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Disciplines That Grow Godliness

The Discipline Of Prayer And Fasting

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | January 22, 1995

Selected highlights from this sermon

The concept of fasting is strange in a culture where we eat so much. But the Scriptures indicate that God’s people fasted, both in the Old Testament and the New. 

But fasting can cleanse, heal, and discipline our bodies. Spiritually speaking, the rewards are even greater: repentance, spiritual victory, and commitment to God. 

I couldn’t help but ask myself (as I was preparing this message) how many of us have ever heard a message on fasting. I have to confess I never have. I’ve never preached one on fasting, and since I listen to more of my sermons than I do to anybody else’s, I guess I can’t blame anyone else for me not hearing a message on the topic of fasting.

Why is it that something that is referred to in the Bible fifty times at least is ignored? In the Old Testament David fasted. Moses fasted. Elijah fasted. The prophets fasted. They called solemn assemblies and everybody fasted. Nehemiah fasted. You say, “Well, that’s Old Testament.” Well, look at the New Testament. Jesus fasted. The Scripture says in Acts 13: "When they had fasted and prayed, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Send away Barnabas and Saul for the work for which I have called them,’ and then they gathered together and they sent them off on their first missionary journey.” After they fasted and prayed, Paul fasted.

When Jesus was speaking on the Sermon on the Mount He didn’t say, “Now if you should fast, do it this way.” He said, “When you fast,” just like He said, “When you pray,” or “When you give.” It is assumed everybody fasts, or do they?

As I was thinking about this business of the lack of teaching on fasting, of which also I have been guilty, it dawned on me that maybe there are some reasons for it. First of all, I think the very word fasting or the idea of fasting seems to be medieval and somewhat mystical. I remember meeting a man and we were going to go out and get something to eat and he said, “No, I’m fasting today.” And you kind of look at him out of the corner of your eye and wonder whether there’s some sand that got in on the wheels there because we normally don’t do that. We live in a land where we are supposed to be feasting, and now this guy is talking about fasting, and it doesn’t add up.

And then, of course, secondly, and this is most important, we equate fasting with starving. The minute you begin to fast and you are without food for a couple of days, your friends will tell you that you will die. They’ll say that. You’ll die, and your stomach responds by saying, “I told you so, I told you so.” (laughter) And as a result of that we don’t like to fast. We think we’re going to do our body harm. I mean it’s terrible to miss one of those cravings and not fill it up with whatever it is we fill it up with.

Thirdly, I think that we walk away from fasting because in our hearts we know that when we pray and fast, we will be involved in spiritual conflict. The devil has something to do with food. Now God created food for our benefit and for our use, and even for our enjoyment, but it is not to be overlooked that the first sin that was ever committed was a sin of eating something that was not supposed to be eaten. You’ve heard me say that Eve simply did not close the door of that refrigerator, and as a result of not doing that, sin entered into the world. And one of the reasons why Jesus fasted for 40 days is that He might be able to win a victory at the very point at which the first Adam lost the victory – namely, this business of eating.

Now Satan wants to do one of two things to us regarding food. Either he wants us to love it so much that it becomes our God, or else, in the lives of some he wants them to hate it. And if you are here today and you struggle with what is known as bulimia, you do not need to fast. You do need to feast. And I might say, you need to get help, and this sermon is not going to help you. But go to somebody who can help you because that too is very destructive.

Well, as I was thinking of preaching on this topic, of course, the question that I had in my mind is the same one that you have in yours. Why bother fasting? Why should we actually deprive ourselves this Saturday, and perhaps some days before this Saturday? Why should we go through the rigors of depriving ourselves of something that we want to do, namely to eat? Well, as I thought about it further, it dawned on me that fasting actually involves the body as well as the soul. And so what I’d like to do is to first of all talk about its benefits to the body. And then we shall talk about its benefits to the soul.

As far as the body is concerned, first of all, fasting enables us to discipline our body. We discipline it. Oh, we don’t like that word discipline. That’s the title of this series – Disciplines that Grow Godliness, but we don’t like discipline. We want to have the end, namely a vibrant walk with God, but we don’t want the means by which we are going to achieve it. The Apostle Paul, in the book of Philippians, talks about those (and this is his expression and not mine) “whose god is their belly.” All that they can do is to fulfill every craving that they have. Well, the Scripture says that the fruit of the Spirit, among many others, is self-control. And therefore, bringing our bodies under subjection and under control is just a good thing to do – actually physically, as we shall see, as well as spiritually.

So there is the discipline of the body, and now we come to the cleansing of the body. Now many of you know that I was in Orlando last month, and was fasting for two days with about 600 other pastors and leaders, and extended the fast beyond that somewhat. The first two days are the most difficult and afterwards it gets very, very tolerable because you really don’t get hungry after that period of time.

Bill Bright had fasted for 40 days, and he believes that God is leading him to inspire a vision to have two million Christians fast for 40 days. Now that’s not two million Christians fasting a total of 40 days among them. (laughter) That’s the way I’d like to interpret it, but he actually needs two million people to fast 40 days apiece. I don’t know whether or not that’s going to happen. I’m not yet ready for a 40 day fast, at least not at this point in my life.

But when we were there, there was a doctor by the name of Julio Ruibal, and he gave a lecture on fasting. And then I contacted him and he faxed some material to me about fasting, and so what I’m going to share with you is what he says. And he not only fasts, but he leads his congregation in fasting, and has monitored fasting for many, many years. This is what he says about the cleansing that goes on. You see, when you begin to fast and your systems shuts down (that is the digestive system, which shuts down after about 72 hours), your body then begins to change its mode. Rather than assimilation, it now begins the mode of elimination. It begins a cleansing process. And some people think to themselves, “I can’t fast because I get a little bit light-headed, or because I get perhaps a slight fever, or I have this symptom or that symptom,” and he says they don’t realize that all that is happening is the body is cleansing itself. It is purifying itself. It begins to spew out the poisons and become clean. And people have those effects and they don’t realize how healthy the process really is.

They had an experiment done on a number of people who they got to fast for 21 days, monitoring their fluids the whole while. What they discovered after 72 hours was that the immune system begins to quiet down. And then the immune system begins to rise. Fasting brings about the strength of the immune system. And all of that is a part of the cleansing process. After the fifth or sixth day, I’m told, it’s possible to have nausea. What is happening is the liver is beginning to pour some bile into the stomach because it is finally cleansing itself.

Now what’s interesting is not only does the body cleanse itself, but also it heals itself. Now this is what the good doctor says so don’t hold me accountable for it. But he says that people fast for perhaps a week, and they find pain in their body. Their muscles will ache; their joints will be sore. And they say to themselves, “See, I can’t fast. Look at these awful things that are happening to me.” He says, “What is happening is the body is correcting itself. It is actually healing itself in such a way that later on you will not get certain diseases that you would have gotten were it not for the fact that this cleansing took place.”

But you see, we think, “How awful to go without food! What a terrible thing! I will die.” No, you will be cleansed and you will also have healing in your system. You see, we think to ourselves that we can’t do it, but I want you to know today that we have resources that will carry us through Saturday. Did you know that? In fact, it would carry you through Saturday and Sunday and the days that lie ahead. When a camel walks across the desert for three or four days, he can do it because God, and incidentally when God created camels, that certainly shows that he had some kind of a sense of humor… But when God created those camels He said, “I’m going to create them with a cistern so that they can fill that cistern and then they’ll have water to cross the desert.”

God created us and He said, “You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to create these people with a pantry.” And it’s got a pantry in it and they can draw from it, but we don’t want to draw from the pantry. We just want to keep stacking the shelves. It’s always when we have the opportunity to put something else in the pantry. And God says, “You know, there is a time when you ought to get that pantry cleaned out, when you ought to use some of the stuff that you have been stuffing in there the whole time.”

In fact, I haven’t mentioned all of the blessings from the physical standpoint. Not only does it affect your immune system, but also when you have the cholesterol build-up, all of that is cleansed away during the period of fasting.

You say, “Well, when do you know it’s over?” Interestingly, after people are in long fasts, the body then becomes hungry. We say, “Well, I get hungry if I skip a meal.” No, no, you don’t get hungry,” says the doctor. “In fact, true hunger is not felt in the stomach. True hunger is felt in the throat.”

You know, it’s interesting that Jesus fasted for 40 days, and it says, “Afterward he was hungry.” It was time to end the fast. Your body will let you know that it is now time to eat once you get past that whole first series of days that are so interminably difficult, we think. Eventually the body adjusts, cleanses itself, heals itself, and then tells you it is now okay to start to eat.

Well, those are the physical benefits, but I want you to know today that the physical benefits are not nearly as important or significant as the spiritual benefits. It is not just what fasting does, you see, to the body. It is what fasting does for the soul.

People today say, “You know, we need a master plan.” We need a master plan for the church. We need a master plan for Christian organizations.” Maybe, in the Bible, God says, “I already have the Master’s Plan - Jesus, who fasted, and who spent time in prayer.”

What I’d like you to do is to take your Bibles today and turn to the book of Joel. Now Joel is not an easy book to find. In fact, I cheated and put a marker in so that I could find it more quickly than you are going to be able to find it. The book of Joel is what is known as one of the Minor Prophets. The Minor Prophets are not minor because they are off-key, nor are they minor because they are shorter than some of the other prophets, but they are shorter in their writings. So you have Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah and Nahum near the end of the Old Testament.

But in Joel’s time, because the land had sinned, and because the nation had to turn to God, he called what was called back there, a solemn assembly. It is an urging of all of God’s people to get together and to fast and to pray and to seek God.

Notice what it says in Joel 1:13 and 14: “Put on sackcloth and lament, O priests; wail, O ministers of the altar.
Go in; pass the night in sackcloth, O ministers of my God, because grain offering and drink offering are withheld from the house of your God. Consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord.”

What he’s saying is there are times when we really need to see God. We can’t always be fasting. We can’t always be calling a solemn assembly, but there are times of great need when we need to meet God in a concentrated period of time, and give Him that time to work in our hearts.

Now what I’d like to do in the next few moments is to invite you to look at Joel 2, and very quickly we will delineate some of the benefits that come to us as a result of a time of fasting and praying.

First of all, fasting is to produce a committed heart. Look at Joel 2:12: “‘Yet even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart.’” That’s what fasting is supposed to do. It is to be a dying to self, a recognition that we are serious. It is a time of sobriety, a time of understanding that we are coming to God and saying, “God, whatever is in our hearts, show us what it is.”

Do you know why some of us are opposed to fasting, or we hold it at arm’s length? It’s because down deep within we feel that if we were to fast, we would misuse it. And there are ways to misuse the fast. Isaiah 58 says it very clearly. Number one, there’s the possibility of thinking that we can force God to do something that He doesn’t want to do. And so there were those who fasted and said, “Well, God, why aren’t you blessing us? We are fasting.” And the Lord said, “Wait a moment. There is injustice among you. You are not paying your employees properly. There are the poor whom you are not helping, so don’t fast and think that you can twist my arm to bless you if you are insincere, or you use it as a pretext to cover your sins as an excuse not to be holy.” So there’s that possibility.

The other possibility is to misuse it because we want to be thought of as more spiritual in the eyes of people. All of us have felt nausea at that man who stood up in the Temple to pray and said, “I thank you, Lord, that I am not like other men.” And then he began to list all of his qualifications, and among them he said, “I fast twice a week.”

And when the Pharisees fasted, they oftentimes let people know that they were doing it by their long drawn face and the way in which they were saying, “I am spiritual. I am fasting.” God says, “I do not delight in that kind of a fast.”

Next, notice it says, “And with fasting and weeping and mourning rend your heart and not your garments.” In ancient times fasting was always associated with the same kind of mourning that you would do at a funeral, and people would literally tear their garments to symbolically indicate their great sorrow and how much grief they were actually experiencing. And God says, “It isn’t necessary for you to tear your clothes, but it is necessary for you to tear your hearts, that is, come to me with mourning and with weeping.” What does that mean? It means a committed heart, but also a repentant heart.

You see, it’s during those prolonged times when we are in God’s presence, when we are seeking Him, and when the hunger in our stomachs reminds us of how desperately we should be really seeking God, and that the hunger that we have for food should really be the same kind of hunger for Him. It’s during that period of time that God begins to show us things in our lives that we didn’t even know were there. He shares with us His burden, His concerns, and we begin to repent more deeply.

When I was in Orlando we prayed for about 10 hours, the longest I’ve ever prayed in a day, I can tell you. But during the break time I would go back to the hotel room and interestingly during that period of time since I didn’t eat, I prayed because I discovered that in the public experience you have certain things that are happening, but then God begins to show you the hidden motives of the heart. And He begins to work more deeply, and the Spirit of God begins to probe more keenly, and you begin to realize issues that you need to deal with.

And that’s what the text is talking about here. It is talking about deep repentance. For whom? First of all, for ourselves! You see, during a time of fasting it is not that God speaks more loudly than He does normally, but fasting enables us to hear better. It gives the Spirit of God an opportunity to show us what is in our hearts in a way that we might not have experienced before, so we begin with ourselves. Then we begin praying for the church, and then we will pray for our city.

Now I don’t know whether or not Satan lives in the city of Chicago, but I do have a hunch he must at least have a weekend cottage here because of all of the things that are taking place. And we think to ourselves we’ve talked about abortion, we’ve talked about crime and all of the things that are taking place here. And we are the salt of the earth, and we are the light of the world, and God has asked us to minister in America at a grave hour of need.

And then, of course, we will pray for our nation. I came across this yesterday. In 1863 Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a day of national humiliation and fasting. We have a day of prayer today, a national day of prayer, but we do not call it humiliation and fasting. That sounds too biblical. But here’s what Abraham Lincoln said: “It is the duty of the nations, as well as men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with the assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon, and to recognize the sublime truth announced in the Holy Scripture, and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord.”

What do we want to do when we have a solemn assembly? We want to say, “God, give me a committed heart. Give me a repentant heart for myself, for my nation, for my church and for all of us.”

And then a victorious heart! Now, the Lord goes on to say (in verse 13) that if we rend our hearts and not our garments and turn to the Lord, our God, He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in loving-kindness and relenting of the evil. Who knows whether He will not turn and relent and leave a blessing behind Him? I think that Joel is saying that He will.

But I want you to notice now what he promises as a result of this solemn time of prayer and seeking God. He says in verse 18: “The Lord will be zealous and will have pity on His people and will answer.” Isn’t that really what we want from God?

It just comes to mind while I am speaking but I received a letter this week from somebody, and I still haven’t answered the letter. He was talking about the fact that he has been seeking God so much, and has had no answer. Well, the text says here: “He will answer and say to His people, ‘Behold I am going to send you grain and new wine and oil.’” These, of course, were physical blessings that Israel had, and then it says in verse 20: “I will remove the northern army from among you and will drive it into a parched and desolate land.” God says, “I’m going to fight your physical battles.”

But here’s the transfer of Old Testament truth to New Testament truth. You know that prayer is work. Prayer is a spiritual battle because Satan does not delight to see us pray. It has often been said that he trembles when he sees the weakest saint on his or her knees. But you see, in the midst of this spiritual conflict, God says, “I will break through and I will grant to you those victories. I will become to you the Lord of hosts and vanquish your enemies.”

Do I need to tell you that there are people who are even Christians who are bound by pornography and false cults and various addictions of alcohol and what have you, those who are bound by certain cycles of behavior, whether it is jealousy and anger and resentment? And seemingly, no matter what they do, they are not free. During times of prayer and fasting the Holy Spirit of God begins to work deeply in the lives of His people, and He begins to grant those victories that we had not seen apart from prayer and fasting.

One day the disciples were trying to cast out a demon and it was a particularly stubborn demon. And then Jesus came along and cast it out. And later on they said to Him privately, “Why were we not able to cast it out?” And Jesus said, “Well, for one thing, because of the littleness of your faith.” But then He said, “This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” There are some strongholds that will not budge until the seriousness of God’s people becomes so overwhelming that they begin to say, “By God’s grace, we will pray and fast and seek God.”

So you have in this text of Scripture the committed heart, the repentant heart and the victorious heart. Finally the enemy has been vanquished, and you say, “Well, is it all sadness?”

As I was thinking about this term – solemn assembly – I had both positive and negative reactions. Positively, it’s biblical, so that makes it fine. But today people don’t want to be solemn. We want to be happy, happy, happy! Well the answer of the text is that eventually if you are not happy, happy, happy, you should at least be glad. Verse 21 says, “Fear not, O land; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things!” And I hope that at the end of Saturday we will all say that. “He has done great things of which we are glad.”

A committed heart! A victorious heart! A rejoicing heart! And then a reclaimed heart! You know, this has been a text that I have sometimes wanted to preach on and never have. Do you realize that I have been preaching for 20 years with some breaks in between, of course? By that I mean, not continuously preaching for 20 years, but I still have some texts that I oftentimes have thought I ought to preach on, and I never have, but what a great text it is.

Verse 25: “I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent among you.” See, here’s the context. The people were saying, “Well, we haven’t gotten a crop this year. The locusts came.” And God says, by the way, “I sent the locusts to discipline you because you were not praying and fasting. You were not seeking Me. You were selfish and doing your own thing.”

So God sends the locusts, and then the people say, “Well, you know, even if we pray and fast now, you know the crop is gone. It’s an opportunity that is past. You can’t relive last year.” And God says, “That’s right, but I’m going to make it up to you. I’m going to give you such a bountiful crop that at the end of the day, you are going to have as much as if you had had a crop last year.”

And I want to say this to those of you who perhaps even now are in great discouragement because of your past life. Because of what has happened, you look at a life that has been filled with wasted years, and you say, “How I wish it would have been different.” You know, God, when we really are serious, and when we are really desirous of His blessing at any cost, makes it up to us, and He restores the years that the locusts have eaten. Do you realize that the Lord could do in your life in the next few years greater things than He has ever done in all of the years in your past life added together? And no matter how short the last years are, they can be the greatest years if we are willing to seek Him because He makes up for the years that the locusts have eaten, for all those opportunities that have gone by us that we have not accepted. And God says, “I’ll make it up to you.”

And so, the text, as far as we’re taking it today, says in verse 26: “You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame.” Why? It’s because “they sought me with their whole heart.”

When Jesus was there in the desert for 40 days the Scripture says that after the 40 days the tempter came to Him. And afterwards He was hungry. And the tempter said, “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.” Now Jesus had the power to turn the stones into bread. He even had the right to turn the stones into bread, but it was not yet time for Him to eat. He and His Father had talked about this and they had worked out a different schedule. And so what Satan was saying was, “Just satisfy your longing for food. You are hungry. Eat! Turn these stones into bread.” And Christ could have, and He could have eaten the bread, and that would have been the best bread that had ever been created on planet earth. Jesus made this astounding statement. He said: “Man shall not live by bread alone.” And you look at American society today - Western society. Oh how we love to live by bread alone. I mean the minute our stomach says “hungry” we say, “Where are the Golden Arches? Where can we find something to eat? It’s noon. It’s time to eat.” And we joke about it.

I have a friend, and probably you’ve heard this a thousand times, but he says, “Oh, I fast everyday, Pastor. I fast between breakfast and lunch.” Jesus said, “You shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” And one day Jesus was sitting on that well in John 4 and He was discussing worship with the woman whom we spoke about several weeks ago. And His disciples went into the city to buy food, the Scripture says. And when they came back they said, “Master, eat!” and He said, “I’m not going to eat today.” And they said, “Why?” They said among themselves, “Did anyone bring Him food to eat?” In other words, “Was there somebody here who gave Him something that we didn’t hear about?” And He said, “My food is to do the will of Him that sent Me and to finish His work. I have food to eat that you know not of.” Jesus said, “I can forego the physical because I have inner resources of the spiritual,” and He said as a result, “Look at the harvest.” That’s the context in which those famous verses come, by the way.

He said, “Say not ye there are yet four months and then cometh harvest.” He said, “Look unto the hills with your eyes and the fields are ripe now unto harvest.” What Jesus was saying is that there are all kinds of people around you who need to savingly believe on Him as the Messiah, and that is the harvest. And what Christ is saying is that through the inner resources, not that come by bread, however important that is, but the spiritual nourishment, he would have the ability to be a part of the harvest. And He invites us to participate with Him as harvesters, finding the resources within us to eat the hidden bread that the world knows not of.

Now the message that I have preached today has been directed toward Christians. But I do need to point out, because I don’t know where you are spiritually, that if you do not know Christ as Savior, your responsibility is not to fast. It really is not. It is to recognize, first of all, that the gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ must be freely received, and then you become a member of God’s family. And then we can talk about the disciplines of the walk of faith. And whatever religious tradition you come from, if it is a tradition that says that you save yourself through your good works and through attendance in church, and rituals, that is wrong. That is misleading. You must come to Christ helplessly as you are. “For as many as received Him to them He gave the authority to become the children of God, even to those who believe on His name.” And having received Him, then you begin to walk in the disciplines of the Christian life that we have spoken about – the wonderful disciplines that result in joy. It’s not sadness! It is a time of joy and rejoicing when God does His thing.

Let us pray.

Our Father, we pray that You might call us as a church to a deeper level of commitment, and a deeper level of holiness, of discipline, of seeking You. We pray, Father, for the work and the freedom of Your Holy Spirit among us, and we ask, Lord, for those who may be here today who have never trusted Christ as Savior that in grace You will reach out to them, and show them their great need, and let them know that walking the Christian walk is a privilege that is beyond our wildest imagination. Father, the work that You have begun in our hearts, let us not go until it is finished. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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