Click here to listen to the 16-minute audio message on principles of fasting, or read the written summary below.
During Lent, it is customary for us to fast. It is not a rule or a requirement – you should decide for yourself whether you will fast. And you should also decide for yourself what you will fast from. In this message, I offer seven basic principles of fasting.
1. Fasting is an important spiritual discipline, backed up by plenty of Biblical precedent. Jesus himself fasts in the Gospels, and of course his ministry started with a 40-day fast in the wilderness. But although Jesus does fast and does provide guidance on fasting, he does not instruct or command us to fast.
2. Fasting is between you and God. It has nothing to do with anyone else. Jesus says in Matthew 6 that we should fast in secret, hidden in a closet, even putting on makeup so that it does not look as if we are fasting. It is a private matter between you and God.
3. How you fast and what you fast from is between you and God. There are no clear rules in the Bible about how fasting should be done. There are diverse examples of fasting in the Bible, but no specific singular pattern that is set down. There is thus flexibility in how fasting takes place – prayerfully figure out for yourself what will be helpful.
4. There are no dire consequences to breaking your fast. I am not encouraging you to break your fast, nor to be flippant about fasting. But I am saying that if you break your fast, it is just like any other sin you might commit. Sometimes we make fasting into such a big thing, that if we slip and break our fast, it seems like the end of the world. It is not the end of the world. It is simply sin.
5. Breaking your fast is an opportunity for learning. Again, I’m not encouraging you to break your fast or to be negligent in your fasting. But it is probably true that most of us break our fast from time to time. Breaking one’s fast is, arguably, a ‘small’ sin – it’s not in the same league as adultery or murder. It thus gives us a valuable opportunity to practice repentance (saying ‘sorry’ to God) and asking for forgiveness – and then for receiving God’s forgiveness. And then getting back to your fasting. For me, the moments of breaking my fast, repenting and accepting God’s forgiveness are among the most spiritually enriching moments of fasting.
6. Fasting is primarily about the heart, not the action. When we fast from chocolate, for example, we are not giving up something sinful – chocolate is not a sin. Most things we fast from are not sin. The reason for this is that the point of fasting is less about giving up sin (since we should be doing that already all the time!) but about giving up something. It is the impact of giving up something that is at the heart of fasting. It is what happens in our heart, in our faith, in our relationships with God that makes fasting meaningful. Joel 2:12-14 stresses this with the words, “Rend your hearts and not your garments”:
“Even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. Who knows? He may turn and relent and leave behind a blessing— grain offerings and drink offerings for the LORD your God.
7. Fasting should be paired with charity. We are called to give generously while we fast. In practice, we could calculate the cash value of the things we are giving up and then give that cash to God’s work in the church or a charity or directly to people in need. This is stated particularly clearly in Isaiah 58:3-7:
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
I wish you God’s richest blessings during your Lenten fast this year.
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