Big Idea: Fast as Jesus expected to seek God.
I don’t know if you realize it, but we’re kind of an unusual church. I don’t know many churches like us.
- We are in a downtown community in a community that’s mostly young — average age 33 — and most of us are single.
- We’re well educated. Most of us have a university degree, and most of the rest have a college degree.
- Generally speaking, we make a decent amount of money — the average gross income is about $97,000. But most of us are stretched financially because it’s so expensive to live here.
- We’re in a very transient neighborhood. Almost three out of four of us will not be here in two years.
When I talk to other pastors, I realize how unusual our church is. It’s not like this in Barrie or Kitchener or Brampton. And yet this is our community. This is where this church is called to serve.
And so the question is: what does it look like to love God and love others in this context? Not everything will be different, but maybe some things will be. What does it look like to love God and others when we’re probably here for only a short time, we’re young, single, and broke, and facing the pressures of life in a very secular setting? And how do we do this together?
That’s what we’re trying to figure out. We’re working on a Liberty Grace Rule of Life, a set of communal rhythms, practices, and habits would help us love God and love others. This is week five, and we’ve got just three weeks left.
Most of the things we’ve talked about so far are stretching.
- Slowing — We talked about how busyness endangers our souls. The answer is to make room for the one thing that matters most: to slow down and sit at Jesus’ feet.
- Meditating — Whatever shapes your thinking shapes your life, so we talked about curating our technology and making God’s Word the primary shaping influence in your life by meditating on it.
- Praying — God really cares for you. He loves to hear from you. So we talked about reminding ourselves of who he is, telling him what’s on your mind, and using Jesus’ model prayer.
- Church — RJ said last week that the call to follow Jesus is a call to community. Following Jesus involves sharing your life with his followers in worship, faithful encouragement and loving service.
None of these practices is unique to Liberty Village, but how we practice them here may be different. And that’s what we’ve been focusing on. What does it look like to practice them here?
Let’s just stop here. I don’t want to just preach a series. We’re actually building a Rule of Life together. If you haven’t done so, you can check out our progress so far at https://libertygrace.ca/ruleoflife/ and help us build this together. We need you to participate to make this meaningful.
If we built these practices into our lives, I’m convinced that we would be on our way to building lives that allow us to love God and others as he’s called us to do.
Today we’re adding a really tricky one to the mix. I feel like I’m playing one of those games where you add something to the top of the pile without everything collapsing. I’m a little scared that adding today’s practice is going to be so challenging that some of you will be so overwhelmed by today’s topic that you may give up on this whole Rule of Life thing.
What’s the practice we’re talking about today? Fasting. According to one expert (Donald Whitney), “fasting is the most feared and misunderstood of all the Spiritual Disciplines.” He writes:
We fear that fasting will make us hollow-eyed fanatics or odd for God. We worry that it will make us suffer dreadfully and give us a generally negative experience. For some Christians, fasting for spiritual purposes is as unthinkable as walking barefoot across a fire pit or handling poisonous snakes in order to prove their devotion.
I can relate. I preached on fasting once and decided to fast. I can’t remember many details now, other than loading up on V8 Vegetable Juice — the only food I allowed myself to eat — and then suffering terrible headaches. Not a fun experience.
It’s also hard to know why we should fast. I’ve talked to intermittent fasters, and they can tell me why they fast. Most of them won’t stop talking about it. You can talk to a Muslim and learn why they fast. Fasting has actually become trendy in society in general. You can go to health spas for a weekend that feed you apple-celery cocktails, herbal teas, laxatives, bee pollen, blended soups, and water mixed with squeezed lemons, Celtic Sea salt, and honey. You can go on four-day fasting weekends. But I haven’t met many Christians who fast, and I don’t think I’ve ever had one explain why they fast.
No wonder most of us don’t even give fasting much thought!
And yet fasting is a biblical tradition that is practiced all throughout Scripture and throughout Christian history by people like Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, David Brainard, Charles Finney, and many others. Most recently I was challenged as I read Out of a Far Country, the story of Christopher Yuan. When Christopher was living away from God, his mother started to fast and pray for him. She committed herself to a water-only fast every Monday as she prayed for Christopher. At one point, she sensed God calling her to fast for a longer period of time. She began a juice-only fast with no end in mind that lasted thirty-nine days.
It’s time, I think, for all of us to consider the ancient biblical practice of fasting.
The Basics of Fasting
In the passage that we just read, we learn some of the basics of fasting.
When you fast…
Jesus says, “When you fast…” He doesn’t say if you fast. Jesus assumed that fasting was a good thing, and that his disciples would do it. In Matthew 9:15, he said that his disciples would fast when he was taken away.
In this passage, Jesus is not teaching about whether we will fast or not. He’s just assuming that we will. Fasting is part of the normal Christian life.
What fasting is
So what is fasting? Jesus just assumes we’ll know what it is because it was a common practice in Judaism, but most of us probably aren’t as familiar with it. Donald Whitney defines it this way: “Christian fasting is a believer’s voluntary abstinence from food for spiritual purposes.”
A couple of things to notice:
- It’s fasting from food. It’s good to fast from lots of things: from social media, from Netflix for instance. Go ahead and do those things. Strictly speaking, though, Christian fasting is about fasting from food — although Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “Fasting should really be made to include abstinence from anything which is legitimate in and of itself for the sake of some special spiritual purpose.”
- It’s for spiritual purposes. You can fast to lose weight. You can fast for health reasons. But that’s not what Christian fasting is about. Christian fasting is about abstaining from food for spiritual purposes.
Within the Bible, you can find all kinds of fasts that meet these two criteria. Donald Whitney describes some of the different fasts we see in the Bible:
- fasting from food but not water for up to 40 days, as Jesus practiced (Luke 4:2)
- partial fasts from certain kinds of food, as Daniel and John the Baptist practiced (Daniel 1:12; Matthew 3:4)
- an absolute fast of no food and no water, as Ezra practiced (Ezra 10:6)
- a supernatural fast — an extended fast with no food and no water for forty days and nights as Moses and Elijah practiced (Deuteronomy 9:9; 1 Kings 19:8)
- a private fast, which is what Jesus mentions in this passage
- congregational fasts, as mentioned in Joel 2:15-16 and Acts 13:2
- national fasts (2 Chronicles 20:3)
- regular fasts (Leviticus 16:29-31)
- occasional fasts, as the need arises, as Esther practiced (Esther 4:16)
So there’s not one way to fast. There are many ways to fast, but all of them in Scripture are about voluntarily abstaining from food for spiritual purposes.
Jesus tells us why we fast. He tells us not to fast to get attention from others. Instead: “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” (Matthew 6:17-18).
Why fast? Jesus says that the Father will reward us when we fast. Here’s what I think this doesn’t mean. It’s not like if we suffer enough, we earn God’s favor and unlock God’s blessing. I think it actually goes much deeper than that.
In a consumeristic society in which I can open an app and order anything I want in minutes, fasting reminds us that my hunger can ultimately only be satisfied not in food but in God. Fasting is not a way to earn God’s favor, but as a way to physically demonstrate that only he can satisfy. Fasting is about confessing our hunger for God — a hunger that God promises to satisfy.
Again, Donald Whitney lists all kinds of biblical reasons we fast:
- to strengthen prayer
- to seek God’s guidance
- to express grief
- to seek deliverance or protection
- to express repentance and return to God
- to humble yourself before God
- to express concern about the work of God
- to minister to the needs of others
- to overcome temptation and devote yourself to the work of God
- to express love and worship to God
Aquinas, who lived in the 1200s, saw three purposes in fasting: killing lust, setting the mind on heavenly things, and mourning sin.
One man describes the purpose of fasting this way:
Christian fasting seeks to take the pains of hunger and transpose them into the key of some eternal anthem, whether it’s fighting against some sin, or pleading for someone’s salvation, or for the cause of the unborn, or longing for a greater taste of Jesus.
And here’s the thing: there’s a movement among young urban churches just like ours to reengage with this practice with the belief that it’s essential to contending for God and seeing him work in our secular culture. Mark Sayers, a pastor in Melbourne, Australia, is an example. He writes:
Consumer culture disciples us to change our external situation through purchasing to bring pleasure, meaning, and happiness to our inner world. Contending takes the opposite approach. Personal renewals begin in the hidden places, often driven by solitary prayer and self-examination, examination, communion with God, fasting and the habits of secrecy, the uprooting of sinful patterns, and confessions with trusted leaders and pastors. Eventually this inner change of the heart will overflow out into our external lives, creating a potential for renewal in the social world around us. (Reappearing Church)
Do we want to see the world transformed by the gospel around us? Do we want to experience personal renewal? Maybe this is the place to start.
Okay, let’s get practical.
I told you that I fasted years ago and got these terrible headaches, and basically gave up. Maybe there’s a better way to do this.
David Mathis has written an excellent article called Fasting for Beginners, and here’s his advice. I think we should take it.
- Start small. Start with fasting for one meal. Maybe eventually move up to two meals after a number of weeks. Maybe try a juice fast when you do.
- Plan what you’ll do instead of eating. How will you use the time for the spiritual purpose you’ve picked? I love what he writes: “Without a purpose and plan, it’s not Christian fasting; it’s just going hungry.”
- Consider how it will affect others.
- Try different kinds of fasting. For instance, fasting alone and fasting with others.
- Fast from something other than food. Social media, for instance.
- Don’t think of white elephants. Don’t think of the food you aren’t eating. Focus your attention on God.
I’ll link to his advice on the Rule of Life page.
And so I’m going to start doing this, and I invite you to join me. I’m going to skip one lunch a week. Because of my schedule, it will probably move between Wednesday lunch and Thursday lunch. Pick a date that works for you, and if you’d like, join me as we contend for through fasting, longing for more of Jesus, and pleading for his work in Liberty Village and beyond.
Lord, this is so countercultural. But Jesus assumed we would do this, and I want to try. There will come a day when we don’t fast. But now our hunger is not satisfied, and it will not be until you feed us. So through fasting draw us to you. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.