“When you fast, don’t look like those who pretend to be spiritual. They want everyone to know they’re fasting, so they appear in public looking miserable, gloomy, and disheveled. Believe me, they’ve already received their reward in full. When you fast, don’t let it be obvious, but instead, wash your face and groom yourself and realize that your Father in the secret place is the one who is watching all that you do in secret and will continue to reward you openly.” (Mt. 6:16-18 TPT)
When you give to the needy…
When you pray…
When you fast…
Giving, praying, fasting–three pillars–equal weight–each necessary for Kingdom people–each to be done privately; not for show–each delightful to God’s heart.
This week, in our Sermon on the Mount series, fasting is the subject. I don’t know about you, but in my church upbringing, there was not a great emphasis placed on fasting. I’d heard of it but it was not part of my faith practice. Interestingly though, it was part of my dad’s faith practice and he was my pastor. Maybe I just checked out when the subject came up because I didn’t understand what fasting was about and I didn’t really want to fast. Who knows? However, Jesus makes it clear that fasting is part of following. Fasting is part of being formed into the image of Christ. Fasting is being an imitator of Christ.
As we’ve pointed out, all of the “when you” statements of Jesus, (giving, praying and fasting) were practices in the early church.
In the Antioch church we learn that 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.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. (Acts 13: 2-3).
In Acts 14 we learn Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.
Throughout the history of God’s people, we see that fasting was a given.
In the Old Testament:
The entire nation of Israel fasted on the Day of Atonement as they humbled themselves, repented of their sins, and sought God’s forgiveness. (Lev. 23: 27-28)
Moses fasted (twice) for forty days on Mt. Sinai while he was receiving divine revelation from God. (Ex. 34:28; Dt. 9:9-10:10)
Daniel fasted for twenty-one days and at the end of that time received a revelation from God regarding Israel’s future. (Dan. 10)
Hannah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, King Jehosaphat, David, and others are said to have fasted personally and/or led the nation in a fast.
In the New Testament:
The Prophet Anna never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. She recognized the infant Jesus and she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. (Lk. 2:37-38)
Jesus fasted forty days before he entered public ministry (Mt 4: 1-11).
The early church fasted.
And, it’s clear in this week’s passage, that Jesus is not asking us to fast, but is giving us guidelines to follow when we fast.
So what happened? Where did fasting go?
According to the C. S. Lewis Institute: In the early church, fasting was highly valued. Those who could do so fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays until 3 p.m. But in the fourth century, with the rise of Constantine and the end of persecution, the church changed dramatically. Worldliness and institutionalism increased markedly, bringing an emphasis on form, ritual, and liturgy. Fasting became more legalistic and, for many, works-oriented.
Centuries after the reign of Constantine, we find ourselves rather anemic when it comes to fasting. We don’t understand it and it’s not part of our regular spiritual practice, and I’m afraid that many times when we do enter a fast, it’s because we want God’s attention and want him to do something for us–in other words, the fast becomes “me” focused rather than God-focused.
What if we were able to shift our focus a bit and come to see fasting as one of the ways that we love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength?
Pastor John reminded us that fasting is removing anything from our lives that has shifted our focus away from God, and making God our priority. Fasting is maybe the greatest way to realign our lives and remind ourselves that God is our priority.
So what do we do? How do we recalibrate? Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, wrote: I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ… their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things… (Ph. 3: 18-19)
First, we must recognize what earthly things have captured our attention. Is it food, social media, the news, binge-watching TV shows, exercise, energy-boosting substances, addictive substances? What do we seek for comfort? What is it that we think we can’t live without? What habits have captured our heart, soul, mind, and strength?
Are any of these things providing deep soul satisfaction? Are any of them leading to spiritual growth and a deep spiritual life–a deep connection with God?
If we look at the result of many biblical fasts, vision for leadership, for ministry, hearing the voice of God, recognizing God, connecting with God, returning to God, missionary vision, church leadership vision, intimacy with God, unity, and God’s desires being fulfilled were the result of God-focused fasts. Do we want that?
In the C. S. Lewis Institute quote above, we learn that part of what happened to the spiritual discipline of fasting is that worldliness and institutionalism entered the church. They’ve never left and have been detrimental. Another thing that I believe has been detrimental to the church is the emphasis on individualism. We’ve forgotten that God is creating a kingdom, a people, a community, a global movement, a global church. His desire is that we experience abundant life right here on planet earth and love others into his realm.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth…
You are God’s chosen treasure—priests who are kings, a spiritual “nation” set apart as God’s devoted ones. He called you out of darkness to experience his marvelous light, and now he claims you as his very own. He did this so that you would broadcast his glorious wonders throughout the world. (1 Pt. 2:9 TPT)
Each of the three pillars Jesus addresses has to do with kingdom building and our heart attitude, (as does the entire Sermon on the Mount). Intimacy with God matters. A “secret” life with God matters. It is in the secret place that God can do his deepest work in us. We are transformed in the secret place. It is in making God our priority that we learn to love him with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves. It’s in the secret place that we become more than church-attenders, we become kingdom-people. It’s not about legalism. It’s not about trying to manipulate God to conform to our will. It’s not about looking spiritual to others. It’s not about going through the motions. It’s about our hearts; it’s about us; it’s about others; it’s about God’s heart and God’s desire for all humankind–and yes, our Father, who sees in secret will reward us.
As I close, let’s check our hearts as we ponder excerpts from Isaiah 58. Let’s allow the Lord to mess in our business a little bit. Even when it’s uncomfortable, His desire is for our good.
Daily they seem to seek me, pretending that they delight to know my ways, as though they were a nation that does what is right and had not rejected the law of their God. They ask me to show them the right way, acting as though they are eager to be close to me. They say, ‘Why is it that when we fasted, you did not see it? We starved ourselves and you didn’t seem to notice.’
“Because on the day you fasted you were seeking only your own desires, and you continue to exploit your workers. During your fasts, you quarrel and fight with others…
Do you think I’m impressed with that kind of fast? Is it just a day to starve your bodies, make others think you’re humble, and lie down in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast?
“This is the kind of fast that I desire:
Remove the heavy chains of oppression!
Stop exploiting your workers!
Set free the crushed and mistreated!
Break off every yoke of bondage!
Share your food with the hungry!
Provide for the homeless
and bring them into your home!
Clothe the naked!
Don’t turn your back on your own flesh and blood!
Then my favor will bathe you in sunlight until you are like the dawn bursting through a dark night.
Let’s give. Let’s pray. Let’s fast. Let’s recalibrate and let go of earthly things by making God our focus and priority. Let’s meet God in the secret place and allow God to love the world through us as he changes us in that place.
Vision for leadership
Vision for ministry
Hearing the voice of God
Connecting with God
Returning to God
Church leadership vision
Intimacy with God,
God’s desires being fulfilled
These are what Luanne listed as the results of God-focused fasts in scripture. Then she asked us a simple question,
“Do we want that?”
Our answers will reveal the condition of our hearts, and whether we actually want to live according to kingdom values… or whether we just like saying that we do.
What is it that you want? What do I want? What do we, collectively, want? What do we think we need? What do we believe we can’t live without? Can we answer these questions honestly? If we can’t answer honestly with our words, the way we live our lives will answer for us. The way we pray… What we give our money to… If, how, and why we fast… these will reveal our hearts and our priorities. Period. Even if we try to appear holy in these areas, our motives will be found out. God knows, of course, but the people around us will find us out, too, if they haven’t already.
If we give begrudgingly, or out of a place of obligation; if our giving is not a passionate response to Jesus’ life within us, an embodiment of his kingdom in our day-to-day lives, it will be evident. If we pray in showy ways with a goal of being seen and applauded for our holiness, and we don’t connect with God in a personal way, our own extravagant but empty prayers will betray us. And if we fast to be seen and acknowledged, to barter with or coerce God to do what we want, if we make it about ourselves rather that prioritizing God’s place in our lives, our fasting is nothing more than an attempt at a transaction, an exchange of services.
1 Corinthians 13:1-3 is filling my mind as I type. I wasn’t planning to go there, but I think I see where this is heading, so please come along with me…
If I were to speak with eloquence in earth’s many languages, and in the heavenly tongues of angels, yet I didn’t express myself with love, my words would be reduced to the hollow sound of nothing more than a clanging cymbal. And if I were to have the gift of prophecy with a profound understanding of God’s hidden secrets, and if I possessed unending supernatural knowledge, and if I had the greatest gift of faith that could move mountains, but have never learned to love, then I am nothing. And if I were to be so generous as to give away everything I owned to feed the poor, and to offer my body to be burned as a martyr, without the pure motive of love, I would gain nothing of value…
This passage speaks to getting it all right on the outside. Speaking in the tongues of angels, having access to supernatural knowledge and the very secrets of God, living with mountain-moving faith, giving everything for those in need, dying as a martyr–even these extreme displays of faithfulness and commitment are utterly meaningless if our heart motives are not grounded in the self-emptying love of Jesus.
I don’t know how that hits you, but for me, this passage is hard. It’s humbling. It’s a serious heart-check.
I think it’s exactly why fasting–the kind that Jesus desires–is an essential part of our journey with God.
If I had access to the stores of God’s supernatural knowledge, if I were granted understanding of spiritual profundities, if I gave everything I have for the poor–I would probably think my priorities were in order. But here’s the thing… Even the very best things can fill God’s place in our hearts and lives. And it can happen in subtle ways, ways we aren’t even aware of until we set aside some time to get honest with ourselves and choose to take a step back from whatever has been distracting us.
The distractions can be so hard to identify when they seem like good things, when they look like good fruit. But good fruit grows when our roots are planted in the soil of the kingdom and when our branches are both nourished and pruned by the Gardener. Then and only then can we live out the kind of fast that Isaiah 58 outlines. Chains are loosed, injustice is reversed, the hungry are fed, the broken are restored, the lonely are loved, the world is set right only when we ourselves become an outpouring of the kingdom life that Jesus speaks of in the sermon on the mount. There is no other way for Shalom, for restoration, for wholeness to come.
Fasting, in our most basic understanding is abstaining from food. In the Greek, that is the definition. The earliest definition I found in the Hebrew for the word “fast”, the primitive root, means to cover over, or shut the mouth. Working with that definition, ponder something with me…
When we fast, we are abstaining from food, our source of nourishment. We do this to prioritize God. What if we took it even more literally? What if we look at fasting as abstaining from food in order to feast on the flesh of Jesus? Not in some gross, cannibalistic way. But so that his flesh, his being, his way of being in the world, becomes our flesh as we feed on him and all that he is?
Oswald Chambers said,
“God does not expect us to imitate Jesus Christ; He expects us to allow the life of Jesus to be manifested in our mortal flesh.” (emphasis mine)
From Henri Nouwen,
“. . . We are the living Christ in the world. Jesus, who is God-made-flesh, continues to reveal himself in our own flesh. Indeed, true salvation is becoming Christ.”
And Mother Teresa spoke these words:
“Our lives are woven with Jesus in the Eucharist. In Holy Communion we have Christ under the appearance of bread; in our work we find him under the appearance of flesh and blood. It is the same Christ. ‘I was hungry, I was naked, I was sick, I was homeless.'”
Jesus in the Eucharist, Jesus as our primary source of nourishment–this is how we, as kingdom-people, embody the One we follow.
What if when we fast, we ask Jesus to do this? To come into our very flesh, that he might be made manifest within us? What if we ask Emmanuel, God with us, to become our flesh as we nourish on all that he is, so that we become the embodiment of Jesus and his kingdom on this earth? What if we reorient our minds and hearts around Jesus’ robust theology of the kingdom–and fast from all lesser things that grab for our attention? Our prayers will change. Our giving will look different. Our relationship with God will be transformed. Because this is what happens when the kingdom of the heavens collides with earth.
I’ll ask Luanne’s question one more time…
Do we want that?