Matthew 6:16-18; Acts 13:1-3; 14:21-23
Fasting is not a very popular form of prayer and devotion. In my experience, fasting gets very little attention and on those infrequent occasions when the church encourages a fast, it seems that for many fasting is out of the question. I once led a group in a study of Richard Foster’s book, Celebration of Discipline. The group diligently read each chapter and practiced the disciplines each week, but when we came to Foster’s excellent chapter on fasting, few in the group participated in the suggested 24-hour fast for the week. I remember as a child a time when my church encouraged members to skip a meal and give the cost of a meal to the world hunger offering. My parents gave the cost of a meal to world hunger, but we did not skip a meal. I can’t say that I think of fasting as great fun, and have too many times ended a fast sooner than planned. We have been conditioned to think that skipping a meal is unhealthy, impossible, or crazy. Foster writes, “In a culture where the landscape is dotted with shrines to the Golden Arches and an assortment of Pizza Temples, fasting seems out of step with the times,” and “the constant propaganda fed us today convinces us that if we do not have three large meals each day, with several snacks in between, we are on the verge of starvation.” As I write this, I have just watched three food commercials offering bigger burgers or larger portions. Overindulgence and the desire for instant gratification is a problem in our society (as is watching too much television). We should not be surprised then, that fasting is a neglected spiritual discipline among Christians in our culture, yet materialism is the very reason we need to practice fasting (health permitting).
So, what is the purpose of fasting and what do we do when we fast? Foster offers these reasons for fasting:
(1) “Fasting must forever focus on God.” Whatever other reasons we might have for fasting, a spiritual fast begins with God. Fasting is first and foremost an opportunity to focus on God in prayer and worship. When our stomach rumbles, we find ourselves obsessing about food, or feeling that we are getting weak, then we are reminded to listen to God and turn to God for strength. Meal times especially may provide a little extra time for prayer and devotion.
(2) “Fasting reminds us that we are sustained ‘by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’ (Matthew 4:4).” Food does not sustain us. God sustains us. We may think it’s our own hard work, talent, and ingenuity that sustain us, but really it is God who sustains us. We are wholly dependent on God, not money, power, fame, intelligence, or any other thing. When we are instructed not to look miserable when we fast, that does not mean we should act like we are happy, we should truly be happy. Fasting is feasting, feasting on the word of God, feasting in God’s presence.
When we fast, we may find that what we are feeling is not happiness, but anger, depression, frustration, and grumpiness. Which brings us to a third reason for fasting.
(3) “Fasting reveals the things that control us.” Fasting can show us how our desire to fill ourselves goes beyond our body’s need for nourishment. The emptiness in our lives that we so often try to fill with food and other distractions may come to light during a fast. Paul warns about “enemies of the cross of Christ…. whose god is their belly” (Philippians 3:18-19) and people “who do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites” (Romans 16:18). Fasting helps keep God in control of our lives rather than the god of overindulgence. As we fast we might pray, “God, reveal to me those things that control me. Show me those things other than you, I think I can’t do without.”
Food can be symbolic of the many things in life that vie for our devotion. Thus Foster suggests that there are other ways we might fast in addition to fasting from food. Since the “central idea of fasting is the voluntary denial of an otherwise normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity,” the fast can be applied to other things in our lives (Fasting—20th Century Style, message by Richard Foster, 30 Good Minutes website, www.csec.org/csec/sermon/Foster_3114.htm). For example, in this electronic information age, a fast from the media can be beneficial. A multitude of electronic devices has put all types of media and communication tools literally at our finger tips 24-hours a day wherever we go: cable television and satellite television, internet, email and facebook, IPhones, cell phones, and smart phones, texting and twittering, radios, IPods, and GPS. With all of these distractions it might be difficult to hear the still small voice of God. We may come to believe that we cannot live without our electronic gadgets and computers. A fast from media for a designated period of time could make it easier to listen to God. In the stillness of a media fast we might hear Jesus say, “One does not live by computer alone, or cell phone, television, or movies, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
(4) “Fasting, helps us keep our balance in life.” We can be overcome by the demands of life. Our wants and needs can become confused. Our priorities can become jumbled. Fasting reminds us of what is truly important, and can help us see more clearly what we really need and what we only want. Food, and other things in our lives, finds its proper place. In fact, as a result of fasting, we may find that food tastes better and we appreciate it more for the nourishment it provides.
(5) We can add a fifth purpose for fasting. Fasting can help us identify with the poor and hungry. In a very small way, when we fast we identify with those who fast, not by choice, but because they have no food to eat. We get just a sense of what it must feel like to be hungry every day. And hopefully that feeling leads us to act and to give to put an end to poverty and hunger.
(Keith Stillwell, Being a Disciple Community, unpublished)
Reading the Scripture
Here are some ways you might read the scripture or tell the story:
o The Bible Experience: The Complete Bible (“presented by a stellar ensemble of today’s top-name actors, musicians, clergy, directors, and award-winning producers.” Available from Keith).
o Faith Comes by Hearing: You’ve Got the Time (Dramatized New Testament we used a few years ago during Lent. Available in the church office.)
o The Gospel According to Matthew: The Visual Bible The Bible Experience: The Complete Bible (Dramatized video movie, word for word from the NIV text, though this particular text doesn’t have much drama to it. Available from Keith or on this web page).
o WatchWord Bible, New Testament on DVD is available in the library. (These videos display and read the text in Contemporary English Version with background pictures, video and sound. Not exactly dramatized or all that exciting, but could be another way to read the text.)
• Cotton Patch version of Matthew 6:16-18
"Now when you go to church, don’t be like the religious phonies who put on a solemn face to impress men with their piety. Rather, when you go to church, act perfectly normal so as not to give the impression you’re going there to be seen, but to worship God. And your Father, who sees the inner life, will respond to you.”
• Matthew 6:16-18, The Message
"When you practice some appetite-denying discipline to better concentrate on God, don't make a production out of it. It might turn you into a small-time celebrity but it won't make you a saint. If you 'go into training' inwardly, act normal outwardly. Shampoo and comb your hair, brush your teeth, wash your face. God doesn't require attention-getting devices. He won't overlook what you are doing; he'll reward you well.
• Practice Fasting: Encourage your class members to observe a 24 hour fast (supper to supper) some time in the coming week, health permitting. Then plan to make time next week to discuss the experience.
For those who have never practiced fasting before and would like to try it, consider these recommendations:
(1) Check with your doctor. There are some people who have medical conditions that prevent them from fasting from food. Check with your doctor about whether or not you should fast. If your doctor does not recommend a full fast perhaps your doctor can suggest a partial fast. Fasting is not recommended for children. Teenagers need to carefully consider what type of fast is healthy and how long they should fast.
(2) Start slowly and work your way up to longer fasts. If you have never fasted before, begin by skipping one meal. Next try a 24-hour fast. After supper, don’t eat again until supper the next day. Then you might try a 36-hour fast or longer, which means for at least one full day you will not eat any meals. Drink plenty of water when you fast.
(3) Don’t give up. The first few times you fast, you may only be focused on food and not receive the full spiritual benefit. Keep at it. Keep practicing and fasting will become more meaningful.
(4) Fast because you want to grow closer to God. Remember the primary purpose of fasting and fast because you want to center on God. Pray and worship God while you fast. Make the five reasons above the focus of your prayer and reflection during the fast.
I have set aside a shelf in the library with resources for Sunday School teachers. I will place there resources of general interest and some specifically applicable to current lessons.
• For additional commentary on the text see these commentaries in our library:
o Mercer Commentary on the Bible (Mercer University Press, 1995)
o Harper’s Bible Commentary (Harper & Row, 1988)
• In Keith and Tommy’s offices:
o The Gospel of Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, Ben Witherington (Smyth & Helwys, 2006)
• Prayer: Being a Disciple Community, Keith Stillwell, unpublished
Matthew 6:16-18; Acts 13:1-3; 14:21-23