The forgotten spiritual discipline

28 Mar

I have been studying the subject of fasting this week for a message on Matthew 6:16-18. In that passage, Jesus instructs his followers,

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (ESV)

In the past year, there have been three occasions where I felt led to fast in order to devote myself to prayer. On two occasions I faced decisions where I needed wisdom beyond what I possessed. On another occasion, I was burdened about the marriages of some friends. So I fasted for a 24-hour period and prayed throughout the day. I can’t say that it was the key to my spiritual growth or that it super-charged my prayers. I can’t say that I felt closer to God. But it was good self-discipline and taught me to depend on God. When my stomach growled, it was a good reminder to pray for those I felt led to intercede for on that occasion.

Beyond the connection with prayer, I can’t say that I knew much more about the subject. Thus, as I did my research, I tried to answer the basic “Who-What-When-Where-Why-How” questions. Here is a bullet point outline of what I learned:

What is fasting?

  • To fast means to go without food
  • Fasting is a voluntary practice and not commanded in the New Testament
  • Normal fast – go without food, but not water (Matthew 4:1-2)
  • Absolute fast – go without food and water (Esther 4:16)
  • Partial fast – go without certain foods (Daniel 10:2-3)

 Why do people fast? 

  • Fasting allows you to use the time you would spend in another activity to focus on your relationship with God
  • Fasting is always associated with prayer
  • Fasting demonstrates humility and dependence on God

 When do people fast?

  • Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29-34; 23:26-32). NOTE: This is the only place in Scripture where fasting is commanded. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross did away with the Day of Atonement.
  • Seek God’s aid (Ezra 8:21-23)
  • Confession of sin (Nehemiah 9:1-3)
  • National crisis (Esther 4:16)
  • Intercede for others (2 Samuel 12:16; Daniel 9:3-20)
  • Mourning (Daniel 10:2-3)
  • Preparing for something new (Matthew 4:1-2; Acts 9:9)
  • Choosing leaders (Acts 13:2-3; 14:23)

How do people fast? 

  • Don’t advertise (Matthew 6:16)
  • Keep it between you and God (Matthew 6:17-18)

 How can people fast today?

  • Food – Skip meals to devote time to prayer.
  • Technology – Turn off your cell phone or unplug your computer and take a day of silence with no interruptions in order to focus on your relationship with God.
  • Possessions – Resolve to live simply and not buy new items in order to learn contentment. Give the funds you save to ministry.
  • TV – One author mentioned taking a 40-day fast from TV and using the time to read through the entire Bible during the 40 days.
  • 30-hour famine (World Vision) – Designed to teach students the meaning of hunger and to raise funds for world hunger.

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