Fasting is simply the practice of abstaining from food, drink, or other things for a period of time. It’s considered a helpful practice for human flourishing. For Jesus, it became a way to experience and depend on the reality of the kingdom, the presence, and power of God.
When we fast we realize how much our bodies insist on having their way, and we learn about the kind of grip food has on our lives. We discover how we might use food, drink, or some other substance to try to comfort our flesh, to avoid having to face boredom, the fear of something, a lack of self-worth, inner emptiness, or a feeling that our work does not have value. We learn these things when we fast. In fasting, we discover it’s possible to have an unsatisfied appetite and still survive. And eventually, we can learn it’s possible to have an unsatisfied appetite and thrive! We can learn in small ways the art of suffering happily.
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.
What a strange idea.
* Why would you allow yourself to be hungry and not eat right away?
* Why would you have an appetite and not immediately satisfy it?
* Why would you ever deliberately deny yourself something?
* Isn’t the road to the good life about making sure anytime you have a craving for something, you find a way to satisfy it with the shortest delay possible?
If you’re looking for a potential spouse or a potential employee, isn’t the number one quality — someone who demands the immediate gratification of their every desire.
I know. It’s a strange, ancient practice that has no place in our enlightened world.
It’s for little, emaciated monks in loincloths who enjoy being miserable.
In fact, it’s not just Jesus. If you look at people in the Bible who fasted, it’s kind of like a “Who’s Who” of Scripture.
* Moses fasted.
* So did King David, Elijah, and Ezra the priest.
* Prophets like Zechariah, Jeremiah, and Amos fasted.
* Isaiah called for a great fast that would be connected to social justice and care for the hungry and the poor.
* When Esther had to risk her life by protesting to the king of Persia, she first went with her friends to spend three days in fasting and prayer and called every Israelite to do the same.
* On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, all of Israel would fast in repentance for their sin.
* Then in the New Testament, an old woman named Anna was actually prepared to recognize the baby Jesus by a lifetime of prayer and fasting.
* John the Baptist fasted.
* Jesus himself began his ministry with 40 days of fasting and prayer.
* Then later, the early church worshiped with fasting and prayer when the Holy Spirit told them to commission Paul for ministry.
* Then later Paul would fast and pray to identify elders for the churches he began.
Jonah went to preach at Nineveh. He didn’t want to go. He tried to run away, got swallowed by a whale and then regurgitated.
He preached in Nineveh the worst sermon in history. “Forty days, and Nineveh will be overthrown.” That was his whole sermon. There was nothing about God, grace, or what to do, but look at the response.
The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
This is a pagan city. On their first day of faith, they fasted. Not just that, the king of Nineveh issued a proclamation:
Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God.
It was not just the pagan foreigners. Their animals are fasting! The animals are probably not happy about this, but they’re fasting.
About the only characters in the book of Jonah who don’t fast are Jonah and the whale. Actually, the whale does kind of a reverse fast when he gets rid of Jonah, so really it’s only Jonah.
In fact, it wasn’t even invented in the Bible. It was practiced by sages like Confucius. In ancient Greece, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle all fasted.
It was considered a helpful practice for human flourishing.
I love food! I love Zachary’s pizza, Hanabi sushi, Chicken littles with mashed potatoes and corn from The Cheesecake Factory, Ben & Jerrys Americone Dream.
I love chocolate, cinnamon rolls, pancakes with loads of butter. I love eggs over easy on sour dough toast. I love the Jelly Donut, 5 guys bacon cheeseburgers with grilled jalapeños, and Popeyes spicy chicken sandwiches. I love Orville Redenbacher, Betty Crocker, Colonel Sanders, Mrs. Butterworth, and the Pillsbury Doughboy. These are some of my heroes!
But our desires need to be disciplined, or they become our gods.
I discovered how I might use food, drink, or some other substance to try to comfort my flesh, to avoid having to face boredom, the fear of something, a lack of self-worth, inner emptiness, or a feeling that my work doesn’t have value. I began to learn this when I fasted.
I know. You don’t need this. I know.
But it’s very interesting. At Stanford University, one of the famous research studies of the twentieth century got conducted. It’s now called the “Marshmallow Test.”
Researchers would give a marshmallow to a 5-year-old then tell them if they could resist the temptation to eat it for a period of time they would get two marshmallows.
It was something like Genesis 3 for kindergartners. “You must not eat of the marshmallow of good and evil.”
Then we watched the ancient human struggle between appetite and self-control. Take a look.
Igniter Media — Marshmallow Test
I love that video!
* Maybe it’s pride.
* Maybe it’s a wrong relationship.
* Maybe it’s gossip.
* Maybe it’s money.
* Maybe it’s being judgmental. We’ll talk about that in a few weeks.
* Maybe it’s indulging resentment.
You see, what temptation does is it whispers, “You’re entitled. You’ve been working so hard. You have already resisted so much. Your spouse doesn’t understand you. You’re entitled to be happy. What you want is not that bad. What you want will feel so good.”
What’s remarkable is the children who, at the age of 5, were able to say no to the marshmallow, grew up to have healthier bodies, they did better at school, they were more successful in their work, they had more stable relationships, and they had fewer problems with substance abuse.
Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.
1 Corinthians 9:25
Now here’s a concept that was tremendously helpful to me. There is a huge difference between trying to do something versus training to do something.
Could you go out right now, today, and run (not walk, run) every step of a marathon?
Now, my guess is you may be able to eventually run a marathon if you did one thing, and that is — train.
To train means I arrange my life around activities that enable me to eventually do what I cannot now do.
And as a general rule (this is just wisdom about the human condition), transformation involves training, not trying.
This is true in almost any field in life. It’s true in athletics. It’s true of music or intellectual life. And it is no less true of character formation or spiritual life.
This is why Paul says, “…train yourself for godliness.”
This is why Jesus says, “The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher.”
I know. Words like discipline or training are awful words. They just sound really unattractive. Who wants to do that?
What discipline you need to practice depends on what you’re training for.
If you’re training for a race, you will need to practice running.
If you were training for a pie-eating contest, what would you need to do? You would need to practice eating a lot of pie.
If you eat a lot of pie every day, a year from now, you’ll be able to eat a lot more pie than you could today by trying really hard.
No, it kills people when they think spiritual life is just about trying really hard. It’s no better than trying really hard to run a marathon today.
You can become a more joyful person if you train for joy.
Now this will involve what is sometimes called the discipline of celebration, and you’ll notice the writers of Scripture have a lot to say about feasts, holidays, music, and expressions of praise and gratitude.
So if you struggle with joylessness, “Take one day a week to train for joy.”
Have a day of celebration. Wear what you love to wear. Eat what you love to eat. That’s marshmallow day. Listen to music you love to hear.
Be with people who fill you with joy. There will be other people who drain you of joy, who are black holes of joy. Tell them, “I cannot be with you today. This is my joy day. I’ll be with you tomorrow.”
See, the purpose of spiritual disciplines is always freedom.
The reason a pianist practices scales is so they’re free to play great music without worrying or it being effortful.
This is also true of a great athlete.
Spiritual disciplines are a means to an end, and which ones will help you depend partly on what you struggle with.
* If you wrestle with gossip, the practice of silence will probably help you with that. Now fasting, see, is a means to an end. Announcements Alright, in the time we have left we’ll talk about two formats for fasting that you can start as soon as this week. Fasting as feasting on God
* If you tend to isolation, the practice of fellowship will probably help you with that.
* If you wrestle with hurry, then to deliberately practice slowing (on purpose, drive in the slow lane of the freeway for a month) will help you.
If you never struggle with impulse control, if all of your desires have learned to quietly wait their turn, if your appetites for food, sex, money, pleasure, power… consistently say, “No, don’t gratify us when it might conflict with the greater value,” — if you don’t need to fast, then don’t fast.
I want to say if that’s you, I’m so glad you’re listening. Blue Oaks is a place to find healing and hope. I mean we’re all just train wrecks apart from God, and God wants to flood your life and your body with mercy and grace.
There’s a great problem in the spiritual life. You can get proud about how humble you are.
Pharisees often had a custom in Jesus’ day of fasting on Mondays and Thursdays, which, as it happens, were market days when they would have the biggest possible audience.
If you walk around saying, “Look at me! I’m fasting! I can do it for days. I love God so much, I make myself miserable, and I can make you miserable too,” you end up worse than if you’d never fasted at all.
He says, “Now if you wrestle with this, try secrecy. Do something good like fasting. Only don’t tell anyone about it.” You’ll learn you can live without the gratification of impressing people.
Matthew said, “After fasting forty days and forty nights, [Jesus] was hungry.”
I sometimes think this may be the single most unnecessary sentence in the Bible. Really? You had to tell us that?
But the writer wants us to know Jesus was a real human being just like us, and he knew the pain of hunger.
Now fasting, see, is a means to an end.
Alright, in the time we have left we’ll talk about two formats for fasting that you can start as soon as this week.
Fasting as feasting on God
“If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
“Eat the marshmallow. You’re entitled. You’re the Son of God. You don’t have to deliberately suffer.”
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Now Jesus means this literally. This again is not just a pretty saying. See, food literally becomes a part of my body. I digest it and dissimilate it.
A word literally becomes a part of your body. Your body is literally physiologically, neurologically nourished by words, by the meaning and reality words express. We live in a kingdom of words.
Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”
People will often look at a statement like this and think it’s just another pretty saying, but Jesus was not a pretty-saying kind of guy.
Remember, we’ve been learning this together. Jesus says what is most real is God and his kingdom in our midst. Jesus was feasting on the presence, love, and meaning of his Father.
In other words, if you think about the marshmallow, you’re going to eat the marshmallow. If you think about not eating that delicious marshmallow, you’ll eat the marshmallow. If you think about a song you love, then you won’t.
“The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me.”
“What can separate me from the love of God?”
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
I allow my body’s hunger to remind me I’m not in control. Someone else is, and that’s really good.
Fasting is feasting on God, literally.
Fasting as caring
The people are complaining to God. They keep humbling themselves, fasting, praying, and crying out, and God doesn’t seem to notice. He doesn’t give them what they want. So God tells them the problem.
Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife…
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter…?
* Maybe it’s coffee. * Maybe it’s whatever the thought is that, when it comes to you, you say, “No, not that!” Blue Oaks Church
The rest of that chapter is such a powerful connection between the power of fasting rightly practiced and passionate justice for the poor, the hungry, and the oppressed that it has inspired movements of social justice for over 2,000 years.
I know the term “the flesh” can sound like a religious cliché. So when you come across it in the Bible, you might think of this character — Cookie Monster. He has a simple philosophy: “See cookie. Want cookie. Eat cookie.” Cookie Monster is not big on self-regulation.
When I do this kind of fast, when my body is hungry, I remember my brothers and sisters who are hungry but have no bread and have no money to buy bread.
The temporary and very small pain in my body speaks to me of the ongoing and very large pain in theirs. God begins to grow compassion in me. I train for compassion. I remember I have money, and I could be generous with it.
I have a friend who prayed about this. “God, what might I fast from during Lent?”
The thought that popped into her mind was (this was the first thought), “You could fast from coffee.”
The next thought was, “No! Not coffee! Anything but coffee!”
The next thought was, “Well, God is calling me to give it up because it has a grip on me that it would be good to be free of.”
* Maybe it’s alcohol.
* Maybe it’s social media.
Ask God to guide you.
You can take the next 40-day period, like that 40-day period of Lent, and fast.
What if during the summer our whole church began to get free from the clutches of appetite, the insatiable desire for more, the weakness of the Cookie Monster flesh? What if we got more compassionate about the hunger, need, poverty, and desperate plight of our world? What if throughout the summer months we feasted on the Word of God?
* Maybe it’s coffee.
* Maybe it’s whatever the thought is that, when it comes to you, you say, “No, not that!”
Blue Oaks Church