An Introduction to Fasting
I serve on a national transformation team called that is focused on developing ways the Church of God can help people cultivate and refresh their spiritual walk with Christ. As the result of our meetings over the last year and a half, a national initiative called “FOCUS FORTY,” has been devised. The goal is to call the Church of God nationwide to a focused time of fasting and praying in order to seek God for our local churches and for the Church of God as a movement. The 40-day season will begin for us on Wednesday, March 9th.
To help us prepare for that time, I want to share some messages with you about fasting that will give us some understanding and will help you determine what God might ask of you during those forty days. I will be using some of the resources developed by some of our Church of God pastors to help me. I’m using some of the sermon material this morning that was developed by a Church of God pastor named Grant Horner. There is a wonderful book on the subject of fasting that we would like to order for you. Whether you can pay the $8.00 price or not, we want you to have it. There is a sign-up sheet at the Welcome Center.
Joel 2:12 “Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.”
The number forty is a significant number in the Bible. Jesus fasted for forty days before beginning His earthly ministry. The purpose of the 40 day time of fasting leading up to Easter is to help us de-clutter and purify our hearts.
Matthew 15:8-9 says, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
Fasting gets at the heart of our spiritual condition. The Bible has a lot to say about our hearts, the condition of our hearts, and what our hearts should be focused on. Jesus said we are to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37) I believe the heart is listed first before our soul and our mind because if we get the heart right, our soul and mind will follow. What we set our hearts on will determine what we give our passions (our soul) and our thoughts to.
I have come to believe that fasting is an excellent way to explore what is going on in our hearts. It helps us identify what needs to leave our hearts. It prepares the way for God to transform our hearts. It is a unique way to gain focus, discipline and to hear and receive things that are beyond this world.
I’ve been referencing fasting in my Wednesday night teaching and have some received comments and questions about the subject. Maybe you are in the category of some that have never really heard about fasting. Maybe you’ve heard about it, but you don’t know much about it or haven’t had any experience with it. Perhaps you have relegated it to an Old Testament or ancient practice.
Maybe some of you think fasting is only for fanatics, like people who go on a hunger strike for a political reason or to prove some religious point. Maybe others of you think fasting is what you do from eleven o’clock at night until you wake up at seven in the morning.
There is a lot of confusion and misconception about this topic. Maybe for that reason, fasting has been an under developed or avoided spiritual discipline in the life of many if not most Christians.
I’m sure there are some here today who are thinking, “Who in their right mind would willingly give up food, and how can that be spiritual at all?” I want you to know what the Bible says about fasting as a discipline and what has happened in the hearts and lives of people who have implemented this spiritual discipline into their lives.
Let me give you a definition of fasting that I think will be really helpful. Fasting is the spiritual discipline of refraining from food for a period of time to focus on God. Look at the different parts of that definition.
First of all, fasting is a spiritual discipline. Fasting isn’t something the modern church invented. Fasting isn’t something the medical community stumbled across and started recommending because of all the health benefits connected to it, which we will talk about in a minute. Fasting is a spiritual discipline. In fact, it is the most powerful of all of the spiritual disciplines. Think about prayer, Bible reading, personal and corporate worship, meditation, and fasting. Which one has the greatest element of sacrifice? Fasting by far. The other disciplines may take planning or time, but fasting is a discipline that has a personal sacrificial component to it. It isn’t just that you are adding something to your life to gain greater spirituality, but that you are taking away something in order to gain greater spirituality. What better way to “Offer our bodies as living sacrifices,” (Romans 12:1) than by denying ourselves of food.
Fasting is something God expects us to do. In fact, as you look through the Bible, you will discover that it was assumed that followers of Christ would fast. In Mark 2:20 (NIV), Jesus says, “But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them…” Jesus was referring to himself as the bridegroom. He was saying, “There is going to come a time when I am no longer on this earth and when that time comes…” Watch what he says next, “And on that day they will fast.” There would be a need for fasting when Jesus left the disciples’ immediate presence.
In Matthew chapter 6, Jesus says these words in verse 16, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting” (NIV). Then jump down to verse 17. Jesus says, “When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face” (NIV). Notice the phrase isn’t, “If you fast.”
What you see all throughout Scripture is that the assumption is made that all of us that are Christ followers shouldn’t ask, “Should I fast?” but say, “When I fast…” Fasting is a spiritual discipline; it is something that Jesus expects us to do. It was a normal part of Christianity from the very beginning. Our hearts should be devoted to that which Christ asks of us.
Just this weekend, I was talking to Joshua about his obedience or recent challenge to be obedient. I was explaining that it seemed when I asked him to do three or four things that I would list, he was getting into the habit of accomplishing one instead of four. When I asked him why only certain things were getting done, he said, “I do the things I like to do, and after I do them, it seems I forget about the rest.” Then he grinned and went on to say, “Why don’t you just make lists of things I like to do and I’ll be sure to do them?” You can guess how that went over. When we ask our kids to do something, whether their heart is into picking up the clothes or putting away the games is basically irrelevant. But what is important is that their hearts are set on obedience.
Listen, what God expects of us isn’t optional because it’s all necessary. We can’t pick and choose from the spiritual disciplines that God’s Word has prescribed, only following through on the ones that we are naturally drawn to or because they are easy for us. We don’t just give our kids tasks and have expectations of them because it will make our life easier if they clean their rooms or because we want to put them through hoops. We do so because we are training them, preparing them for maturity and adulthood.
Listen, we aren’t to be satisfied with an elementary understanding and experience in the Christian faith. Ephesians 4:13 says we are to press toward maturity, even stretching and reaching towards the more difficult spiritual matters until we become like Christ. Fasting is a difficult discipline. It costs us more personally, but it is a representation of our desire to do that which pleases the Lord fully. Ultimately, fasting must be good for us or God wouldn’t prescribe it and expect it from us.
Look at the next part of the definition. It’s the spiritual discipline of refraining from food. I want you to notice that when Jesus is referring to fasting he connects it to food. We aren’t talking about fasting from TV, Facebook, shopping, or from music or from a specific hobby. Yes, there are times we need to deny ourselves specific things, but when Jesus talked about fasting, he was referring specifically to food.
Why is it that when we fast we should specifically connect it to food? I think the reason is because our appetite easily becomes top priority in our lives. The power our stomach has over our life and our decision-making process is huge. Have you ever noticed what the most common question and topic is in your house? I would venture to guess it’s one of these questions: What’s for breakfast? What’s for lunch? What’s for dinner?”
When you watch TV, have you ever noticed what the most common type of commercial is? Food commercials. Burger King, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Sonic Burger. Every other commercial is an advertisement for food. When you are sitting at home and you are bored, what do you think about: “I wonder what types of snacks are in the house?” In fact, you can be eating breakfast while planning what you are going to have for lunch.
Our stomach plays a major role in our lives. It is something we have to pay attention to multiple times a day. Think about how much time we spend every day, taking care of our stomach. From preparing food, consuming food and cleaning up, think about the dominant role in our lives that food possesses. For most of us, whether we acknowledge it or not, our stomach is top priority in our life. Go ahead. Pat your stomach and say, “She’s right. You are top priority.”
God is very aware that our stomach is top priority in our life. God says to us, “There are times I want you to fast as a reminder that I’m top priority in your life.” Any time God’s position in our life is replaced by something else our life begins to spiral in the wrong direction. Adam and Eve allowed their stomach to take top priority, and they literally ate themselves out of the presence of God. When we fast, we refrain from food, which reminds us that only God should be top priority in our life.
Fasting is the spiritual discipline of refraining from food for a period of time. One of the things we are going to learn next week is that there are different types of fasts and different lengths of fasts. Jesus fasted for forty days. Moses, on two separate occasions, fasted for forty days. Joshua fasted for forty days. Paul fasted for three days and then God healed his eyes. Peter fasted for three days. Daniel fasted for twenty-one days. The Bible teaches about half-day fasts and twenty-four-hour fasts. The entire nation of Israel fasted for three days. A fast is for a period of time.
And then notice the last part of the definition. Fasting is the spiritual discipline of refraining from food for a period of time to (say it with me) focus on God. The ultimate goal of fasting is to deepen our intimacy with God. It is a time that we put God back at the center of our life, and it’s a time that we put God back in his rightful position as top priority in our life. It’s the time we say, “God I’m so serious about You being the center of my life that I’m going to deny my most basic need so I have more time to focus on You.” It is a time of intense heart-focus.
When you begin fasting, you enter into a season of heightened sensitivity to God. You begin to learn what it means to depend on God moment by moment, which allows you to experience many of the blessings that are often missed because we aren’t fully depending on him.
Listen to what Jesus said in Matthew 6:33 (NIV), “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
Fasting provides us with an intense way to seek God.
Jeremiah 29:13 says we find God when we “seek Him with our whole heart.”
Fasting is not about manipulating God to get what you want. Fasting enables you to focus more intently on God. What you will discover as you get into your fast is that the reasons you began your fast become secondary as God begins to reveal to you the things He wants to speak to you about. He will enlarge your heart and passion for His purposes. It’s been said, “The way to a man’s heart is through his ___________.” Perhaps it’s true in God’s economy too, but only in reverse. Rather than eat to have our hearts transformed, we allow God to shape and transform our hearts as we refrain from eating.
Let me share with very specifically and briefly some ways that fasting will impact your heart.
When you fast, one of the things that will happen is that you will gain clarity. In the Old Testament, there is a story about a man named King Jehoshaphat. King Jehoshaphat was the king of Judah, and according to the Old Testament, there was a day when three nations decided to surround Judah, declaring war on King Jehoshaphat. Unsure of what to do or how to respond and confused by what was happening, King Jehoshaphat went to God. In 2 Chronicles 20:3 we read, “Alarmed, Jehoshaphat resolved to inquire of the LORD, and he proclaimed a fast for all Judah.” It was during that fast that God gave Judah an answer. It was during that fast that King Jehoshaphat got clarity on what to do next, and because he followed God’s direction, he experienced God’s blessings.
Maybe you are in search of clarity. Maybe you are trying to decide what to do next vocationally. Maybe for a while now you’ve been sensing God’s call on your life to go into ministry but you aren’t one hundred percent certain. Maybe you are trying to decide what to do in the relationship you are in. If you are looking for God to speak into your life, if you are saying to God, “God, just give me clarity,” it will happen when you fast.
Not only will you gain clarity, but you will gain peace. When you are unsure about what to do in a certain situation, your heart will be unsettled. Your heart will be restless. Your heart will be uneasy. Fasting will transform your heart in that you will have peace in your heart as clarity is gained.
Here is another benefit. When you fast, you will gain courage. Queen Esther was a woman in the Old Testament who needed courage. Esther had a cousin by the name of Mordecai, and Mordecai had gained some inside information. He found out that there was a bounty on his head and a decision had been made to execute all the Jews. So Mordecai spoke to Queen Esther and said, “You need to go to your husband, the king, and tell him that he can’t kill all the Jews.” Queen Esther knew that by going and questioning the king’s decision, the king could take her life. So the fear started to settle in. The fear started to paralyze her, so what does she do?
Look at this verse in Esther 4:16 (NIV): “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law.” So for three days they fasted. Why? Because Queen Esther needed courage. She was in desperate need of courage to be able to go and put her life at risk and talk to the king.
Maybe you need courage. You are living in life in fear. Fear about tomorrow. Fear about the conversation you have to have in couple weeks. Fear about the security of your job. And right now you need courage. You need courage to have that tough conversation. You need courage to change jobs. You need courage to do what God is asking you to do. Esther needed courage, and her desire for courage drove her to fast. God came to her rescue and guess what happened? She got courage, she talked to the King, and the entire Jews race was saved. Imagine how your life could be different if you had courage. When people lack courage, often people use the phrase, “Take heart” to tell them they can move forward in boldness. Jesus even said in John 16:33 that we could “Take heart” because He has overcome the world.” Fasting will produce courage in our hearts.
There is one more major spiritual benefit connected to fasting that I want to mention. When you fast, breakthroughs happen. There was an Old Testament prophet by the name of Joel. God asked Joel to confront the kingdom of Judah. So he summoned all the people together and said, “Look, here’s the deal. There are major sin issues going on and you need to change your ways. You need to turn from your ways. You need to clean up your lives.” And look how he told them to do it. In Joel 1:14, the prophet says, “Declare a holy fast; call a sacred assembly. Summon the elders and all who live in the land to the house of the LORD your God, and cry out to the LORD” (NIV). He basically says, “If the nation of Judah wants to finally see a breakthrough, you need to declare a ‘holy fast.”
I don’t doubt there are people here that need to declare a holy fast. You’ve got issues going on in your life that you’ve been struggling with for years. You’ve got addictions that you can’t control. You’ve quit so many times that you’ve quit quitting. Maybe it’s alcohol. Maybe it’s tobacco or illegal drugs. It might be chronic worry. You might be addicted to Internet pornography. Maybe you are having an affair and you can’t seem to walk away from it. Maybe it’s spending money like crazy. And as you sit here you are exhausted. You can’t get away from it, but you desperately want to. You need a breakthrough. You need your heart to be free from the stronghold that has taken root there. Joel called the nation of Judah to fast, and the result was freedom. For some of you, if you will fast, God will give you the freedom you’ve longed for.
There are all sorts of spiritual benefits connected to fasting. Your heart will be transformed as you receive clarity, courage, and breakthroughs. God is just waiting to bless you in amazing ways, but He wants you to give him your full attention through fasting.
Not only are there spiritual benefits associated with fasting, there are also major physical benefits. Medical doctors have weighed in on the benefits of fasting. There was a well-known doctor by the name of Hippocrates. Hippocrates is known as the father of Western medicine. I’m sure you’ve heard of the Hippocratic Oath in which doctors swear to always ethically practice medicine. That is credited to Hippocrates. Hippocrates acknowledged the power of fasting. He believed the practice allowed the body to heal itself.
When you fast, you body detoxifies its self. Tests have proven that the average American consumes and assimilates four pounds of chemical preservatives, colorings, stabilizers, flavorings, and other additives each year. Those things aren’t meant to be in our body. It’s not healthy to have all that stuff floating around inside you. When you fast, your body eliminates those toxins.
On a fast, your best friend is water. Not Coke. Not Diet Coke. Not coffee. Not Mountain Dew. Not energy drinks. As you fast, you should consume large quantities of water. As you drink all that water, it flushes out the toxins. It rids your cells of all those toxins. During the first few days, you can expect to get have headaches, especially if you are a big caffeine drinker. That is your body releasing the toxins. Fasting is spring cleaning for your body. When you fast, your digestive system gets a break. It needs some time to rest to clean itself out. As you rest your digestive track, you know what happens?
You give it a break from combating the toxins that enter the body. And when your body isn’t busy combating toxins, all that energy is diverted to other areas of your body, specifically to healing to itself and strengthening your immune system.
When you fast, you will also lose weight. Don’t fast with the ultimate goal of losing weight. This is not a weight-loss program. We fast to focus on God. However, for most Americans, the weight loss connected to fasting is a physical benefit.
Some of you are thinking, “Pastor Melissa, I didn’t come to church to hear you spew out what I could hear on the Dr. Oz show.” I’m just telling you that fasting has both physical and spiritual benefits connected to it.
Fasting is more than just going without food. Fasting is more than an endurance test: “Can I make it twenty-four hours without food? And if I do, you will find me at Applebee’s ordering the whole menu.” Fasting focuses your whole self on God, resulting in extraordinary spiritual and physical benefits. When we really start to understand what fasting is all about, and we understand why Jesus expects us to do it, and we see all the benefits connected to it, why wouldn’t we want to do it?
Whether you have ever practiced fasting or not, you can probably get that it’s not easy. The benefits come at a cost, but the heart transformation and intimacy with your Heavenly Father is worth it.
Can you imagine what it’s going to be like on the day that clarity occurs for you? Imagine the excitement as you finally know without a doubt how you are to respond to that next big decision.
Imagine what it’s going to be like to finally have the courage to do what you know you need to do. Imagine the relief of knowing that God has strengthened you in such a powerful way that you can now have that conversation or you can take that next step.
Imagine what it’s going to be like on that day during the fast when you know that the addiction has finally been broken and your heart is free to exclusively belong to Him.
And I want you to know, God is going to do some amazing things in our church too as we consider fasting corporately. As we experience individual miracles, restoration of marriages, healings, and people coming to know Christ for the very first time, there will be a fire ignited in this church that will be unstoppable.
Our time of response will be unique today. If you don’t know Christ, I invite you to come and give Him your heart. Ask Him to become your Lord and to forgive you of your sins. If you are a Christian here this morning, I simply want you to consider coming to tell the Lord, “I want to give you my whole heart, whatever it is you are asking of me.” Make no promises to fast. I’m not asking for you to sign off on the discipline of fasting. I’m just asking if you would come to an altar of prayer today to say, “Lord, I give you my heart. Transform it. Fill it with power and courage and free it to serve You only.” Your coming will simply say, “I’m open God, to what you want to do in my heart and life.”