Desperate in Prayer

Increasing Hunger for God through Fasting

Devoted to Prayer Seminar
Session Five


Objectives for this hour:

  • See the benefits of fasting
  • Clear away typical misconceptions about fasting
  • Consider including fasting in your spiritual disciplines

Prayer

God commands us to seek our sole satisfaction in Him. His glory requires that He be the only One in whom we seek contentment and fulfillment. The reason for that is because we glorify whatever we pursue for peace and pleasure. He promises to provide everything for us that we need, and when we get all we need in God, He gets all the glory.

That is the point of this seminar on prayer. It is also God’s call in Psalm 81.

10 I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.
Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.
11 But my people did not listen to my voice;
Israel would not submit to me.
12 So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts,
to follow their own counsels.
13 Oh, that my people would listen to me,
that Israel would walk in my ways!
14 I would soon subdue their enemies
and turn my hand against their foes.
15 Those who hate the LORD would cringe toward him,
and their fate would last forever.
16 But he would feed you with the finest of the wheat,
and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.
(Psalm 81:10-16)

“Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it!” What an astounding offer! Open up and watch out. God was ready to fill Israel and fight for His people, but, they were already full. Then the worst possible thing happened, He “gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own counsels.” He let them have what they thought they wanted. They weren’t hungry for God. Neither are many church-going folk today. We are not desperate for Him because we are full, full of our own plans, full of resources, full of (actual, literal) food.

So how can we increase our appetite for God and avoid being stuck with what we thought we wanted? How can we become desperate for Him if we’re not? How do we know if we’re dependent on the invisible God or on the visible things around us?

One neglected help in the Christian arsenal is the spiritual discipline of fasting.

Fasting is not a popular practice among Christians. When I was growing up, I heard the word or read it in the Bible, but I can’t say I knew anyone who actually did it. Fasting seemed like something far away from long ago, something that those “religious” people did who didn’t understand that Christianity was about a “relationship.” I don’t remember anyone teaching about it or calling others to practice it. Any non-Gandhi, Protestant fasters I heard about were fasting because they were in a dire situation. Their child or spouse was critically injured or diagnosed with cancer. For all those reasons, and probably because it just seemed miserable, until five or six years ago, fasting was not a part of my spiritual exercise program.

Why Don’t We Fast?

That’s a good question. In some cases I’m sure it’s ignorance; people don’t know about it. They don’t know that it’s something modern Christians could or should do, let alone how to do it. In other cases, like mine, they may have received misinformation about it and were steered away from it for “spiritual” reasons.

Then I read A Hunger for God by John Piper. His answer to the question of why we don’t fast is that we settle for less than God. Our longings for God are too weak and, as he preaches often, we’re satisfied with God’s gifts rather than the Giver Himself.

I understand that God gives great things to His people as signs of His blessing and for our joy. Every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father of lights. What father doesn’t want good things for his kids? I also understand that it is dangerous to forbid things and make rules regarding things that perish, rules that have “an appearance of wisdom in promoting…severity to the body, but are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Colossians 2:20-23). I also understand that deceitful spirits and teachings of demons have led to requiring abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth” (1 Timothy 4:1-5). I understand that it is possible to fast, motivated by pride with a desire to parade one’s self-righteousness (Matthew 6:16-18). Those persons will have their reward.

But I want the reward of God, and apparently there is a God-given reward from fasting if we do it right. I want you to have that reward as well. I want you to pant for God “as the deer pants for flowing streams” (Psalm 42:1), and be satisfied with the Living fountain (Jeremiah 2:13), to have your mouths filled by Him.

We pant for football and Facebook. Really. We spend serious time thinking about it. We can’t wait to check the scores or see the new status updates. We pant for good grades. We slave over schoolwork and study to get high scores in hope that all kinds of income will be added to us. We pant for work; we’re workaholics, finding our worth and satisfaction in our product. We pant for food. Have a hard day? Sooth yourself with ice cream.

We’re surrounded with God-substitutes, meaning that we’re surrounded with temptations to idolatry. If we love those things more than, and certainly instead of, God, our hunger is in the wrong place.

The weakness of our hunger for God is not because He is unsavory, but because we keep ourselves stuffed with “other things.” (Piper, A Hunger for God, 10). The greatest enemy of hunger for God is not poison, but apple pie…The greatest adversary of love for God is not His enemies but His gifts. (ibid., 14)

We put food, relationships, computers and gadgetry and Internet, sports, music and movies–things that can be properly enjoyed in their place–before God. Fasting may help us.

What Is Fasting?

Definition: fasting is a God-appointed means to humble ourselves and turn physical hunger for food toward spiritual appetite for God.

Fasting is a conscious choice to take away something (usually good) that we may be leaning on instead of God. Fasting says, “I want God more than that (good thing).”

Fasting from food is the original idea. Food is good. It is a gift from God. More than good, it is necessary for life. People usually respond, “But I don’t feel well when I don’t eat.” Yes.

There are other things that a person could give up for a time, but the point is to willingly give up something we depend on to help us learn to depend on God more.

Prayer and fasting go together. There isn’t anything spiritual or godly in skipping a meal. Models and wrestlers skip meals. Feeling hungry isn’t sanctifying. It’s using the physical pains and signals from our body to remind our body that it is not God. We normally pander and pamper our bodies but they will rule us if we let go of discipline. Fasting is a way to show the body who’s God, and that He’s a more rewarding master.

Fasting Is a God-Appointed Means

In saying that fasting is God-appointed, I’m saying that God revealed instructions about fasting in His Word. He never tells anyone to afflict their bodies in another way, to injure and inflect pain on themselves. God may train us to depend on Him using suffering, but we are not to pursue physical hurt or harm as a discipline. We do have examples of giving up food for a while.

Old Testament Saints Fasted

In 2 Chronicles 20:1-4, Jehosphaphat “was afraid” when he heard that a “great multitude is coming against you from Edom” and that they were close. His response was not to call his generals or set the army in order (which would have been acceptable). Instead, he “set his face to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah.” Fasting was a way to focus the attention of a nation toward God. God heard their prayers, promised that He would be with them and told them, “You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the LORD on [your] behalf” (verse 17). When they went out the next morning, “the looked toward the horde, and behold, there were dead bodies lying on the ground; none had escaped” (verse 24). It took them three days to gather the spoil (verse 25).

In 2 Samuel 12:15-23, David fasted when his newborn son was sick. David even “afflicted himself with fasting” when his enemies, those who were “malicious witnesses”, were sick (Psalm 35:11-14).

In Ezra 8:21-23, Ezra proclaimed a fast that the people would “humble [themselves] before God, to seek from Him a safe journey” for themselves and their families.

In Esther 4:16, Esther asked for all the Jews to fast with her on her behalf for three days, night and day, before she entered the presence of the king.

Jesus Fasted

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,
“‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” (Matthew 4:1-4)

Piper makes this striking observation:

Here is Jesus, standing on the threshold of the most important ministry in the history of the world. On His obedience and righteousness hangs the salvation of the world. None will escape damnation without the ministry of obedient suffering and death and resurrection. And God wills that, at the very outset, this ministry be threatened with destruction–namely, the temptations of Satan to abandon the path of lowliness and suffering and obedience. And of all the hundreds of things Jesus might have done to fight off this tremendous threat to salvation, He is led, in the Spirit, to fast. (Piper, 55)

We also, before beginning a time of ministry, must depend on God for His direction and strength.

Jesus Taught Fasting

Jesus explained that when the bridegroom (Himself) was taken away, the disciples would fast again (Matthew 9:14-17).

Jesus assumed that His disciples would fast (“when you fast”) and provided instructions about the dangers of wanting to be seen by others (Matthew 6:16-18). His point was to confront possible pride in fasting, not to discourage the spiritual practice of fasting. Reward is at stake, and how we go about our fasting shows from whom we desire the reward.

The Early Church Fasted

While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. (Acts 13:2-3)

The church at Antioch was desiring to know the Lord’s direction for their ministry, so they sought the Lord in worship, in prayer, and in fasting. Once they received the answer, they prayed and fasted again, presumably in thanks and also to seek the Lord’s blessing on Barnabas and Saul’s work. God used this fasting to change hearts and history.1

Some have argued that fasting is unnecessary after Pentecost with the coming of the Spirit. Apparently not. Others have argued that fasting where anyone else knows about it is worthless. But it would be impossible to fast in a group without the others knowing it, and there are Old and New Testament examples of national/group fasting. On a practical note, it is impossible to fast for long and not tell your family. As is the question with many spiritual issues, and as Jesus challenged in Matthew 6, what is the goal of the heart? The reward of men or of God?

To Humble Ourselves and Turn Physical Hunger for Food

Hunger is God-given. It’s one of the built-in desires that keeps us alive. Everyone gets hungry, even if the levels of hunger aren’t quite the same. It is humbling to see how pathetic we are when we’re hungry.

Fasting Surfaces Other-Than-God Dependencies

Perhaps more than any other discipline fasting reveals the things that control us. What are we slaves to? The apostle Paul said, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be enslaved by anything. Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food–and God will destroy both one and the other” (1 Corinthians 6:12-13). Fasting will reveal the measure of food’s mastery over us, or the mastery of television or computers or whatever we submit our time and affections to rather than God.

Just when my heart begins to retreat to the delicious hope of eating supper with friends at Pizza Hut, (fasting) quietly reminds me: not tonight. It can be a devastating experience at first. Will I find communion with God sweet enough and hope in His promises deep enough, not just to cope, but to flourish and rejoice in Him? Or will I rationalize away my need to fast and retreat to the medication of food? (Piper, 20)

Try taking away something we like, something that we’re used to getting whenever we want. It’s humbling to see ourselves become whiny babies.

Fasting Reveals Lack of Discipline

Fasting usually shows us how undisciplined and selfish we are.

It is an awkward thing to catch yourself longing for the next feed time and then remember: not today. I’m amazed at how many times throughout the day I am thinking about food, preparing for food, scheduling my day around food. And I’m a surplus military supply store of excuses. I’ve got pretext after pretense. I’d sell my fasting birthright for a bowl of stew. Where’s my discipline? That’s humbling.

Fasting Exposes Weak Spiritual Hunger

Here is the primary question behind fasting: when was the last time the pain in my heart of missing God was as strong as the pain in my stomach of missing food?

It is a shame that we have worked so hard to cultivate our tastes and appetites, when our spiritual appetites are anemic and our tastes so bland. The fountain is gushing in front of us, but we’re sucking dirt. That’s humbling to have our desires uncovered.

Toward Spiritual Appetite for God

We can only turn a natural hunger to increase a supernatural hunger by faith. I thought about including “in faith” in the definition of fasting, since all spiritual disciplines must be done in faith or they are fruitless. Hunger without faith is hollow.

Fasting Drives Our Thoughts toward God

If we’re prepared, we can turn thoughts of hunger to God, and that’s what makes fasting profitable. Our desperation for Him, our dependence on Him, our living on Him takes center stage. Praying herds our wild hunger thoughts toward the only open gate: God.

Fasting Heightens Our Sensitivity to His Many Gifts

Drinking a glass of water becomes a sensational worship service. God gives us water, clean water, cold water, plumbed and bottled water, water everywhere. What a gift. Each good thing ought not be taken for granted.

Fasting Prepares Us for Times of Want

Only a very few times have I been hungry because of things outside of my control. Sometimes, no matter how hard I’d been working, there wasn’t much.

When we fast, however, it isn’t because we couldn’t eat. We could, but we choose not to. When our wallets and cupboards are full and we still choose God over the food, then I think we are disciplining ourselves to depend on Him. The more we practice having God as the sole source of satisfaction, the more ready we’ll be when the resources are gone. The more we eschew secondary sources when times are fat, the less we’ll be tempted to complain when times are lean.

Fasting Helps Us Feast Better

I think about feasting and fasting at two different ends, but does one of them glorify God more than the other? No. Both are God-appointed and appropriate, even during this time when we wait for the Bridegroom to return. We won’t be fasting in heaven, and I anticipate the best and purest affections for Him are there. In the meantime, He is praised when we eat and drink to the glory of God, and when we don’t eat and drink for His glory.

Fasting is not a no to the goodness of food or the generosity of God in providing it. Rather, it is a way of saying, from time to time, that having more of the Giver surpasses the gift….Food is good. But God is better. (Piper, 44)

Wrong Reasons to Fast

  1. To Lose Weight. It doesn’t work anyway, because your body decides, if you’re going to be that way, it will store extra (fat) for later.
  2. To parade self-righteousness. Jesus couldn’t be more clear about the fact that if what you want is a pat on the back, have at it. It’s no good to Him.
  3. To earn God’s favor/salvation. There is no work that earns God’s favor. Legalistic fasting is no better than any other form of legalism, and you’re hungry. In fact, fasting done for any other reason than faith is worse than worthless, it is damnable.
  4. To seek God’s leading/help if we’re ignoring clear revelation already given in His Word. Piper wrote an entire chapter in A Hunger for God on Isaiah 58. The fasts of Israel were abominable because they promoted wickedness, they failed to feed the hungry, house the homeless, and clothe the naked. Spiritual disciplines are not a substitute for spiritual lives.

Practical Suggestions for Fasting

First, Start Small. As I said in the session three, it isn’t wise to run a marathon on your first day of exercise. Maybe you want to consult a doctor before starting an exercise program, and getting ideas from someone with fasting experience may be fruitful. Beginning the discipline of fasting doesn’t require a 40 day fast.

Second, Write Out the Plan. Fasting is hard. The stomach will growl. The head will hurt. The muscles in the body will ache. It will feel like it’s not a good idea, and the mind will use every imaginable rationalization in the book to steal the reward. We tend to take the path of least resistance, and writing things out gives our consciences another measure of accountability as we view the words frozen as reminders on the page.

Third, List the Reasons. Don’t go into it willy-nilly. Based on the biblical examples, most everyone had a reason or reasons for the fast; they desired deliverance or direction. They wanted something specific from God. Fast for an unsaved family member. Fast for an upcoming decision or ministry commitment. Fast for the purpose of learning to hunger more for God.

Fourth, Describe the Nature and Duration. Again, the more specific you are the better. By nature I mean what it is specifically that are you giving up. It may not be food in every case. It may be something else you love that fills your time, time that could be turned to God in prayer. It may be food; decide ahead of time what is allowed: water, juice, coffee, nothing. It may be a combination of things. By duration I mean how long you’re devoting to giving up the thing. There is no biblically required length of fast. There are 24 hour fasts, from after dinner to dinner the next day. There are three day fasts. There are 40 day fasts.

Fifth, Schedule Specific Times of Prayer. The point of not eating lunch, for example, is not to fill that hour with more email or work. Taking away food but putting in something else to distract us from the hunger is not spiritual.

There are few ways to discipline ourselves toward dependence like fasting. Fasting humbles us and, if done in a spirit of prayer and worship, it increases our hunger for God. So many pressures push us away from prayer, even the grind of pursuing and preparing the daily bread He gives us. Intentionally and regularly taking that time and turning to God in humility and thankfulness and dependence may help us rise above the busyness.

The reason fasting “works,” the reason God rewards fasting, is because He loves the dependence.

When you come to break-fast, there will not be a glorious culmination. No fanfare. No parade. No mention of accomplishment. Just a silent continuing pursuit of God, and reward from Him.

God is committed to rewarding those acts of the human heart that signify human helplessness and hope in God. (Piper, 178)

Take-Aways

Grunts

  • I invite you to give up breakfast and lunch one day a week for a month.

Warriors

  • Consider other things (than food) that might be distracting, and give them up along with skipping meals (i.e., the Internet, email, or social media).

  1. Piper’s sermon on this is excellent, Prayer, Fasting, and the Course of History. See also Acts 14:8-18