This post is by Jeremy Maxfield (M.T.S., Beeson Divinity School). Jeremy serves as a writer and lead editor for the Groups Ministry: Adult Discipleship team at LifeWay in Nashville, TN.
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“As a deer longs for streams of water, so I long for You, God.” Psalm 42:1 (HCSB)
What is absolutely vital to your day? Humans can survive for a few minutes without oxygen, a few days without water, and a few weeks without food. But we cannot exist for a moment without the Creator and Sustainer of life (Col. 1:16-17). Without basic physical needs, we become single-minded in our focus. Our lungs would swell and our muscles ache as we burn with desperation for that breath of air, that drop of water, or that bite to eat. Yet, how often do we focus our attention on Christ, forgoing even our most basic physical needs in order to drink deeply of His gracious love?
Right in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addressed fasting along with giving and praying. Teaching on all three of these practices was introduced with the phrase “Whenever you ____”(Matt. 6:2,5,16). You don’t have to be a Greek scholar to unlock the meaning of this text. The word translated as “whenever” means… “whenever.” Jesus did not teach His disciples to give, pray, or fast—it was already understood that they would do these things. He said, whenever you give, pray, or fast, keep in mind that they are all exercises of the heart to be done for spiritual reward.
Though often skipped over in our routines today, fasting was a natural rest in the rhythm to which God’s people moved. It was as vital to spiritual health as charity and prayer.
Fasting makes room for God’s presence. It’s a hunger for God—a craving for Him above anything else. It’s a focusing of the heart, mind, and spirit—a discipline of the will—to recognize that there is nothing we need more than to know and do the will of God. Our satisfaction is not found in anything He created—not even our most basic physical need. Our satisfaction and joy is found only in our Creator—the One who spoke everything into being (Gen. 1).
“Man must not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Matthew 4:4 (HCSB)
It was after fasting 40 days in the wilderness that Jesus rebuked the Devil’s temptation by quoting this passage from Deuteronomy 8:3. His physical need could not have been much greater. Yet the spiritual need for intimacy with and obedience to God is even more significant than our need for food. Filling our hearts outweighs filling our stomachs.
Fasting has a cleansing effect, a sharpening of our awareness, both physically and spiritually. We become single-minded. One thing I’ve come to realize is that discipline in one area bleeds over into other areas of my life. This is especially true of fasting. When I can prioritize my commitment to listening to God through prayer and His Word, other priorities fall in line also. When I’m disciplined enough to resist the desire for food, even when it is painful or disruptive to deny myself this need, I’m usually disciplined enough to resist temptation. If I can deny myself something basic and essential, I can deny the frivolous, unnecessary, or indulgent.
“Refrain from gluttony and thou shalt the more easily restrain all the inclinations of the flesh.” – Thomas a’ Kempis
Ultimately, fasting is not just denial and death to self. Fasting is focus. Fasting is a filling of our hearts rather than our stomachs. Fasting is food for the soul rather than the body. Fasting is feasting when we “taste and see that the LORD is good” (Ps. 34:8).