What’s the Most Neglected Spiritual Discipline?
Welcome back to the Ask Pastor John podcast. John Piper returns home tomorrow from a very busy holiday travel schedule. He preached three times at the Campus Outreach New Year’s Conference in Milwaukee, and then he preached at the Passion Conference in Atlanta. Busy times. But good times. And much grace.
In the meantime, we have been served well by guest Dr. Don Whitney, who joins us one last time. Thank you, Don. Don serves as Professor of Biblical Spirituality and Associate Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. He is known for his modern-day classic book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. And he’s also the author of the new book from Crossway titled Praying the Bible.
Yesterday we talked about the two most important spiritual disciplines. So helpful. Today I want to ask you about the hardest spiritual discipline. I know this is a question you get all the time. So in your experience, what personal spiritual discipline is the most difficult to pull off successfully?
Mentioned More than Baptism
My personal observation, along with conversations with many people over the subject, is that the most difficult discipline to practice consistently is fasting — and fasting is one of those disciplines that everybody knows about. It is actually mentioned in the Bible more often than something as important as baptism — about 77 times by my count. Compare that to about 75 times that baptism is mentioned in the Bible. So people know it is there, but they don’t practice it.
For example, we go to Matthew 4 or Luke 4 where Jesus fasted forty days, and then he is tempted by the devil. Then we talk about how he quoted Scripture to the devil. So we know it is there, we just sort of pass over this “forty days of fasting” kind of idea.
What Do You Hunger For?
And people will not practice what they are not taught to practice. By and large, people will not practice what they have not been taught to practice. If they have not been taught fasting, they are not likely to practice fasting. And if someone isn’t practicing fasting, they are not likely to be an advocate of fasting. It is very hard to get up and preach a sermon on fasting or to teach a lesson on fasting when you don’t fast. If you are not practicing it, it is hard to be a very persuasive advocate of it. So I think that is one of the main reasons people don’t fast: they have just never heard anything about it.
But even for people who know the biblical teaching on fasting well, it is still hard to practice, because out of all the other disciplines, you feel it in your body. When you practice this discipline, you feel the absence of food and it is uncomfortable — and we don’t like to feel uncomfortable.
John Piper has a great teaching on this in his book A Hunger for God. I think I love that title more than all of his titles, because he is saying that fasting is really when your hunger for God exceeds your hunger for the food God made you to live on. Is there ever a time when your hunger for God to answer a prayer, to move in your life, to move in a situation exceeds your hunger for the food God made you to live on? So fasting seen from that perspective is refreshing.
Fast with Purpose
And the most important thing about the practice of fasting that would help people (besides the recognition that Jesus does expect his people to fast; we see that in the Gospels) — but the most important thing — is to fast for a biblical purpose. In one of my books, I summarize ten biblical purposes found in Scripture for fasting. For example, for the sake of answered prayer is a common one there.
I think when most people fast, they just see it as something to endure. The Bible says to fast. I am not going to eat for twenty-four hours. And the whole time their stomach growls, their head aches, and they think, “Man, I am hungry.” Their next thought is: “Oh, that is right. I am hungry because I am fasting.” And their next thought is: “How much time till this is over?” And it is just something to be endured. It is a miserable, self-centered experience.
Instead, it should look something like this: When your stomach growls, when your head aches, and you say, “Man, I am hungry,” your next thought is going to be: “Oh, that is right. I am hungry because I am fasting today.” Your next thought should be: “And I am fasting for this purpose.” Let’s say your purpose is to pray for your child’s salvation. Every time during the day that you get hungry, that should be a prompt to pray for your child’s salvation. The result is you are praying for your child’s salvation all day long. That is what you wanted to do. Therefore, your hunger serves you. Your hunger serves your greater purpose. Your greater purpose is not to endure hunger. Your greater purpose is to see your child saved.
So that failure — seeing fasting as just something to be endured rather than fasting with a particular purpose in mind all the way through it — is the biggest stumbling block for fasting to those people who know the biblical teaching about fasting. If they don’t know the biblical teaching, you can’t expect people to do what they have never been taught to do. But once they understand that, I believe the biggest problem is the failure to see a biblical purpose when they start.
Yes, that is seasoned counsel and very practical and concrete. Thank you, Dr. Whitney, and thank you for joining us this week as a guest for Ask Pastor John.
Tony, it has been a great honor to be on the podcast.