Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Forgotten Art of Fasting

Today we are continuing in our journey through the Sermon on the Mount.  Here is today's text.
Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who [is] in the secret [place]; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. Matthew 6:16-18 NKJV
Jesus is continuing his instruction regarding pleasing God rather than man.  Here he is discussing fasting.  Fasting is sadly not as common today as it once was.  In the time of Jesus, it was much more common.  In fact, it used to be much more common among Christians.  Prayer went hand-in-hand with fasting when anyone was waiting on the Lord or imploring the Lord for something really burdening their hearts.  It is something we all need to incorporate into our prayer lives, myself included.  I admit that when it comes to fasting, I am very lacking.  I can tell you the truth, though, that when I have fasted, my prayer life and communion with God was amazing.  I know that we all must include fasting in our lives as we are only cheating ourselves when we do not.

So what is the secret of fasting.  Why does simply not eating have such an effect in our prayer lives?  Simply, it is a denial of the flesh.  In fact, it is a denial of one of the most basic needs of the flesh.  We all must eat and drink to survive.  When we deny ourselves food if even for a day or two, it becomes the primary desire of the flesh.  It comes before our desire for sin.  It comes before our desire for anything else really as our flesh begins to starve.  It is one thing to abstain from sin (which we will never be able to do) but when we abstain from food (something very possible), we cut sin's desire at the root.  When we choke out the flesh, the spirit thrives all the more.  And when the spirit thrives, you can have great communication with God. 

Now that we know what the essence of fasting is, we can much better understand why doing so for the approval of man is so wrong.  Being that fasting is a denial of the flesh and the praise of man is a means of satisfying the flesh, fasting for the praise of man betrays the very idea of what fasting is supposed to be.  You are not really fasting at all in that case because you are not denying the flesh.  Fasting is not just about not eating.  If that were the case, we would all have spiritual epiphanies every time we had our cholesterol checked.  The lack of eating is just the means to the real end of denying the flesh.  That must be our heart behind fasting otherwise it is not fasting at all. 

This also goes along with what Jesus said about praying and charity.  What we do for God needs to be between us and God.  Just like praying and just like charity, we must make sure when we fast it is for God.  When we fast for the purpose of showing off how well we fast, we are not doing it for God at all.  We are doing it for ourselves and for the wrong reason.  We are doing it not to get closer to God but to be more impressive to man.  I have covered this subject at length in my writings on prayer and charity so I will not spend too much time on it again, but I wanted to just make a point that getting beyond what fasting is supposed to be, we must make sure we are doing it for God and not man.

So what should we do when fasting?  I mean if we fast long enough there has to be some physical effect on ourselves, right?  Here is what Jesus says "But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting."  Please do not take this too far.  Jesus is not telling us to be dishonest, but to put on our normal best appearance. Do not dress in ragged clothes or go around moaning how hungry you are.  Do not go around telling everyone you are fasting.  And do not make yourself look like you are fasting.  In other words, do not let your hunger show.  What we should do is go about our business as we always did.  Wake up, take a shower, brush your teeth, do you hair, put on your makeup (if you are a woman), put in your deodorant, dress nicely, and go about your day.  We should never appear to be fasting.   If someone offers you something to eat, you can politely refuse without using that as an opportunity to brag.  Nobody needs to know you are fasting.  Nobody should know that you are fasting.   If you have a good experience with fasting, please feel free to share that because it is always good to encourage others by the good things God has done in your life.  The point is that we are not to show that we are fasting.

Jesus the finishes by saying "but to your Father who [is] in the secret [place]; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly."  This, again, is just like with prayer and charity.  If you truly fast unto the Lord, then the Lord will truly reward you.  That reward will be evident in your life.  Those things you were fasting and praying for will either come to be or you will have a great understanding of why you should not have asked for them.  That may sound illogical, but whatever answer God gives is the right answer.  If God says "No." then we can have faith that the greater blessing was in God not answering that prayer.  God will also reward us with a deeper more intimate relationship with Him.  The effects of righteous fasting will again transcend throughout your entire life as your relationship grows with the Lord.  Fasting is also a great way to take control of our flesh when it comes to sin.  If you choke out the flesh, it will weaken.  When you see you can take dominion over the flesh through fasting, those sins that seem to overtake you will not seem as strong as they once did. 

Sadly, fasting has gone by the wayside in much of the church today.  It becomes a special event rather than a regular practice.  What we lose is an important part of our spiritual lives.  Please do not eschew fasting as something old and obsolete.  The value in fasting is just as important today as it was for Jesus when he went into the wilderness for forty days.  Furthermore, Jesus speaks the lesson regarding the proper way to fast with the assumption that fasting will be a part of our lives.  Prayer is an amazing thing, but prayer and fasting takes it to a whole new level.  Sometimes we need to get back to basics and fasting is one of the most basic of basics for our spiritual lives.  I challenge you all to pick a day and fast.  Take that day as a day of prayer, reading Scripture, and denying the flesh that will cry out for food.  Do it, and keep it between you and God, and you will see just how God will openly reward you.
[Is] this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness, To undo the heavy burdens, To let the oppressed go free, And that you break every yoke?  Isaiah 58:6 NKJV

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