~by Pastor Mike Middaugh
We are quickly approaching the season of Lent (Ash Wednesday is February 18) which means we are entering a more contemplative and introspective season of the church year. As we approach Lent I thought I would take the next few weeks to outline several classic spiritual disciplines that are largely overlooked today.
There are certain things that many of us have NEVER had to go without. Food may be one of them.
If you are like me, food has just always been around. When I was young, there were other stresses my family dealt with, but not whether there would be food on the table for each of our meals. It was always just assumed. Especially here, in our culture today, you can’t even go for a drive without passing multiple quick and easy food options, just waiting to curb your hunger. Compared to most people in most places today and throughout history, we don’t even know what real hunger is.
So what is fasting? Fasting is choosing to go without food for a certain period of times. A “fast” could be the absence of all food for a day, or several. Or, it could be limiting oneself to just one meal per day for a number of days.
While the specifics of fasting may vary, its consistency within the Biblical account does not. By my count, fasting appears over 77 times in scripture. And not just in the Old Testament when the people were waiting for the savior, but in the early Christian Church of the New Testament as well.
When Jesus began his public ministry, he went into the wilderness to fast for 40 days – an event so important that it is recorded in Matthew, Mark and Luke. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus discusses fasting directly after his instruction on the Lord’s Prayer, perhaps indicating that fasting should be as familiar as prayer. In this teaching, Jesus said that fasting should not be done in order to gain attention or public praise, as some seemed to be doing in that day, but rather it should be done in order to draw close to God, not for the sake of impressing others. In the book of Acts the Christians of the early church seemed to fast regularly, often as a corporate act when important decisions were being made, or upon beginning a new ministry or initiative.
So what purpose might fasting have for Christians today, and why don’t we do it more often?
It should be noted that fasting has not disappeared. It simply seems to be more common in some Christian circles than others. A quick Google search brought up an article about the Nazarene Church of South Africa that initiated a day of prayer and fasting last October. They did so to intercede for those suffering because of the Ebola outbreak in several West African countries. The Roman Catholic Church in America and around the world continues to encourage fasting on certain holy days, especially during the season of Lent. And certainly there are many other examples.
So, for many of us, fasting may seem like an odd or ancient practice simply because we have not been around it that often. For some, it may simply seem “too Catholic.” Whatever the reason though, I believe fasting is a worthwhile spiritual discipline that we would do well to not overlook.
Fasting may have several benefits for our own faithfulness in the call to follow Jesus:
1. Fasting is a break from the routine.
If nothing else, fasting will make us think. We are so used to having our stomachs full, and to immediately responding to this most basic of human needs, that when we don’t, we will notice. This is one of the gifts of the fast. The call of hunger becomes an ever present invitation to turn not to food, but to God. It is a reminder that we need to be filled – physically, by bread, but also spiritually by the Creator of our souls. In this life we have deep needs, needs we often trick ourselves into believing we are able to fill. But in a fast, we are reminded that truly all we have is a gift from God above, and that our need for him is even more vital than our need for earthly food.
2. Fasting is a tool for seeking spiritual wisdom and discernment.
In the Bible fasting occurs for two main reasons. Either, God’s people are entering into a time of great repentance, giving up their old ways of sin and turning to God for his new life-giving aid, or, it is a practice of seeking God’s will for direction in life’s biggest decisions. As Paul began his missionary journeys he entered into a period of fasting with the other apostles, seeking God’s will and blessing for his trip. When used for this purpose fasting can be personal and private, a solitary practice to draw close to God and seek his will. It can also be done as a corporate act. I have known the leadership of churches to enter into a fast together in order to pray through a big ministry decision or challenge.
3. Fasting can be a reminder of God’s overwhelming Grace.
For several years I have made a habit of fasting on Good Friday. That is the traditional day of the church year when we turn our focus to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. When we fast, we feel, in an overwhelmingly minuscule way, a portion of the suffering that Jesus endured on the cross to pay for our sin. Fasting helps us understand in a physical way something of what he took upon himself as he gave up ALL he had for our behalf. I can tell you as well that when we experience Good Friday in a spiritual and meaningful way, Easter Sunday also takes on a new reality within our lives. The fast on Good Friday is rewarded with a feast on Sunday morning. When Jesus’ Kingdom is never so present and real as it is when we are beckoned to his table to eat from his own great life-giving provision.
Click Here for Part 1 of this series.
Click Here for Part 3 of this series.