• The BaptistWay lesson for June 22 focuses on 2 Chronicles 20:1-4, 13-15; Matthew 6:16-18; Acts 13:1-3.
Fasting is one of those practices seldom mentioned in Baptist life. Perhaps it has something to do with our propensity to eat. The first time I remember a fast mentioned at church was one spring when revival services were approaching. Our pastor called a church-wide fast. We were encouraged to pray—at home, at church—and to fast in some way. We were given the option of not eating for a whole day, of skipping one meal for several days or fasting from food we really enjoyed. The goal was to concentrate on connecting with God more intensely than usual.
I don’t recall actually taking part in the fast. As a teenager, I had trouble understanding its desired outcome. I understood we were not supposed to be fasting for the sake of it. I was aware this was an exercise to help us focus more intensely on our prayer lives. However, I did not understand what this increased activity in prayer was supposed to achieve. Perhaps it was poorly communicated, or perhaps I was paying attention haphazardly. Whatever the case, this perceived lack of purpose on my part resulted in a failure to fast. Rather than being turned off by this discipline, I suspect the reason most Baptists do not practice fasting is simply because they do not understand why they should.
In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster notes, “Throughout the Scripture, fasting refers to abstaining from food for spiritual purposes. … Biblical fasting always centers on spiritual purposes.” The spiritual purpose my pastor asked us to pray for was revival. This does not mean fasting is a way to control God or a guarantee he will answer in a certain way. It simply is a human attempt to connect with a divine activity. As we look at the three Scripture passages in our lesson this week, we see three aspects of fasting for spiritual purposes.
When Jehoshaphat was faced with multiple armies threatening to destroy him and God’s people, 2 Chronicles 20:3 states, “Jehoshaphat resolved to inquire of the Lord, and he proclaimed a fast for all Judah.” These are the types of big, life-altering situations in which fasting should be utilized. When we do this, a couple of things must be guarded against: Assuming there always is a definite answer to all of our quandaries and projecting the answer we want onto God.
Fasting for guidance should not be treated like a “Magic 8 Ball,” but as a special attempt to seek God’s specific will or desire in a certain situation. As a result, we also must be willing to accept that our fasting may not result in a specific answer or in the specific answer we want. When we are bold enough to fast and seek guidance from the Lord, we must prepare our hearts for all kinds of answers.
The strongest case for fasting can be found by looking at the words of Jesus. Foster notes Jesus’ “teaching on fasting is directly in the context of his teaching on giving and praying. It is as if there is an almost unconscious assumption that giving, praying and fasting are all part Christian devotion. We have no more reason to exclude fasting from the teaching than we do giving or praying.”
In this teaching in Matthew 6:16-18 that Foster references, Jesus begins verse 16 with the words “when you fast,” not “if you fast.” This, in and of itself, is reason enough to consider engaging in this discipline. However, as Jesus further instructs his disciples to practice this in secret (unlike the “hypocrites”), he assures them they will be rewarded. Just as before, there is a great caution against viewing fasting in this light. Jesus is not urging his disciples to practice fasting to get a reward; rather, he is letting them know their sacrifice will not go unnoticed.
One night, a conversation about spiritual gifts cropped up in our small group. One of the people said she had the gift of discernment. This caused others to admit this was something they lacked. Discernment is indeed included as a spiritual gift in the Bible. You likely have met folks who seem to have a higher gift of discernment than others. However, that does not mean no one else can discern the Spirit of God. Fasting is one way people who may not feel particularly gifted in this area can open themselves up to sharing in this ability.
In Acts 13:1-3, Christians in the church at Antioch apparently were fasting together to discern how the Holy Spirit was going to continue to spread the gospel through them. Their answer came in the act of sending Paul and Barnabas out on a missionary journey.
Whatever your previous experiences with fasting might be, remember Jesus said, “when you fast,” not “if you fast.” I challenge you to consider engaging in this discipline as the Spirit leads.