Yeah, so this topic. I have never heard a sermon on fasting. I remember doing some fasting in college, where we talked about it a little. (College is a fun time in intentional Christian community, isn't it?) But, goodness, I cannot write from experience about the discipline of fasting because it has never been a discipline in my life. So I'll rely on Jesus and Richard Foster to give this post some worthwhile content.
I love Foster's definition of fasting, (which he draws from the Bible): Fasting is abstaining from food for spiritual purposes. He also points out that most often, fasting is a business between the individual and God, though of course there can be very beneficial times of corporate fasting (e.g. The Day of Atonement or a big Parish decision). Throughout his chapter on the subject, Foster comes to the conclusion that while fasting is not a command, it is an expected and useful discipline in the life of a believer. Jesus says (Matthew 6), "When you fast ...." And it is grouped in with sermon points about prayer and giving, both of which we are familiar with as regular practices of devout Christian folks.
I knew about Jesus' words on fasting in the Sermon on the Mount; I had forgotten about another passage Foster cites, from Matthew 9. People are wondering why Jesus' disciples are not fasting. Jesus' reply? How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast. Again here, as in chapter six, there's an expectation Jesus' followers will fast.
I suppose there are two primary reasons. One, it helps us draw near to God. Fasting causes us to look not to "the god of our stomach" but to the real, living, sustaining God. Man cannot live by bread alone. (Matthew 4:4) But we try to most of the time. Routine fasting, like regular prayer and giving, is another opportunity to turn toward God and seek Him first - to repent and believe. (I dunno about you, but I need all the help I can get keeping my eyes focused on my Lord. There might be something to this fasting thing!)
The second reason for fasting is related to the first: because we love God. How great is the love the Father has lavished on us that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! (I John 3:1a) Truly changed people want to live to honor, serve, and love their God. All of the disciplines are opportunities not only to "have a better relationship with God," but also means by which we can express our affection for our Good Shepherd.
That second point (which just came to me in the midst of reading the Matthew 6 passage) really puts the squeeze on my affections. I love food and build my life around it. Do I love God more? Enough to set it aside now and then because I do love Him?
One strong warning comes with this discipline. Can you spot it in here?
Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. ~Jesus, Matthew 6:1, 16-18
Fasting is a righteous practice, for and to the Lord. Our hearts are fickle; we're tempted to impress others with our religion. Religion is not righteousness. May we be mindful in our celebration of the disciplines to pursue righteousness for God's sake, not to be noticed by men. Beautifully, these practices are often the very means by which our gracious Lord keeps us grounded and humble!
Foster concludes the chapter on fasting with this,
Fasting can bring breakthroughs in the spiritual realm that will never happen in any other way. It is a means of God's grace and blessing that should not be neglected any longer.
I think he's right. Maybe 2014 is a great year to give fasting a go!
Have a lovely day, friends. We'll be hunkering down indoors, waiting out polar vortex number two!
PS Foster has some specific guidelines for getting started in this discipline, to work your way from one day of fasting to forty. Intense, I know! But also great practical advice for getting started. I'll be giving away a copy of the book at the end of this little series, but if you can't wait to read more, here's a link to get yours now!