Christian Fasting - Biblical Fasting
What is the purpose of fasting during Lent? The right answer to this question holds the key to successful fasting, what type of fasting you should consider doing, and how to fast.
Fasting is the second of the 3 principal Lent activities
we are encouraged to participate in during Lent. As you will see, it can sometimes be the most painful, especially when it hurts our pride.
- Fasting, and
Jesus spoke on these three things - alms, prayer, and fasting - in Matthew chapter 6, verses 1 - 18, in his first public teaching, known as the Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 5-7)
Disclaimer: I am not here treating here of fasting used as a weight loss tool, which is often done for selfish reasons, such as vanity and appearances. This is often unsuccessful precisely because it is based on selfish motives, and there are usually deeper issues involved.
I am treating of biblical and christian fasting, which - a surprise to many - usually does not involve food as the main issue.
For those who may need to lose weight for medical reasons, and think that fasting will solve their problems, it would be wise to seek advice the advice of a good medical practitioner who holds the principles of biblical and/or christian fasting, as explained below.
Lent Fasting - Come Holy Spirit!
Each person is different - we are at different stages in the spiritual life - we have different duties and challenges - we have different spiritual needs.
This is why among the community of believers, it is so important to have spiritually wise and mature mentors to assist us in our spiritual walk with Christ.
Above all, it is important to listen to the guidance and counsel of the Holy Spirit, because even the best of mentors can get it wrong. But let us make sure it is the Holy Spirit, and not a prompting from our fallen human nature or a deceit of the devil.
That is why it is important to pray to the Holy Spirit, especially at the beginning of a sermon, a class, a bible reading, prayer meeting, service, or time of instruction. I encourage you to take a brief moment to do that right now.
Light white "fairy" clouds in blue sky - 6:16 am, July 27, 2010.
In the Bible, clouds are associated with the presence and glory of God.
Much of this discussion on Lent fasting goes contrary to the current trends of the world. These principles work and bring results, not so much physically, as spiritually.
What Lent Fasting is Not
For the most part, Lent fasting is not dieting. You may need to diet to lose weight, but that is not the issue God wants us to deal with when fasting.
Dieting has become a craze in the modern civilized world, because it's easy for people with money and without discipline in a time of abundant food to become intemperate and gluttonous. And that just doesn't just mean types of food, but kinds of food.
There are thousands of diet programs, pills, and products. Dieting makes a lot of money - billions if not trillions - for marketers who push their products mostly for selfish if not sinful reasons, such as looking and feeling good, attracting people through immodesty and vanity, etc.
Fasting and Dieting - The Annual Competition?
Like Lent fasting, dieting seems to be an annual tradition.
Dieting is a fad that comes every January as a resolution, and is usually broken in a few weeks if not days. It's often a trick of the devil to keep us from making Godly resolutions, and instead puts the focus on me, me, and me - all part of the "body beautiful, I am God" deadly cult.
And, because it's based on selfish motives, and the will power of self, and not the higher power of God, that's why most diets don't work, even though some of them can be quite useful, once a person learns to tap into God's power. Enough said about dieting.
So if we want to keep the proper Lent fasting, we must be tap into God's power, and not wrapped up in me, me, and me.
What Christian Fasting is Not
In some denominations during Lent, there is a big to-do about the letter of the law of fasting, and all the minute rules and regulations - but a forgetfulness of the true spirit of fasting. The calendar carefully lists when you can and can't have meat, when you have to fast with how large a meals, etc.
There's a saying - Don't throw out the baby with the bath water. It means we must keep the essentials, the priorities. Traditions can be good - some even should not be neglected. But more important are the essentials, the basics.
More important is the spirit of the law than the letter of the law.
What True Fasting Is
True fasting fulfills the very purpose of Lent:
- to come closer to God, become united to God as his child in his family.
- to detest sin, to hate sin, which keeps us away from God.
- to get rid of sin, to throw it out of our lives altogether, which we can't do by ourselves, so we need God's help and grace to do so
- to truly repent of our sins, to beg God's forgiveness, and accept the merciful forgiveness and salvation of His Son Jesus Christ.
- to help atone for our sins as a small token - a small proof - of our repentance.
If we are not willing to do the work - with God's help - to remove sin and receive His grace, we are not getting closer to God, our fasting is vain.
It doesn't matter how much willpower we think we have, or how disciplined or intelligent we think we are, or even if it seems easy for us to fast compared to anyone else.
However - if we struggle with the bad habits of sin, and even fall through weakness into sin, but we continue making efforts to overcome sin, to confess our sins and keep asking God's help and the advice and support of godly people - that's a different story. Welcome to the club of all of us sinners, who will have something or other to struggle with all of our lives as long as we still live here on earth.
Getting to the Problem
At different times and in different areas of our lives, we get stubborn. We don't want to admit honestly certain things, like our sins and mistakes.
Instead, we try to cover them up, and it gets worse. We try to band-aid and medicate our pain, the symptom, but we won't deal with the source of our problem.
We think we know better. We think that we can keep God out of the picture. But God is right there, letting it get worse than if we just simply admit our problem and get help.
You see, God does have the answers in the scripture.
But we want to contradict. For example, we want to associate fasting with dieting, there's so many experts and books in the world, everybody's doing it, etc.
So when we hear the truth in God's word, the holy bible, we want to contradict, we become, as God calls us, "stiff-necked," and warns us against "hardening our hearts." Which is just another way of saying stubborn arrogance and pride.
Exposing the Problem
The problem is, we often really don't know what God has already told us - in the Bible. And if we're stubborn, we don't care. All the arguments in the world won't convince us.
We can become like an alcoholic who will vehemently say over and over "I am not an alcoholic !!!", and they really think they aren't. But their whole life is messed up, their businesses in shambles, their family is a wreck because nobody is cornering them and holding them accountable and facing them with the reality of what they really are. Simply, an alcoholic. And then if and when they are cornered and do admit it, they usually will give a litany of excuses.
God, the Good Doctor
God is like a good doctor. He can't treat the patient unless they want his help.
Sometimes, the good doctor will wait. He has a remedy ready, maybe even a painful surgery and bad-tasting medicine that could immediately help. But the patient doesn't want it.
But he bides his time. The good doctor knows the painful consequences of waiting will convince some patients more than persuasion.
The patient ends up in a world of more hurt. He finally gets mad enough to challenge and deny his diagnosis. Then the doctor brings out the x-rays, the tests, and proves it beyond the shadow of a doubt, giving the patient the opportunity to make radical life changes. Because until he admits the problem, the patient won't do anything about it. Honest admission is half the battle.
God has Good Timing Too
Sometimes, God works this way. He lets us pile up high our little citadel of sand on the beach, piling up our thousand and one excuses, our emotions and feelings, even for many years. He lets us set up all our little traditions, and rules, and customs, and regulations, our pre-conceived notions, our unrealistic expectations, our little selfish world, our eccentricities. And he lets us cover it all up with lies and hypocrisies and illusions and pretences.
And all of this comes crashing down by a single blow, a powerful wave of his convicting Holy Word.
The truth sets us free, to continue on with the rest of the challenges of life on a much better foundation and with a much higher power than ourselves.
In the meantime, I'm sure glad God has shown a lot of patience with us.
If we don't accept God's Holy Word, we put ourselves into danger. The world and the devil will finish off the damage.
Because of our fallen sinful nature and tendencies, all that we can do by ourselves comes from arrogance and pride, which is the source of all sin. Pride is the greatest obstacle keeping us from God, from heaven, and all that is good for ourselves, our families, our community and the whole world.
God knows, if we don't follow his authority, we will eventually destroy ourselves or be destroyed.
Biblical Calls to Fasting
It is true, that God, his priests, and prophets, have called for fasting. Even Jesus told his disciples that some devils cannot be cast out except by prayer and fasting. (Matthew 17:21; Mark 9:29)
And we read of good kings in the Old Testament leading their people in times of prayer and fasting, to implore God to help them fight against their enemies, else all would be lost.
But today, more and more, we see a problem. There are some people who want to do the fasting, but they don't or won't give up sin, and hatred, and wickedness, and injustice in their lives.
God's Definition of Fasting
One time, God told the people why their fasting was a waste of time, and had a prophet write it down. This is an important lesson that needs to be understood, before getting into the nuances of fasting from food.
In the whole chapter 58 of Isaiah, God goes to great lengths to define and explain what is true fasting. In fact, God is speaking the whole time - in this entire chapter - on this very issue.
God Can be Stubborn Too
In Isaiah chapter 58, God tells h is people why he is not answering prayer, why he is not taking notice of their fasting and penance, because:
- They live for themselves and their pleasures.
- They oppress their workers.
- They fight and quarrel.
- They pretend to be humble and pious going through the motions, dressing themselves in sackcloth, covering themselves in ashes.
And it is not fasting, it is not pleasing the Lord. (Isaiah 58:1-5)
God Tells Us How to Fast
The kind of fasting God wants, and is calling us to ( as we read in Isaiah 58:6-7, 9-10, 13), is to:
- Free those unjustly imprisoned.
- Stop oppressing the helpless, and break all the shackles (for example, usury, slavery, unjust laws, excessive or unjust taxation).
- Stop making false accusations and spreading vicious rumors (gossip, slander, detractions).
- Stop oppressing those who work for you, treat them fairly, and pay them what they earn.
- Share your food with the hungry.
- Give clothes to those needing them.
- Help those in trouble.
- Welcome and care for the homeless.
- Don't hide from people needing help.
- Honor the Lord in everything you do. Don't follow your own will. Don't speak idly.
- Keep the Sabbath day - the Lord's Day - holy. Don't follow your own interests on that day. Enjoy it and speak of it with delight.
Now there's a lifetime of work!
What About Fasting from Food?
The surprise is, in this passage, there is not a single mention of fasting from food, and the only mention of food is that we must share our food.
It seems to me, it would be better to eat food to have energy to do God's will outlined here, than to make fasting from food this huge "be-all end-all" in some denominations.
The practical aspect is that God wants our chief penance to be our daily duty. That students should do their homework, that men should work, that mothers should mother, that fathers be fathers, and leaders work for justice.
Jesus says if we want to come after him, we must deny ourselves, take up the cross, and follow him. (Matthew 10:38; 16:24; Mark 8:34; 10:21; Luke 9:23) Our cross is our work, our duty, our responsibilities.
If by fasting, you neglect your duty, with wise guidance it might be more appropriate to stop fasting and focus on doing your duties well.
The Danger of Fasting Out of Pride
It is so easy to become proud, especially when things are going good. Sometimes, with wise guidance, it might help to stop your fasting from food to break your pride.
It reminds me of the story of a young fervent christian who was praying an hour a day, and reading his scriptures during that hour. At his weekly prayer meeting, he was bragging how he had been keeping it up every single day for a month.
The lady in charge told him, stop doing it for the next 7 days. He was quite upset.
That was his problem, he probably was too proud. God wants us to be flexible, available to do his will, not totally rigid.
And at the same time, there are some people who could really use some self-discipline.
Again, this shows the value and importance of good mentors, good spiritual guides, to get good advice and counseling.
My own Story of Lent Fasting
In the past, there were times that I was trying to keep the fasting practices of Lent. My problem was, I tended to be very Pharisaical and judgmental of others. I expected others to be on par with me.
When I'd fast, I'd often want to "bite off other people's head." I probably wasn't very pleasant to be around. I was "telling truth" more than "showing grace."
It is better to serve people well than be irritable with them. It is better to fulfil your duties and responsibilities well, rather then do them poorly, or entirely neglect them.
A wise older pastor - who became like a mentor to me - said that Abraham did not fast. In fact, he was wealthy and probably enjoyed many a fine meal. But he was obedient to God, and that is better than sacrifice. (I Samuel 15:22)
The Penance of Eating Right
The same pastor / mentor said that for some people it is a penance just to eat right.
For some it can mean not eating certain types of food that can be unhealthy for them, such as sweets.
It can mean eating more healthy foods, such as vegetables.
Sometimes good food is less available, more expensive, and takes more time to prepare - which can be a sacrifice.
Yet even in a practical sense, being sick when you could be well wastes time, costs money for medicines, doctors, etc. The long-term reward - the blessing - of good health outweighs the cost.
The Purpose of Fasting
The whole purpose of fasting - and yes, sometimes, that includes foods, or particular types of food - is to detach ourselves from any addictions that are keeping us from God.
Anything at all that we put before God can become an unlawful addiction. Here are some examples:
Let's Put First Things First
- Family - Just as older children usually leave the home and even the local area to pursue their own career and start their own family, so too, God calls individuals to leave their family to do his work. Jesus says, no man putting his hand to the plow, and then turning back, is fit for the kingdom of God. (Luke 9:62)
- TV, Internet, Cable, cell phone, texting - While these can be useful tools for business, research, and information, today many hours are wasted that should be spent in the service of God and neighbor. And worse, pornography and online gambling is sinful. Going on a media fast for the right motive, and replacing it with acts of Christian service, may go a long way to get Godly discipline and blessings in your life.
- Entertainment, Music, and Travel - We live in an entertainment-crazed society, so we shouldn't be surprised if great evils come on us, as did Rome when it fell, because it was so attached to it's entertainment, it had so many slaves to do the work, and they watched people and animals fighting and killing one another for fun, it was no wonder the barbarians could come in and conquer them. They had become a soft-lazy, rich-crazy society.
- Worldly Life-style. When people have to have the best - front row or first class seats, best hotels, fanciest cars, richest foods, latest fashions of clothes - they are squandering a portion of God's money entrusted to them for his servants, the poor and the unfortunate, the disabled, etc, They risk the curses of Jesus - Woe to the rich - who are cursed for their lifestyle. A person could be wealthy and still be poor in spirit - detached and generous - but it is so difficult and so rare, Jesus said it's easier for a camel to go through an eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 19:24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25)
- Sin. We all have bad habits of sin to overcome. We are inclined to sin because it's an unlawful pleasure, that's why it's an addiction. How about fasting from the sin in our lives? This is basic stuff. Stop gossiping. Stop unnecessary work on Sunday, especially that which produces income. And if you think you're perfect, stop lying and being a hypocrite. Stop judging, stop criticism, stop complaining, etc.
- Alcohol, Drugs, Smoking - These are addictions God wants you to fast from. They take money away from better things, it's a matter of justice especially if you are supporting a family, and putting the money into things that are destroying and will destroy you.
- Food. And yes, food can be an addiction. Especially junk food. God may want you to start cleaning up your life and eat healthier foods and exercise and drink water, so that you can better serve him, and honor him in the people you serve. However... read on ........
In all these cases, let's not put the cart before the horse. Let's get God's wisdom and help first and always.
God isn't only in the business of cleaning up dirty people, he's in the business of giving life to dead people. And dead people can't help themselves. So don't plan to clean up your life before coming to God, you'll just be making a worse mess. There will be plenty to learn and do after you let God do his business in your life.
So get God's life in you first. In overcoming any sin, any addiction we put in front of God, get his help first and always. Otherwise, God will let you show yourself how you can't do a blessed thing by yourself.
So first, let's come humbly to God as we are - sins, warts, and all.
Spiritual Direction is Necessary
To be truly successful in anything, we need teachers, mentors, coaches, counselors, advisors, etc. There are many different types of counseling a person may need throughout their lifetime - career, marriage, spiritual, business.
The Imitation of Christ, a well known meditation book by Thomas A'Kempis, says he who has himself for a spiritual guide has a fool for a guide.
Getting spiritual direction from a truly competent and experienced spiritual director is essential, especially for young people, and newer Christians. Converts can in their zeal do too much at once, and then burn out.
Finding Wise Spiritual Guidance
A wise spiritual director will know when an issue is outside his realm, such as one better handled by a competent physician or psychologist.
Imprudent counselors can do much harm, so it is important to pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance in choosing a spiritual counselor, such as a pastor.
It is so easy to deceive ourselves, or to be deceived by the devil, and even by good people who do not understand our individual needs.
Beware of Pride in Fasting
Spiritual pride, such as:
- thinking we know it all,
- that we know what is best for us,
- or that we're better than others
... is a dangerous tool of the devil.
The devil will often get us involved in what looks or appears good, such as fasting, to keep us from the real good, or something better. The devil's nature is to deceive, that is why all temptation is so tempting. Jesus said the thief (the devil) has come into this world to kill, steal, and destroy.
Following a Safe Course in Lent Fasting
Solomon, one of the wisest men ever, said plans go forward with good counselors. God rewards the humility of those who ask for his help, and ask for guidance.
In fact, that is why Jesus could say, Learn of me, for I am meek and humble of heart. (Matthew 11:29) Jesus had the humility to himself learn from his heavenly father.
We Must Replace the Evil with Good - the Devil with God
Remember the story how Jesus warned about getting all cleaned up of a devil, and then 7 devils come back? (Matthew 12:43-45; Luke 11:24-26)
That's because we have to replace the devil who chains us in sin, with the power of God - else things become worse.
We have to replace our sinful habits and addictions by good habits. For example, Paul says, he who stole, let him steal no longer, but work with his hands in a good work (a lawful business or job), so he can give to one in need. (Ephesians 4:28)
Things done out of a motive of unselfish love of God and neighbor is a great power. The Love of God - now that's one good addiction to have.
O, and to have the good habit of true gratitude - that's another!
Jesus Tells Us a Story about Prayer and Fasting
Jesus tells us this story, how 2 men went to the temple to pray.
The pharisee in front told how he fasted and gave alms.
The tax collector in back wouldn't even look up, but kept beating his breast, crying, O God, be merciful to me the sinner.
Jesus said the second man went home justified, and not the other. (Luke 18:9-14)
This is Really an Encouraging Story
While this story Jesus told may seem harsh to those who do everything right, it is actually very encouraging for us who get the fact that we are sinners and need God's help and mercy.
It means there's hope for us. In fact, Jesus said the healthy (those who think they're healthy, because we're all sinners) don't need a doctor, but the sick. (Matthew 9:12; Mark 2:17, Luke 5:31)
We're All Spiritually Sick
At a conference one time, one of the pastors said Christ's church on earth is like a hospital, but even the doctors (pastors, elders, missionaries, etc.) are sick. Christ alone is the only one healthy. Our duty is to get our patients (parishioners, the lost sheep, the unconverted) to Him.
Very few pastors can say like Paul the Apostle, Be imitators of me. But he added, because I am an imitator of Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:1)
And Paul also asked for prayers, lest in preaching to others, he become a castaway.
I also ask for your prayers. And may God bless you for this.
Thank your stars!
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