A Theology of Fasting: part 5

Why should we fast?

We are looking at some very basic principles for understanding how we should fast.

First we look to Scripture. Second, we find examples. Third, we consider the examples to discern which we ones we are supposed to glean fasting principles from and of those examples, in the Old Testament at least, most of the good examples were spontaneous, usually voluntary responses to very difficult or urgent circumstances.

The emphasis being on response.

As you look at the examples of people fasting in the Scripture, sometimes you will find someone grieving, or desiring God’s protection, or they are caught up with a desire for God’s Word, or they are fearing God’s judgment, or they are in a situation and they need to make a difficult decision and they want God’s guidance, these are the basic reasons we find people fasting, as someone has summarized, there’s fasting for lamentation, protection, humiliation, revelation, condemnation, selection and direction, those are the different kinds of things that caused people to fast in the Scriptures.

It’s almost always a response to one’s circumstances, the good kind of fasting.

Sometimes people are just so sad, honestly, either over what’s happening, their circumstances or over their sin that they choose not to eat, maybe to express their dependence on God or their repentance for sin.

David for example, in 2 Samuel 1:12, when he heard about Saul and Jonathan’s death, it tells us he tore his clothes and mourned and wept, “and fasted until evening for Saul and for Jonathan and for the people of the Lord and for the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword.”

Nehemiah as well, when he was in exile and heard what had happened to the city of Jerusalem, it says in Nehemiah 1:4, “As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.”

When Daniel fasted, in Daniel 10, it begins, “In those days I, Daniel, was mourning for three weeks. I ate no delicacies, no meat, or wine entered my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, for the full three weeks.”

This all for Daniel, actually is coming as he is reading God’s Word and seeking to understand it better and better, and God gives Him that insight, that’s the context, what God was going to do was revealed to Him, and he becomes so consumed with the Word of God that he doesn’t eat, for three weeks.

 But whether it’s David fasting over the deaths of his friends, or Nehemiah over the circumstances of God’s people, or Daniel, responding to what he’s learned from God’s Word, “notice the common thread” one author says, and I am quoting, “those who were fasting were faced with extreme circumstances of impending death or God’s imminent judgment or the recognition of their own sin or their need of God’s direction. Greatly distressed and conscious of their utter helplessness, they suspended their normal eating habits in an urgent, extraordinary seeking of God who alone could deliver them from their distress.

In other words, their fasting naturally flowed from profound spiritual urgency. It was not the product of routine spiritual ritual. It expressed deep dependence on God in times of uncommon anguish. Fasting was an outward expression of the inward reality of a shattered heart. It was an urgent response of repentance and great humility. It was the seeking of deliverance from a gracious God in profoundly desperate situations. Old Testament fasting presupposes the spiritual realities of sin, judgment, repentance, helplessness, and dependence on God. It is a serious mistake to pursue external fasting without an earnest appreciation for the more important internal reasons that prompt it. Someone who casually pursues fasting as a religious duty without a broken heart actually mocks the reason for its existence.”

Jesus even, if you think back to Luke 5, assumes that this is what is supposed to be what is behind the practice of fasting, that’s why his question makes sense.

When the religious leaders question him about fasting, he responds, ‘Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?’ And really, he’s saying, fasting isn’t for celebrating, feasting is, you feast at weddings, fasting, it’s for funerals, it’s for mourning, it’s for longing, which, is a way of saying, real fasting is connected to something going on in your life and in your world and especially in your soul.

It’s not just something you do randomly.

Like, when the king is here, Jesus is saying, there isn’t a reason to fast, that’s why he was eating and drinking so much, you respond to this good news, by feasting, but of course, when the bridegroom is taken away, that’s sad, and that’s when you fast, because you miss him, but the point is either way, fasting isn’t something that exists by itself, it’s not a technique you use to get something or a ritual you go through mindlessly, it’s a response to something that is going on in your life. 

“You know,” and again this is a quote, “some people think that fasting is just sort of a ticket to blessing in and of itself. Martin Lloyd Jones says ‘There are some people who fast because they expect direct and immediate results from it.’ In other words, the have a kind of mechanical view of fasting. They have what I have sometimes called for lack of a better illustration, the rand in the slot view. You put your rand in the slot, then you pull out the drawer and you have your results. That is their view of fasting. If you want certain benefits, they say, fast. If you fast, you get the results. But fasting is not a spiritual gimmick. It is not a rand in a slot. It isn’t going to produce spirituality any more than food produces carnality.”

And that’s important to understand I think, because while there may be some times where you fast, in order to humble yourself before God, and I think there is value in that, you are maybe not as humble as you like, and there’s nothing maybe too difficult going on in your life, but you want to use fasting as a means of reminding you of your need for God, I think that can be appropriate, that’s what was happening on the Day of Atonement, afflict yourselves, go without food to humble yourself, so that you don’t forget what’s really valuable, or you want to fast, as a way of expressing your longing for Christ to return, as a way to say how much you want to be with him, or as an aid to prayer, and fasting and prayer do always go together with the prayer part taking the lead, it’s the praying that’s the most important, but fasting’s good because it can help you focus on prayer, but the thing is whatever the particular reason you are deciding to fast, it’s that heart attitude that is so important when it comes to fasting, either you are so focused on Christ that you don’t want to eat or you are so wanting to focus on Christ that you take some time not to eat, but again it’s the heart, and I am stressing that, because it’s so easy to lose that right heart in fasting, especially, when you make fasting into some sort of spiritual ritual that you always do at certain days or certain months or when the pastor says the church is fasting.

And really, we see some of those dangers when we look at the bad examples of fasting that are given throughout Scriptures, which we will consider next time. 

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