Lenten Fasting

Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, “How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?”
Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.

Mark 2:18-20

Today the season of Lent begins and many people will consider giving something up as a way to honor the sacrifice of Jesus. Fasting has always been a part of the life of the Church. Jesus, in the above passage, indicates that once He has ascended to the Father, fasting will become a normal part of the life of a disciple. Jesus also gives instructions about fasting in the Sermon on the Mount.

When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Matthew 6:16-18

Notice that Jesus starts with “When you fast…” The assumption is that a normal part of the Christian life will include regular fasting. Also notice here that the focus is on the Father and not on the fast. Our eyes should be on God not on ourselves when we fast. And we should do it in a way that draws little attention to ourselves. Finally, Jesus specifically mentions that there are rewards from the Father for fasting.

The ultimate reward for fasting is an increased focus on the Lord, an increased awareness of His Presence. There is also often an increase in spiritual hunger, insight and breakthrough as a result of fasting, but it is important that we don’t fast in order to “get” something. We fast as a means of giving ourselves more fully to God. Though we often receive way more than we’ve given up, fasting is not an exercise in reciprocity with God. It is a response to the fact that God has already given us so much. It is a response to all that God has given us in Christ. And, in a small way, it is an identification with the sufferings of Christ.

With this in mind, here are some motivations to avoid when doing a Lenten fast:

  1. We don’t fast to get God’s attention: Fasting is more about getting our attention on Him not His attention on us. You are His beloved son or daughter. You already have His undivided attention. 
  2. We don’t fast to get what we want from God: Our relationship with God is governed by grace and mercy not reciprocity. We don’t surrender to get things. We surrender in response to the fact that He’s already given us everything!
  3. We don’t fast to lose weight or “detox”: Fasting is not about health benefits but spiritual connection to the Father. The thing most in need of “detox” is our soul. Often food covers buried sins and wounds. Fasting helps these things to emerge and be addressed. 

Especially if you fast from food or a favorite food item for Lent, don’t be surprised if things that control you are revealed. We often cover up things in our soul with food. When food is removed, those things can surface and be dealt with. Try to notice these buried sin issues without judging yourself too harshly. For instance, if pride or anger controls us, they will emerge when food is removed. This is an opportunity to surrender these things to the Lord. (If you are battling an eating disorder, have a medical condition that is prohibitive, or a nursing or pregnant mother, you should consider fasting something other than food.)

Here is some wisdom about fasting from Richard Foster in his book Celebration of Discipline:

“We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface…Anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear – if they are within us, they will surface during fasting.”  

“Fasting reminds us that we are sustained ‘by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’ (Matt. 4:4).  Food does not sustain us; God sustains us.”  

“Fasting helps keep our balance in life. How easily we begin to allow nonessentials to take precedence in our lives.  How quickly we crave things we do not need until we are enslaved by them.”   

“As with all the Disciplines, a progression should be observed; it is wise to learn to walk well before we try to run.  Begin with a partial fast of twenty-four hours’ duration; many have found lunch to lunch to be the best time.  This means that you would not eat two meals.  Fresh fruit juices are excellent to drink during the fast…In the beginning you will be fascinated with the physical aspects of your experience, but the most important thing to monitor is the inner attitude of the heart.  Outwardly you will be performing the regular duties of your day, but inwardly you will be in prayer and adoration, song, and worship. In a new way, cause every task of the day to be a sacred ministry to the Lord.”

“What goes on spiritually is much more important that what is happening bodily…Fasting can bring breakthroughs in the spiritual realm that will never happen in any other way.”

Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline

These are all reasons why fasting for Lent should be seen not just as abstaining from food but as feasting on God through prayer and His Word. While our body is fasting and identifying with the sufferings of Christ, our spirit is feasting on the Presence of God and foreshadowing the coming wedding banquet of the Lamb (Revelation 19:7-10).

What will you fast for Lent?

They Could Not Heal Him

“Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.”

“You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed at that moment.

Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”

He replied, “Because you have so little faith…

Matthew 17:15-20

Other manuscripts of Matthew and the Gospel of Mark have Jesus concluding this story by telling His disciples that this kind of spirit only comes out “by prayer and fasting.”

Noticed that Jesus isn’t upset that the man brought his son to Him for healing. Jesus was happy to heal. And Jesus seemed to be okay with the little faith that the boy’s father had. Jesus was not frustrated with him at all. It was His own disciples that frustrated Him.

I find it fascinating that Jesus’s frustration is that the disciples weren’t able to heal the boy themselves. Clearly, Jesus expected them to be able to do this by now. This completely flips our paradigm of prayer that we typically operate with in American Christianity.

We think our job is just to bring things to Jesus. Meanwhile, Jesus expects us to be able to operate in the authority and power that He’s given us. I wonder if Jesus ever gets frustrated with us bringing Him something that He’s already give us the authority and power to deal with ourselves, including healing and deliverance.

Here are Jesus’s expectations of His own disciples: 1) the disciples should have been able to discern that this physical ailment was caused by a demonic spirit, 2) the disciples should have been operating in enough authority and faith to get it to leave, and 3) the disciplines of prayer and fasting should have been a regular part of the disciples’ life so that they were ready for a moment like this.

But the disciples seemingly failed to meet all three of these expectations. I’m sure Jesus was thinking, “What’s going to happen when I ascend back to the Father? What would happen to this boy then?”

The expectations that Jesus had for His disciples then are the same that He has for His disciples today. We’ve been given the authority of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus expects us to be able to operate in both. We’ve been given gifts of the Holy Spirit to help us detect demonic spirits and release healing and deliverance to people around us. We’ve been given the chance to deepen our faith and our intimacy with God through prayer and fasting.

The truth is that Jesus is no longer walking the earth, so there is no Plan B. There is only Plan A. And Plan A is to see the Body of Christ, the Church, be able to operate in the gifts of the Spirit to such a degree that people with this boy’s condition get set free and healed.

We have to become the kind of conduits of deliverance, freedom, and healing that Jesus expects us to be. We need to be ready for moments like this one through our daily prayer life and regular fasting. Our faith needs to grow so that we can confidently release the Kingdom of God in any situation we face.

Until we do, Jesus’s words about His disciples back then are still true for us today, “You unbelieving and perverse generation…how long shall I put up with you?

Rewards

But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 

But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Matthew 6:3-4, 6, 17-18

In Matthew 6, Jesus continues His Sermon on the Mount. Here Jesus lays out what life is like as a citizen of the Kingdom of God on earth. Specifically, He describes some spiritual disciplines that should be a part of the normal Christian life.

The pattern here is: 1) assumption, 2) command, and 3) promise. Jesus assumes His followers will give to the needy. He doesn’t command that it be done because He assumes it is a natural part of life with Christ (“…when you give to the needy...” verse 2). So the command is to do it in secret. The command is to give to the needy in a way that doesn’t flaunt your gift. It’s not a call to secrecy but to humility. And finally, Jesus gives a promise that Father God will reward us for doing this.

Then Jesus does this again with prayer. Jesus assumes we will pray (“…when you pray…” verse 5), commands us to do it in secret/private (in a way that is humble), and then promises us that Father God will reward us for it.

Finally, Jesus repeats this pattern with fasting. Jesus assumes we will fast (“…when you fast…” verse 16), commands us to do it in secret/private (in a way that is humble), and then promises us that Father God will reward us for it.

One of the hardest parts of this for American Christians to accept–besides the need to actually do these spiritual disciplines for a healthy spiritual life–is the fact that Jesus promises us that the Father will give us a reward. In our culture, we always suspect people’s motives to be impure if they do something for a reward. We treat it like it is bribery. We assume that if the person was more altruistic in their motivation, they wouldn’t need or want a reward.

Part of this is false humility (which is really pride in sheep’s clothing). Everything we do in life comes with some kind of reward, we just don’t label it that. Our own bodies were designed to release “feel good” chemicals in our brain any time we exercise or eat food or have sex. The whole world was designed this way. Of course it can get abused and become an addiction or selfishness, but that is only evidence of the human ability to allow our sin to corrupt good things. The reward system in itself is a good thing, created by God for our good.

The other part of being skeptical of God’s rewards is not realizing that God’s reward is actually more of Himself. He can give us more of Himself in a variety of ways. It can look like experiencing more of His provision, more of His revelation, more of His Presence, more of His gifting, more of His love, but ultimately, God rewards us with more of Himself.

In human terms, God’s reward isn’t like a father telling his son he’ll given him $20 if he cleans his room. God’s rewards are more like the father saying, “After you clean your room, we’ll go the park, throw the ball around, and practice your hitting.” The reward, ultimately, isn’t baseball but the father giving of himself to his son.

Our God is a God who rewards. Over and over again we see this in scripture. False humility struggles to receive rewards (because it is really just pride). But true humility can gracefully and gratefully receive rewards that are given to us. Hebrews 11:6 says, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

In other words, part of living a life of faith in Jesus is believing the truth that God the Father is a rewarder–specifically a rewarder of those who earnestly seek Him. And three of the ways that we earnestly seek Him in the Kingdom of God is through prayer, fasting and sacrificial giving.

Do you tithe and give to worthy nonprofits?

Do you pray? How consistent is your prayer life?

Do you fast? Weekly? Monthly?

God the Father can’t wait to reward you!