You want God to “make your path straight.”
— this is what we should be praying for regarding our nation, that God would make our path as a country straight.
— that is what some of you are seeking personally as well, that God would “make your path straight” about a decision regarding a new job, or business, or whether you should start or continue a personal relationship, or what you should do about some particular issue in your life.
Whatever that issue is, when you are at a time in your life when you especially need God to “make your path straight”, then fasting with that particular aim in mind would be in order for you. Some of you might say that you are at a place like that right now, and your “decision” today needs to be to go and seek God in prayer and fasting that He would “make your path straight” about that thing.
SOME MORE CONSIDERATIONS ABOUT FASTING:
— BABY STEPS
You might want to start small. Don’t begin with a 40-day fast (I don’t know if any of you were in danger of that!) If you haven’t done it at all, start by fasting one meal, and spend the time you would have spent eating, in prayer for whatever is on your heart for this special fast time. When you’ve done that some, then you might try fasting for a couple of meals, or a day. I’m told the Jews used to fast the evening meal, and then the next breakfast and lunch, following the Jewish pattern of “the evening and the morning” being a day. Cheryl & I have fasted that way several times. Regardless of how you do it, it might be a good idea to work your way into longer fasts. (And some of you might need to check with your doctor — there may be medical reasons why you personally should not fast, and if there are, don’t worry about it. You can still fervently pray and seek God, whether you fast or not. It is seeking Him from your heart which is the most important thing.)
— DON’T BE LEGALISTIC ABOUT IT
Don’t make too many “rules” about it, like: “you have to do it for x amount of time”, or “if you drink juice, that is not fasting”, or whatever. The Bible doesn’t really give us a bunch of “hard and fast” rules for fasting, so do it however God leads you to in your particular case, and don’t worry if it is not just like someone else’s fast. If you miss a meal and pray; that’s a great fast. If you fast 40 days, that is wonderful. If you cut out all food, that is great, but if you drink juices or whatever, that is fine. Just do what God leads you to do, and don’t be legalistic about it towards yourself, or look down on others because they don’t do it the way you think it should be done. The point is that you withhold yourself from physical nourishment, in order to seek God in prayer in a special way, for a special purpose. Just don’t get too legalistic about it, or you lose the whole value of it by becoming a Pharisee.
— In line with that, don’t fast, if possible, when you know there will be opportunities for public fellowship. You don’t want to be at Thanksgiving dinner and have to say, “No Aunt Martha, I can’t have your special stuffing; I am fasting”! Don’t schedule a fast when you know it is time to feast or fellowship with others. In fact, there have been times when Cheryl & I were going to fast, but I have said, “If someone from church asks us out to eat, we are going to go; we are not going to decline because we are fasting” (One time I said that, and later Cheryl said, “Man, I sure hope someone asks us out to eat!”) But the point is, you want to try not to make a big deal out of it before others. Fasting is about humbling yourself, not calling attention to yourself. As we said before, if you are prideful about your fasting, you will negate any blessings you might obtain from it.
In that Matthew 9 passage where Jesus said you don’t fast while the Bridegroom is with you, one of the things He was telling us there was that there is a time and place to fast. He didn’t say His disciples were NEVER to fast; that just wasn’t that time & place. That is a good principle for us as well: there are times and places to fast — and NOT to fast — and we need to use good discernment about when those times should be.
— THE KEY TO HEAVEN
We need to avoid the trap of thinking that somehow fasting is the special “key” to unlocking heaven’s door, or that we have found the secret to getting God’s ear. NO, THE BIBLE MAKES IT CLEAR THAT THERE IS ONE “KEY TO HEAVEN” AND THAT JESUS IS THAT “KEY”! He said in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through Me.” Jesus is the only way to fellowship with God. Hebrews 4 tells us that “we have a great high priest who has passed through the heaven, Jesus, the Son of God ..” and so it says, “Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we might receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” The scripture makes it clear: JESUS is why we can come with confidence to God in prayer. We have “boldness and confident access through faith in HIM”. The one thing you need to grasp onto in order to have the “key” to access the Father in heaven is not fasting; it is JESUS! For centuries, devotees of religions all over the world have fasted, seeking favor with God, but they have not found the key to opening heaven’s door. That is because the “key” to heaven is not “fasting”; it is Jesus! If you are seeking to be right with God today, what you need is not the religious experience of fasting; you need to repent of your sins, put your trust in Jesus’ death on the cross as the once-and-for-all payment for your sins, and commit your life to Him as your Lord & God. And then you may “draw near with confidence” in prayer to God through faith in Him, whether you ever fast or not. Let us be clear in this: it is not “fasting” that is the key to heaven; Jesus is! But fasting can be one way to express, as we come through Jesus, that we are serious about seeking God as His disciples.
I really think that one of the core issues in fasting is that it demonstrates to God and to ourselves that the thing we are fasting & praying about is really important to us: even more important than our daily bread itself. It is not as much the “fasting” that is important, but crying out to God about something that is more important to us than our daily food.
You have probably known someone who was so distraught over a situation in their lives that they didn’t want to eat. That’s really, in a sense, the heart of fasting: caring more about seeking God about something that matters to you, than eating food.
So if you look at how Southern Baptists are not fasting, our real problem is not that we lack this “discipline of fasting”, or that it’s a sin not to fast. Our real sin is that we don’t care enough to fast:
— People we supposedly love are sick and dying, but we don’t fast — we can eat robustly every day because it doesn’t really affect US; we’re well!
— We have family members who are lost, and going to hell, and that doesn’t bother us enough that we miss a meal to pray for them?
— We are in a church that is so much in need of God’s direction, but we don’t care enough to seek God in prayer & fasting?
— We need God’s leadership for our job or family or some very important decision, but we don’t believe enough that God has the answers for us that we would fast & pray and seek Him for it.
The problem with all these scenarios is not that “Oh you are not fasting; that is a sin”; the sin is that we care more about padding our bellies than we do about seeking God’s power for people and things we are supposed to care about!
It is just as I Corinthians 13 reminds us: LOVE is the most important thing, not “fasting.” But if we do love God, we will want to seek Him; if we do love others, we will want to fast & pray for them. May God so rend our hearts about our own needs, and those of others whom we love, that we do not hesitate to miss a meal seeking God for them.
If you are interested in reading more on the issue of fasting, read this article by seminary professor Chuck Lawless: