How to Fast
by Greg Hanson
Sunrise Wesleyan Church
November 4, 2007


Main Passage: Matthew 6:16-18

Last Sunday we started a new series of messages dealing with Spiritual Habits that lead to Spiritual Growth. And we started out by simply talking about reading and studying the Bible. The Bible is God’s primary revelation of who He is for you and for me. And so if we want to get to know God and if we want to grow in our relationship with Him, then we need to become people of the Book. In the early centuries of the Church, followers of Jesus were called People of the Book, and I think it’d be good to go back to those roots.

That’s what we talked about last week. Today, we’re going to move on to another spiritual habit… the habit of fasting.

Now, 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, many Jews would fast twice a week. And when they would fast, they wanted everyone to know. So 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. Now you... you know what I normally look like… sharply dressed, well groomed, dashing, handsome… well, whatever... you know what I normally look like, so you see that I look terrible in comparison, and you would immediately conclude, “Oh, he’s fasting today.” I mean, you’d probably keep your distance from me, but at the same time you would greatly admire me and would tell all your friends about what a great, Godly man I am.

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

And that’s the cultural mindset Jesus was addressing when He talked about fasting in the passage Lynn read. So to counter that mindset, Jesus said to His followers, “Hey guys, I know you’re going to be fasting because I know you want to grow. But when you do it... when you fast... don’t grandstand. Don’t draw attention to the fact you are fasting. Instead, do everything you 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 the Father, who sees what you’re doing,... He’ll reward you.” Jesus says it shouldn’t matter if anybody else ever finds out that you’re fasting. What matters is God knows about it.

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

In your notes, circle the word “nothing”. “Nothing” means “nothing.” Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Don’t fast, don’t read your Bible, don’t pray, don’t give to the needy, don’t serve, don’t do anything if you’re going to do it out of selfishness or pride.

Now, I should also point out that Jesus isn’t saying your fasting is null and void if somebody happens to find out about it. If someone finds out, fine. No biggie. But you don’t make it your objective to make sure people find out.

“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

So 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 that you’re fasting, and leave it at that.

Okay. Well, for the rest of our time here this morning, I want to talk about fasting. And 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.

Let’s start with a basic question, “What is Fasting?”

What Is Fasting?

Well, it’s not a hunger strike. That’s more political than spiritual. And it’s not a diet plan. Dieting is for an entirely different purpose than fasting. So what is fasting? Well, here it is...

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

It’s a spiritual habit of choosing God over feeding your other appetites. It’s something you do to enhance your prayers and to connect with God. Now, notice in the definition I gave you it 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

Plus, it’s a choice you make to go without whatever you’re going to go without. Fasting is an intentional act. That means 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. You decide up front.

And since fasting is meant to devote yourself more fully to God, it should always be accompanied by prayer. Now, I hope you pray every day. We just recently had a message series dealing with prayer, so it’s not even going to be one of the spiritual habits we talk about during this series. But we will discuss it as it relates to other habits. And while you are fasting, your prayer time should be increased, it should become more focuses, it should become more intense. While 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. That year between Christmas and new Years I attended a Youth Conference in Urbana, Illinois, and I had the opportunity to interview Bill Bright for my youth group newsletter. I still have that tape kicking around someplace. If you don’t recognize the name “Bill Bright”, he’s someone you should become familiar with. Bill Bright actually died about four years ago, but he was one of the most influential Christians of the twentieth century, right up there alongside Billy Graham.

He was the founder of a ministry called Campus Crusade for Christ and he was the writer of a very popular evangelistic tract called The Four Spiritual Laws. He also oversaw the production of The Jesus Film, which many of you have seen. It’s the most watched film in the world and is still used worldwide to share the message of Jesus.

And 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. If you have access to the Internet, I would strongly suggest that you visit that website and check out that information.

And what you’ll discover is the powerful connection between fasting and prayer. This is what Bill Bright says…

“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

Okay? So real fasting is deciding that you’re going to go without something... you’re not going to feed whatever that appetite is... and you’re going to devote the extra time to serious, more focused prayer. That’s what fasting is. Which takes us to the next question, “Why? Why should I fast?”

Why Should I Fast?

Well, there are several reasons why you should fast. Let me give you just six…

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

You should fast because the Bible talks about fasting, and you can see the impact it had on the followers of Jesus in the Bible and throughout Church history.

In fact, fasting has it’s roots way back in the first books of the Old Testament in the Law of Moses... over a thousand years before the Church was officially born. Fasting is talked about and practised throughout the Old Testament. So by the time Jesus arrived on the scene, it was commonplace. The disciples of John the Baptizer fasted, and the disciples of the Pharisees did, too. As different as they were theologically, they held this spiritual practice in common. And so they assumed that Jesus would teach His disciples to fast as well. Check this out...

Matthew 9:14-15 (NLT)
One day the disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus and asked him, “Why don’t your disciples fast like we do and the Pharisees do?”
Jesus replied, “Do wedding guests mourn while celebrating with the groom? Of course not. But someday the groom will be taken away 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. And that’s exactly what you see happening in the book of Acts. Jesus returns to Heaven, the Church is born, and the followers of Jesus make it a habit to fast. In the passage Lynn read for us, Jesus said;

Matthew 6:16 (NLT)
“And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable 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 simply, “When you fast…” Not “if”, but “when.” Jesus expects us to fast.

So godly people in the Bible fasted... the list reads like a “Who’s Who” of Scripture: Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Paul…

And then throughout Church history, you have people like Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney, John Wesley. They all fasted as a habit.

“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

So fast because it’s a Biblical and time-tested spiritual practise. Another reason to fast is...

2.    Fasting Helps Me Keep Balance in My Life

Because it’s just so easy to allow our cravings to control us. Our cravings demand demand to be satisfied, and we can easily become enslaved to them. Even in the area of food. Yes, I realize that 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 it.

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 Me 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. And 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 My Prayer
[Mark 9.14-29]

There are 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 what would happen? The people would fast and pray. By fasting, they were showing that what they were praying for was really important to them, and God responds to that kind of passion.

Now, I should clarify that fasting is not a way to manipulate God. I believe God does take it into consideration in how He chooses to act, but it is not a means of controlling Him. And 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 more passion, and often God responds to that. But it does not make Him 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 entire city of Nineveh, and the whole Israelite nation are just a few that come to mind. Fasting is a humble and sincere way to express repentance to God.

Ezra 8:21 (NLT)
“I gave orders for all of us to fast and humble ourselves before our God.”

Fasting is an act of humilty. And that’s important because 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 restore their land.

Here at Sunrise, we are a Wesleyan Church. The Wesleyan Church is a denomination that has it’s roots in the Methodist movement of the 18th and 19th centuries. During that period of time, The Methodist Movement transformed England, and the Methodist Church in North America became the fastest growing group of Christians in all of history. And it all started under the ministry of John Wesley.

But why did it grow so rapidly? Well, Wesley Himself attributed the growth of the Methodist movement directly to the commitment to held by the leaders of the movement to the habit of fasting. Wesley urged every Methodist to fast twice a week... every Wednesday and every Friday... and he wouldn’t ordain anyone who didn’t.

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.

6.    Fasting Leads to Maturity and Effectiveness

To grow in any area of life, 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. So invest in your spiritual growth through the habit of fasting.

That’s why you should fast. So how do you do it?

How Do I Fast?

Well, 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 into a problem? Are you looking to hear a word from God? Are you looking for direction in life? Guidance in making a decision? Are you seeking God’s power to be unleashed in your life? Are you seeking for God to move in our community, in our province, in our nation? Are you seeking a spiritual breakthrough? Why are you fasting?

Secondly, determine the type and length of the fast.

There are lots of types of fasts. You actually see a list of them in the bonus section in your notes. And even people with medical restrictions can participate in some of them. 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.

There’s the 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)
There’s the Absolute Fast. This means no water or food. I’d only recommend this type of fast for a short period or time, from one meal up to a few days. (The longest recorded is 40 days by Moses and Elijah. Must have been supernatural.) (Exodus 34:28)
There’s the Partial Fast. This is where you deny yourself of only certain kinds of foods. Maybe you cut out meat, or 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)
There’s the 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.
There’s the Sundown Fast. This is when you go from suppertime one night to suppertime the next night. Remember, the time you save with meals should be spent in time with God.
Those are the types of fasting involving food. And then there’s the Idols Fast. This is particularly food for people who 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.

Please note, though, that whatever you decide to give up has to be something that’s meaningful to you. I mean, I could give up onions, but that wouldn’t be fasting for me. Why not? 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.

So decide what type of fast you’re going to do, and decide how long you’re going to do it. Some of them may go on indefinitely, or you may decide to fast for only on meal or one day or three days... If you’ve never fasted before, start off easy. And if you’re going for one of the more severe fasts, decide on a short period of time and talk with your doctor.

And the third thing in how you fast is...

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

Because 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.

Okay, that’s all I’ve got for you this morning. If you want more ideas or insights, be sure to visit that website listed in your notes.

Now, I know we’ve dealt with a lot of academic information today. But I also think it’s 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.

See also



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