The Greatest Sermon in History Part 15
Fasting for Spiritual Growth
by Greg Hanson
Sunrise Wesleyan Church
May 23, 2004


Main Passage: Matthew 6:16-18 (NLT)


Over the past few weeks we’ve been looking at a section in the Sermon on the Mount, the Greatest Sermon in History, where Jesus addressed good character-building spiritual habits which were being abused by the Pharisees and the religious leaders of the day. First, we looked at the habit of giving. We saw how Jesus criticized the religious leaders for making a show of it whenever they would make a generous donation because they were only looking for the applause and approval of the people who saw them. They didn’t care much about what God thought, only what others thought. So Jesus told them they had received their reward in full. He went on to tell us that when we give, we shouldn’t be all that concerned about who sees our act of generosity. Be willing to give generously whether anybody else ever finds out about it or not.

We went on to see Jesus criticize the same religious show-offs for praying these grandiose prayers on the street corners and in the synagogues in order to impress everyone. Praying is a good spiritual habit… a good thing to do, but the motive behind their prayer was horrible. They weren’t praying to connect with God, they were praying to impress the crowd. So Jesus tells us that when we pray we should be content to pray whether anybody else ever finds out about it or not. Even pray behind closed doors when you’re all alone. Then you know your motive is right because the only one there to hear your prayer is God Himself.

This morning we listened to Bev read about another spiritual habit… the habit of fasting. And in that section, Jesus tells the people not to fast in such a way that they attract attention and gain the applause of the crowd, because that’s not what fasting is all about.

Fasting isn’t that common in our society today, and that’s a shame. But in Jesus’ day and in Jewish culture, it was an expected thing. In fact, I read that many Jews would fast twice a week. And when they would fast, they would make themselves look as grungy as possible so that people would look at them and say, “Wow, you look like you’ve been dragged behind a mule. You look terrible. You must be fasting! What a great spiritual man you are!”

Imagine it this way. Say I was fasting. I’d get up in the morning, look in the mirror, see the remains of sleep encrusted in the corners of my eye, see that I have a serious case of bed-head, pull a wrinkled, dirty set of clothes out of the hamper and put them on… forget about deodorant, forget about a shower, forget about shaving… I’m ready for the day. Then I leave the house and walk around all day with my mouth hanging open and drool reaching to the ground looking like death warmed over. You would know what I usually look like… sharply dressed, well groomed, handsome… so you would immediately conclude, “Oh, he’s fasting today.” You’d probably keep your distance from me, but you would greatly admire me and would tell all your friends about what a great, Godly man I am.

Problem is, that not so great or Godly. It’s just prideful. It’s me wanting the attention, seeking the praise, wanting to impress.

That’s the cultural mindset Jesus was addressing. To counter it, He says, “I know you’re going to be fasting because you want to grow. But when you do it, don’t grandstand. Don’t draw attention to fact you are fasting. Do everything we would normally do for daily hygiene and proper grooming, put on a clean set of clothes, and go about your day as normal. Then God, who sees what you’re doing, will reward you. It shouldn’t matter if anybody else ever finds out about it or not, because God knows.

Philippians 2:3 (NIV)
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit…

Now, I should mention that Jesus isn’t saying your fasting is null and void if somebody happens to find out about it.

“Jesus did not say that your fast is invalid if others find out. He’s talking about your motive for fasting… Don’t fast so that others will know. Do what you can to keep it between the two of you. But if others find out, your heart motive is not any less pure.”
~ Jim Luthy

If somebody notices that you’re not eating and asks why, you can go ahead and tell them. But don’t make a show of it. Don’t use it as an opportunity to feed your pride. Just tell them plainly, and leave it at that.

Okay. For the rest of our time here this morning, I want to talk about fasting. We’re going to look at five questions together. We’re going to have to move quickly, so if you’re following along in the notes, get your pens ready. Okay? Let’s go.


What Is Fasting?

Fasting is going without something, typically food, for a specified time in order to devote oneself more fully to God.


It is not a hunger strike, which tends to be more political than spiritual. Nor is it a diet plan.

“The dieter says: ‘Sweets are bad; I cannot have them ever.’ The faster says: ‘Sweets are good; (but) I will not take them now.’“
~ Father Robert Farrar Capon

It’s a spiritual habit. It’s something you do to enhance your prayers and to connect with God. Notice the definition I gave you said “typically food”. Most times fasting involves going without food, but not always. It can also mean going without something else that you enjoy… something you decide to do without for a time in order to devote yourself more fully to God.

“Right fasting is meant to give up something – food, media, relationships, others – for the sake of something better.”
~ Daniel Villa

Also, it is an intentional act. You don’t get to the end of the day, realize you haven’t eaten, and then declare that you fasted. You fast on purpose, not by accident.

And fasting should always be accompanied with prayer. I hope you pray every day. But while you are fasting, you should increase your prayer time even more. If you’re skipping a meal, use that time to pray. If you’re fasting and your stomach starts growling, use each growl as a reminder to pray. Fasting by itself misses the point, but fasting coupled with prayer is powerful and life-changing.

One of the highlights of my life occurred when I was 16 years old. I was attending a Youth Conference in Illinois, and I had the opportunity to interview Bill Bright for my youth group newsletter. I still have that tape kicking around someplace. Bill Bright died last summer, but he was one of the most influential Christians of the past century, right up there alongside Billy Graham. He was the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ and the writer of The Four Spiritual Laws. He also oversaw the production of The Jesus Film, the most watched film in the world which is still used worldwide to share the message of Christ. Along with all that, he was also a regular faster. At the end of your notes today I’ve include the address for one of his websites which gives some more instruction on fasting and prayer and gets into some of the physical effects, suggestions for preparing yourself spiritually, and how to finish your fast. I would suggest you visit that website if you have access, and also browse the rest of the site using the drop-down menus at the top for some other terrific resources.

This is what Bill Bright says about combining fasting with prayer…

“I believe the power of fasting as it relates to prayer is the spiritual atomic bomb that our Lord has given us to destroy the strongholds of evil and usher in a great revival and spiritual harvest around the world.”
~ Bill Bright

“Fasting is the most powerful spiritual discipline of all the Christian disciplines. Through fasting and prayer, the Holy Spirit can transform your life.”
~ Bill Bright


Why Should I Fast?


There are several reasons. Let me give you six…

1. Fasting is a Biblical and Time-Tested Spiritual Practice.

Matthew 9:14 (NLT)
One day the disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus and asked him, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples don’t fast?”

Fasting has it’s roots way back in the first books of the Old Testament in the Law of Moses. By the time Jesus arrived on the scene, it was commonplace. Both the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees, as different as they were theologically, held this spiritual practice in common. They assumed that Jesus would teach His disciples to fast as well. So Jesus explained…

Matthew 9:15 (NLT)
“Should the wedding guests mourn while celebrating with the groom? Someday he will be taken from them, and then they will fast.”

There was no need to fast as long as He was there. But His disciples, including us, would fast when He was gone.

In the passage Bev read for us, Jesus said;

Matthew 6:16 (NLT)
“And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, who try to look pale and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting.”

It wasn’t, “If you fast…” It wasn’t, “Should you feel the strange notion that you should fast…” It wasn’t, “In the highly unlikely event that you should ever decide to do something as weird as fasting…” It was, “When you fast…” Jesus expects us to fast. His teaching on fasting is directly tied to His teaching on giving and prayer. It’s as if there is an assumption that giving, praying, and fasting are all a part of the same fabric of Christian devotion. Jesus assumed we would fast, just as He assumed we would pray and give.

The list of Biblical persons who fasted reads like a “Who’s Who” of Scripture. Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Paul…

Plus, many great Christians throughout history fasted: Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney, John Wesley (for whom the Wesleyan Church is named).

“Fasting has a long spiritual pedigree, not as a lifeless tradition, but as a life-breathing spiritual discipline.”
~ Robert G. Johnson, Jr., 1999, First United Methodist Church, Mineola, TX, Working Our Appetites to New Advantage


2. Fasting Helps Us Keep Balance in our Lives.

Sometimes we allow our cravings to control us. It’s so easy for us to allow that. Even in the area of food. Yes, we need food to survive. But it can be good for us to go without it for a time just so we don’t become enslaved to our desires for it.

1 Corinthians 6:12 (NLT)
You may say, “I am allowed to do anything.” But I reply, “Not everything is good for you.” And even though “I am allowed to do anything,” I must not become a slave to anything.

Fasting helps us keep our cravings in check. It helps keep our cravings for food or anything else from interfering in our relationship with God. Fasting may start as a physical act, but it has spiritual implications.

“We give up food to feast on God. We fast from our physical desires in order to satisfy our cravings for God.”
~ Daniel Villa


3. Fasting Prepares Us to Hear from God.

(Deuteronomy 9:9; Acts 13:2)

Moses fasted for 40 days on Mount Sinai to seek God’s agenda for the Israelites. During that fast God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. In the New Testament, the believers were fasting and worshipping together when God instructed them to commission Barnabas and Paul for special ministry. So after some more fasting and praying, they sent them off on their first missionary journey.

Sometimes when I’m preparing a message and I feel like I’m beating my head against a wall because it’s just not coming together and I need to hear from God, I fast for a meal and eventually it gels. Fasting can help you hear from God and sense His leading in your life.


4. Fasting adds Passion to your Prayer.

(Mark 9.14-29)

There are other accounts throughout the Bible of times when people or even whole nations were in trouble and in need of God’s Power to intervene. So the people would fast and pray. The fasting proved that what they were praying for was really important to them, and God responds to that kind of passion.

I should also point out that fasting is not a way to manipulate God. It can stir His great compassion and can have a powerful impact on the way He chooses to act, but it is not a means of controlling Him. Sometimes, even when our prayer and fasting is sincere, He still acts according to what He deems is best. For proof of that, read 2 Samuel 12 where King David fasted and prayed passionately but didn’t get what he wanted. Fasting helps you pray with more power and passion, but it does not make God your puppet.


5. Fasting expresses repentance and brings renewal.

(Acts 9)

The Bible records that people fasted to express sorrow for their sin. King David, Paul, the city of Nineveh, and the entire Israelite nation are just a few that come to mind. Fasting is a humble and sincere way to express repentance. David wrote…

Psalm 35.13 (NIV)
“I put on sackcloth and humbled myself with fasting.”

Ezra 8.21 (NLT)
I gave orders for all of us to fast and humble ourselves before our God.

This is important because coming before God with humility is critical to spiritual renewal.

2 Chronicles 7.14 (NLT)
Then if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and heal their land.

"Fasting combined with prayer opens the flood gates to spiritual renewal, vitality, and the ability to live the Christian lifestyle."
~ Dr. Bryan Fink

Sunrise is a Wesleyan Church. Our name is in honour of an 18th century priest in the Church of England, John Wesley. The Methodist Church started under his ministry. And it grew rapidly. Wesley attributed the growth of the Methodist movement directly to the commitment to fasting held by the leaders of the movement. I wonder what God would do through Sunrise if we would commit ourselves to fasting. I think He would do more than we could possibly imagine through our church and in our lives.

“Is not the neglect of this plain duty one general occasion of deadness among Christians? Can any one willingly neglect it, and be guiltless?”
~ John Wesley


6. Fasting Leads to Maturity and Effectiveness.

About a week and a half ago I took a trip to Fredericton to visit my mother. And I took with me a video tape of our Worship Team playing on the Community Showcase on channel 10 a few months ago. She knew we have played on TV and wanted to see the tape. So I stuck it in the VCR, pressed play, and as she watched it she commented… “All those piano lessons, all that money, all that time and energy… there it is.”

She understood, more than I did growing up, that maturing and growing in a specific area means you’ve got to invest in it. You don’t learn to play the piano overnight. You don’t learn to golf accidentally. You don’t learn to type 60 words a minute without practicing it over and over again.

And you don’t grow spiritually without investing in it, either. Fasting is one of those spiritual habits or practices that helps you grow and develop as a believer and which enhances your ability to do God’s will and perform ministry that matters.

Let me read a section from Isaiah 58 for you. It’s not in PowerPoint, so just listen.

Isaiah 58:1-11 (NLT)
Shout with the voice of a trumpet blast. Tell my people Israel of their sins! Yet they act so pious! They come to the Temple every day and seem delighted to hear my laws. You would almost think this was a righteous nation that would never abandon its God. They love to make a show of coming to me and asking me to take action on their behalf. ‘We have fasted before you!’ they say. ‘Why aren’t you impressed? We have done much penance, and you don’t even notice it!’
“I will tell you why! It’s because you are living for yourselves even while you are fasting. You keep right on oppressing your workers. What good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarreling? This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with me. You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like a blade of grass in the wind. You dress in sackcloth and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the LORD?
“No, the kind of fasting I want calls you to free those who are wrongly imprisoned and to stop oppressing those who work for you. Treat them fairly and give them what they earn. I want you to share your food with the hungry and to welcome poor wanderers into your homes. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help.
“If you do these things, your salvation will come like the dawn. Yes, your healing will come quickly. Your godliness will lead you forward, and the glory of the LORD will protect you from behind. Then when you call, the LORD will answer. ‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply.
“Stop oppressing the helpless and stop making false accusations and spreading vicious rumors! Feed the hungry and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as day. The LORD will guide you continually, watering your life when you are dry and keeping you healthy, too. You will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring."


What Kinds of Fasting Are There?


There are different kinds of fasts. So even people with medical restrictions can participate. Of course, if you’re going to go without food for any amount of time, you should consult with your doctor. That’s my disclaimer.

Kathy Cash in an issue of Today’s Christian Woman wrote,
One day my husband announced to the family that he was going to fast and pray. Ginny, our 5-year-old, had recently learned that fasting meant not eating. “No!” she shouted. “You can’t fast! You’ll die!” Her dad carefully explained that many men and women fasted in Bible times. Ginny paused a moment. Then, with a flash of insight and a note of warning, she proved her point. “And they all died,” she said.

I don’t want you to die, so be sure to fast under medical supervision if you’re going to fast for more than a few days or if you have other health considerations. Let me list six different kinds of fasts for you.


  • Water Only Fast
    Obviously, this is where you still drink water but eat no food. This can last anywhere from one meal up to 40 days. (1 Samuel 20:34)
  • Absolute Fast
    This means no water or food. I’d only recommend this type of fast for a short period up to a few days. (The longest recorded is 40 days by Moses and Elijah. Must have been supernatural.) (Exodus 34:28)
  • Partial Fast
    In this type of fast you deny yourself of only certain foods. Maybe cut out meat, maybe dessert. I have a friend that when he was a teenager fasted by cutting out soda pop. This is a fast that can go on indefinitely. Again, though, don’t look at fasting as a diet plan. It’s a form of worship. (Daniel 10:3)
  • Juice Fast
    In this kind of fast, you don’t eat solid food but can still drink fruit and vegetable juices. This is good for a person who is in an extended fast.
  • Sundown Fast
    This is a fast where you fast for one meal a day. Maybe you’d go from suppertime one night to suppertime the next night. Remember, the time you save with meals should be spent in time with God.
  • Idols Fast
    Not all fasts involve food. Some people can’t go without food for any amount of time for medical reasons. But everyone certainly can give up something… TV, Internet, Books, hobbies… This one can go on indefinitely.

    Note: What you give up has to be something meaningful to you. Otherwise it does not represent true fasting. I could give up onions, but that wouldn’t be fasting for me. Why? Because I don’t like onions. I wouldn’t really be giving anything up. I could give up listening to Ricky Martin music. But same problem… I’d never miss it.


When Should I Fast?


A. When You Need a Spiritual Breakthrough.

Maybe you sense God prompting you to fast. Maybe you feel stagnate in your spiritual life and need to kick-start it. You may want to fast regularly for this reason. Maybe once a week or once a month.


B. When You are Facing a Challenge.

When you have a decision to make, when you have an obstacle to overcome, when you need to pray for someone else, when you or someone you know is heading into a time of challenge or even danger, when you’re sending out missionaries or other Christian workers… all of these would be good times to fast.

Years ago when I was preparing for a short-term mission trip, I fasted once a week leading up to it. It was something I had to do to prepare myself spiritually and to let God know I was serious in what I was doing and to ask His help.


C. When a Social Need Arises.

(Esther 4)

Queen Esther called on all Israelites to fast and pray when Haman, a government official, tried to annihilate them. It was a national emergency. We should be fasting right now for the protection of marriage in our country. It’s a national emergency. It’s a social need that requires God’s intervention.


D. When You Need to Express Deep Repentance.

We’ve already talked about this. You’ve sinned against God in some way and you need to express your sincere, heart-felt sorrow. This is a time when fasting may be appropriate.


How Do I Fast?


There’s no secret formula to fasting. I’m not going to be so legalistic as to give you a checklist to make sure you do everything just right. I think there’s some flexibility in fasting. People in the Bible and throughout history have fasted different ways. So let me give you just a few overarching guidelines which can help you get started.


First, determine your purpose for fasting.

Are you looking for insight, a word from God, directions, power?


Secondly, determine the type and length of the fast.

We talked about six different types of fasts earlier. Are you going to fast for one meal, one day, three days, a week, a month?


Third, use your times of fasting to be with God (Prayer and Scripture).

You’re not fasting to punish yourself. You’re fasting to connect with God. So spend time with Him. You might even keep a journal and record your thoughts, feelings and insights.


That’s all I’ve got for you this morning. If you want more ideas or insights, be sure to visit that website listed at the bottom of the page.

As we close, let me just say that I know we’ve dealt with a lot of academic information today. But I think it’s also practical. And I believe that if we would commit ourselves as individuals and as a church to practicing this spiritual habit of fasting, we would be amazed at what God would do. So let me challenge you right now… begin to practice fasting. Make it a regular part of your life. Start simple with one meal a week or one day a month. Spend that time with God and be amazed. What do you say? Can you do it? I know you can. Let’s pray.

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