Our series on the Sermon on the Mount continues with the third spiritual discipline Jesus points out in chapter six, which is fasting – going without food and drink for religious purposes. We’ll talk about the various ways to fast in just a moment, but, before we do, let’s make sure we’re clear about two things:
• First, fasting has nothing to do with losing weight, per se. It’s not some sort of diet. If you fast often enough and long enough, you may lose weight, but that’s not the point. The point is fasting is a spiritual discipline that has been used through the ages to heighten one’s awareness of God. For Christians, it’s a means of strengthening our relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ.
• Second, however you go about fasting, you’re not to call attention to yourself. As Jesus told his disciples,“don’t be like the hypocrites, with sad faces.” When you fast, no one is to know what you’re doing or why; which makes it something between you and God alone. For all I know, you may be fasting at this very moment. If so, good for you.
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Now, let’s talk about fasting. If this is uncomfortable for you, you’re not alone. Over the years I’ve found that the three sermon topics that cause people the most angst are money, sex and fasting. For some reason, these are not things folks like to talk about.
Yet, fasting is a reality of any healthy spiritual life. If you Google fasting, you’ll find that it’s common to every major religion of the world: Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Mormonism, Bahá’i, as well as the Christian faith. (Wikipedia.com)
And if you do a quick survey of the Bible, you’ll find that every major religious figure in the Old and New Testaments fasted. Here are just a few:
• When Moses went up on Mount Sinai to meet with God, scripture says, “He was there with Yahweh forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread, nor drank water.” (Exodus 34:28)
• When David and Bathsheba’s baby became ill, it says, “David therefore begged God for the child; and David fasted, and went in, and lay all night on the earth.” (2 Samuel 12:16)
• When Nehemiah heard that the Babylonians had Jerusalem under siege, it says, “(He) sat down and wept, and mourned certain days; and I fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.” (Nehemiah 1:4)
• In distress, the young man, Daniel, “…set (his) face to the Lord God, to seek by prayer and petitions, with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.” (Daniel 9:3)
• And, of course, Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights before beginning his ministry in Galilee. (Matthew 4:1-2)
In the Old Testament, the people of Israel fasted collectively to intensify their prayers on a special occasion or in a crisis; to repent as a nation gone astray; and to celebrate victory over their enemies in gratitude to God.
In the New Testament, the early Christians fasted in much the same. For example, when Paul and Barnabus were commissioned for their first missionary journey, Luke writes,
“Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.” (Acts 13:3)
All this and yet, as far as I can tell, fasting has never been popular among Presbyterians. Part of the problem may lie with our forebears. For example, in the Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin defines fasting, not as abstinence, but as “frugality and sobriety.” (p.1244). I suspect Calvin regarded fasting as extreme and out of keeping with his style of moderation in all things.
Another part of the problem may have to do with our past. While they don’t come right out and say so, I suspect the early reformers rejected the practice of fasting because it smacked of Roman Catholicism. Reformed Christians tended to abandon such rituals as the imposition of ashes and anointing with holy water. I suspect they felt the same way about fasting.
And yet another part of the problem may have to do with us. Simply put, we don’t want to bother. We’ve come to expect what we want, when we want it. Fasting gets in the way.
That’s not to say it’s off the table. In the Book of Order we use today, the Directory for Worship says,
“(It is well that) Christians observe special times and seasons for the disciplines of fasting, keeping vigil and other forms of enacted prayer.” (W-5.5003)
So, we’re encouraged to fast; still, many remain dubious, and, if you’re one of them, I’m not here to put you down. But, if you’re willing, I’d like to offer several reasons to take fasting seriously.
• The first, and most obvious, is that Jesus fasted. I mentioned the story of his temptations in the wilderness, where he fasted for forty days and forty nights. (Mtatthew 4:1-11) Truth to tell, he also took liberties not to fast, but that’s another story. (Mark 2:18-20)
In the text for today, he assumed his disciples fasted like everyone else. He didn’t say, “And if you fast …;” he said, “But when you fast…” It was standard practice for all Jews and a requirement on the Day of Atonement.
He also taught his disciples the power fasting can have. Mark tells the story of a father who approached the disciples and asked them to heal his son, to cast out a demon. Try as they may, they couldn’t do it. Jesus came along, and the father turned to him and, of course, Jesus made him well. The disciples asked later, “Why couldn’t we cast it out?” And he said, “This kind can come out by nothing, except by prayer and fasting.” (Mark 9:29)
• Another reason to fast is that it’s good for you. Consider, for example, this testimony from a thirty-four-year old man, who says,
I experienced a number of specific benefits … My energy was greater than it had been since I was twenty. I fell asleep immediately at night, slept soundly and awoke refreshed and alert. … I have fasted many times since … In every instance the fasts have provided such benefits as increased energy, calmness, improved concentration and a feeling of well-being. (www.religion-online.org)
• Many believe fasting helps the body get rid of deadly toxins. The ancient Hindus believed that fasting helped the body to expel a substance called ama, which is believed to be related to stress. The medical director of the Maharishi Medical Center in Massachusetts says, “When you fast you rid yourself of ama. It’s like resetting the body’s thermostat.” (Health, Jul-Aug., 1991, p. 49)
• Practically speaking, fasting gives you a chance to clean the slate, to be more intentional about what you eat and when you eat it, to start over on a new regimen. Face it: We’re creatures of habit. Whether you live by the Dr. Pepper clock – ten, two and four – or some variation of it, it’s easy to get into a routine where you think you have to have a cold drink or a snack or a cup of coffee at prescribed intervals – or three square meals a day, for that matter. Fasting helps you learn how to eat in order to live, rather than live in order to eat.
• Physically speaking, fasting gives your body a chance to relax and recover. From what I’ve read, a process called autolysis kicks in when you fast. The liver starts converting fat cells into energy. Your metabolism slows down, and that results in a lower core body temperature and a drop in blood sugar. It’s all very complicated; yet, the net result is that there’s a lot of healing and repairing going on inside of your body when you fast – and this helps you slow down and regain your strength and vitality.
• Spiritually speaking, fasting makes you more aware of your dependence on God – which is something we tend to forget in our modern world. God gives us food to eat, water to drink, air to breathe, but we take these things for granted. Going without food for a day or two can grab your attention and help you pray all the more fervently, “Give us today our daily bread.”
• Socially speaking, fasting temporarily puts you in the company of those who never have enough to eat. It’s estimated that 1.3 billion people in the world today – many of them children – are undernourished. (worldhunger.org) That’s roughly 15 percent of the population. World hunger is a complex issue, and I don’t know what the solution is, but I know this: One thing you can do is not let it disappear off your radar screen. Fasting helps you empathize with those who are hungry.
• For me, the most compelling reason to fast is the personal witness of those who do. Those who fast consistently report a renewed sense of physical strength and spiritual vitality. I’ve yet to hear anyone say he/she had any regrets. The bottom line is you never know until you try.
Obviously, if you have medical issues, you ought to consult with your doctor first. But given the precautions, the question is: Are you willing to endure a little physical discomfort in exchange for knowing God more intimately? If so, the natural hunger of the body will help you get in touch with your soul’s hunger for God, and the food you do without will pale by comparison to the spiritual nourishment you’ll receive in return.
So, where do you start? There are several ways to go about it. Here are a few to choose from.
• During the month of Ramadan, Muslims go from sunup to sundown without eating or drinking anything. They can eat breakfast, as long as they finish before the sun comes up; and they can eat dinner, once the sun goes down. In fact, dinner is often a special occasion for families and friends to share a meal together after going without food and drink all day.
• Some people prefer a less stringent fast in which they go without certain foods like meat or sweets or carbohydrates – sort of like the way you might give up something for Lent.
• What works best for me is a 36-hour fast. I eat a light dinner the night before, then go all the next day without eating. I drink lots of water throughout the day. Sometimes I’ll drink a glass of apple juice or a cup of green tea.
But I should tell you, I haven’t always fasted, and my first attempts weren’t all that successful. One of the first times I ever tried to fast, I had a Big Mac attack in the middle of the afternoon, and that ended that. A friend told me later that that was a “half-fast.”
Whatever works best for you, the idea is that the body’s natural craving for food and drink will trigger the conscious mind to center on God, and that will remind you that God alone is your strength and salvation.
On our first trip to the Holy Land, we had a bus driver named Ibrahim. He was a good driver and extremely outgoing and courteous. But every day when we stopped for lunch, he would disappear. On the second day I asked our guide, “Where’s Ibrahim? Wouldn’t he like to eat with us?” Sari replied, “He’s fasting. It’s Ramadan, you know.”
Well, I didn’t know, so Sari – a Palestinian Christian – had to explain it to me how Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan. From then on, I observed Ibrahim from a distance, knowing that he was going without food and drink while the rest of us ate and drank to our hearts’ content.
As I said, Ibrahim was outgoing and courteous in every way, but what stood out to me most of all was his big, beautiful smile. Perhaps it was my imagination, but it seemed to me that, as our days together passed, his smile got bigger and bigger, as the hunger of his body gave way to the renewing of his soul. I thought to myself, “I can do that!” And I bet you can too.
In one of our Lenten hymns, Claudia Hernaman catches the spirit of fasting when she writes,
Lord, who throughout these forty days
For us didst fast and pray,
Teach us with Thee to mourn our sins
And close by Thee to stay.
Well, here’s what I’d like for you to take home with you today: I challenge you to try fasting. Skip a meal or two. Go without eating for a day or more. It won’t kill you, and I promise the benefits will far outweigh the costs.
Slow down and fast, but just remember: Don’t look dismal when you do.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2010, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.