Secret FastingErwin W. Lutzer | January 18, 1998
Selected highlights from this sermon
The Bible has a lot to say about fasting. But why should we fast?
We fast in order to meet with God in an attitude of faith, fighting, and finding. Fasting doesn’t always have to be abstaining from food. We can fast from watching television or participating in various activities, such as surfing the internet.
When we fast, we’ll find that God is far more satisfying than anything, and we’ll develop a deeper intimacy with the Most High.
Well, today’s subject is fasting. The word fasting means that you are absolutely abstaining from food. That’s a difficult topic to talk about at 11 o’clock. It would be much easier if I had the privilege of speaking about feasting. Now there’s something that would go over. You know, we call a feast here at Moody Church and people show up that we thought died during the days of Ironside. But when we call a fast, there are fewer.
It would be nice if we had a chef up here, and if we had a chef up here, I would have to vacate the platform and let him take over because, as my wife would be quick to confess, I am not a chef. But I am a shepherd, and as a shepherd I have the responsibility of leading us sometimes to other kinds of pastures, to climb new hills, to learn to get to know God better. And when it comes to fasting, I am in the learning mode, just like you are. I do not come as one who has all the answers. I come to learn because I want to benefit also from the transformation of life that fasting can bring about.
You know it’s interesting that in the Old Testament that there was only one day that people were commanded to fast, and that was on the Day of Atonement. They were not supposed to eat any meat or drink any wine on that day. They were to fast. They were to afflict themselves, as it were, to show the inward sorrow for sin and have that outward expression of that inward sorrow.
But the Jews had a very carefully relegated fasting system. They had different kinds of fasts. For example, there was the fast that was oftentimes associated with mourning. If you had a friend who died you would fast from the time of his death until the funeral, and then after the burial, and then you could eat again. Or sometimes it was a fast that was associated with repentance. Once again, it was that outward expression of the inner sorrow, the fact that you were concerned about your sin, and that was a part of it also. And then there were national days of fasting, when they called what was known as a solemn assembly.
Sometimes in the Old Testament, people fasted in preparation for a revelation from God. You remember, of course, that Moses fasted. I believe that he fasted 40 days, if I remember correctly, on the Mount Sinai. Nehemiah fasted. You have many, many different examples of fasting throughout the Old Testament. Probably the word is used hundreds of times in the Old Testament.
But we struggle with fasting, don’t we? We struggle with it because we just don’t see the point. We don’t know what it’s about, and I’m going to hopefully help us today. I’ve been impacted by a book written by John Piper entitled The Hunger for God, which is really a book on fasting, and many of the ideas that I share with you today are based on his helping me understand what fasting is all about. And I really do genuinely believe that if you listen to this message carefully, at the end I will give you a principle and a reason that may be the means that God will use to bring you to a higher level of nearness with Him. It could be a life-changing experience.
But as I was thinking about this I wanted to jot down some of the problems, or at least if not problems, some of the questions that we have about fasting that come immediately to the American mind. For example, there are people who say, “Well, why should we do it? It is not specifically Christian.” And you are right. It isn’t. Almost all of the other religions of the world also have fasting. We think, for example, of the Muslims during the month of Ramadan where there is fasting. And the other religions have fasting too. It is not specifically Christian.
And then we have people who fast for political reasons. We think of Gandhi, and all of us remember seeing pictures of this small man, almost emaciated, as he was fasting for his country for political freedom.
There are those who fast for health reasons, and I happen to be one who believes that fasting has tremendous health benefits, but I’m not going to comment on that today because I’ll leave that to the experts. I’ll leave that to the nutritionists who know all about the human body. But there are benefits to fasting, and there are some people who don’t even believe in God who fast just because of the health benefits.
And so people are confused and they say, “Why is this distinctly Christian?” Well, if you listen to this message carefully, and so far I think you’ve done that, near the end of the message I’m going to give you the basic concept, the bottom line so to speak, which I think you will agree will distinguish the Christian fast from all other options out there. It is something so distinctive that you will not find it in any other religion. It will not be because of its health benefits or because of political reasons. It will be a distinctly, uniquely Christian reason.
And by the way, speaking of health benefits, when I preached on fasting here a couple of years ago someone was quite upset, saying that probably I was giving ammunition to those who struggle with anorexia, and those who are already fasting far too much, and somehow justifying what they are doing. So, in a word of clarification, let me say that if you struggle with an eating disorder, the answer is not more fasting for you. The answer is to get help, and I’ll tell you why. It’s because those kinds of eating disorders have to do with the people who struggle with a sense of self-perception and oftentimes the shape of their body and the struggles as to whom they are. Sometimes they may have at their root some anger, and some hostility against the world. There are various causes. But that’s not what I’m talking about today. If you fit into that category you be sure to go to someone who’d be able to help you. That is not Christian fasting.
Let me give you a second problem that people may have with it, or a question. They may say, “Well, why food? Why not television? Give it up for a week or two or three. And why not somebody giving up sports?” And that might not be a bad idea as we anticipate the Super Bowl. Just ignore it! Did you know that if you ignore it the score is going to be the same as if you watched it? That’s often occurred to me. So there are some people who say, “Why not that?” and you know the answer is not a bad idea. You don’t have to, but you know, there is that element. If you struggle with being able to fast in terms of food because of the metabolism of your body, and so forth, it might be okay to use something else that you would give up.
Another question that people have is, “Doesn’t it lead to pride?” Isn’t the problem that we become prideful of the fact and we begin to glory in self-will, and say, “You know, I haven’t eaten in three days and just look at me?” And the answer is yes. That’s why it is so fraught with dangers. That’s why this business of fasting has to be so uniquely studied, and it needs to be understood because that’s exactly the problem.
You remember in Colossians 2 the Apostle Paul said, “You know you’ve been converted and you are free in Jesus, and now you are going back to old pagan ways of saying, ‘Don’t touch this; don’t handle it; don’t eat that.’” He said, “That’s pagan. You are free in Jesus.” So you see, there is that danger. In fact, you talk about danger. It is a very real danger. It’s a subtle danger. Look at Isaiah 58, which is the great Old Testament passage on fasting. They come before the Lord and they say (This is the way the chapter opens.), “Lord, we have mourned and You haven’t heard us. And we have fasted and the heavens are shut.” And God tells them why it is that He has not responded, and in effect the Lord says, “You are fasting for the wrong reasons.” In fact, catch this. The Lord says, “You are using fasting as a substitute for repentance, because you see, it’s supposed to be an outward sign of something that is inward, but you just have the sign, and there’s no reality about it at all. In fact, your fasting is nauseating to me. I can’t stand it,” God says.
Here you are. You’re fasting, and you are dishonest in your business. You’re fasting and you are taking advantage of people. You are fasting and you are living with loose morals. I mean, what do you think? Do you think that just because you are fasting that God is going to listen to you? No, you’ve missed it by a mile. God says, “That’s not the fast that I have chosen.” You talk about dangers.
You know, I happen to be the kind of person who can skip meals and can be without meals for a day or two without a great deal of problems. And I remember, especially in the early days of marriage, you know I’d want to skip a meal, and Rebecca would have to eat, and I used to say, “Why can’t she be like me?” Well, you know I discovered later that she struggles with low blood sugar. There are people who cannot fast, and God had to rid me of any sense of saying that because it’s easy for me, it’s easy for somebody else. It isn’t, and that’s exactly the subtlety of the pride of the whole thing. You begin to glory in will-power, and when you glory in will-power, you have missed the whole point of fasting. That’s a different kind of fasting. That has nothing to do with Christian fasting. That’s dangerous.
Well then, you have people who say, “You know, Pastor Lutzer, that’s Old Testament. They were mourning because Jesus hadn’t come, but this is a new day.” Well, turn to Matthew 9. And by the way, you say, “Well, I thought this was an exposition of Matthew 6.” Well, part of fasting is patience. We will get to the sixth chapter of Matthew, and since we don’t have to eat today, I can go as long as I like. That’s the deal.
Look at Matthew 9:14-15 where it says, “The disciples of John came to Him, saying, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.’” Jesus is saying, “My disciples aren’t fasting because they are with me. I am the husband. I am the bridegroom, and they are the bride, and this is a time of rejoicing. This is a time of happiness. That is true, but the time is coming when I am going to be away.”
You see, what Jesus is saying is, “You don’t fast during a wedding feast.” In fact, one of the longest fasts I ever took was broken at a wedding. I just said, “You know, I think it is God’s will that I eat and rejoice here,” and that seemed to be a very convenient decision to make. The point is that Jesus is saying, “What you do is you make sure that you recognize that when Jesus is there, once the Kingdom is established, once Christ is with us, then we do not have to fast.” But He says, “The day is coming when I am going to be taken away from you, and then you will fast.” And that’s the Church age. That is now.
Oh I know that Jesus has come. I know that that redemption has been purchased. I know that the victory has already been carried out. I know that it is already a done deal. It is finished. I understand that, but we do not yet see Him face-to-face, and that’s why Piper says that fasting, if you understand it correctly, is really first and foremost homesickness for heaven. We are fasting because we long to see the King, and we are in that sense in mourning because we do not get to see Him face-to-face but we delight to. And the day is coming when He will again return, and we fast until the return of Jesus Christ.
In fact, Piper would even say that when Jesus said (in verses 16 and 17) that no man puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment because the patch will pull away from it, and men do not put new wine into old wineskins or else the wineskin is going to burst, that the old wineskin is Judaism. And Jesus said, “What I am bringing here is so unique and so special that you can’t even take that old wineskin of Judaism and pour into it the new wine that I am going to give you.” And as I mentioned, Piper thinks that that new wine is even a new kind of fasting for a new day. It is New Testament fasting. It is a kind of fasting that is really a feasting. It is a feasting on God.
What can we say about this new kind of fasting? First of all, it is a fast of faith. You see, we fast, as I mentioned, in anticipation of Jesus Christ. We become so satisfied with Christ that even the allurements and the desires of the body are broken because we so desire God. We are saying that there is an inner sense of contentment that is so strong that we can even put up with the irritability of going without food, and that there is a sense in which we recognize that there is a meat to eat of which the world knows nothing in the secret satisfaction with God, and we don’t even need food to be satisfied. That’s how deep God’s satisfaction is in our hearts. So it is a fast of faith.
I might say also that it is a fast of fighting, and I need to comment on this before we get to Matthew 6, which we shall do in just a moment. But it is a fast of fighting. You know, you look at the New Testament. The Apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians “in fastings often.” There you go, for those of you who think that fasting is just an Old Testament idea. He says, “in fasting often.” And then you remember in 1 Corinthians 9 he says, “I buffet my body.” I have written on this topic and I wanted to put that bit of humor into it and say that instead of buffeting our body we buffet (buff-ay) our body, and the problem is that the editor looked at it and said, “You can’t write that joke. You can only tell it because it is true that the word buffet and the word buffet are spelled the same.” So I can only say it. I can’t write it. Well, you know what the answer is? Even though they are spelled the same, the pronunciation is different, and there is a world of meaning between the two. And so we like to pamper our bodies. We like to buffet it.
What in the world does Paul mean when he says, “I buffet my body?” Well, part of it surely is fasting. What he’s saying is, “I bring it under subjection.” He says, “I count all things but loss to gain Christ.” Some of you lost something this week. You lost something on the stock market. You lost something at work. There was some loss. Paul says, “I count everything but loss that I might gain Christ.” For the Christian, every loss is another opportunity to gain Christ.
And then Jesus Christ, you remember, as He was talking about fasting on one occasion regarding people trying to cast out demons, said, “This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” I know that not all manuscripts add fasting, but I think that that could be indeed the very words of Jesus, that there are times of spiritual struggle when only fasting is really going to subdue the enemy, the enemy within our souls, the enemy that is outside of our souls.
Think of our marvelous example – the Lord Jesus Christ. Here He is. He is asked to be tempted by the devil. He fasts for 40 days and then the tempter comes to Him. And it says that after the 40 days he was hungry, and the tempter said, “Turn these stones into bread.” Could Jesus have done it? Yes, it’s the kind of miracle He was going to do. In just a couple of months, He’d be doing those kinds of miracles. But you see, Jesus said, “Man shall not live by bread alone.” He quotes Deuteronomy and in context that verse has to do with the giving of manna – not the taking away of food but the giving of food. Do you remember how Israel didn’t like the cafeteria in the desert? Do you remember how they were complaining and they said, “You know, we don’t like what God is giving us?” And God said, “I’ll give you manna,” and later on He said, “I’ll even give you some quail until it comes out of your nostrils if that’s what you want.” But they were complaining about the menu. It’s probably happened in other contexts since, but that’s what happened back then.
And the Lord says, “I am going to let you be hungry, and I am going to feed you from something that you know not of, mainly the manna which is going to come from heaven every single morning.” Why? “It’s so that you might know that man shall not live by bread alone, but he lives by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” And what is the word that proceeds out of the mouth of God? It is the manna. Every single morning the Word proceeded out of the mouth of God, and God said, “Let there be manna,” and there was manna. And you see, what He wanted them to know is that you don’t live necessarily with security, and that God has the ability to create food. He has the ability to speak and the manna comes. And that’s the Word by which you should live.
Now, says Jesus to Satan, in effect, “I can turn these stones into bread, but I’m relying totally upon my Father, and there is within me something that is even more satisfying than eating, and that is the will of My Father. And therefore be gone Satan, for man shall not live by bread alone. But I am living by the Word of God that proceeds out of God’s mouth. There is something even more important than food.” And with that Satan of course left, though he came back later. It is a fast of faith. It is a fast of fighting. There are churches in this world that have experienced that. Only when they fast and humble themselves do they see the victory of Jesus Christ.
It is also a fast of finding. We find out what we are like. Have you ever noticed how grumpy you can be when you have not eaten? You can just be totally miserable to live with. Some of you may even be miserable after you have eaten, but I’m not talking about that kind.
Now do you mean to tell me that you cannot enjoy God or be controlled by the Spirit unless your stomach is full, that God has no relevance to you as long as you are hungry? I once had somebody say to me, “Well, you know what my sanctification is? It’s a cup of coffee in the morning. You know, I’m not fit to live with until I have that cup of coffee.” Oh brother, or sister – whatever it may be! Are you telling me that the work of the Holy Spirit of God in your life is so unreal and so distant that God can’t make you livable until you get that shot of caffeine? You know what the Scripture would say? It would say that there is such a thing as an inner well of water that springs up into everlasting life that is even more powerful and more satisfying than a cup of coffee or food. Oh, I know we need food to eat. I don’t want to overstress the point, but I do want to say that we are such prisoners of our desires, aren’t we? I speak of myself, but aren’t we all prisoners of our desires?
So it’s the fast of finding. I have talked to people who have fasted for a long, long time – many more days than I have ever fasted – and they’ve said that during that period of time the flesh was subdued, the desires were brought under control and there was freedom in their relationship.
Well, you knew that we’d come to the text. I promised you and I also still promise you that one statement that will make Christian fasting unique from all the other fastings of the world. And you are still with me, so turn to Matthew 6. This is a series of messages on secrets. We’ve talked about secret giving. We’ve talked about secret praying, and now we speak about secret fasting. You say, “Well, why are you speaking on this?” It’s because Jesus spoke on it. When you expound the Scriptures, you go where the Scriptures lead you, and this is where they lead us. They lead us to verses 16 through 18 of chapter 6. It says, “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
A couple of comments become very immediate as you look at the text. First of all, fasting is assumed. It is assumed that you will do that. Jesus didn’t say, “Now if you fast,” as if to say that you may or may not. No, He says, “When you fast – whenever you fast.” Of course, in the early Church, fasting was very common. I mentioned to you that Paul fasted, and the disciples fasted all throughout history. And you say, “Well this is for super saints.” No, this is just for common ordinary people who struggle in their Christian walk. This is for you and for me. This is for anyone. And you say, “Well yeah, but…” Well listen! Jesus is saying, “Whenever you fast, it is expected.”
The second very quick observation is that you have to do it with the right motive. Now notice that Jesus says, “When you fast, do not put on a gloomy face like the hypocrites do. They neglect their appearance. They have their reward in full.” We need to pause before we say anything about motive and say that all of us are very, very much aware of our reputations, and we all have the same desire within us to be accepted and to be well thought of, and we know how good it is to be seen by men. We want to dress for it and strut for it, and posture for it, and give for it, and pray for it, and do all those things, and fast if necessary.
Now the question is, why is it hypocrisy, if you are fasting, for you to let everybody know that you are? Isn’t that exactly what hypocrisy isn’t? You are just letting it all hang out. You are saying, “You know, I’m fasting today.” Why does Jesus say that’s hypocrisy? Wouldn’t concealing it be hypocrisy? Now the reason, you see, that this is hypocrisy here for them to act this way is because, you see, they are giving the wrong impression about their motive. That’s their problem. If they put a sign on their backs that said, “I am fasting to be seen by men,” then they wouldn’t be hypocrites. That’s actually the reason why they are fasting. But you see, they are hypocrites because they are pretending to fast for God, and yet they do it that they might be seen of men.
Now Jesus said, “When you fast, do it in secret.” Again, it doesn’t mean that people can’t find out about it. It’s just like we notice that there is giving that is public, and that’s okay. There is praying in public, and that is okay, but what Jesus is emphasizing in all of these secrets that we are talking about is that their main motive should be for God. Obviously if you are fasting, your family will know about it. Sometimes you go out for lunch and your friends have to know about it because you are not eating. So there’s no big deal there. Don’t make a big thing of that.
But what Jesus is saying is that the inner motive has to be God-directed, and that really you recognize that at the end of the day, you are not fasting for anybody else. You are not doing it because others are doing it, but you are really doing this for God, and your desire is to develop an intimacy with Him, and to develop a heart for God. And so what Jesus said is that the intention of the hypocrites is wrong, and those who conceal the fact that they are fasting, and those who don’t speak about the fact that they are fasting are not the hypocrites, because they understand that the real purpose of fasting is to develop that heart for God, and therefore they are not hypocrites at all. They just don’t make a big thing of it. So Jesus is saying that we have to fast for the right motive. And again He talks of doing it in secret. Why? It helps our motive to be pure.
And now notice that there is a reward. “And your Father who sees in secret!” Does God know about your hunger pains? Does He know about all of the things that come to mind when you are fasting and you are beginning to get agitated because you have skipped lunch? Does He now that? Yes! “But your Father who sees in secret will repay you. You’re doing this for Him. He will repay you.”
Now how does God repay us? I’d like to suggest that God repays us maybe in different ways, but primarily the reward is God Himself. I promised you that I would give you one sentence that would distinguish Christian fasting from all the other fasting that might be done in the world, and it is simply this. Every once in a while what we need to do is to prove that the Giver is more satisfying than the gift. Every once in awhile we have to say, “Even though my bodily need for food is now being denied, and this is difficult for me, Lord, I pray that my desire for You might increase, and may I long for You as much as I long for some baked salmon during my fast.” That’s the whole point.
You see, it’s God that we see. It is God who satisfies the depths of the soul. “As the deer pants after the water brook so my soul pants after Thee, oh God,” and we say to ourselves, “Oh God, I want You so bad. I want You as bad as that thirsty day when I was on the peninsula of Masada in 1968.” How well I remember it when we were in the desert and it was 100 degrees and I would have given anything for just a half cup of water. “God, I want you that bad.”
And every once in a while, you and I (who are so pampered and who are so filled with good things to eat, and who think that every time our little stomach tells us that it’s time to eat that we have to obey) have to prove that the Giver can be more satisfying than the gift (the bread), and that we too have meat to eat that the world knows not of.
So the reward is God Himself. It is the supremacy of God in all things, and it is a reminder of the fact that we miss Him. We miss Him. The King has not yet come. The Church is waiting for the revelation of the Bridegroom from heaven, but He is not yet here and this is a period of mourning. This is a period of searching. This is a period of yieldedness because the Master has not yet come, and so we do that.
I speak to many of you who have never fasted, unless you are like my friend who says, “Oh yeah, yeah, I do it. I do it often. I fast between breakfast and lunch.” You say, “Well, how do you begin?” Well, first of all I suggest that begin with a 36 hour fast. Just skip food for one day and then have breakfast the next day, and that’ll turn out to be about 36 hours. That’s a good way to start.
Now I need to warn you. Here’s what’s going to happen. Your stomach is going to try to convince you otherwise. The first line of defense is it will say, “You will die. (laughter) People have died.” That’s the first line of defense. That’s the first assault.
The second assault is to say, “Well, you might not die but it’s going to damage your immune system. You are going to get all of the flu bugs that have ever been hatched here in the city of Chicago. They will all come to you (Really! Seriously!) because you are going to be dangerously weakened as a result of this.” If that doesn’t work, your stomach is going to quote the Constitution of the United States of America. It’s going to say, “I’m going to tell the A.C.L.U. on you because it is unconstitutional. This is cruel and unusual punishment.”
And the question is, “What are you going to do when that happens?” What you are going to do is you are going to say, “Oh God, this is difficult because I’m thinking about food. I can hardly wait to eat, but Lord, please, please, I am taking some baby steps here. Please give me a desire for You that is as great as the desire that I have for food at this moment because I’m hungry, and I’m irritable, and I am dissatisfied, but Lord, fill that gap with Yourself, and someday (maybe not yet) help me to desire You as much as I desire that food. Why? It’s because every once in a while I have to prove that You, the Giver of every perfect gift, including bread, are more satisfying than the bread that You give. I’ve not been able to prove that, but Lord, teach me that. Give me a hunger and a thirst after righteousness that I shall be filled.”
And that is the reward then of the Blesser. It is the reward of fasting. It is the recognition that at the end of the day, the Father who saw in secret will repay you. The Greek word repay really means, “I will pay you back.” In other words, “I’ll give you the reward.”
I spoke to somebody this past week and he said the reward of fasting (and he fasted rather long) was not even during the fast. He said it was a difficult time, but he said that the rewards came afterwards. The rewards come afterwards as we are filled with the fullness of God.
For some of you who are here today, this message has not been for you directly, but I’m glad you listened because what you need to do is you need to connect with God first. And you don’t do it through fasting. If you don’t know Christ as your Savior, this isn’t the starting point for you. Your starting point is to come and to receive freely the gift of eternal life. It’s to acknowledge your own helplessness, like Augustus Toplady wrote,
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone,
Thou must save, and Thou alone.
And so you come helplessly, and you come to receive the gift of eternal life. Then once you are a child of God and you belong to the family, then you begin to develop that intimacy. But the first step is for you to open your heart and life to Christ, and to receive the forgiveness and the mercy of God. And then you can begin to say, “Someday I am going to fast because what I’d like to do, too, is to prove that the Giver can be more satisfying than the gift.”
Let us pray.
Father, receive the words that have been taken, we pray. We pray, Father, for a transformation of heart for all who have listened today - students, young people, teenagers, older adults, those who have walked with You for many years and those who are new in the faith. We pray today, Father, that You will make us a church that seeks You, and that at the end of the day we might find You to be satisfying. Father, we pray that You might come to us by Your Holy Spirit. Show us how satisfying You can be. Show us that You can indeed be a cup of cool water in a desert. Show us, Lord, that our desires are so out of kilter with where You are at that we need to repent of all those things that stand in the way of finding You to be beautiful and lovely. Do that, Lord, we pray, and Father, unless You do it, it won’t be done, so do it among Your people we ask in Jesus’ name, Amen.