The Most-Avoided Spiritual Discipline

We’ve all heard the verses before: 

  • Train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come (1 Tim 4:7b–8).
  • for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control (2 Tim 1:7).
  • For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age (Tit 2:11–12).

These (and others) are staples in works that deal with the spiritual disciples—those biblical practices we commit as a means of growing in godliness. Most of us could be more disciplined when it comes to these things, making the activities as a higher priority in our schedules. And we will probably even to admit this. But there is one discipline that often gets forgotten. . .  perhaps intentionally. For though the actual number of disciplines may vary based on your reading of the Bible, one discipline that is clearly expected of Jesus’ disciples but rarely practiced in our culture is fasting.  

Few people seemingly have any experience, let alone desire, to work harder at developing this discipline in their lives!  Yet, Jesus expected his disciples would be fasting regularly, as he said, “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. (Matt 6:16). Not if or maybe but when you fast. That’s the language of expectation. 

Perhaps we don’t fast often (at all?) because we don’t really understand it.  There are lots of crazy ideas—not just outside the Church—but inside the Church about what fasting is all about. To begin, biblical fasting is not about being healthy and weight loss. Despite my appearance, 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.

Secondly, fasting is not about twisting God’s arm to get something. 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.  That sort of manipulation is silly and wrong and not something the God of the universe is going to tolerate.

So, what is fasting? Notice how it’s presented in a few key places, just in the New Testament: 

  • Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.  And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matt 4:1–4).
  • “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.” (Matt 6:17–18).
  • Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Matt 9:14–15).
  • 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” (Acts 13:2-3).

Just from these verses, there is a connection between worship, prayer, and fasting.  This neglected discipline is a key 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 and desiring to be with himto have a deeper, clear sense of his presence. 

Back in 1998, the year between my engagement to Melinda and our marriage seemed like a long-one. In part because I asked her to marry me over Spring break. She said yes and then a few weeks later I was gone for the whole summer. I was gone for three weeks in Peru on a mission trip and another 10 in Kalamazoo for an internship, then a final week of Resident Assistant training before my senior year in college began.

Before all of that began, Melinda sat down and began writing out little notes and cards for me. And before Peru and before Kalamazoo, she gave me these cards, and each one was dated. So, every week, sometimes twice a week, I would have a little note from her, telling me how much she loved me and how much she was looking forward to the wedding and our new life together.  As much as I wanted, I couldn’t be with her. Because of our schedule, I couldn’t even call her as much as I wanted. But I could always sit at my desk or lay in bed and pull out those notes and read them. I could always smell the perfume she had put on the inside and read about how much she loved me, and it made me long to be with her all the more; to realize that the promise we made to be husband and wife.

This is getting the heart of Christian fasting. Jesus said his disciples didn’t fast because he—the Bridegroom—was with them.  But one day, he would be gone, and then they would fast. Why are would they fast then?  Because they long to be with him!  Food may keep us alive, it may even be a delight, but it’s not a substitute to being with Jesus!  

Fasting cultivates the longing and aching and hungering for the return of Christ so that we can be with him, even as we are with one another. We want more of him; so much so that we are willing to fast from food and other good things to spend time with him the only way we can now—through Spirit-driven times of prayer and Bible reading. Fasting is showing him how much we desire him more than anything else

Practically speaking, fasting is primarily about giving up food in order to pursue God. The pains of hunger are meant to help us hunger for God. There is a physical connection to the spiritual.  But t while fasting is usually associated with food, it isn’t limited to just food (1 Cor 7:5). It can include just about any good thing. So, for people who aren’t able to fast because of health reasons or for others who realize certain habits have gained too much priority in their life, fasting can be from any number of things (e.g., social media, Netflix, sports, etc.).  

But remember—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. 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.”*

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. This is what gave Jesus power in temptation (Matt 4:4) and allowed the church to receive direction from God, ready to send out their beloved leaders (Acts 13:2).  Jesus loved God and his Word more than bread. The church loved Jesus and his glory more than Paul and Barnabas—their fathers in the faith. 

Consider also the example of David Brainerd, the missionary to the American Indians. For a while he struggled with the details of how and when he should go to the field. So on Monday, April 19, he decided to spend the day in prayer and fasting for the decision. In his journal, he writes this:

“I set apart this day for fasting and prayer to God for His grace especially to prepare me for the work of ministry, to give me divine aid and direction in my preparation for that great work. And in His own time to send me into the harvest.”

Later he reflects on the fruit of that time with God. He writes:

“I felt the power of intercession for precious immortal souls, for the advancement of the kingdom of my dear Lord and Savior in the world; and withal, a most sweet resignation and even consolation and joy, in the thoughts of suffering hardships, distresses, and even death itself, in the promotion of [the Gospel]. . . . My soul was drawn out very much for the world; for multitude of souls. I think that I had more enlargement for sinners than for the children of God; though I felt as if I could spend my life in cries for both. I had great enjoyment in communion with my dear Savior. I think I never in my life felt an entire weanedness from this world, and so much resigned to God in everything. Oh! That I may always live to and upon my blessed God!” 

Brainerd sought the Lord through prayer and fasting and found the One he was looking for—with much sweetness to his soul. 

I want to encourage you, maybe for the first time, to take up this spiritual discipline of fasting. Start small—maybe one meal a week.  Use that time normally spent relaxing and eating to feast on God in prayer and his Word.  I encourage you to train the palette of your soul to desire the taste of God’s glory more than the taste of the best food. Learn to love and depend on him Christ more than anything else in this world.  And all of this—not just for your sake—but for the sake of his people, waiting with you, for his return. 

*John Piper, A Hunger for God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1997), 44.

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