Why Fast?

Back to Message Archive

Why Fast?
Isaiah 58:1-12

In Matthew 6:16, Jesus says, “When you fast…”

  • Jesus expects His followers to fast as part of the Christian life.
  • Just like praying and generous living are expectations, so is fasting.

5 Questions for this morning:

  • What is fasting?
  • What does fasting include?
  • How long should I fast?
  • How often should I fast?
  • Why should I fast? (this will be the main focus of our teaching)

FYI: resources that you may want to read if you are interested in learning more about fasting:

  • A Hunger for God by John Piper (available for free online at desiringgod.org)
  • Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald Whitney

What is fasting and what does it include?

  • Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald Whitney: “A biblical definition of fasting is a Christian’s voluntary abstinence from food for spiritual purposes.”
  • Richard Foster (an author best known for his book, Celebration of Discipline): “[Fasting is] the voluntary denial of a normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity.”
  • Notice the focus on spiritual activity. If we fast without taking the time to seek the face of God through prayer, then we are just going hungry without any spiritual benefit.

For instance, 1 Corinthians 7 mentions that married couples may abstain from sex for a period of time in order to focus on prayer. That would be an example of fasting that isn’t focused on food.

Daniel fasted from wine and the king’s meat and chose to eat vegetables and drink only water.


So, fasting can include laying aside anything (whether it is food or pleasure or activity) for a given time in order to seek the face of God (through prayer and worship). Most of the time, we fast from food. However, sometimes it is appropriate to give up television or social media or a time-consuming hobby. In my experience, I find that combining those things is helpful. So, I suggest fasting from food if you are able and taking that same time to fast from other things that often have your attention…like ESPN or Facebook or the Internet in general or golfing.


“How long and how often should I fast?”
There isn’t a set amount of time in the Scripture.

  • Some people fasted for 40 days (Moses and Jesus).
  • David fasted for a week.
  • Daniel fasted for 10 days.
  • Most of time that fasting is mentioned, the Bible doesn’t tell us how long the actual fast was.

I prefer to do more frequent, shorter fasts. Most weeks, I fast for one 24-hour period of time. That enables me to have a regular pattern of fasting in my life without it becoming a big display for the people around me. Throughout the year, I may fast from certain things in order to seek the face of God, His power or direction on specific things. A few months ago, I fasted from certain things for about 3 weeks because I needed wisdom and insight that only God could give.


So, fasting is much more than just an extreme diet or the absence of food in our lives. It’s more than something we do once and then get over. It is a time of intense spiritual activity that is marked by laying aside some normal part of life in order to focus our minds and hearts on spiritual things. We should fast as the Spirit leads for as long as He leads in a way that becomes a normal, recurring part of our life.
That brings me to the main question for this morning, “Why Fast?”


Isaiah 58:1-12 (ESV)
“Cry aloud; do not hold back;
lift up your voice like a trumpet;
declare to my people their transgression,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 Yet they seek me daily
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that did righteousness
and did not forsake the judgment of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments;
they delight to draw near to God.
3 ‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
and oppress all your workers.
4 Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to hit with a wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
will not make your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is such the fast that I choose,
a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
and a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 “Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
8 Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
11 And the Lord will guide you continually
and satisfy your desire in scorched places
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail.
12 And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to dwell in. 

In this passage of Scripture, God tells Isaiah to confront Israel for their wrong approach to fasting.


God rejected their fasting because it came from a heart that was self-seeking and proud. It was a religious show and not a righteous act. When He exposes their rotten motives, He follows it up with verses 6-12 that show us reasons for fasting that honor God and bless us.


As we go through this list, we should be asking God to build a desire for these things in our hearts. Our fasting should be an expression of our desire, or our hunger, for these things.

 

1. We should fast when we desire freedom from bondage.

6 “Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

We should desire to see people freed from the yoke of bondage in their lives. In this instance, God is calling His people to care about the wicked yoke that oppressed the people around and within Israel. We should care that there is a yoke of bondage in the lives of the people around us.

  • Drug abuse and alcoholism should break our hearts and stir us to come before God.
  • Poverty and racism should break our hearts and stir us to come before God.
  • Addiction to things like pornography and sexually explicit entertainment should break our hearts and stir us to come before God.

That wasn’t happening in the lives of God’s people. They fasted, but they didn’t care about the bondage in the lives of people around them and they didn’t care about the bondage to sin in their own lives. So, their fasting wasn’t pleasing to God or beneficial to them.
Go back to verses 1-2:

“Cry aloud; do not hold back;
lift up your voice like a trumpet;
declare to my people their transgression,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 Yet they seek me daily
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that did righteousness
and did not forsake the judgment of their God;

There was no brokenness over their own sin. There was no repentance over their own sin. So, their fasting was a hypocritical display of self-righteousness. Fasting should be an expression of repentance over sin in our own lives and brokenness over the sins that are holding other people in bondage.

So, as you look around at the brokenness of our world and the wicked patterns of sin that have people bound, don’t go on a rant. Go to the Father in prayer and fasting. When you encounter patterns of sin in your own life, go to the Father in prayer and fasting.

Look at verse 7:

2. We should fast when we desire to meet the needs of others.

7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

Specifically, there were those who chose to fast from food so that they would have enough to give to others. That’s hard for us to identify with in our culture. In comparison to most people who have lived in the rest of the world, no matter which generation, we are a people who have so much. Food is so abundant in our culture. So, most of us could give away food without taking any food off our table. But, I think this principle goes deeper.
I know plenty of people who would say they can’t afford to be generous. They say they’d like to but just can’t afford it. But, what if you willingly gave up something that was a part of your life in order to have something to share with someone else in need. Last year, the average cable bill was basically $100/month. What if you cut the cord and used that money to meet someone else’s need? What if you gave that to a single mom or to missionaries in order to fund global mission? What if you fasted in order to pray that God would supply you with the desire and ability to meet the needs of someone else?

We should fast when we desire to meet the needs of other people.

3. We should fast when we desire the joy and blessings of God.

8 Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;

                             skip down to verse 10b:

then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
11 And the Lord will guide you continually
and satisfy your desire in scorched places
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail.
12 And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to dwell in. 

Some of us live in gloom and perpetual negativity. Some of us are so painfully aware of the darkness in our world that we wonder how we could possibly have hope and joy and peace. God says that when we seek His face through prayer and fasting, He will make light rise into our hearts. He will make our gloom turn to the brightness of noonday. He will satisfy the true desires of our hearts. He will make us like a watered garden.

He will turn our dryness into life.

Example of gardening at home. Gardens need water. And the hotter and dryer the climate, the more essential it is to have the right amount of water. And we are living in a climate that is harsh and dry…we aren’t in a culture that is brimming with life. There’s a peculiar absence of wanting God.

And many of us have learned to mask over our dryness. We try to fill up our lives with activity and service. As a matter of fact, I’ve talked with people who are on the verge of giving up because they’ve jumped through all the church hoops…they’ve tried all the activities like serving in a program and attending all the meetings and being in a Sunday School class…and their still dry. That’s because life only flows from a personal encounter with God. We don’t get life from activity and involvement. We get life from the work of God for us in Jesus as we encounter Him in the power of the Holy Spirit.

So, if you feel dry today. I’m not telling you to drop out of ministry or small group…not at all. But, let this be a call to your soul: you will not find life in those things unless you are being nourished by your personal encounters with God. You need the spiritual renewal, the revival and awakening that comes only from God. And one of the primary ways that we encounter that kind of life is through seeking God’s face in fasting and prayer as we are centered on the truth of God’s word.

So, we should fast when we desire the joy and blessings of God.

4. We should fast when we desire the protection and presence of God in our lives.

                    Look at the end of verse 8:

the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’

The glory of the Lord is our rear guard. A rear guard is part of a military force that protects the army from a surprise attack or an end around from the enemy. It’s like saying, “God’s got my back.” This is a way of saying that we trust in God for our protection.


So, fasting can be a way of expressing how dependent we really are on God to care for us. We need God’s protection from the threats that we know about and we need God’s protection from the threats we have no idea about. Fasting is a way of saying, “I’m not depending on my planning or my 401k or my government or job or this economy or my alarm system or my self-discipline or anything else…I’m depending on God…Father, you are my one defense from absolutely every single threat in my life.

And in that way, the glory of God is manifest in the lives of those who seek His face through fasting. As a matter of fact, I believe this is the very heart of biblical fasting: a desire for God Himself. Hunger is an expression of our body’s desire for food. Fasting is the expression of the soul’s desire for God. One of the most frequents prayers that I pray during my time of fasting is this prayer: “Father, the way my body is really desperate for food right now is how I want my heart to feel about you. Would you make me hungry for you and then show up and satisfy my hunger? Would you help me to want your presence and glory to be manifest in my life and then show up and satisfy that desire? God, I need you. I want to want you. Be present…show up through your word…come to me through the Spirit’s power in prayer.”

I realized something this week. Most of us are so blessed with food that we rarely get hungry. We don’t eat in the morning because we are really hungry. We eat because we always eat in the morning. We don’t eat at lunch because our hunger drove us to the table. We eat at lunch because we always eat at lunch. We may get a little growl or twinge of hunger…but nothing that even comes close to a deep, persistent hunger. We are too satisfied to get really hungry.

John Piper, Hunger for God, “If you don’t feel strong desires for the manifestation of the glory of God… It is because you have nibbled so long at the table of the world. Your soul is stuffed with small things, and there is no room for the great… The absence of fasting is indicative of our comfort with the way things are.”
And that’s the state of our souls. We are constantly gorging ourselves on things. So much so that we have to break away from those things in order to encounter our desperation for God Himself. To build a desire for what only God Himself can supply.
We fast as a desire for God’s protection and presence.


5. We should fast when we desire God’s answer to our prayers.

9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;

This isn’t a way to manipulate God.

Not what my girls do to me. Cup my face in their hands. Look me in the eyes. Tell me how wonderful I am. Then ask me for something they want.

When the Bible says, you will call and God will answer, that isn’t supposed to make you think of a butler answering the call of the master of the house. As a matter of fact, the second half of the verse tells us how God will answer. He answers by saying “I’m here. I’ve got this. Even more, I’ve got you.”


And many of us need that word in the midst of our praying. We are frustrated by what seems like a lack of response from God. We have been praying for a job or for a better report from the doctor or for a wayward child. And we might fast in order to try and get God to work a little quicker or in the way we desire. But, biblical fasting isn’t to get God to answer our requests, it’s to remind our hearts that God is already at work…to hear the voice of God say to our hearts, “It’s okay. I’m here.”

When my children were very little, they would sometime wake up in the middle of the night. Or, they would have trouble falling asleep and would cry as infants. Most of the time, Emily answered the call right away. But, on more than one occasion, I’d be able to outrun her to the room. And I would hold my crying child and whisper, “Daddy’s here. I’ve got you. It’s okay. Daddy’s here. I’ve got you. It’s okay.”

That’s what God intends to do through fasting. He intends to show up in our praying and say to your heart, in a way that you hear deep within you, “Daddy’s here. I’ve got you. It’s okay.”

6. We should fast when we desire God’s direction in our lives.

11 And the Lord will guide you continually

As we are seeking the direction of God, fasting will tune our hearts to sense God’s direction. Don’t forget that God’s will is most clearly known through God’s word. As a matter of fact, how was it that God was directing His people in this chapter? Through the prophetic word of Isaiah…through His word declared through His prophet. That’s how we got the Bible. So, don’t divorce the word of God from your seeking of God will. God’s direction is tied to God’s declaration in the Bible. God’s will is found primarily through God’s word.


But, we often have hearts that are distracted from what God is saying. Fasting is a way of quieting our spiritual lives so that we can hear the voice of God in His word. If you are making decisions or need wisdom (which we all routinely do) then you should be fasting as an expression of your desire to have God’s direction in your life.

Application:
Seek God’s face in regular fasting. Prayerfully make a plan for how you will include fasting into this week.

  • One day a week, however the Spirit leads, will you lay aside some normal part of your life to seek God’s face in prayer and fasting? (in connection to the purposes we’ve looked at today)
  • Tomorrow or Tuesday…praying for God’s direction in the School Board’s decision. Seeking God’s face for joy and hope and blessing, no matter what the School Board decides.