Scripture: Isaiah 58:1-12
It is amazing how fast a story can take on a life all its own. For instance there is a well-known story about Gandhi, which is not actually true. The story is actually an old proverb from India that somehow got morphed into a Gandhi story over the past forty years. So even though this story is not an actual event that happened, it is one worth telling. The story goes like this: There was a boy who ate too much sugar. He was absolutely addicted to the stuff. He snuck, gorged, and hoarded candy all the time. It was a real problem and no matter what the mother tried she could not get the boy to stop over-indulging his sweet tooth. Out of options, she decided to take the boy to see Gandhi. At this point he was revered for his wisdom, and she thought perhaps he could talk some sense into her son. They walked for miles over the course of many hours in the hot Indian sun. When they finally made it to Gandhi, the mother explained her predicament in detail and asked “Gandhi, my son consumes too much sugar- will you please tell him it is bad for his health?” After listening to the mother, the only thing he says is “come back in two weeks.” Perplexed the two leave, but two weeks later they dutifully make the same long journey under the sun to come back to see Gandhi. When they come back Gandhi gets down on the boy’s level, looks him in the eye, and says “boy, you eat too much sugar. It is not healthy. You need to stop.” The boy, who has great respect for Gandhi, takes his words to heart. The mother is confused and ask, “Why could you not tell him that two weeks ago?” Gandhi replied, “Because two weeks ago, I was eating too much sugar.”
I tell this story because of the subject we are exploring this morning. Throughout Lent we are going back to basics. We are going to try to get on the same page about the things we as the people of God and why we do them. Today, we are getting back to the basics of fasting. Despite that, and I am being bluntly honest with you, I am terrible at fasting. It is one of the spiritual disciplines I am the weakest in. Every time, I try to fast and not eat, all I do is think about food. Often it is taught that while fasting, and you feel hungry that is a reminder to focus on God, but all I end up focusing my thoughts on are donuts and pizza. Once in college, I took part in a 72 hour fast that was meant to get over that hump. The thought was that after 48 hours, the body begins to adjust and it becomes easier not to focus on being hungry. Yeah, I spent three days with my thoughts focused more on pancakes than God.
However, much like the fictional account of Gandhi, I could not in good conscious talk about fasting without doing it myself which is why this past Friday I followed John Wesley’s traditional Friday fast and why I have fasted from playing video games for the past two weeks. Often when we think of fasting, we only think about food. This morning’s scripture makes it clear though that fasting is more than just not eating, and it is more than just giving something up as a token of piety. Fasting is not an optional spiritual discipline. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus gave instructions on fasting and he said “when you fast. . .” not “if you fast.” If this is something that our Lord and Savior expects of us then we should know what fasting is and why we should do it.
Fasting is an ancient biblical tradition. We can find it all of the way back in the Torah, the first five books of the bible that is regarded as Jewish law. In Leviticus where this practice is first commanded it is phrased as “you must deny yourself.” In essence this is what fasting is. Fasting is self-denial. The opposite of self-denial is indulgence, and let’s be honest we live in a culture that is full of indulgence. Fasting is the conscious choice to deny ourselves instead of indulge ourselves. Biblically, this focus is exclusively in food. However, today we indulge more than our physical appetites. Proof of this is not hard to find. We indulge our desire to be entertained. The average American watches five hours of TV a day, and that says nothing about binge watching on streaming services. We indulge our appetite to just have more stuff, which the number bear out. The average American family carrying a credit card debt has a balance of $15,654. There is value and spiritual reasons to fast from food, but we clearly can benefit from practicing self-denial in other areas of our lives as well. This is why I know a few people whose annual Lenten discipline is to fast from social media for the duration of Lent. This is why when I knew that I would need to be more intentional about fasting myself, I chose to spend a couple of weeks away from video games. It was an area in my life that I was being too indulgent in.
Establishing what fasting is, the question is why should we do it? In the bible there was a deep cultural reason for fasting. For instance the mention of fasting in Leviticus is in the stipulations on how to mark the Day of Atonement, the Israelite community was to deny themselves and fast. Throughout the Bible we see fasting applied elsewhere and in different ways. Often when people seek God’s attention in the midst of suffering and tragedy the bible mentions fasting. This is because ancient Jewish theology and practice put a strong emphasis on connecting the body and soul. If there was an inward change or feeling, then it was to be expressed outwardly. This is why there is an emphasis in the bible and ritual washing. An outward act is done to signify an inward change. Fasting was much the same way. If one was to focus on God, then they literally denied themselves Fasting is meant to be a physical expression of heart and spiritual desire. Fasting also has several other deep spiritual benefits as well and they are reasons for why we should do it.
First, fasting as a way to provide clarity, focus, and put things in perspective. For instance, fasting has a way to make us more grateful. I grew up being taught that you pray before you eat, but until I truly fasted I did not understand why. On multiple occasions now, I have participated in and led youth groups through an annual event called Planned Famine. This event raises funds and awareness to combat world hunger, and it involves a thirty hour fast. Often the teens emerge on the other end much more appreciative for the fact we have food. I can honestly say that because of fasting when I pray before eating, I pray with great sincerity because I am truly thankful that we have food.
Because fasting is self-denial, the spiritual discipline also has a way to convict us of the ways we over-indulge. When we are being about denying ourselves we are more attuned to the ways that we are not. John Wesley noticed this and he preached about in discourse 7 of Upon the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. Wesley preached bluntly, “Fasting will wean us more and more from all those indulgences of the lower appetites that naturally tend to the chain the soul to earth polluting and debasing.” Wesley believed that regularly practicing self-deinal helps strengthen us in general to saying “no” when we are tempted to be indulgent in sinful ways.
A second benefit of fasting is an undeniable spiritual one. Church tradition maintains that many God-fearing people have found that the act of regular fasting increases the depth and impact of one’s prayer life and relationship with God. In his book Celebration of Discipline Richard Foster compiled a list of several great Christian thinkers and writers who advocated the spiritual benefits of fasting. This list includes Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney, and of course John Wesley. Again in his sermon on fasting Wesley preached that through fasting, “We also grow in earnestness, sincerity, discernment, tenderness of conscience, and deadness to the world. Consequently we grow in love for God and in every holy and heavenly affection.”
These first two benefits combine for the third undeniable benefit of fasting. Fasting changes us for the better. Methodist Pastor, professor, and theologian Randy Maddox points out that “Self-denial was indispensable for the Christian life.” Maddox goes on to point out that in Wesley’s viewpoint the core of self-denial is “a willingness to embrace God’s will when it is contrary to our own.” It is through fasting we learn to do this. In fasting we practice small acts of self-denial and when we seek God in prayer while denying ourselves the Christian tradition maintains it is easier to discern and understand the difference between our will and God’s will. In essence this moves fasting from being a spiritual discipline of piety to one act that is a catalyst to put our faith into motion and to “spend ourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed.”
That is what this morning’s scripture in Isaiah is all about. This scripture begins by mentioning people who are fasting because it is an expectation. They are going through the motions of fasting, of giving something up, because it is how things are supposed to be done. Fasting is not a magical cause and effect, where we deny ourselves to get some sort of benefit on the back end, but that is how it is being treated in this scripture. Fasting is not about doing the action for the sake of the action. Fasting is an outward expression of an inward desire to deny ourselves, take up our savior, and follow Christ.
Fasting is meant to change our hearts and motivate our actions.. As this morning’s scripture says, “Is not this the kind of fast I have chosen: Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wander with shelter- when you see the naked to clothe them, and not to turn away your own flesh and blood.”
Practicing fasting can change our hearts in a couple of ways. When we go without we are in a better position to have solidarity with those less fortunate than us. This was always why the youth planned famine events were successful, it allowed teens to experience real hunger in a very small way for the first time and it made them much more sympathetic to those who are hungry. Fasting helps change our hearts to see the needs of others. Also, since fasting is self-denial when we do it regularly we become better at focusing on our self less, which naturally makes us better at focusing on others more. Fasting motivates us to put others first, not in theory but in our everyday actions.
In our indulgent-filled culture, fasting is hard, but it can be the vibrant soil that nourishes a flowering faith. Here are some thoughts about how we can fast. First, for fasting to be effective, for it to change our hearts, and motivate our actions, it is something we should practice regularly. John Wesley fasted every Friday, not eating that day until the evening meal. He urged all Methodists to do something similar. In the interest of full disclosure, I am talking to myself in this regard as much as to anyone else. We, I, should find a fasting pattern that works regularly for us. If for medical reasons, fasting is not feasible then you can honor fasting through abstinence. You can be intentional about denying yourself certain foods like sweets. Finally, self-denial does not have to just be food. If there is something like TV, social media, your phone that you know that you have been overly indulgent in then take a fast from that. Offer it up for a period of time as a sacrifice before the Lord and practice self-denial.
For most of us fasting is a hard spiritual practice. It is one that requires us to be intentional about. However, the rewards of doing so are immense. Through self-denial we become more attuned to the cry of the needy and the will of God. As the people of God, may we humble ourselves, may we pray, and may we deny ourselves in fasting. Then as this morning’s scripture says, “your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always.”