"Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves." James 1:22 (NKJV)

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Week 39: When You Fast . . .

“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." Matt. 6:16-18

It’s now about 56 weeks since I started The James 1:22 Project, and I’m finally getting to Week 39. This week involves fasting. You can fast from anything that’s legitimate and acceptable in itself that you give up for God. For the project, however, I wanted to do a traditional fast from food. I’ve been delayed due to the fact that, in order to treat a pinched nerve in my back, I’ve been on steroids and pain medication for several weeks. The medication precluded the fast. With my back feeling a bit better, I’m off the medication and fasting.

At the outset, I want to be clear about what this post is not. This not a comprehensive teaching on any aspect of fasting. I don’t mean to cover the Biblical basis for it or explain the nuts and bolts of how to do it. Others have done that much better than I could. If you’re interested in learning more, check out the links to the resources at the end of the post.

Next, I should clarify that strictly speaking there is no Biblical command to fast. This week’s command is not a command to fast. It’s a command about how not to fast—not like the hypocrites. On the other hand, Jesus says, “when you fast,” not if you fast. Jesus himself fasted. He assumed that his disciples would fast.

We also need to get over the idea that it’s wrong to talk about fasting. Jesus never taught that fasting must be done in secret. His teaching is that you should not fast for the praise or sympathy of men but only for God’s reward. Jesus is concerned about our hearts, not with us keeping our fast a secret. I think we Christians need to talk about fasting more. We definitely shouldn't make a big deal about our religiousness. But, we need to talk with new believers and the next generation about why and how we fast.

What I’ve come to understand about fasting in the last year is that it’s all about relationship with our Father in heaven. As a father, I love to buy things for my kids. I love to see them enjoy the things that I give them. Our heavenly father is like that. He loves to bless us with good things. Jesus said, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” Matt. 7:11.

As a father, however, I want my children to love me more than the things I have given them. The highlight of my work day is when I come home at the end of the day, and the boys forget about whatever they’re doing for just a minute and come running to greet me with hugs and kisses. That’s what God wants our hearts to be like when we fast. Fasting is about setting aside the good things that God has given us and running into his arms. Fasting is about us expressing that we love God and desire him more than the good things he has given us. We give up a meal or a few meals and spend time with our heavenly Father, because we find him more satisfying and joy-giving than food or anything else. It's not some extreme religious discipline for super-Christians. It's a simple way of expressing our love to Abba, Father.

The danger for us is that we will love the gifts more than the one who gives them. Sometimes, I come home, and the boys don’t come running to greet me. They’re too busy playing with their toys. We’re like that as Christians sometimes. We’re simply too busy playing with our toys and indulging our appetites to notice that our heavenly Father is waiting to give us a better reward and a greater pleasure—his own loving embrace.

Here are some resources for those who want to learn more about fasting:

1. A Hunger for God by John Piper
2. Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster
3. Answers to FAQ about fasting by me