Prayer and Fasting (part 2)

Yesterday I posted about the source of our deepest hungering and desire. What do we truly desire and what does it say about our heart? You can read about that here: Prayer and Fasting (part 1). Today I want to spend more time explaining the biblical idea of fasting and prayer and then look at some practical consideration for fasting.

Jesus’ general principle regarding how to be blessed or ruined by spiritual disciplines is found in Matthew 6:1, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”

Then Jesus gives three examples of ways that we can be found guilty of practicing our faith for others to see us and admire us:

  1. Giving (vv. 2-4) or our outward conduct
  2. Praying (vv. 5-15) or our upward conversations
  3. Fasting (vv. 16-18) or our inward cravings

Matthew 6:16-18 reads, “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.

What Is Biblical Fasting?

Simply defined, fasting (for all reasons) is to refrain from food for a period of time. Biblical fasting is always accompanied with prayer. I am speaking of biblical fasting here, because several religions practice fasting, and people fast for medical and other purely non-religious reasons.

Fasting in the Bible is required only in the Old Testament, for the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29-34; 23:26-32). This “self-affliction” was to accompany the offering of sacrifices for the nation of Israel. It was a national day of mourning for their sins. As such, eating was inappropriate.

Since Jesus Christ has become our final sacrifice (Heb 10:12), we do not need a Day of Atonement. Therefore, the only obligatory day of fasting has been removed for Christians. So, fasting is not required by God.

Why did people in Bible fast?

Although there was only one obligatory day to fast, voluntary fasting was(and is) acceptable to God if done with the right heart attitude. Some examples of the reasons people fasted in the Bible were:

  • When Mourning: 2 Samuel 3:35 tells us David fasted after the death of Abner.
  • When in Grave Danger: Esther 4:16 shows us that Esther asked for prayer and fasting before she approached the king.
  • When Repentant: Jonah 3:5, 7 explains how the Ninevites repented before God in sackcloth and ashes for their sins, and God forgave them.
  • When Facing Important Decisions: Acts 13:2-3 says that before the church at Antioch sent away Paul and Barnabas for their mission trip they prayed and fasted.
  • When Facing Intense Trials: Matthew 4:2 tells us that as Jesus prepared to begin his ministry, he was led into the wilderness where he fasted and prayed for forty days and was tempted by Satan.

How should Christians approach fasting?

First, remember that fasting is not obligatory, but voluntary. We are nowhere commanded to fast, although we may do so when we desire. The Pharisees fasted two times a week (Lk 18:12), but this was a tradition of men, not a requirement of God.

Also, remember this important truth if you become puffed up in your fasting: of the two men in the Temple that day that Jesus spoke of in Luke 18, one fasted, and the other went home justified! Fasting does not justify us!!

Second, we must fast with the right intentions. Matthew 6:16 shows us that there are some who practice religious activities to be seen by others.

  • If you fast, ask yourself why you are doing it?
  • If you fast, are you letting yourself look tired or haggard so people will ask you about it? The Pharisees loved the attention they received. They even went so far as to rub ash on their faces to look more sullen and sickly. It’s the same with all our spiritual disciplines. Do you do them to be seen by men?
  • If you fast, are you trying to earn God’s favor? Fasting is not a bargaining chip for God. It’s not “I skipped food for three days Lord. YOU HAVE TO HEAR ME NOW!” Fasting doesn’t mean that if I give up meat, God will do what I say.

Finally, when we fast, we should see it as an opportunity to put all of our focus upon God, and not as an opportunity to pull attention to ourselves. Jesus pointed out that the Pharisees drew attention to themselves with their sullen look. Instead, fasting ought to be seen as a time to look at the Giver of every good and perfect gift. We can forget about God sometimes, and when we fast, we take our eyes off of the gift of food and cast our eyes toward heaven to find communion with our Lord. This is why the Pharisees were such hypocrites. They took something which should have given God attention and used it for their own attention.

Some final considerations regarding fasting:

Fasting does not need to be a fast from food only. Some of you may not be able to fast from food for medical reasons. Perhaps you are weakened from sickness or you need to take medications or your doctor has said, “No fasting.” That is ok. God knows how weak our frame is!

Fasting, although primarily abstaining from food for a time of dedicated prayer and worship with the Lord, is not only described in terms of food. If you look at 1 Corinthians 7:5 it refers to a different kind of fast for married couples. Notice that this fasting referred to here is for a set time and for the purpose of prayer. It should be short and purposeful by agreement of both so as not to give an opportunity for temptation for either the husband or the wife.

Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, “Fasting if we conceive of it truly, must not … be confined to the question of food and drink; fasting should really be made to include abstinence from anything which is legitimate in and of itself for the sake of some special spiritual purpose. There are many bodily functions which are right and normal and perfectly legitimate, but which for special peculiar reasons in certain circumstances should be controlled. That is fasting.

This means that food may not be a big deal for you, but perhaps TV or internet distracts you from the Lord and prayer. Maybe its sports or something else.

RememberAbraham? In Genesis 22:1-2 what does it say Abraham loved? What did he hunger for? He longed for the promised son Isaac. And God gave him a good gift in Isaac. But now God asks him to sacrifice what he loved. Did he love God more than Isaac?

Abraham set his eyes to obey the Lord. He took Isaac up the mountain and he bound him and took the knife to slay his beloved boy. But look at vv. 11-12. “now I know that you fear God, seeing that you have not withheld your son…” Abraham’s love for God was greater than his love for Isaac.

Now let me ask you, what do you hunger for most? Who’s in charge? Is it your hunger or God? It is easy to say that it’s not food, like the drunk who says he can give up his liquor anytime he wants, but he just doesn’t want to. What controls you so that you don’t want to give it up?

Dear friend above all else, hunger and thirst for Christ.

Prayer and Fasting (part 1)

In his book on fasting entitled A Hunger for God, John Piper wrote, “What we hunger for most, we worship.” I once put that quote up on Facebook, and some friends wrote comments about how it made them think of food! You hunger most for food. We laugh, but that is too true, isn’t it? “What we hunger for most, we worship.”

Some hunger for sexual desires, like Amnon in 2 Samuel 13 who longed so much for his beautiful half-sister Tamar that he became physically ill until he fulfilled his lustful desire and raped her.

Some hunger for possessions, like King Ahab in 1 Kings 21, who longed for Naboth’s vineyard, but who wouldn’t sell it to him and so the king sulked like a child. To give him what he wanted, his wicked wife Jezebel had Naboth murdered and Ahab’s lust for this property was finally fulfilled.

Some hunger for marriage, like King Solomon who according to 1 Kings 11:3, gathered for himself 700 wives and 300 concubines not caring about the fact that many were pagan women who eventually led his heart astray from the Lord.

So Piper is describing what the Bible so clearly teaches: What we hunger for most, we worship. But we need to be careful here, don’t we? Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 8:8, “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” So the issue is never what we eat or what we do not eat or whether we fast or whether we do not fast. The issue for Jesus always is our heart, is it not?

So then, why should we consider fasting? Why have Christians for centuries decided to set aside eating a meal (or several days of eating) to dedicate themselves to prayer instead of satisfying their hunger? It is because fasting moves our attention off of the gift of food and on to the Giver.

Again, John Piper states for us the danger of forgetting this distinction and the danger for our souls if we do not stop and examine ourselves and our hunger:

“The greatest enemy of hunger for God is not poison but apple pie. It is not the banquet of the wicked that dulls our appetite for heaven, but endless nibbling at the table of the world. It is not the X-rated video, but the prime-time dribble of triviality we drink in every night. For all the ill that Satan can do, when God describes what keeps us from the banquet table of his love, it is a piece of land, a yoke of oxen, and a wife (Luke 14:18–20). The greatest adversary of love to God is not his enemies but his gifts. And the most deadly appetites are not for the poison of evil, but for the simple pleasures of earth. For when these replace an appetite for God himself, the idolatry is scarcely recognizable, and almost incurable. Jesus said some people hear the word of God, and a desire for God is awakened in their hearts. But then, “as they go on their way they are choked with worries and riches and pleasures of this life” (Luke 8:14). In another place he said, “The desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful” (Mark 4:19). “The pleasures of this life” and “the desires for other things”—these are not evil in themselves. These are not vices. These are gifts of God. They are your basic meat and potatoes and coffee and gardening and reading and decorating and traveling and investing and TV-watching and Internet-surfing and shopping and exercising and collecting and talking. And all of them can become deadly substitutes for God.”

John Piper, A Hunger for God, 14-15

You see, fasting doesn’t commend us to God. But it is a tool for us to test our heart attitudes about God. It does test our love and our hunger for God to see if we love Him more than these other things. Tomorrow I will look at Matthew 6 and describe what biblical fasting is, why people in the Bible fasted, and how we as Christians today should approach fasting and prayer.

Help for New Expositors: Application in the Sermon

Getting the correct meaning of the text is first and foremost when you are preparing a sermon or Bible study. If you get that wrong, then everything else will be wrong. But the exegesis is only the beginning of sermon preparation. For the listener to gain any benefit from the exposition, the expositor will need to adequately illustrate and apply the text. Since application is a necessary element that newer expositors can struggle with, I’ve laid out seven helps for making sure that you get the application right.

  1. Apply the text. I say this because there are some young preachers who actually believe that it is not necessary to include application in the sermon. You can call it “implications,” but the fact remains that you are to bring the Word of God to bear upon the hearts and lives of your hearers. When John the Baptist preached in the wilderness, he applied the text specifically to his hearers–to the crowd, soldiers and tax collectors (Lk 3:10-14).
  2. Find the universal principles. These are the timeless principles which are true at all times for different groups of people. For instance, God tell his people that he will never leave them, that he will provide for them and protect them. He also says that they are not to worship any other gods. God’s people are also told that they are to love, pray, be patient and not anxious, etc. God is described throughout Scripture as never changing, and so his character is immutable. This can lead us to certain conclusions about him. He always keeps his promises, therefore the righteous will inherit life, and the unrighteous will be judged. These are just a few examples.
  3. Meditate on how you will respond to the text. Sometime a lack of application is a sign that the preacher has not meditated long on the text. Ask yourself the following questions to help: Does this text impact your life?What will you now do, believe, be thankful for or repent of because of this text? So what? Why did God inspire and preserve this passage of Scripture? If you can’t answer these questions for yourself, neither will your listener know what to do either.
  4. Think about your listeners. Knowing your audience will go a long way to help you think through the application and how it will affect their lives. Who are they? (Careers, education, marital status, children, etc.) What are they going through right now? (joys, trials, spiritual life) How will this text impact them when they hear it? Will it help them? How?
  5. Be pointed and specific. Don’t fall into the trap of just telling people to “pray more” or “read your Bible more” or “have more faith.” Tell them how. Be specific enough that they have a few ideas about how they can apply the text—this is helpful for the newer believer. Give the bigger theological picture so that the more mature believers can see other application in their own lives outside of your suggestions.
  6. Use “You” in your application. Don’t shy away from being the messenger of God. He is speaking to them through you.Don’t let a fear of man soften what the Lord has said. You may include yourself (“we”), but you must also speak directly.
  7. Point people to the Cross and the Holy Spirit. We don’t want to err into moralistic preaching that simply calls people to be good. The Bible does teach morality, but it does so by addressing the heart and God’s work through justification and sanctification. Don’t take a short cut and simply tell your hearers to “be good.” Also, preach the need for Christ to unbelievers who are unable to obey since they are unregenerate. Make sure you remember that your audience is mixed. Finally, preach the necessary power of the Holy Spirit for the believer to change. We cannot change in our own power. Don’t frustrate Christians with a command they cannot do by themselves. Teach them to depend upon the Lord for change.

Don’t Cover Your Cracks with Plaster

A few nights ago I awoke with the aches and pains of a sickness I have been fighting for a few days. Unable to sleep, I started to reflect upon all the friends and loved ones that are struggling with pain and suffering to a much greater degree. I thought about those who are facing a crumbling marriage, the loss of a spouse, the onset of a disease that will take their life. I lay in the dark and considered the deep comfort that we have in Christ.

The Christian life is not an easy one, and may even be fraught with greater struggles because of our commitment to follow Christ whatever the cost. But there is no accounting for the presence of Christ in the midst of these struggles.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, the world is watching. Please do not show them a perfect, polished life free of any pain or sorrow. Such a life does not exist in this broken world. Show them that you too are cracked and flawed, just as they are. Show them that you too struggle with weaknesses and doubts. And then show them that our God sent his Son for us, to bring us safely to his promised land. He gives his Spirit so that as we sit in pain and doubt we will know his supernatural presence and find comfort.

As you listen to the song below, remember that we must sometimes fight for faith to know the joy of the Lord—and in the end, Jesus will be victorious. Like Job, we may not always understand, but we trust.

Moralism is a False Gospel

Martin Luther.jpg

Is salvation merely a message of “do better?” Is Christianity simply a moralistic religion that teaches that all we need to do is obey God? That is what the self-righteous Pharisees thought, and it is what many people in churches think. To them, Christianity is a list of rules that can be kept–albeit with a lot of sacrifice. Don’t think so? How many times have you heard someone say their wayward son or daughter “just needs to get back to church?” Is that all they need? Is that what Jesus taught?

In Romans 1:17, the Apostle Paul wrote, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”” (Romans 1:17, ESV). This text traumatized Martin Luther before his conversion to Christ. Here was a man that sincerely wanted salvation. He had dedicated his life to holy living in a monastic community where he sacrificed on a daily basis. Yet his soul was tortured. Here are Luther’s own words, written a year before his death on March 5, 1545 following a long life of joyful blessing in true salvation through Jesus Christ.

I had indeed been captivated with an extraordinary ardor for understanding Paul in the Epistle to the Romans. But up till then it was … a single word in Chapter 1 [:17], “In it the righteousness of God is revealed,” that had stood in my way. For I hated that word “righteousness of God,” which according to the use and custom of all the teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically regarding the formal or active righteousness, as they called it, with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner.

Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteous wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.

At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ ” There I began to understand [that] the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which [the] merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. Here a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me.… And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word “righteousness of God.” Thus that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise. [Emphasis added]

The “gates of paradise” were opened up to Luther because he no longer depended upon his own law-keeping to satisfy the perfect demands of God. He saw salvation as a gracious act of God alone. Christ was perfectly righteous, fulfilling the whole law in our place. He died in our place and we are justified because of his perfect life and substitutionary death.

The hamster wheel of self-righteous deeds done in order to save ourselves is endless and endlessly disappointing. But the worst thing is that it does not end in heaven, but hell. The one who rejects the perfect finished work of Christ on the cross in favor of his or her imperfect works should expect nothing more, and will get nothing less.

Don’t point people to hell with “do better” sermons. Don’t say that your lost neighbor needs to be invited to church when you need they need to be regenerated by Christ. Don’t confuse fruits of righteousness with earning points with God so he will somehow love and favor you more.

Christ alone is enough. Faith in him alone saves. This is all “marvelous, infinite, matchless grace.”