Luke 18:1-14; Matthew 7:7-11
January 24, 2016
Lord’s Day Worship
Watch the video of the service.
The sermon starts at 16:09 in the audio file.
Or, A Gospel Discipline to Anchor Our Appetites in God
God loves His dependent people. He made us as His dependents and gladly marks us down that way in His books every year. When we’re in fellowship with Him and when we ask Him to meet our needs, His sufficiency gets attention when He provides. It’s why God says, “my power is made perfect in weakness.” It’s why we can say, “when I am weak, then I am strong.” Want to glorify God? Be weak for Him.
One of man’s perennial temptations is to forget how weak he is. One reason we forget how weak we are is because He’s given us so many good things. He’s blessed us with enough health to work, with enough work to earn wages, with enough wages to buy food and wine and clothes and shelter and a car to get around, and with enough honest neighbors making all the things we want to buy with our wages.
In a setting of abundance like ours there are at least two ways to disciple our hearts in dependence on Him. One way is to receive what He’s given with great thankfulness and joy. This is feasting for His glory. Some of us are learning to do this better, and learning that while feasting requires hard work it is a burden that lightens. When we receive like this we acknowledge Him as the source and His storehouses get a great reputation. Adoration and appreciation are a discipline of dependency.
The second way to disciple our hearts in dependence on Him is to refrain from enjoying good things, even necessary things like food, for a while. This is fasting for His glory. It is not, however, the opposite of great thankfulness and joy. It is thankfully and joyfully acknowledging that God Himself is greater than His storehouses. God is great even if He shuts the doors of His storehouses for a season. Short-term abstinence is a discipline that focuses and tests our direct dependency on God.
Fasting is a God-appointed means to humble ourselves and turn physical hunger for food toward spiritual appetite for God. Last Lord’s Day we considered that fasting is God-appointed by looking at some examples of and instructions about fasting in the Old and New Testaments. We saw in particular that Jesus compared the fasting that His disciples would do after His departure to new wine, to an alive discipline driven by the good news (Matthew 9:14-17).
Before we examine the rest of the definition I want to point out that fasting can be a key part of our persistent dependence on God or it can be a key part of our self-righteousness. The latter is not good.
The two parables at the start of Luke 18 show it. Though the widow wasn’t fasting, she was relentless in going to the city judge for help (Luke 18:1-8). Fasting can be a punctuation to our desperate prayer to God. Persistent fasting by faith is heard and rewarded by God.
Yet the Pharisee who fasted twice a week–and knew it–used his regimen as an argument for his own abilities and worth rather than as an expression of his need (Luke 18:9-14). The tax collector in this parable didn’t have a resume with fasting on it to offer God, all he had was a humble cry for mercy. If fasting is part of our humble cry, we can expect God to respond. If it is part of our pride, we can expect God to resist.
This is the next part of the definition. Hunger is God-given. It’s one of the built-in desires that keeps us alive. Everyone gets hungry, even if the levels of hunger aren’t equal. It is humbling to see how pitiful (and self-pitying) we can become when we’re hungry. The Snicker’s advertising campaign, “You’re not you when you’re hungry” hits home.
Perhaps more than any other discipline fasting reveals the things that control us. What are we slaves to? The apostle Paul said, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be enslaved by anything. Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food–and God will destroy both one and the other” (1 Corinthians 6:12-13). Fasting will reveal the measure of food’s mastery over us, or the mastery of television or computers or whatever we submit our time and affections to rather than God.
Just when my heart begins to retreat to the delicious hope of eating supper with friends at Pizza Hut, (fasting) quietly reminds me: not tonight. It can be a devastating experience at first. Will I find communion with God sweet enough and hope in His promises deep enough, not just to cope, but to flourish and rejoice in Him? Or will I rationalize away my need to fast and retreat to the medication of food? (Piper, A Hunger for God 20)
Try taking away something we like, something that we’re used to getting whenever we want. It’s humbling to see the little but loud whiny baby in our heart.
Fasting usually shows us how undisciplined and selfish we are.
It can be upsetting to catch yourself longing for a fix at the next feed time. I’m amazed at how many times throughout the day I am thinking about food, preparing for food, scheduling my day around food. I’m also a surplus military supply store of excuses. I’ve got pretext after pretense. I’d sell my fasting birthright for a bowl of stew. Where’s my discipline? That’s humbling.
Here is the primary question behind fasting (per Piper): when was the last time the pain in my heart of missing God was as strong as the pain in my stomach of missing food?
It is a shame that we have worked so hard to cultivate our tastes and appetites, when our spiritual appetites are anemic and our tastes so bland. The fountain is gushing in front of us, but we’re sucking dirt (think Jeremiah 2:12-13). That’s humbling to have our desires uncovered.
This is the final part of the definition and the goal of fasting.
We can only turn a natural hunger to increase a supernatural hunger by faith. I thought about including “in faith” in the definition of fasting, since all spiritual disciplines must be done in faith or they are fruitless. Hunger without faith is hollow.
If we’re prepared, we can turn thoughts of hunger to God, and that’s what makes fasting profitable. Our desperation for Him, our dependence on Him, our living on Him takes center stage. Praying herds our wild hunger thoughts toward the only open gate: God.
During the fast, you may have decided that drinking water was allowable. And drinking a glass of water might become a sensational worship service. God gives us water, clean water, cold water, plumbed and bottled water, water everywhere. What a gift. Each good thing ought not be taken for granted.
Only a very few times have I been hungry because of things outside of my control. Sometimes, no matter how hard I’d been working, there wasn’t much.
When we fast, however, it isn’t because we couldn’t eat. We could, but we choose not to. When our wallets and cupboards are full and we still choose God over the food, then I think we are disciplining ourselves to depend on Him. The more we practice having God as the sole source of satisfaction, the more ready we’ll be when the resources are gone. The more loosely we can hold secondary sources when times are fat, the less we’ll be tempted to complain when times are lean.
Feasting and fasting are at two different ends of the consumption spectrum, but does one of them glorify God more than the other? No. Both are God-appointed and appropriate, even during this time when we wait for the Bridegroom to return (see Matthew 9:14-17). We won’t be fasting in heaven, and I anticipate the best and purest affections for Him are there. In the meantime, He is praised when we eat and drink to the glory of God, and when we don’t eat and drink for His glory.
First, Start Small. It isn’t wise to run a marathon on your first day of exercise. Maybe you want to consult a doctor before starting an exercise program, and getting ideas from someone with fasting experience may be fruitful. Beginning the discipline of fasting doesn’t require a 40 day fast.
Second, Write Out You Plan. Fasting is hard. The stomach will growl. The head will hurt. The muscles in the body will ache. It will feel like it’s not a good idea, and the mind will use every imaginable rationalization to steal the reward. We tend to take the path of least resistance, and writing things out gives our consciences another measure of accountability as we view the fixed words on the page as reminders.
Third, List You Reasons. Don’t go into it willy-nilly. Based on the biblical examples, most everyone had a reason or reasons for theier fast; they desired deliverance or direction. They wanted something specific from God. Fast for an unsaved family member. Fast for an upcoming decision or ministry commitment. Fast for the purpose of learning to hunger more for God.
Fourth, Describe the Nature and Duration. Again, the more specific you are the better. By nature I mean what it is specifically that are you giving up. It may not be food in every case. It may be something else you love that fills your time, time that could be turned to God in prayer. It may be food; decide ahead of time what is allowed: water, juice, coffee, nothing. It may be a combination of things. By duration I mean how long you’re devoting to giving up the thing. There is no biblically required length of fast. In Scripture there are 24 hour fasts, from after dinner to dinner the next day. There are three day fasts. There are 40 day fasts.
Fifth, Schedule Specific Times of Prayer. The point of not eating lunch, for example, is not to fill that hour with more email or work. Taking away food but adding in something else to distract us from the hunger is not the aim.
There are few ways to discipline ourselves toward dependence like fasting. Fasting humbles us and, if done in a spirit of prayer and worship, it increases our hunger for God. So many pressures push us away from prayer, even the grind of pursuing and preparing His gift of daily bread. Intentionally and regularly taking that time and turning to God in humility and thankfulness and dependence may help us rise above the busyness.
When you come to break-fast, there will not be a glorious culmination. No fanfare. No parade. No mention of accomplishment. Just a silent continuing pursuit of God, and reward from Him.
Jesus taught His disciples to pray, He assumed that they would fast as well, and He warned them about parading self-righteousness. He also urged them to go to God with their needs.
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7–11)
Prayer and fasting aim us toward God and we should remember that He is eager to satisfy us, not to make us dance on our knees in hunger. He is our good Father. He wants to give, but He wants us to ask first. Fasting as we ask prepares us to feast as we receive what we asked for, probably better and more than we could ask or think.
The reason fasting “works,” the reason God rewards fasting, is because He loves the dependence.
God is committed to rewarding those acts of the human heart that signify human helplessness and hope in God. (Piper, 178)
If you are starting out, I invite you to give up breakfast and lunch one day a week for a month.
If you have fasted before, consider other things (than food) that might be distracting, and give them up along with skipping meals (i.e., the Internet, email, or social media).
May the Lord help us to mature in times of plenty and in times of wanting Him more than the plenty.
God strengthens those He saves. His Son purchased Your redemption and Your righteousness. He promises to supply all you need to obey Him. Pray for increased wisdom from Him, pray for increased appetite for Him, pray that He would help you pray always and not lose heart.
Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. (Hebrews 13:20–21, ESV)