Habits of the Heart: A Study of the Spiritual Disciplines
By Dr. Jack R. Hodges, Jr.
For followers of Jesus Christ to grow into the likeness of Christ, our journey requires a commitment to grow spiritually and practice spiritual disciplines. Over the last several months, I have invited you to look at two “internal” disciplines, meditation and prayer. The spiritual discipline of meditation calls us to enter into the living presence of God for ourselves. And prayer is that moment and place where we find ourselves face to face with our God, connecting and conversing with Him on a deep, intimate level.
Look with me now at a third internal habit of the heart: fasting. “Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “Return to Me with all your heart, And with fasting, weeping and mourning…” (Joel 2:12)
It would be accurate to say that fasting is a biblical discipline that has not been given much thought, much less practice in the modern evangelical movement. In a land of plenty, fast food and gourmet restaurants rule the landscape, food is plentiful and accessible, and we live in a culture that values eating and, unfortunately, obesity has become a major health issue. Clearly, we, as a culture, are missing something very important about keeping our bodies fit and healthy. Could it be that God, in His infinite wisdom and His deep care for us, has given us some valuable insights into taking care of this body (which is a gift)? Could it be that there is an ongoing need to purge our bodies of the constant influx of chemicals, drugs, and food carcinogens (e.g., glutens, dioxins, and genetically modified ingredients, etc.), which have become toxic to our bodies? Since biblical times, the spiritual discipline of fasting has been practiced and the scriptures have much to say about it. The list of biblical figures who fasted is long: Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Anna, the prophetess, Paul, and even Christ Jesus all regularly fasted.
The spiritual discipline of fasting is not about dieting. It is not about prevention or intervention. Throughout the scriptures, fasting refers to abstaining from food for spiritual purposes. Richard Foster (Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. Harper & Row) notes, “It stands in distinction to the hunger strike, the purpose of which is to gain political power or attract attention for a good cause. It is distinct from healthy dieting, which stresses abstinence from food, but for physical, not spiritual purposes” (p. 42). Biblical fasting always centers on spiritual purposes. Throughout the Word of God, the normal method of fasting involved abstaining from all food, solid, or liquid (but not water) for a period. We know that when Jesus went out into the wilderness to fast (Lk. 4:1-13), He was led there by the Holy Spirit. He ate nothing during that 40-day period, and we read that toward the end of His fast, He was hungry. Jesus would regularly pray—conversing with God to hear and speak with the Father, understanding His will and purpose, and then He would obediently move and act upon the Father’s commands. Believers, too, are invited to pray without ceasing—for God’s ears are always tuned to hear His children and are committed to converse with us anytime and anywhere.
This time, however, it was the Spirit of God that led Jesus to an extraordinary experience which we know as a “fast.” Knowing that Satan would confront Jesus in the wilderness, the Spirit of God wanted Jesus to be ready for the temptations. The question arises: If God knew that Jesus would battle the “deceiver” in the wilderness, then why would God require that Jesus submit Himself to abstinence from nourishment, knowing full well that Jesus would be hungry, weak, and vulnerable? The answer is, of course, that this was to demonstrate that our power over Satan does not come from our own strength, wisdom, power, or might—but rather solely from the power of the presence of the Holy Spirit and by His authority alone.
Satan tempted Jesus to eat, saying “If You are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Clearly, the temptation was aimed at Jesus’ vulnerability and indicates that His fasting was from food, not water. Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”
Although the duration of Jesus’ fast was for 40 days, there doesn’t seem to be indicated elsewhere in scripture a prescribed period for fasting. This “Temptation of Christ” sequence certainly does not suggest nor qualify that a fast must last for 40 days. The real significance of Jesus’ fast was that the Lord responded to the Spirit of God and obediently made an intentional choice to abstain for the purpose of spiritual preparation. Jesus obediently fasted to ready Himself for the temptation. How often do you and I face a specific spiritual challenge and we find that we are ill-equipped to handle the onslaught of the attack? Perhaps, the reason is that we have failed to respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit to ready ourselves for the attack. How do we do that? By entering a Holy Spirit-driven season (time) of fasting. We humbly and sincerely agree to abstain from any and all distractions so that we may hear the unobstructed, clear, and unimpeded directions from God which will guide us through the valleys of temptation, confusion, mixed emotions, attacks or offensive intrusions into our spiritual, emotional, psychological, and/or physical lives.
William Horne (The Practice of Fasting in Church History: A brief annotated timeline of fasting in Christian writing. In Medium, Feb 21, 2018), argues that fasting has often historically been used as either a practice tied with a “works-salvation” theology or as a means to get God’s attention. Neither of these motives is rooted in a truly biblical understanding of fasting. Foster points out that to “use a good thing to our own ends is always a sign of false religion. How easy it is to take…fasting and try to use it to get God to do what we want” (p. 48).
Fasting, as a spiritual discipline, is never commanded in the Word of God. Rather, the believer is free to follow their conscience and the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Fasting must center on God, It must be God-initiated and God-ordained. Our motive must be for God to change us and ready us to use for His glory alone—for nothing can be allowed to stand in the way of His glory and honor. When the Holy Spirit of God calls His beloved into a fast, He is inviting us to step into the spiritual furnace that seeks to burn away all that controls us. As we seek to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ, we humbly offer up all that is impure—and we declare to the Lord, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; And see if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way.” (Ps. 139:23-24)
Dr. Jack Hodges is the Senior Pastor at Pleasant Hill Baptist Church in Morganton, NC. He has served as a pastor, a biblical counselor and an International Mission Board missionary.