Published by Michael Bigg on Sun, 4 Feb 2018 14:06

The text from Mike's talk on Fasting at Worship & Word on 4th Feb 2018.


On Tuesday evening we were driving home from Cambridge as a family. Joseph was crying in the back and we needed to fill up the car. We pulled into a petrol station and I filled up the car while Katy filled up Joseph.

When I went to pay I glanced at the selection of chocolate bars and grabbed something for me and something for Katy. I shoved mine into my mouth to avoid the kids spotting me but Matthew, eagle-eyed as ever, saw that I was eating something and accused me of having chocolate.

Katy made up a story about how when you pay for petrol the cashier always gives you a special sweetie that only the person paying for the petrol can eat. Matthew was satisfied. For now.

The reason I recount that little story is that I was reflecting on the drive home how often I end up snacking on impulse. I wasn’t particularly hungry. I knew that I’d be having a good meal at home. I knew I’d probably have to lie to my children to get away with it. And yet I was almost powerless to resist. It wasn’t like I even had an internal battle with myself – it was a totally unrestrained impulse.

Isn’t it surprising how often our impulses and appetites get the better of us? Often our impulses are relatively harmless, but sometimes not. Paul encourages us to be free in Christ, not slaves to the law, not slaves to our bodies, not slaves to our desires and cravings. It’s easier said than done.

And so we come to the discipline of fasting. It’s a much-neglected discipline in recent years (myself included). You don’t see many Christians talking about it any more. We live in a culture in which deliberately denying yourself basic things like food is seen as strange at best, and dangerous at worst.

And yet there is an extensive list of Biblical heroes who are recorded as fasting. Christians through the centuries have attested its benefits. Indeed, it is not an exclusively Christian practise and religious people throughout the world celebrate this discipline as a way of holiness. So maybe it is time to rediscover it.

 

Biblical fasting is distinct from dieting – the reasons are not physical (although there are physical benefits). Biblical fasting is not the same as a hunger strike – it is not an exercise of power. The Biblical witness to fasting always has spiritual dimensions at the centre.

The usual practice is for total abstention from all food and drink with the exception of water. You occasionally see examples of fasting from particular types of food (Daniel fasts from meat and wine).

Very rarely there are examples of an absolute fast from food and water (eg. Esther instructs the Jews to conduct an absolute fast for 3 days). However, this is definitely the exception and probably ought not to be done unless there is a clear prompt from God in response to a particular crisis.

Usually fasting is a private matter between an individual and God, but occasionally churches have found a corporate fast beneficial (as long as everyone understands the purpose). Foster recounts a national fast called by the King in 1756 to avert a threatened invasion by the French. John Wesley’s diary writes it up as a “glorious day” and later notes that the invasion was indeed averted.

Various practises of regular fasting (weekly, in particular seasons etc) have emerged among Christian groups but there are no Biblical injunctions about how and when we should fast. However, Jesus does seem to assume that we will fast in some way. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus talks about fasting in the context of Christian devotion along with giving and praying. We should no more make fasting optional than we should make giving or praying optional.

In Matthew 6 Jesus says “When you fast…”. He does not say “if you fast” and he does not say “you must fast”, but he does seem to assume that fasting will be a practice adopted by his followers in some way. “When you fast…”

Foster also notes that, like all disciplines, the practice can be abused and become about us rather than about God. The warning about hypocrisy in Matthew 6 is telling. It’s easy to think that fasting is somehow for our benefit. However, fasting ought to be an act of worship and so, in that respect, for God’s benefit. In Luke 2, Anna the prophetess is “worshipping with fasting”. Fasting should be a way of placing God at the centre.

 

Like all disciplines, fasting is something that we learn to do and grow in our capacity. Just as someone starting to meditate probably cannot sustain a solid hour, someone new to fasting needs to start small.

The recommended starting point is to start with a day’s fasting starting after lunch. Skip the evening meal at breakfast and break your fast the following lunch time. It’s only two meals but enough to be a challenge. You may want to start with allowing yourself fruit juice instead of just water.

Try this once a week for a few weeks. You’ll probably start off being fascinated by the physical aspects. Your mind will be preoccupied with feeling hungry. But try to focus on your inner thoughts. How are you responding to the fast? What do you notice about the way you are relating to others and God while you fast?

You will feel hunger pangs but it isn’t real hunger. It is just your stomach objecting to not getting its way. Your stomach is like a spoiled child. Take a few sips of water and the hunger pangs will pass. Maybe take the opportunity to reflect on why you feel so hungry even though you aren’t really.

 

Of course, you should do all you can not to draw attention to the fact that you are fasting. Only those who need to know should know. Don’t allow the admiration of others to be your reward!

Experience suggests that regular fasting will enable you to go deeper every time. You’ll become less interested in what is going on in your body and more interested in what’s going on in your mind. Where else in your life do you act impulsively? Where else does your body rob you of contentment?

If you find yourself fasting for 24 hours with some spiritual success then skip one more meal and see how you fare. At this point, you are recommended to seek God’s will as to whether extended fasting is a discipline God has for you. Foster encourages working up to a 3-7 day fast, and extols the virtues of fasting for 21-40 days. Good luck!

(I should add that fasting is not a discipline to be pursued by those with medical reasons not to – there are other types of fasting that I will come on to).

  

I have been attempting the discipline of a weekly 24 hour fast for the last month or so. I can attest that Foster is absolutely right. I have become more aware of myself. I have started to notice my thought patterns. I have become more aware of my impulsive tendencies (as attested in my story at the start of this talk), although I do not always overcome them. I am aware of how easy it is to use food or other habits to cover over other things. I commend the discipline to you.

 

One final comment though. The central idea of fasting is to abstain from a normal function for a time in order to concentrate on other things. The biblical witness is to abstaining from food but the principle can be extended. It is not only food that can enslave us.

Why not fast from other things? Let’s fast from people. Take time away from others and the tendency to fill the air with chatter. Get away for 24 hours of retreat!

Fast from the media. We are constantly bombarded with news and opinions. But we know that the Good News is most important, and God’s opinion should be central. Take a day without any media – no TV, no newspapers, no radio. Use the time for prayer and Bible reading instead.

Fast from your phone. This is closely connected to the previous one, but it’s easy to feel that we must be constantly available. Leave your phone in the drawer for the day. See what happens! Whenever you put your hand in your pocket to find your phone, take a moment to pray.

Fast from money. Arrange things so that you can spend a day without spending any money. Note the impulses to buy. Every time you see an advert notice how much pressure there is for more, more, more! Use it as a prompt to pray for less, less, less of me and more, more, more of God!

Fast from work. Take a day without doing any work at all. Try to notice when you even think about work. When you think about work try to direct your thoughts to God instead.

 

Lent begins in 10 days. Maybe you could consider a form of fasting for Lent this year. It’s become increasingly common to do something “positive” for Lent, because giving something up is perceived as negative. However, I think this is a mistake. Doing something more (even if it’s more prayer) is very easy to become something about us. When you fast from something you try to make space for God. Grace is about God’s undeserved work in us, so I encourage you to consider fasting in some way this Lent and so seek to allow space in your life for grace to work.

Let me know how it goes!

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