Desiring God Through Fasting and Prayer

Session 3

Hunger for God

Communion with God in Thanks and Praise

This is about communion with God in thanks and praise. We’re still in the prayer section just coming at the issue of fellowship with God by our speaking to God in various ways. Now we’re focusing on one of the ways you speak to God is in thanks and in praise. Psalm 118:28 says:

You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
     you are my God; I will extol you.

Develop a vocabulary like that. “Thanks” and “extol” are the two words there. Build words like that into your language so that when you come to him, you don’t have to slip into ruts. You have lots of language. I’m a Christian hedonist. I’m always trying to build my vocabulary lest I am stuck with one word, like “satisfied.” I want to be satisfied in God and cherish God and delight in God and be glad in God and rejoice in God and extol God and prize God. I just keep trying to add to that. I get out my thesaurus sometimes for praise, for satisfied, for happy, because I want my language to be fresh for people. I don’t want it to just sound tired and old and bogged-down and same old, same old. And pastors and anybody who wants their language to be helpful in any relationship needs to expend a little bit of effort to say another way, say it another way.

Psalm 30:11–12 says:

You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
     you have loosed my sackcloth
     and clothed me with gladness,
that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent.
     O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever!

That’s the language of thanks and praise. Philippians 4:6–7 says:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

So as you go to God asking for things, thank him for things. Healthy, humble minds are thankful minds. You can sow so many seeds of health into relationships by verbalizing gratitude. Verbalize gratitude in every relationship. Before you say anything else, say something you’re thankful for and especially if it regards a person in a relationship. Sometimes people have asked me, “I know you don’t want us to puff you up, but if we like your sermon, what should we say?” And I say, “Thank God, thank God for whatever. And be specific for what help you got.” Don’t just say, “Good sermon, pastor,” or, “You’re a good preacher,” or whatever.” That doesn’t help me. That doesn’t help you. But if God did something, if God said something, then draw attention to that and thank him for a specific thing that he did.

Singing Songs of Praise

Before we leave thanks, let me challenge you to really stretch here. Now this is to push 80 percent of you to the absolute limit of tolerability, but as you begin to form habits of personal and family or friendship devotions — if you’re not married and you have a house, or you meet together for dinner or you have a small group or something, there’s three or four of you, or if you’re family and there’s you and your wife, then there’s you and your wife and some kids — build praise into it. And if you’re willing to make the effort, sing together. I mean there’s probably not one couple in a million who sings together, right? It’s just awkward, right? Weird.

I just would challenge you to do it. I mean, my wife and I did not sing together for 20 years and then I just decided we’re going to sing together. We were on an anniversary. We’ve been married 44 years. This was 20 years or so on our anniversary, and I took a little piece of paper with a hymn printed on it, and we read through the book of Colossians together because we tried to do something special on an anniversary, like take a whole morning to be in the word. So we read a chapter and would pray, read a chapter and pray, read a chapter and pray, read a chapter and pray. It might take an hour to do that. And then when we ended, I said to her, “Do you think we could try singing together?” Of course, my wife is just totally compliant when it comes to spiritual things like this. She said, “Yeah, we can try whatever you want to try.”

And we did, and then we built it in at home. I wish we could do better. Nobody plays the guitar. If I could play the guitar maybe it would help. It probably wouldn’t improve it at all. So I’m holding out there this wild possibility that somewhere out from under the pressure of this seminar, you might dream of praising and thanking God, or maybe there’d be another way besides singing. If you do it and you’re just absolutely honest about it that you’re lousy singers and you’re doing it because you want to find a fresh way to express your love for him and your thanks to him, I just think he looks down with an absolutely beaming face upon those crummy sounds. Do what you want with that.

Communion with God at Certain Times and Places

This gets nitty-gritty. You say, “You’ve been talking about reading your Bible, you’ve been talking about meditation and about prayer. Any particular times and places? I mean, does it matter how long or when or how often?” Here’s a couple of texts. Daniel 6:10 says:

When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously.

As soon as the law was passed which said, “You may not do this,” he not only did it, he got in front of a window and did it, which got him thrown in the lion’s den. Now all I’m drawing out here is not mainly the in-your-face civil disobedience, but rather the fact that that was his custom. Here’s a man of God who was used mightily in a foreign land and he regularly knelt down three times a day and prayed to God. So it is not contrary to godliness to have regularity in your prayer. That would be the least we could say, right? It is not contrary to a life of effectiveness and godliness to have regular times of prayer. Psalm 119:164 says:

Seven times a day, I praise you
     because of your righteous ordinances.

I know some people who on their reminders or their calendar put a little ding three times a day, every hour, whatever, and when it goes off they pray for just 30 seconds or whatever. That’s another possibility just to penetrate your day with prayer seven times a day.

The Need for Discipline

Let me just say some general comments given the fact that from the Bible, it looks as though at least there should be an openness to regularity. I said last night that I don’t think you’ll stay married without discipline and I don’t think you’ll stay married to God without discipline. Because if you say that the only alternative to legalism is doing things when you feel like it, you won’t survive. If that’s your mindset, that only alternative to legalism is doing things when you feel like it, the devil will love that. He will love that because he has his ways to shoot an arrow at just those moments when you have a window to read and you won’t feel like it. So you’ll skip that one and pretty soon you’ve gone a week, two weeks and you don’t feel like it ever. Now what’s happened there? What’s happened is a very shortsighted view and a very naive view of human nature.

Everybody loves freedom and spontaneity and doing what we love to do, not what we have to do. Everybody does. That’s what freedom feels like. What we also know is that given our sinfulness, given the reality of Satan, and given the nature of modern pressured harried life, spontaneity can be killed easily and it is preserved when we force time to ask God to awaken it again. So I totally believe and have all my life since I was 15 or so when my folks gave me my first Bible. It said Johnny Piper on the front of it, and it was age 15, a King James Bible. My mother wrote in it, “This book will keep you from sin or sin will keep you from this book.” I’ve lifted it up in services so you could see that Bible.

I remember that Bible and reading it every night feeling like that’s what you should do. And most of the time, I wanted to do it, I needed to do it. I was a frightened, insecure, pimple-faced, nervous kid that needed God a lot. So I sought him in the Bible. And then when I went away to college, every morning, I can remember trying to read before I went off to class. And then when we were married we were forming that with my personal reading in the morning, meeting with Noël and so on. Have regularity of whatever you want to call it, devotions, quiet time or whatever you don’t like to say, don’t say and call it something else, but I’m pleading with you to seriously consider a place and a time that is sacred to the Lord for the sake of spontaneity everywhere. It’s discipline for the sake of spontaneity, and duty for the sake of delight and liberty.

If you think otherwise about it and say, “The duty is the thing and God is happy with me because of the duty,” then you’re into legalism. If you get up from that moment of duty and what you feel good about is that you did it and not what you saw of him, now you’re into legalism. See the difference? Does finishing your devotions give you a sense of peace because the duty was done, the check mark was made, the notch was carved, or because you saw that his grace was manifest in this fresh way that I had not noticed before and it came home to you with power and you will take that with me through the day. The duty was just the encasement, just the time and the way that God could do that. And that’s what you feel glad about.

Duty for the Sake of Delight

That’s the difference between the duty done and being glad you did it, or the duty done so that in it God could work. Because a farmer that doesn’t till his gardens and weed it and water it even when he doesn’t feel like it will not have the enjoyment of its fruit. Spontaneous fruit grows in the furrows that have been dug by discipline.

Everybody knows that. CS Lewis put it this way, he said, “Everybody would love to pick up Homer or Virgil and read the Odyssey or the Iliad spontaneously in the Greek and just enjoy the sound of the Greek and the meaning of the Greek. There’s just one glitch. You have to spend three or five years learning Greek and then you might have the pleasure, but you can’t just pick it up.” The analogy he made was that’s the way a lot of things are in life. If you want the pleasure, you need discipline. I mean, you watch an athlete and what they’re able to do in gymnastics for example. Can a human being do that? No, they can’t. Not without about a thousand hours a year on the mat and on the bars, and most of it is not fun.

But to stand with the silver or the gold or the bronze around your neck having felt the exquisite coordination of muscles that God has given you, working to a 9.9 and nailing it without moving the feet. That wouldn’t come any other way. I’ve often wished I had the pleasure of sitting at a piano and just making tunes or playing tunes that I love. It’ll never happen because at six, I wanted to play in the dirt with my trucks and my mama wanted me to take piano. She made me take piano for one year. I hated every minute of it.

She didn’t force me further, probably that was wise, but she at least made an attempt to force me to gain that skill that today I would greatly enjoy. But I blew it and threw it away. All kinds of analogies in life show that discipline and delight are in rhythm with each other. They’re not either/or. So yes, in your apartment or in your house, find the place. It needs to be pretty secluded and find the time. And if you say, “There is no time,” well, that’s not true. You can skip breakfast. Which is more important, breakfast or Bible? Or you probably could set the alarm 15 minutes early. There is time in your day. It’s just a matter of what’s the most important to you.

Never Ceasing Communion with God in Prayer

There are not just set times. First Thesalonians 5:16–18 says:

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

Psalm 62:8 says:

Trust in him at all times, O people;
     pour out your heart before him;
     God is a refuge for us.

What does “pray without ceasing” mean? The least threatening answer would be that it means to be coming back to God often during the day. In other words, don’t let yourself slip into a season where there’s been prayerlessness for a long time. So it wouldn’t necessarily mean every 30 seconds, but regularly. You have just a walk with him, that is with every fresh situation, a whisper, “I need you and I’m depending on you and I’m thanking you.” Just feel like you’re walking in communion with him. I say that’s the least threatening. There is something more threatening. That may be threatening to you. You may think, “Whoa, I don’t do that. I pray in the morning, I pray at meals, but most of the rest of the day, I’m not thinking about praying.” Well, you could probably do better. You could just walk in a whispering communion with the Lord in your heart regularly more often than three times a day.

But what if it meant really without ceasing? I mean, this seems outside our possibility and it may be. That may not even be at all what it means. So I’m not pressing you on this. I’m just saying let’s be careful that we don’t measure the possibilities of the meaning of that phrase with the capacities we presently feel, because your capacities for communion with God are all over the map in this room. Some of you are capable of much more regularity and continuity than others are, and those who are not capable of that right now would read this and say, “Well, it can’t mean that because that’s not psychologically possible.” And others would say, “Well, maybe there is more possible than you think.”

Greater Possibilities for Prayer

Let’s say in the age to come, when we’re raised from the dead and we have new bodies, might it not be possible that when you’re working on a computer program or a math equation in heaven in the age to come on the new earth to pray while you’re doing it? You’re doing what God wired you to do — and I think we will do practical things like that — and here it feels like if I’m going to give all my mind to solve a mathematical equation or solve a civil engineering thing or be a street planner and try to figure out how the traffic works in this city so that things flow best. I have to give all my effort to that. I can’t be praying while I’m doing that. I have to think about what I’m doing. I totally resonate with that. Could it be that in the age to come, God would so wire us that full attention to the task at hand, would not exclude a conscious reliance upon God? And it would be prayerful in our spirit? It wouldn’t feel like they have to alternate.

If you can imagine such a thing in the age to come, I’m just saying it might be really something to pray toward more of that now. Giving an analogy, it’s not exactly the same, but I read one time in Spurgeon that he could pray for eight people at once while he’s preaching. And I just laughed as a young preacher. I said, “That’s crazy. Nobody can pray for eight people at once, period. Let alone while you’re preaching.”

He’s saying that as he looks out and sees Mary and Joe and Ron and Kathy and he’s whispering prayers to God for all of them at once while he’s preaching. I just shook my head and thought, “That’s crazy.” Well, here I am now 33 years into my ministry and I can do that with one person. But to me, that’s amazing. So I’m preaching and I see somebody who looks discouraged or disinterested or maybe she’s sleeping on her boyfriend’s shoulder or whatever, and while I still preach, I can pray for that person.

I have two things going on in my head at once. Isn’t that amazing? Now Spurgeon had eight. It doesn’t seem nearly as impossible to me as it did because now I can do one. I think that’s as far as I’ll get, but I’m real happy about that, that I can actually keep my mouth going, mean what I say, know I’m saying it, connect it with the Bible, and have Jane and her marital situation in my mind and asking that what I’m saying will help her. I can do that now. If I can do one and Spurgeon can do eight, more things are possible than you know as far as how the mind is able to pray all the time.

I don’t want to make you feel guilty and have you say, “We can’t rise to that standard.” Just ask God to give you as much as he can give you. We want to be in communion with him. If we can, it would be wonderful not to walk in and out of fellowship with God.

Communion with God Through Spirit-Enabled Prayer

In our communion with God, we depend on the Spirit to enable and shape our responses to the Father through the Son in prayer. So here is a focus on the fact that as we’re praying and using the word, it’s the Holy Spirit that helps us pray as we ought to pray. And you can think of texts that teach that. Ephesians 6:18 says:

Praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints . . .

What does it mean to pray at all times in the Spirit? I think the word in there probably is instrumental, meaning it’s in the influence of the Spirit, under the guidance of the Spirit. So that it would mean as you begin to pray, you consciously rely upon the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit. You don’t say, “I’ve got this under control. I can say anything I want to say. The Father wants to hear from me, I’m his child.” You also say, “Oh Holy Spirit,” using the words of Romans, “I don’t know how I ought to pray. The Spirit helps us in our weakness for we don’t know how we ought to pray as we should, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). So there’s this consciousness that yes, the Father wants to hear from me. Yes, I have some things I want to tell him, but no, I should not presume in any way to be self-reliant here. I should rely upon the Spirit and his guiding me and helping me pray, helping me to have faith in prayer and helping me to know what to say in prayer.

Here’s one specific application. The context of Romans 8:26 comes right after saying this:

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness (Romans 8:22–26).

The connection there is groaning in the body under the suffering of this age, waiting for the redemption of our bodies. We don’t know how to pray as we ought. What would be the connection there? I think the connection is, how many times are the people you love sick, or you’re sick and you’re not sure which way it’s going to go here. When do you stop praying for healing? Either at death or when the Lord has simply said to a Joni Eareckson Tada, “Joni, you’re going to glorify me as a paraplegic so you don’t need to ask anymore. Just stop asking. I’m not going to take away your paralysis.” I mean, how does she know? God can heal a paraplegic. God could heal my eyes. Should I keep praying, “Lord, help me not to have to wear these glasses?” Or should I just say, “No, no, that’s part of aging. He’s not going to do that. He’s going to do it through glasses.”

There are a hundred kinds of prayers like that where you just don’t know. I think that’s what he’s getting at here. So whether it’s needing his help to pray in the right spirit or needing his help to pray the right content or needing guidance in the application of who’s well and who’s sick, he helps us. Jude 20 says:

But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in (or by) the Holy Spirit,

By the way, I don’t think there’s any good reason to take this to refer to something like speaking in tongues, if a few of you may be wondering that because of a tradition you come from. I’m not against speaking in tongues. I don’t think that’s what this is about. There is no contextual reason to think of it that way. We need the Holy Spirit to pray as we ought.

Questions and Answers

In this present day, we lack war, persecution, famine, and hardships. In such a culture of easy living. How can we stay desperate and hungry for God without growing complacent?

Well, let’s be careful first because my guess is there are people tuning into this for whom that would not be true. They are in war and they are in persecution. I mean, the internet is something where people could be watching in China right now. So I want to be really sensitive to the fact that this is true for a lot of us Americans. Our life is very posh and very easy, although even in our comfortable non-persecution, non-war situation, there are heartaches abounding of mental and relational kind. So nobody is without sorrow and suffering. And those will help to drive us to God if we let them, if we don’t become embittered by them. But this is the question, and it’s totally a legitimate question.

When things are going well, what do you do to maintain a hunger for God when it looks like you’re getting along just fine without him? You’re happy with your job and you’re happy with your family and you’re happy with your health and you’re happy with your leisure and oh yes, there’s a God, I should pay some attention.

I think that’s one of the places where the regularity of being in his word is important, because the word is going to tell you that’s an illusion. If your heart is being satisfied by the new toys you just bought and the people around you and the job and its esteem and money, then you are being satisfied by an illusion. You are not made to be satisfied by things short of God and you maintain that awareness and that intensity with the word. The word is constantly blowing the fog away from those illusions and they look like the illusions they are. You go hard after him and say, “I want you.” There are two ways that the devil kills your heart: pain and pleasure.

Pain can make you angry at God and pleasure can make you indifferent to God. He’s a shrewd operator and he’ll just try to discern which are you most vulnerable to right now? Do you need some pain in your life to make you mad at God or do you need some more pleasure in life to make you indifferent to God? And he will do whatever he can. So a lot of people think the devil’s showing up when things go bad. No, the devil is showing up when things go good too. And God is there in the bad with a different design and God is there in the good with a different design.

He means for the good to produce gratitude and a tasting of himself in and through his gifts and he means for the bad to cast you upon him. Second Corinthians 1:8 says, “We were so unbearably crushed, we despaired of life itself that was to make us rely on God who raises the dead.” That’s why he brings discipline and suffering into our lives. So stay in the word and interpret your experiences by God’s perspective on them rather than your own or the world’s perspective.

What would you say to a Christian who is terrified to fast because of struggles with body image and eating disorder tendencies in the past?

Super question. I would say fast with something other than food. Don’t play fast and loose with food. If you have gotten some victory in your eating disorder and you’re seeing yourself in a realistic light now and not in the illusions of overweight that you once had and you’re not purging and binging and starving and all this and you’re making it, don’t mess with that. The principle of fasting is that something totally legitimate and good from God is laid aside for a season in order to say that God is more important than that good gift. Do it with television, do it with Twitter, do it with blogs, do it with Facebook, do it with sleep, do it with whatever. But if food is just hovering there ready to master you at any moment, I wouldn’t mess with that. There’s nothing in the Bible, I don’t think, that says in order to be a good obedient Christian, you have to build starvation into your life every now and then when that’s been your killer all your life.

So relax about that and look for other ways to be a fast-er. The principle of fasting is not to prove how much food you can go without and still be happy. It’s a principle of elevating God for a season in a little bit of an artificial way because you have to eat to stay alive. Food is good. He gives it to you to enjoy. So there’s kind of this artificial season where you say no to something in order to just say to God with your stomach or with whatever longing is going to happen if you don’t watch any Downton Abbey or whatever. Then you say, “God, now you’re so precious to me. I want you more. And I will say the more with the rumblings of my stomach, or the rumblings of my desire for Facebook, or the rumblings of my desire for this favorite TV program that I’m not going to watch for two weeks, or whatever.”

You referred to prayer and fasting about the second coming, but would you please address the role of prayer and fasting in the reviving of the church and the subsequent outflow of gospel grace to the nations for their in gathering?

I only mentioned the second coming because that’s the focus of Matthew 15 where we built our first Tuesday fast. You’re absolutely right that there are other more pressing things in our immediate experience for fasting and I’ll get to that in a minute. I think fasting is a way with regard to any particular ache in your heart (a godly ache). It could be an ache for the conversion of a loved one, ache for unity in your church, an ache for your child’s marriage to hold together, an ache for your friend to get a job, or an ache for missionaries who are in prison somewhere in Iraq. These longings that you have and you feel you want to lay hold on God for him. And that would lead you to some season of unspecified fasting perhaps. So yes to the advance of the gospel and the reviving of the church, I would totally support building fasting in for those.

My mother is a strong Christian and my father believes in some sort of higher power. I have expressed a concern to my father and gotten shut down and accused of judgment. Any advice for me on how to communicate my concerns without passing judgment?

There’s only one thing different here, I suppose, than I would say with regard to what I said earlier as young people make different choices than their parents have made. One of the things we do in life it seems like is ask God to bring about spontaneous occasions when we might say something helpful and significant. You’re in a relationship at work or you’re in a relationship with your dad or your sister or roommate, and you say, “God, I pray that you’d bring about a good time so that something natural would happen and we could talk about this.” And I think that’s fine, but why not also say I should ask that person for the opportunity to talk.

So over lunch, late at night in the room, you can just ask for permission. You don’t intrude yourself. You say, “Could we talk about some things that I’ve been thinking about? I want to hear what you have to say and I have a couple of things I’d like to say. Could we just carve out 15 or 30 minutes or an hour to talk?” So you go to your dad, this person here would do that for the dad. They would say, “Can we just talk over lunch or whatever?” It’s a totally non-inflammatory moment. It might become inflammatory, but in this moment you’ve carved out a place where he hasn’t just said something that made you angry and you haven’t just done something that made him angry. This is a neutral moment as far as the present moment is concerned. Then you just lay out to him some of the concerns that you have and you do it with as much respect as possible and you do it for his good.

You say, “I’m just concerned that where you’re going with this higher power could lead to some really destructive things in the relationship with mom and with us and whatever.” So the principle there is just to encourage all of us, whether it’s in evangelism or family relationships, to ask for focused moments of conversation about the issue at hand.

Would you remind us what APTAT means?

Yes, I would. A-P-T-A-T is what I use before many major things like preaching or funerals (in an hour) and a half. “A” stands for admit that I can do nothing. John 15:11 says, “Without me you can do nothing.” “P” stands for pray for help. Jesus says, “Ask and you’ll receive. Seek and you will find” (Matthew 7:12). “T” stands for trust a specific promise, like, “Fear not for I’m with you. Be not dismayed for I’m your God. I’ll help you, I’ll strengthen you. I’ll hold you up with the right hand of my righteousness” (Isaiah 41:10). Then “A” is for act. Do it. Do what you have to do. Make the phone call, preach the sermon, lead the class, run the race, buy the car — whatever is the challenge that you’re not sure about and you’re asking for God’s help. And then once you’ve acted, “T” stands for thank him for his help. Psalm 107:1 says: “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!”

I think APTAT is how you walk according to the Spirit. It’s how you walk by faith. But we are focusing on fasting for the next 35 minutes.

The Secret Food We Get Through Fasting

Carl Lundquist was the president of Bethel University when I came there as a teacher. And here’s what he said:

My own serious consideration of fasting as a spiritual discipline began as a result of a visit to Dr. Joon Gon Kim in Seoul, Korea. “Is it true,” I asked him, “that you spent 40 days in fasting prior to the evangelism crusade in 1980?” When Billy Graham was to come. “Yes,” he responded. “It is true.” Dr. Kim was chairman of the crusade, expected to bring a million people to the Yoido Plaza. But six months before the meeting, the police informed him they were revoking their permission for the crusade. Korea at that time was in political turmoil and Seoul was under martial law. The officers decided they could not take the risk of having so many people together in one place. So Dr. Kim and some associates went to a prayer mountain and there spent 40 days before God in prayer and fasting for the crusade. Then they returned and made their way to the police station. “Oh,” said the officer when he saw Dr. Kim, “we have changed our minds and you can have your meeting.”

As I went back to the hotel, I reflected that I have never fasted like that. Perhaps I had never desired a work of God with the same intensity. His body is marked by many 40 day fasts during his long spiritual leadership of God’s work in Asia. Also, however, I haven’t seen the miracles that Dr. Kim has.

So here’s what Lundquist did. He started a group called “The Order of the Burning Heart.” They had stationary and everything. He died of skin cancer here a couple decades ago. He said:

Instead of taking an hour for lunch, I used the time to go to a prayer room, usually the Flame Room in nearby Bethel Theological Seminary. There I spend my lunch break in fellowship with God and in prayer and I have learned a very personal dimension to what Jesus declared, “I have meat to eat that ye know not of.”

That’s the testimony of Dr. Lundquist, meeting somebody who had walked in fasting and feeling like, “I’ve never even built that in my life at all.” He went back as the president of Bethel and for the remainder years of his life set aside his lunches to fast. I suppose that’s when he didn’t have meetings or whatnot, but he regularly went in there, instead of eating food, he was eating Bible. Jesus said, “I have meat to eat, I have food to eat that you do not know about.” When Jesus said that he didn’t mean physical food. He meant, “My communion with God is nourishing to my soul. I get food and strength from God by the word and prayer that others find from food, physical food.”

When You Fast

Here are some texts you want to build your understanding of fasting on the Bible, not tradition or Carl Lundquist. Jesus says, “Whenever you fast . . .” (Matthew 6:16). And right there is a very important word, not if but when. That made a difference to me when I was assessing whether this is normative for my life in no specific proportion, just should be there in some measure. He doesn’t say if and he doesn’t say often to do it. It’s very loose here. He says:

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 (Matthew 6:16–18).

So it’s right to say that God will see my hunger for him and he will satisfy it.

Matthew 9:14–15 says:

Then the disciples of John (the Baptist) came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.

What kind of an answer is that? He’s saying fasting is an aching, yearning, longing for something you don’t have. The wedding guests don’t act that way when the bridegroom shows up. They party. Okay? Now, if the bridegroom got hit by a car and was in the hospital and couldn’t make it to the wedding, they’d behave differently. They’d ache for him to be able to be there. Or if he was in Iraq and he was in a shootout and he’s supposed to be home in two weeks to marry his girlfriend who’s waited for him for 18 months and you don’t know if he’s going to make it through the firestorm, you’d fast. But that’s not the situation. “I’m here,” he’s saying. “I’m here. I’m Jesus on the planet, loving my disciples, trying to get them ready for when I’m gone.” That’s the situation. Then they will fast. Now jump ahead here for a minute.

“Then they will fast” is I think as close as you get to Jesus saying we should be fasting while he’s gone. Because he’s saying to the disciples of John, “The reason my disciples aren’t fasting is because I’m presently with them like a bridegroom at a wedding and I’m going to be taken away. I’m going to go back to heaven and then they will fast.” Are we? He says, “Then, when I’m gone, they will fast.” That’s why I think it should be built into our lives in some way, that text right there.

New Wine for Fresh Wineskins

Now it gets complicated. He’s going to say another reason why John the Baptist’s fasting isn’t appropriate. He says:

No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made (Matthew 19:16).

So the analogy, I think, is that the old garment is the old fasting and the patch of unshrunk cloth is the new presence of Jesus. This is new. If you try to put Jesus and his new reality on an old, it doesn’t work. It doesn’t. You put it in the wash, it shrinks, it tears, and it doesn’t work. Or he uses another example:

Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved (Matthew 19:17).

So there’s a disconnect between the old forms of the Old Testament and the old fasting and the kingdom that’s here in Jesus. They don’t mix. New wine is put in fresh wine skins. Now the question is, would that include fasting, or is fasting gone? Is it just part of the old wineskin and the old garment and you got to get rid of them because they don’t mix? Is it that fasting should not be part of the new kingdom reality? Or is he saying that the fresh wineskins might be a fresh fasting? Which you can tell is what I think. Richard Foster said:

That (statement) is perhaps the most important statement in the New Testament on whether Christians should fast today.

What he has in mind is this right here: “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away and then they will fast” (Matthew 19:16).

What about the tension between verses 15 and 17? In verse 15, they will fast. And in verse 17, the old fasting is like old wineskin. It’s got to be gotten rid of. You can’t put the new wine in the old wineskins. My answer is the great central decisive act of salvation for us today is past, not future. And on the basis of that past work of the bridegroom, nothing can ever be the same again. This is new wine accomplished at the cross. The blood is shed, the lamb is slain, the punishment of our sins is executed, death is defeated, the Spirit is sent, and the wine is new. It’s new. We don’t live in the Old Testament religion, pre-Messiah, pre-atonement, pre-justification accomplished. The old fasting mindset is simply not adequate.

Yearning in Light of Christ’s Accomplishment

Christian fasting — I’m creating a category here now — rests on all this finished work of the bridegroom who now has come. The yearning that we feel for revival or awakening or deliverance from corruption or the presence of the bridegroom is not merely longing and aching. The firstfruits of what we long for have already come. The bridegroom has showed up. That wasn’t true in the Old Testament. He has shown up. He’s entered the world. He’s lived among us. He’s taught us. He’s died for us. He’s conquered death. He’s provided righteousness. He’s risen from the dead. He reigns and intercedes for us. That transaction happened. It wasn’t true in the Old Testament. So fasting back here was a yearning for and that hadn’t happened yet. So this fasting wasn’t based on that having happened yet. You can’t do Christian fasting in the old John the Baptist way.

The first fruits of what we long for have already come. The down payment of what we yearn for is already paid. The fullness that we are longing for and fasting for has appeared in history and we have beheld his glory. It is not merely future. We have tasted the manifestation of Christ’s glory and our fasting is not because we are hungry for something we have not tasted. The new thing about Christian fasting is that we have tasted the Son of God. He has come. We’ve seen his glory. We’ve listened to him talk. We’ve watched him die for us. Our sins have been born by him. Our fasting has tasted that, loves that, rests in that, and is satisfied by that. It’s not Christian fasting if that’s not where you start. You don’t start with an empty heart. Christian fasting does not start with an empty heart. It starts with a heart that has Jesus in it, has the Holy Spirit in it, and is forgiven and loved and accepted. And now is there any place left for fasting with that much already?

But because the new wine of Christ’s presence is so real and so satisfying, that is what makes our fasting Christian — it’s part of the new wineskin. So my answer is yes, there is a place for fasting because he said, “When the bridegroom is taken away, they will fast.” And my argument is they will fast differently. They won’t fast as though it hadn’t happened. They will fast on the basis that it has happened, I have eaten and drunk deeply of Christ. My sins are forgiven. I’m not fasting for that. I have the Holy Spirit. I’m not fasting for that. I have Jesus. I’m not fasting for that.

What makes fasting Christian is that we’re just so there. We’re loved, we’re accepted, and we’re adopted. Christ is in us and the Holy Spirit is in us. Now, do we want something? Well, we want more. We want more of him and we want his action to be shown more fully in the world. We want his mission to advance. We want a hundred things to happen on the basis of what we already have. So yes, I argue there’s a place for fasting and it should be very, very God focused as these verses say.

Godward Motivations

Jesus says:

“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 (Matthew 6:16–18).

This is amazing. It says that about almsgiving, it says it about praying, and it says about fasting, Matthew 6. So when you give alms, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. In other words, give so quietly not even your hands know you’re giving, let alone everybody else around you. Let God see your giving. Don’t let people see your giving. When you’re praying don’t stand on the street corner and pray with long words. Go into your closet and shut the door. Let God see you’re praying. When you fast, wash your face, comb your hair and fast and don’t let people know you’re fasting. Let God see — God, God, God. So the point of almsgiving and praying and fasting is Godward. I want God to see. I want God to answer. I am not trying to be praised by people. It’s a huge temptation in the ministry or in the Christian life.

Do you want people to hear how much time you spend in prayer? Do you want people to hear how much time you spend reading your Bible? Do you want people to hear how disciplined you are in your fasting routines? Yes, we do want people to hear because we crave praise. Those texts are just so powerful to say, “Look, the test here is are you after God or are you after the approval of men?” There are a few things we humans crave more than people’s approval. It’s powerful. I sometimes think it’s way more powerful than sex or money.

If you get enough people around you saying you’re great, that feels good. That feels really good. You’ll just do anything to keep it going. You become addicted to it. You can’t say anything that would displease anybody. You can’t do anything. You’re starting to be a second hander all the time saying and doing what will get you the approval of the people around you. And now you’re into addiction with a massive dose of human need for praise. That text is just saying break that with quiet almsgiving, secluded prayer, and anonymous fasting so that it’s all to God and for God and not for people to know about.

An Illustration of Fasting

Now here’s the illustration of it in the life of the early church in Acts. Your next question would be, “Well, can you ever do it in a group then?” If you’re supposed to wash your face and comb your hair and not let anybody know you’re fasting, how could you ever do it in a group or as a church? And the answer is what Jesus is getting at is motive. Do you crave people’s praise? Do you want to be seen by others? It is possible to be seen by others and not want to be seen by others. It’s the same thing with almsgiving.

On the one hand it says, “When you give alms, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” Matthew 5:16 says, “Let your lights shine before men so that they may see your good deeds and give glory to your Father.” Well, which is it? The good deeds of almsgiving should be so quiet nobody knows you’re doing it, and you should do it to be seen by others so that they will give glory to your Father. That must mean there is a way to do good deeds that necessarily must be seen. You can’t stop and help somebody change their tire when it’s 40 below zero at 1:00 a.m. and not have them know it.

You should stop. But when you stop, your mindset shouldn’t be, “I’m going to tell a lot of people about this and they’ll be really impressed with how I sacrificed my evening in love so that I will get the praise as a godly person.” If that’s your mindset, you’ve just wasted it. It’s not going to be of any moral credit to you at all. But you do want that person to know you have a God in heaven who loves them and loves you and supports them and supports you. You want your kind of loving to be in evidence of his kind of loving so that they glorify your Father in heaven. That’s a very tricky way to live, isn’t it? It’s walking between wanting to be seen by men for ego reasons and wanting men to see God. That’s tough. But that’s our calling.

Fasting in the Early Church

Acts 13:1–3 says:

Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 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.

Now most of you’re not from Bethlehem right now, but those of you’re from Bethlehem know that when I preached on this April of 2011, that was my text. I called it the Antioch moment. I said, “Bethlehem is in an Antioch moment. I am believing God should replace me at Bethlehem before I am too stupid to know I need replacing.” Now is a good time to do this. I said, “We have these issues, we have structural issues, and we have relational issues and we got transition issues.” Those three big issues were our Antioch moment. And I said, “I would like to summon all the elders to pray every Thursday morning for an hour. And as God leads them in fasting and do that right there in Acts 13.”

They were worshiping and they were fasting. The elders met for six weeks. I mean, when I preached that sermon, I had zero idea who my replacement would be or how it could happen without a big upheaval. I’ve been there for 33 years. That’s not easy, right? I don’t know how this is going to happen. I remember this sentence. I said, “When our elders don’t know what to do, they know what to do about not knowing what to do: pray and fast.” And when we were done, doors began to open. And today, we are ready and moving with an excitement that is unbelievable. The giving is better than it’s been in seven years while I’m leaving.

Could it be better? Jason comes out of nowhere and gets a concealed ballot vote of 800 people with only eight nos. And they probably mischecked. I don’t know. But it’s just incredible. I traced that back to the Lord looking down on 40 elders on their knees for one hour every Thursday morning trying to create that moment in their hearts, saying, “God, we don’t know how to do this. We’ve never done this before. We’ve never replaced a 33 year tenured pastor and we don’t even know who it’s going to do. We don’t know the process to do it. We don’t know if he should quit and then find him. We don’t know. We still know nothing here. Help us.”

So here we are and he’s helped us. He said, “Not set aside Barnabas and Saul,” he said, “set aside Jason.” And if you knew the backstory of some of this and how God had been working with Jason and in other ways, you would be even more amazed. I totally believe in this. And of course, my telling you that story might be sinful. It might have elements of imperfection in it because I’m boasting that we did the right thing and now you should praise us about that. So just reckon that’s a possibility right now that I’ve just wrecked my reward entirely.

But you take risks like that. I don’t think our elders felt that way at all. I don’t think they felt uppity at all. I think they felt desperate because we just had never done it before. We still feel desperate. We’re not done with this process and we’re seeking him in those ways still. We just prayed on Thursday when we gathered. The elders still do it once a month now instead of every week.

The Essence of Fasting

The essence of fasting is hunger for God. Isaiah 55:1–3 says:

Come, everyone who thirsts,
     come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
     come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
     without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
     and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
     and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
     hear, that your soul may live . . . (Isaiah 55:1–3).

God invites us to come and eat what is free from him. John 6:26–29 says:

Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

By believing you are eating that food. So don’t work for the food that perishes. Work for the food which endures to eternal life. In your life, yes, you must have the food that perishes and God means for you to enjoy it. It says that in 1 Timothy 4:4. God means for you to enjoy his good gifts and by giving him thanks and sanctifying it with the word of God in prayer. But he longs for you to be satisfied with another kind of food — namely, man cannot live by bread alone, but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God. Communion with God through his word is what he longs for. And when we fast, we are saying to God with our stomachs, that’s how much we want that to happen.

Psalm 37:4 says:

Delight yourself in the Lord,
     and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Psalm 34:8 says:

Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!
     Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!

John 6:35 says:

I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.

Fasting and Feasting to Magnify God

So how do feasting and fasting magnify God? In this age where the bridegroom has come, the kingdom has been established, the Holy Spirit as a down payment has been poured out into your life, and the love of God is surging through your heart, you cannot only fast. It would be an offense to God if all you did was fast and never feast. Bread magnifies Christ in two ways: by being eaten with gratitude for his goodness and by being forfeited out of hunger for God himself. That’s how both magnify God. When we eat, we taste the emblem of our heavenly food, the bread of life. And when we fast, we say, “I love the reality above the emblem.”

If you eat lunch today in just a little while and you taste it as the emblem of the reality that satisfies your soul, the eating itself will be good and right and properly delightful. And then if you skip supper to say, “Thank you for the emblem lunch, but I need you more than I need food. I just want to say it with this one meal. I’m going to read the Bible for 45 minutes here instead of eating. And what I mean by that 45 minutes is that the reality is more important to me than the emblem, which is also good and also an honor to you.”

Don’t become sick here. It takes a really unusual work of God to make a Christian who can navigate properly enjoying food and properly forfeiting food. It’s just a healthy way to do both. Never criticize others who have a different pattern and never boast in the pattern that you’ve settled on. When we eat and when we fast, we say, “I love the reality above the emblem. In the heart of the saint, both eating and fasting are worship. Both magnify Christ. Both send the heart grateful and yearning to the Giver.” Does your eating send you to the Giver? And does your fasting send you to the Giver? They both should. Each has its appointed place and each has its danger. The danger of eating is that we fall in love with the gift, and the danger of fasting is that we belittle the gift and glory in our willpower. There are dangers everywhere. There are landmines everywhere in the Christian life.

How Fasting Glorifies God

Fasting is peculiarly suited to glorify God in this way. It is fundamentally an offering of emptiness to God in hope. When you’re hungry, your stomach may be growling and your head may be aching. Fasting has very different effects on different people. You can get a headache, you can get nauseated. You have to be careful. And I’m not asking any of you to make yourself sick or to get yourself in the hospital or something, and especially if you’ve got diabetes or something like that. You’ve got to be so careful. There’s no pressure here to make yourself sick or to take risks with your health. We’ve settled that already a few minutes ago with regard to other ways you can fast besides food. But it is a longing and aching, a hunger.

It’s uncomfortable. It’s not meant to be comfortable. The discomfort is how you feel when you’re not getting your food. And what you’re saying to God is, “That much discomfort, that much longing and aching, I want to just transpose onto you not food. I’m feeling it for food and I’m saying it for you. That’s what I mean by this fast. Father, I am empty, but you are full. I’m hungry, you are the bread of heaven. I am thirsty, you are the fountain of life. I am weak, but you are strong. I am poor, you are rich. I am foolish, you are wise. I am broken, you are whole. I am dying, your steadfast love is better than life.”

When God sees this, this confession, this meaning of your fasting, this confession of need, this expression of trust, he acts because the glory of his all sufficient grace is at stake. The final answer is that God rewards fasting because fasting expresses the cry of the heart that nothing on earth can satisfy my soul besides God. God must reward this cry because God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him, and he means to get glory from our being satisfied in him.

How Fasting Serves Faith

How does the hungry handmaid, fasting, serve our faith? Joy in God is the strength to walk with Jesus from the wilderness to the cross and into eternal life. But maintaining that joy against its most subtle and innocent rivals is a lifelong struggle. And in that struggle, fasting, the humble, hungry handmaid of faith, is an emissary of grace. She comes to every fast with the same words:

Though the fig tree should not blossom,
     nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
     and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
     and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
     I will take joy in the God of my salvation (Habakkuk 3:17–18).

Some of you know that’s the text that Noël and I had read at our wedding almost 44 years ago now. Though the fig tree should not blossom in this marriage, though the fields yield no food, we will exult in the Lord and not in the blossom, not in the food. We will rejoice in the God of our salvation. It was a wonderful and right way to begin a marriage. Life isn’t always a bed of roses. There are thorns. Establish from the outset God is your food and the pleasures of sex, the pleasures of having children, and the pleasures of deepening friendship are all secondary. They come and they go, but God never goes, and therefore, I don’t ever have to be starved because he satisfies.

I close with this testimony from Korea:

In more recent times, the evangelical church in South Korea has taught the rest of the world a lesson in prayer and fasting. The first Protestant church was planted in Korea in 1884. One hundred years later, there were 30,000 churches. That’s an average of 300 new churches a year for 100 years in South Korea. Today, evangelicals comprise 30 percent of the population.

There’s not a story like that anywhere on the planet, anywhere else that I know of. There were 300 new churches a year from nothing. In 1884, it was a totally non-Christian country. Today, it is 30 percent evangelical and that kind of pace, not just for 10 years or 20 or 30 or 40, but for 100 years. God has used many means to do this great work. One of them is a recovery, not just of dynamic prayer, but of fasting prayer. In the OMS (Overseas Missionary Society) churches alone more than 20,000 people have completed a 40-day fast, usually at one of their prayer houses or prayer mountains.

I don’t know what God’s purpose is for the church in America, whether we will survive or whether America will just be a footnote in history. But it seems to me that one of the means he might use in your own personal awakening and the awakening and reviving and intensifying of the worship and ministry of your church would be that you and out from you, increasing numbers of others would build into your lives a kind of meditation on the word of God and a kind of prayer over the word of God and a kind of fasting for the fullness of God that would result in an extraordinary level of walking with him that the world needs very, very badly.