There’s an old proverb that says “it takes a box of salt to make a friend” – you have to share some meals together before you really get to know someone. During my time at Dallas Seminary, I had the privilege of leading several student small groups as a Leadership Fellow. Whenever my groups met, I made it a point to eat together. I remember so clearly the first meeting of one particular group, to which we all brought food and were ready to begin the process of fellowship for the next several terms. One of the men arrived with an ample supply of his favourite Chinese dish – his wife’s specialty. We all talked as we tucked in to the various treats on the table. Noticing his reluctance to eat, I quietly asked him if he was alright. His answer began a time of discovery for the whole group. “I’m fine,” he said, smiling; “It’s just that I’m near the end of a forty-day fast, and I don’t want to break my train of thought.”
Every group leader can learn a lesson or two.
I had fasted before, but never with focus or grit like that. As the group got to know one another, we talked out the idea of fasting. I came away with some solid thoughts about what fasting is, how it can be of benefit, and why it is an important, but neglected discipline.
Jesus told his audience on the Mount of Beatitudes (Matthew 6:16-18) not to fast for an external show of piety, hyping up the misery and the pain associated with your discipline. That’s fasting to impress those around you, and that’s all backwards. Better to remain cheerful and well-groomed. That way you don’t draw attention to yourself, and then you can freely devote your attention to God.
Other remarks about fasting in the New Testament are associated with specific decisions that must be made in accordance with God’s will and leading. When Barnabas and Saul are set apart as missionaries from Antioch (Acts 13:2-3), and when these two in turn chose elders to lead the churches they established in Turkey (Acts 14:23), fasting was part of the decision-making process.
The man in my group, who brought his favourite Chinese food to share with us, began his fast because he had some very significant decisions to make. He was looking to God for clarity of mind. I think we can all benefit from occasional fasting, when hard decisions demand clear thinking. Take the time you would otherwise spend choosing, preparing, and eating food, and use the time to seek God. Ask Him specific questions and wait for His leading. It doesn’t have to involve a long starvation diet, and it would be wise to check with your doctor before an extended time of fasting. Sometimes just water and juice for a few days can bring a new focus. Or skip lunch for a month and take time to pray. Your attitude is much more important than the severity of the fast. I know from experience that the third day is the toughest. After that you come to realise that you enjoy God and His sustaining fellowship more than meat and potatoes.