As you know, over the past couple of months, we’ve been talking about particular issues or challenges of living as Christians in the current culture. And my basic argument has been that there are a variety of forces in the culture that turn us away from a God-oriented view of the world to a world-oriented view of the world (Christians and churches being just as susceptible to all this). And I’ve suggested, through this series, a number of practices – or ways we can approach these practices – to re-orient ourselves towards a God-view.
The last few weeks of this series, I want to focus on practices or spiritual disciplines that we haven’t covered elsewhere. Last week, we talked about repentance, which (I think) serves as both a practice and a meta-practice. That is, it’s something that we should specifically be practicing, and it also serves as an over-arching or underlying theme or approach to the other practices.
This week, I want to talk about Fasting.
Fasting is interesting as a spiritual practice because, unlike the other ones we’ve talked about, it’s usually considered a “special” practice. Prayer and scripture reading, among other things, are things we do regularly (I hope). Fasting, if we do it at all (and there’s plenty of people who don’t, and that’s fine), we usually reserve it for special times like Lent or for times of extreme stress or of particular concern.
Of course, the practice of fasting is well-attested in the history of Christianity. We often hear of people who have fasted for extended periods of time and have “heard” the voice of God (I put that in quotes, not because I doubt the hearing, but because the hearing comes in various forms). We should also recognize that fasting is not limited to the Christian faith, with many people of different (or even no) faiths fasting for various reasons.
However, it’s the Christian practice of fasting with which we are concerned. There are numerous accounts in the bible of people fasting for various reasons. We are only going to do the barest and quickest of reviews, just stopping at a few accounts.
So firstly, I want to look at Judges 20:26-28
26 Then all the Israelites, the whole army, went up to Bethel, and there they sat weeping before the Lord. They fasted that day until evening and presented burnt offerings and fellowship offerings to the Lord. 27 And the Israelites inquired of the Lord. (In those days the ark of the covenant of God was there, 28 with Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, ministering before it.) They asked, “Shall we go up again to fight against the Benjamites, our fellow Israelites, or not?”Judges 20:26-28
This account occurs during the time of the Judges (obviously) after the incident with the Levite and his concubine (you may remember this from our study of Judges). In short, the Levite and his concubine visit a town and stay at the home of a man. In the night the townspeople surround the house and demand that the Levite be brought out so that they can have sex with him (this story is reminiscent of the incident with Lot and the two angels in Sodom). The Levite sends out his concubine instead and she is raped and killed by the people – the Benjamites.
So the passage we’re looking at here has to do with the rest of Israel hearing about this incident (which is a great sin) and deciding what to do with the tribe of Benjamin. There’s obviously a lot more going on here theologically, some of which we talked about before, but the fasting seems to serve the purpose of seeking God’s guidance, His direction, in the face of a serious decision.
The next passage I want to look at comes from 1 Samuel..
1 Samuel 7:2b-6
Then all the people of Israel turned back to the Lord. 3 So Samuel said to all the Israelites, “If you are returning to the Lord with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” 4 So the Israelites put away their Baals and Ashtoreths, and served the Lord only.
5 Then Samuel said, “Assemble all Israel at Mizpah, and I will intercede with the Lord for you.” 6 When they had assembled at Mizpah, they drew water and poured it out before the Lord. On that day they fasted and there they confessed, “We have sinned against the Lord.” Now Samuel was serving as leaderof Israel at Mizpah.1 Samuel 7:2b-6
These verses occur after the Israelites retrieve the ark of the covenant from the Philistines who had previously captured it. This is significant because the ark signified God’s presence with the nation of Israel. Whenever they took the ark into battle, presuming that God had commanded it, they were victorious. The loss of the ark to their enemies, therefore, meant something hugely significant – God’s presence had left Israel. Therefore, in winning the ark back, the first thing that the Israelites realized they had to do was to confront their unfaithfulness and repent – to turn back to the Lord. Fasting, therefore, was part of, or an act of, their repentance.
The third account of fasting that I want to look at comes from Exodus, during Israel’s time at Sinai:
27 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” 28 Moses was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments.Exodus 34:27-28
This account occurs after the incident with Israel and the golden calf. We know what happened there, so we won’t review it. But after this incident, and the punishment of those involved, Moses turns to God and asks for guidance. He is afraid that the Lord will reject Israel and not go with them, not lead them, to the promised land. This is where we get the passage where Moses says to God, “show me your presence.”
What we’re reading about in these specific verses is God’s renewal of His covenant with Israel. God directs Moses to re-write the stone tablets (that Moses had destroyed in his anger at the golden calf). And presumably the 40 days and 40 nights encompasses all the time that Moses spends in God’s presence, receiving the renewed covenant. And during this time, Moses fasted.
So what I want to suggest is that this fasting was Moses’ time of listening to, waiting for (so to speak), and simply attending to God. It wasn’t a matter of guidance, and it wasn’t a matter of repentance, although I think it entailed those things. Moses was simply being in and receiving God’s presence.
So what we’ve surveyed – very quickly – are three stories that reveal three different purposes for fasting in the bible. Again, there are many more mentions of fasting, and more reasons for fasting given in scripture.
So what does all of this have to do with the overarching theme for this sermon series? Well, what I want to suggest – and this may be obvious (or at least I hope it is) – is that in fasting, whatever our immediate motivation, fundamentally we are turning ourselves over to the grace and mercy of God. In fasting, we are turning ourselves over to the sovereignty of God.
To make a little more sense of this, I want to remind us of the conversation we had about humanism. Humanism, in a nutshell, is the belief or philosophy that human beings have the ability and potential to achieve all of the good that we need. And humanism, as we discussed, is pervasive in (especially) western culture. As we also mentioned, humanism is also (in my opinion) pervasive in western Christian culture – maybe especially in how we think of and do ministry.
There was a scene in an episode of Star Trek: TNG that reminds me of this general truth. I don’t know how many people have watched Star Trek: TNG, but there was a recurring character in the series known simply as Q. Q was a member of a race of beings (also called Q) that was essentially all-powerful. The Q could do anything, materialize anything, cause things to happen, travel through and change time, etc. One particular Q, again by the name of Q, interacted with the crew of the Enterprise on a regular basis.
And in this particular episode (I don’t remember the details), Q says that he feels that he has a right to do whatever he wants with human beings – essentially, to toy with them – because they are just playthings.
In response, Captain Jean-Luc Picard says this:
P: “What a piece of work is man. How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!”
Here, Picard is quoting Hamlet, who actually uses these words facetiously – but Picard means it quite seriously.
Q: “Surely you don’t see your species like that, do you?”
P: “I see us one day becoming that.”
Now this is just a TV show. But the entire philosophy of Star Trek seems to be largely that: Human beings have the potential to become, are on the path to evolving into, something perfect. That human ingenuity, will, and work can eventually lead us into paradise.
Again, we’ve talked about this before, so I won’t discuss the issue of humanism any further. But what I want to suggest is that, in fasting, we remind ourselves precisely that we, human beings, are finite. We remind ourselves that we, human beings, are needful. Fasting is a practice that can, if we orient ourselves properly, remind us that God is God and we are not.
Most of us here have never been truly hungry (I don’t say none of us, because that’s sadly probably not true). But most people in the western world, in countries like Canada and the United States, have never really known what it is to go without. Sure, some of us have been hungry for a day, or a few days. Many of us have eaten less than we wanted, even less than we needed, for a period of time. All of us, I’m sure, have had the experience of not knowing what we would eat. But most of us probably have never had the experience of not knowing if we would eat.
In other words, it’s something that we take for granted. It’s a basic necessity of life that we assume is going to be taken care of – that we don’t need to (really) worry about. And because that very basic necessity of life is something we can assume will be taken care of, we can get on with the rest of the business of what we think makes up life.
But what if it’s not? What if that basic necessity is removed (voluntarily, and only for a time, but still)? What if we are forced to confront our limitations, our weakness, and our mortality?
Will we then be so convinced of our human capability?
Fasting allows us to enter into a reality that we are desperately weak, desperately needing, and desperately longing for something. Fasting reminds us of how much our very existence is dependent upon something outside of ourselves.
And so, Christian fasting becomes an opportunity for us to turn our attention entirely to God. It allows us to physically turn our spiritual attention to the one in whom all of our hopes, and indeed our very lives, depend.
In closing, I want to turn our attention to one more account of fasting in scripture. We referred to this passage briefly last week as well. In Matthew 4, we read:
1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be temptedby the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”Matthew 4:1-3
Now if you recall, these are the first verses of the account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. And I’m not going to read or recount the story, but Satan tempts Jesus three times with the opportunity to make His ministry about Himself – to make the kingdom about Himself. And each time, Jesus refuses. Jesus responds:
- 4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
- 7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
- 10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’
Each time, Jesus – Son of God, God very God Himself – refuses to take the gory for Himself, insisting that the Kingdom is God’s. Rather than relying on his own power (which, as God Himself, was very great), Jesus chooses to rely on and rest in God’s (the Father’s) plan.
And what I want to suggest to you – and as is often the case, this is just my opinion, and it is an opinion based on reflection, not exegesis – what I want to suggest to you is that the opening verses of this passage, “1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.” These are not merely perfunctory statements. Rather, the forty days and nights of fasting were how Jesus prepared, how Jesus focused his eyes on God, and how Jesus was able to say “Seek first the kingdom of God” (I know that is a separate passage, but you get it). Satan may have thought that the fasting made Jesus weak, and so vulnerable to temptation. But perhaps it is weakness that is precisely the point. Because when we are weak in ourselves, we have no other choice but to trust in God.
So, as we close, I want to affirm that fasting has been traditionally an important spiritual practice for centuries (millennia). But I don’t say all this to suggest that you (we) have to fast. In fact, if we’re fasting for the wrong reasons or in the wrong way, we might as well not bother. But the important thing is that we keep our eyes fixed on God. The important thing is to know how deeply we need God. That we depend on His power and His mercy. We can actually do this in and through a variety of ways, or spiritual practices. But ultimately, as we try to be faithful in a fallen world, I hope we try to remember and live our lives with the knowledge that it is in God alone that we have our hope and place our trust.