This morning, I read Tim Challies’ post on fasting. It was a good, short post that I appreciated. However, I think he got one thing wrong. And that thing was kind of the point’s post. Challies asserted that fasting is about food, not other things like social media, because fasting is about need, not want. I posted a short reply on Twitter to say that I disagreed.
But I continued to think about the post. Part of Challies’ argument is that we don’t fast as much as we should (I agree). He believes that one reason for not fasting is underdeveloped doctrine. He says that “much of our apathy toward fasting derives from our confusion about it. We do not understand why or how to fast and, therefore, we do not fast. Strangely, we seem to want to have a perfect theology of fasting before we practice it.” The solution is advocates is a simple understanding of fasting to get us started. On the whole, I thought that was helpful.
But, on the other hand, I wonder if he’s rightly diagnosed the problem, but wrongly prescribed the cure? Perhaps we don’t fast because we don’t understand the depth of fasting significance? Thus, maybe the way forward is not with simplicity, but with a deeper vision of the beauty and importance of fasting?
If so, a helpful place to start is Acts 13. In the very first chapter of Acts, just before Jesus ascends to the Father in heaven he tells his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8). Luke recounts the giving of the Spirit and traces that gospel progress among the Jewish people and those associated with them. Then, in chapter 13, we the next major step forward–the gospel going to the Gentiles in earnest.
And in it’s in that context that we also see something about the nature of prayer and fasting. Luke wrote:
And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had completed their service, bringing with them John, whose other name was Mark. [13:1] Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.  While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”  Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.  So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus (Acts 12:25–13:4).
So, what can we learn about fasting from these verses? Not everything that can be learned. But we can grasp hold of some truths that might better motivate us to actually take Jesus’ expectations seriously (Matt 6:16-18; 9:14-17). Let me point out three ways (and why) of fasting.
Fast Together as God’s People
Barnabas and Saul have spent a year in Antioch preaching and teaching, seeing the church grow and discipling them into mature Christians (Acts 11:25-26). They’ve responded to a prophecy about a famine and collected money to care for their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem (11:27-30). Now Barnabas and Saul have come back from taking that collection to Jerusalem and are again in Antioch, ministering to the Christians there. And at this time there is a kind of a question in their minds—where do we go from here?
How would they continue preaching the gospel and making disciples? Luke tells us that they sought God’s direction for these answers by praying and fasting together. It was then, “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting” that “the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’” (13:2). Usually when we think of fasting, if we think of fasting, it’s on an individual basis. But when you look for biblical examples, you actually see twenty-seven references to believers coming together as the people of God to fast.
Why should we fast together? First, it’s a great encouragement to know someone else is fasting alongside you. One of the great lies of Satan is to tell you that you are all alone in what you’re doing and what you’re going through. When we buy that lie, the result is discouragement that slows us down or causes us to give up in our spiritual progress. We throw in the towel without hope.
Of course, on a human level, you may be all alone. On more than one occasion one of God’s people has had stand without peers as he or she has sought to live faithfully. Yet, on another level, God’s people are never alone. Jesus has gone through every temptation we will ever go through. He understands where we’re at. More importantly, as those who trust in him, he has given us Spirit. And through that Spirit, God promises to never leave us or forsake us. That is incredibly encouraging! Yet, how much more to be able to look over and see a brother or sister next to you; to know that they are seeking God right alongside you? Just think about Sundays where the attendance is thin. I wonder if we realize just how much of a ministry it is to faithfully show up on Sunday mornings or other times when the church gathers?
Second, it displays the our unity as God’s people. God himself is a unity—One Being existing eternally, lovingly, harmoniously, perfectly as three Persons, Father, Son, and Spirit. Before he went to the cross, Jesus prayed that God’s people, the Church, would reflect that that same kind of loving, unified fellowship (John 17). Fasting is one way to do that. It reveals that we are together, striving for the same purpose, moving the same directions, seeking the same ministry.
The early church came together as God’s people, not just for worship, not just to read Scripture, not just to pray, but also to fast. They came together to practice together a significant spiritual discipline—one that shows just how much we desire God to make his presence known among us.
Fast To Seek God’s Face
There are lots of crazy ideas—not just outside the Church—but inside the Church about what fasting is all about. A few years back, I was browsing the bookstore and found a “Christian” book on fasting. I looked through the book, and around its website, trying to figure out what it was all about. Sadly, enough the author didn’t seem to know much about the subject. She had produced a 200 page book about fasting that had 150 pages of recipes in it. Something is fundamentally wrong about that! We need to understand that biblical fasting is not about being healthy and weight loss. I’m all for someone trying to be healthy. But when you look to the Bible, when you think about Christian fasting, that’s not the direction you should be headed. Fasting is about the pursuit of God, not the pursuit of health.
Moreover, fasting is not about twisting God’s arm. Fasting is not meant to be a kind of “willpower religion.” It’s not a hunger strike. The point isn’t to show God how long you can go without food, hoping that he will give in first and answer your prayer. I can remember an episode of Andy Griffith where Opie starts hanging out with a new kid in town and begins picking up all of his bad habits. The father doesn’t discipline the boy and he runs all over his father, getting whatever he wants. So, Opie decides to try that same kind of thing. Andy won’t let him do something, so Opie begins holding his breath in the hope that he will change his mind. Andy is completely unphased and simply tells him that holding one’s breath is good for the lungs! That sort of attempted manipulation is silly and wrong. And so is believing that fasting can be used the same way.
So, what is fasting? Notice again how Luke describes it in our passage: “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (13:2-3). Luke wants his readers to see the connection between worship, prayer, fasting, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit in such a way that we understand that fasting is part of how we seek God’s face. We alluded to this earlier and we want to make it clear here: fasting is about seeking God. It’s about pursuing him.
Fasting is showing God how much we desire him. It’s giving up food, or any good thing, in order to pursue God. That means that while fasting is usually associated with food, it isn’t limited to just food. Thus, in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul tells Christian married couples that they should never stop having sex unless they both agree to it for the purpose of seeking God more earnestly in prayer (7:5). In other words, one kind of fast might be from the marriage bed.
This means that fasting can really be a number of things. It might be from social media and technology. It might be from television or movies. It might be from any specific activity. But the point is not to simply give up something. Rather, it’s to give up that good thing in order to more intently pursue God. So, in his great book on The Sermon on the Mount, Martin Lloyd-Jones is surely right when he says, that,
Fasting, if we conceive of it truly, must not . . . be confined to the question of food and drink; 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. There are many bodily functions which are right and normal and perfectly legitimate, but which for special peculiar reasons in certain circumstances should be controlled. That is fasting.[i]
Likewise, John Piper is helpful when he says,
Fasting is not a ‘no’ to the goodness of food or the generosity of God in providing it. Rather, it is a way of saying, from time to time that having more the Giver surpasses having the gift. Food is good. But God is better.[ii]
So, don’t say, ‘Okay, I’m going to fast,” and then skip a meal to sit in front of the television or talk with friends longer on Facebook or take a drive in the country. No, give up your meal and then get alone with God. Call out to him in prayer. Pick up his Word so that you can hear his voice. Earnestly, seek his face.
Fast to Advance God’s Plan
Throughout the Bible, we see God working out his sovereign plan. But he doesn’t simply make it happen. We see God operating through his people to bring about his plan. Is he sovereign? Yes. Does everything happen according to his will? Yes. But does he also use means to accomplish his purposes? Yes. And one of the means he uses as key moments in the history of redemption is the prayerful fasting of his people.
So, in the book of Exodus, just before Israel received forgiveness for their blatant sin of idolatry after their redemption from Egypt, we see Moses fasting and praying for forty days and forty nights, bringing down from the mountain the heart of God’s covenant with this people—the ten commandments. The Law that will guide his people until it is fulfilled in Christ.
The book of 1 Samuel opens with a mother grieving before God over her barrenness. She pleads before the Lord in prayer giving up food, year after year that he might reverse her barrenness and give her a son. And he does. Samuel is born, and she dedicates him to the Lord who calls him to be the one of the greatest prophets in the Old Testament, bringing the gap between the time of Judges and the establishment of the kingship of David over Israel.
In 2 Chronicles 19, King Jehoshaphat tries to reverses decades of sin among God’s people by instituting social and religion reform. Satan tries to undo those things by causing Judah’s neighbors—the Moabites and the Ammonites—to unite in making war against Israel. They appear unstoppable and, in chapter 20, Jehoshaphat calls for a nationwide time of fasting and prayer. The result? God speaks through his prophet assuring them to trust him for the victory. The next day, they advance into battle only to discover that the armies have fought and killed one another.
Then, decades later, through the prophet Jeremiah, Daniel reads that God has promised to bring his people back from exile for their sins. This leads him to fast and pray. And the Lord answers his prayer, as Babylon falls, and Cyrus issues the decree allowing Jews to return to the land of Israel.
But those returning exiles encounter problems and the work of rebuilding fails. Nehemiah hears of the news and fasts and prays for four months, then God provides an opportunity for him to return to Israel, with authority and financing to rebuild Jerusalem, reestablishing his people in the land.
When Jesus takes on flesh (John 1:14), he begins his ministry by entering the wilderness for forty days and nights, fasting, praying, and enduring temptation (Matt 4:1-11). He reveals himself to be the faithful Son of God, the new Adam, and the true Israel—the perfect Savior for his people.
And then we come to Acts 13 where the church commissions two missionaries after a time of prayer and fasting. What happened after Paul and Barnabas were sent out? Quite literally, the world was changed. Paul became the tip of a gospel spear that penetrated all the major regions of the Roman empire, transforming lives and cities as the truth of Christ took root and churches were established.
Read through the second half of Acts sometime and you’ll see Paul at the Aeropagus, standing in the philosophical center of the ancient Western world, declaring the foolishness of the world’s idolatry in light of the resurrection of Christ. We see the city of Ephesus erupting in a riot because people’s lives were so transformed by the gospel that the business of idol-making almost entirely went away. We see Paul arrested for preaching the gospel, and then continuing to preach the gospel so that on every level of government, as he moves up the appeals process, people hear of Christ and believe. He can even write to the Philippians, saying there are even believers in Caesar’s household who send their greetings (Phil 4:4).
God revealed his plan for the world and set it motion by the fervent prayer and fasting of his people. And that plan isn’t finished. Christ has not returned and there is still more to be done (Matt 24:14). And I wonder if we will be among those who sit by the side of the road and watch it happen, or whether we will be among those on the frontline, up to our elbows in the work? Will we show God how much we desire him, how much we long to be used by him—not in safe and easy ways—but in the hard ways that reveal more brightly his glory and more quickly advance his kingdom? Will we will be willing to become a people who hunger for God more than food? Will we be a people who desire God more than his gifts?
When the Hunger is Deep
In the late 1800’s hundred, the Christians in South Korea faced heavy persecution from Japanese invaders. In desperation, they sought God like never before. They established little retreat centers up in the mountains where they would pray and fast and the cries of believers could be heard begging for God’s help. Since then, prayer and fasting has characterized the South Korea church.
Where is the Church in Korea today?[iii] As a few years ago, South Korea had over 15 and half million Christians. They’ve sent out over 13,000 long-term, cross-cultural missionaries. That’s more missionaries than any other country except the United States. In terms of missionaries per congregation, Korea sends one missionary for every 4.2 congregations (11th in the world). The United States doesn’t even rank in the top 10. Furthermore, Korea sends 34 percent of its missionaries to unreached peoples; the international average is around 10 percent.
When you hear all of that, you cannot help but ask, ‘Why has God blessed them so much?’ I think the testimony of one man from Korea might explain it. He writes:
I grew up on the mission field in Korea. There is one experience emblazoned on my mind to show the sacrificial dedication to prayer and fasting in Korea. My father worked with a leper colony, and they had prayer meetings that met at four o’clock in the morning. I was a little boy, but my father took me with him, getting me up at about 3:30 A.M. to get there on time. He sat me down in the back where I could see out the door. And I’ll never forget one man who had no legs, no crutches, and was using his hands and crabbing along the ground, dragging his body to pray at 4 A.M. I’ll never forget that.[iv]
Why has God blessed the Church in Korea so much? Perhaps it’s because they have a deep hunger for God. If we understand the depth of our need and the glory of fasting, then perhaps we will develop a deep hunger as well.
[i] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), 314.
[ii] John Piper, A Hunger for God (Wheaton: Crossway, 1997), 44.
[iii] Information and statistics taken from Rob Moll, “Missions Incredible” in Christianity Today (March 2006). Accessed online at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/march/16.28.html?paging=off.
[iv] John Piper, A Hunger for God (Wheaton: Crossway, 1997), 45-46.