“Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:1–16)
What is Lent?
We’re headed into the Easter season. This week we celebrated Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Tuesday as it’s sometimes called, followed by Ash Wednesday, the official start of the season of Lent.
Lent has been observed for hundreds of years, dating back before the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. The counting of the days of Lent is a little convoluted since some churches observed seven weeks of fasting except Saturdays and Sundays because they liked the number 7. Others wanted it to be 40 days because of the significance of that number in the Bible. Moses was on Mouth Sinai fasting for 40 days, Elijah walked for 40 days while fasting, and of course, Jesus fasted for 40 days when being tempted in the desert – and there are more examples.
The Western church has settled on the formula being that Lent lasts from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday (the day before Easter Sunday), changing the date depending on when the Jewish Passover occurs, which is on the first full moon following the Spring equinox, making Lent 46 days long, minus the Sundays, or Lord’s Days, when we celebrate His resurrection rather than His crucifixion, by worshipping rather than fasting, bringing the number of fasting days to 40. Makes perfect sense, right?
The season of Lent has traditionally been a time when Christians avoided certain foods, parties, and celebrations to contemplate the crucifixion of Jesus instead. We cut out some of the distracting, pleasurable things from our lives to confess our sins, meditate on the sufferings of Christ, and prepare our hearts by remembering why Jesus had to die on the cross. It’s a time to consider the habits of our life, mortify those sins that have cropped up, think less of ourselves and more about Jesus by spending more time, energy and effort on our spiritual lives and relationship with God.
The day before Lent starts is called Shrove Tuesday and it is that day that really emphasizes how far culture has moved away from a Lenten spirit. Shrove Tuesday gets its name from the word “Shrive” meaning to confess sins and receive absolution or forgiveness. It was a day set aside to really clean out our hearts by getting serious with our sin before the season of Lent began. A day to say with David in Psalm 139(:23-24), “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”
But here’s what happened. There were a bunch of foods that people would traditionally give up for Lent – things like meat, fish, fatty foods, eggs, milk, and sweets. Like the Israelites with their simple, bitter foods and unleavened bread, Christians used their diet to show what was going on in their hearts. But because there wasn’t refrigeration back then the foods people gave up would spoil before the 40 days were over. And what’s the best way to get rid of fats, eggs, milk, sweets, and meat? Have a pancake party.
So, Shrove Tuesday turned into Shrovetide, three days set aside to use up these foods. Over time, the day of confession became a time when families would get together and eat up all the foods they couldn’t have during Lent. Shrove Tuesday turned into Pancake Tuesday or Fat Tuesday (because it was the day to use up fatty foods). And you likely already know the French name for Fat Tuesday – Mardi Gras.
Now, when you think of Mardi Gras, I’m sure the first thing that comes to mind is confession of sin, repentance, soul-preparation, and spiritual discipline, right? No. Mardi Gras is now an entire season, starting on January 6th, dedicated to parties and parades and often, perversion.
Now, let me pause here for a moment to say that while Christianity is against perversion, we are emphatically not against parties or parades or pancakes – because scripture is not against them. As Ecclesiastes 3 says, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven… a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…” (3:1,4) My point today, the reason I’m talking about Lent today, is because as a culture, especially our modern, Western culture, we are really, really bad at weeping and mourning part because we spend too much time laughing and dancing.
And in losing our ability to weep, mourn, lament, and fast – but instead keeping ourselves in a perpetual state of entertainment, distraction, and celebration, has caused us to lose a very important part of our spiritual lives and a critical way that we connect to God.
What Happens When We Lose Lent
I know I struggle with this sometimes. I’ll gear myself up for a time of self-discipline – like a change of diet or a spiritual discipline or to focus on something that I know God has been asking me to deal with – and it seems like I’m constantly interrupted by excuses to laugh and dance. The whole culture seems to work against me.
Every month has a holiday, or a birthday, or anniversary, or party of some kind. Every week the stores have a sale on something that I like. I’m surrounded by things that not too long ago were only available on special occasions. I can buy a birthday cake and sweets and balloons and chocolate and oranges every day if I want to. I don’t have to wait for a newspaper or magazine to come to my door, I can get news and pictures and crossword puzzles all day long. I don’t have to wait for next week to see my favourite TV show, or for a few months to see a movie, Netflix has new ones every day, and I can binge an entire season in one day! There’s always a new, big movie event or concert or game or playoff or another piece of entertainment that everyone says I must see. I walk into a store and there’s limited edition everything there – books, movies, candy, clothes – and two or three special seasons represented – Valentine’s Decorations next to St Patrick ’s Day stuff next to Easter chocolates – each telling me to get it soon, while it’s on sale, before it’s gone. Then I turn on the radio and hear commercials for deals that are all ending soon, so I’d better get it, that I deserve it, that I would be stupid not to jump on. Every YouTube video and picture on Instagram shows me the latest trend I’m missing out on, or something I need to experience, or something I need to take my kids to, or something I need to do with my wife. RightNow media introduces 12 new studies every week and the blogs I follow tell me about 10 new books I want to read.
And it all kind of works on me. My spirit cries out to stop, get away, find silence, meditation, confession, prayer, solitude – but I almost feel guilty not participating in all that other stuff. I work for one day and then I feel like I deserve a reward. I eat a vegetable and then feel like I deserve dessert. I worry about missing out. What if someone asks me if I’ve seen something or tried something, or gone somewhere, and I have to say that I haven’t done it? What if it would have been fun and I missed it forever?
I’m constantly tempted to live in a perpetual state of distraction, entertainment, and satisfaction – and yet the Spirit of God, the Lord Jesus, and the scriptures say that the happiness that I am constantly pursuing in those other areas, the blessedness I’m trying to find in them, the joy I want to feel when I indulge, doesn’t come from being distracted, entertained, and trying to feel satisfied with the world, but with pursuing poverty, mourning, meekness, hunger, self-denial. Jesus says in His introduction to the Sermon on the Mount that if we want to feel fully human, know real peace, experience real joy, feel the satisfaction of contentedness in the midst of struggles by knowing the presence of God, then the recipe is to remove a lot of that other stuff and seek the beatitudes.
That’s really what Lent is supposed to be about. It’s not a belief that parties and celebrations are bad. It’s saying that sometimes the human soul requires a time of fasting, penitence, regret, mourning, confession, tears, simplicity, solitude, and lament. Not because we want to sit around being bitter, eating ashes, wallowing in guilt and shame, but because we know that the only way to get right with God and others is to admit that we are sinners who need a Saviour, that we are weak and need help, that physical pleasure isn’t enough and that we need spiritual fulfillment, that discipline and self-denial make us into better, more godly people.
In Matthew 11 Jesus says to the crowds,
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (vs 28-29)
And then in Matthew 16 He said,
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (vs 24)
They seem contradictory, but both are true. Jesus says to put away the priorities of this world and the huge burden it is to try to pull ourselves towards happiness, joy, and contentment by using the things the sinful, distracting, immediate pleasures the world has to offer – but to pick up His way of life, His cross, because we will find that burden easier, lighter, and His path the way to true freedom. Jesus says that the way to gain freedom for our souls is not to avoid guilt, shame, lament, confession, mourning, the cross, but to embrace it, because when we finally do – when we finally turn from worldly pleasures to the kind of life Jesus offers – it is then that we will experience true freedom.
1 Peter 2:11 says that all those pleasures and distractions the world offers are actually like propaganda from the Enemy who uses them to war against our soul. It says,
“Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.”
1 John 2:15-17 gives this warning,
“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.”
It’s trying to give us a bigger view, an eternal view, comparing what the world offers with what Jesus offers. The world is full of wonderful things that God has given us for our joy and pleasure, that we can use to enhance our connection to God, but each one, because of this fallen world has the potential to be twisted into a trap for our souls.
- Food is wonderful, gluttony is a prison.
- Sexual pleasure is wonderful, but there’s a lot of ways it can ruin lives.
- Parties and wine and dancing and friends are wonderful, but addiction and alcoholism and hangovers and bad decisions and regrets are not.
- Work, education and study are wonderful, but workaholism, anxiety, arrogance, and elitism can be dangerous results.
- Having money and stuff and comfort is wonderful, but selfishness, controlling others, being in debt, and refusing to obey God for fear of losing it, can be terrible results when sin takes over.
- Video games and hobbies are wonderful, but removing yourself from reality to live in a fantasy world, and ignoring your friends, family, and community is not.
It is during the season of Lent that Christians are invited to cut out the distractions, do an inventory of our souls, to invite God to examine us and show us how the world has been fooling us, and to come out the other side cleaner, more holy, more blessed, and more committed to following Jesus no matter where He wants to go because we prefer His way to the world’s.
Lent & The Beatitudes
Look back with me to what Jesus said in Matthew 5:13-16. Jesus calls his followers “Salt” and “Light”. He says,
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.”
What’s Jesus talking about here? He’s talking about how His people should be different from the world, distinct from the world, special. The illustration of being a lamp is pretty easy to understand but consider the salt.
Just like today, salt was used as a preservative and flavouring for food, something that worked like nothing else. What makes salt special is its saltiness, its difference from the rest of the food. What point is there on sprinkling on something that tastes no different than what you’re already eating? What point is there in rubbing on or mixing in something that has no preserving effect? We wouldn’t use it.
Our calling as Christians, as followers of Jesus, is to “permeate society as agents of redemption.” We are to witness the moral decay of the world, the blandness of what it offers, the corruption of its promises, realize it to not only be a trap, but so much worse than what Jesus offers, and remain different, special, unique, salty. We don’t separate ourselves from the world, avoiding it and condemning it from ivory towers and stained glassed cloisters – after all salt doesn’t do anyone any good when it’s left in the shaker – but we work ourselves into the world, in our jobs, our communities, our friendships, our sports teams, etc. and add the flavour of Christ, the light of Jesus to that place. And we only do that by remaining different.
If we act and sound and look like the world, then we are of no use to them or the Kingdom of God. No one will become thirsty for the gospel of Jesus if they never experience our saltiness. No one will ever desire to get out of the darkness unless they see the light within us.
How To Remain Different
So how do we remain different? What distinctiveness should we have? What makes a Christian different from the world? That’s what the Beatitudes are all about. Jesus gives the Beatitudes to show us what salt and light looks like.
Some people think that what sets Christians apart is what we do and don’t do. Christians don’t drink, or smoke, or vape, or party, or watch violent movies, or listen to certain kinds of music, or swear, or make jokes, or do yoga or martial arts. Some Christians even believe that the best way for them to be Christian is to never participate in anything the culture is doing so they never go to movies, listen to secular radio, watch sports, or participate in politics.
But that’s not what Jesus says here at all. In fact, most of these have nothing to do with what we do or don’t do, but instead speak of the attitude of our hearts. What makes us salty in the world is not what we do or don’t do, it’s our character.
Everyone faces death, everyone gets angry, everyone feels sad, everyone gets sick, everyone gets betrayed, everyone feels pride. Lots of people go to parties, drink alcohol, get promoted or fired from their jobs, are blessed with good looks or money or talent, or struggle with handicaps, abuses, and disabilities. The difference isn’t that Christians run to their bubble to avoid anything bad, but instead that they actually face the problem, understand it differently, and have a very different attitude because of their relationship with Jesus.
One book I’ve read lately that has really helped me with this is J. Oswald Sanders’ “Spiritual Maturity”. In his chapter on the Beatitudes, he says,
“It is a common idea that blessedness flows from the possession of wealth, the absence of sorrow, the gratification of appetite, being well spoken of and kindly treated. Christ’s teaching cut right across this popular concept of happiness and indicated that the very experiences we are eager to avoid are the ones conducive to the deepest joy and most to be coveted.”
Why? Because they are the ones that show how Jesus has changed our lives. They are the things that make us saltier, that increase the wattage of the light that shines within us, and shows how different we are from the world.
Consider the first beatitude:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The world says that you will be happy and blessed once you have realized your potential, maximized your strength, have total independence. Jesus says, “No. You will find joy and real prosperity and blessing when you realize that you are a person in need.” When you admit you are weak and bankrupt in your soul, once you realize you are empty is the only time you will allow God to fill you up. It is only once you’ve been broken of your pride, realized your inadequacy for the demands of your life, and come to God with empty hands, that God’s unlimited resources are available to you. Until then, you’re going to be trying to take on the world with your own strength and losing over and over.
Consider the second beatitude:
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
Mourning is something that our society actively avoids. We idolize and worship youth and vitality while pushing age and sickness and death farther and farther from our collective minds. The Wall-Street Journal recently had an article on “The Free-Form Funeral” where people avoid churches and the topic of death in favour of more celebratory ceremonies. They are doing rock concerts and parties that memorialize life instead of facing the problem and pain of death and loss. Mourning doesn’t feel good, so they opt for a party. Grief is no fun, so it’s avoided.
The problem here is that grief and mourning are dangerous to avoid – in fact, they are impossible to avoid. Eventually, the party will end, the distraction will stop, and these people will still be faced with their loss, but will have no guidance or community to help them through it. They won’t be able to go to anyone with their feelings of loss because it’s socially unacceptable to do so, so they’ll either have to let it eat them alive – or they’ll have to get rid of it using chemicals and distraction.
But mourning and grief are gifts from God that we shouldn’t avoid. It is in those times of sadness that we are finally open to being comforted. When we face the evil of death it forces us to ask big questions, realize how powerless we really are, it forces us to face the temporary nature of this life, and forces us to feel lonesome, regretful, and sad. It is in our mourning that we are invited to ask for help. And it is in our mourning that the gospel message, where Jesus Christ the Son of God conquers sin and death, bringing hope to a lost world, starts to make sense – where the names of God like Comforter, Shepherd, Father and friend, start to really become real.
But none of that can happen if we do not mourn.
And that’s only the first two of the beatitudes. Let me close with this. Let me encourage you to consider embracing the season of Lent by committing to a time of fasting and prayer. Choose something in your life to remove – tv, entertainment, a meal, a certain food, your phone, the internet – and replace the time you would spend on that with a time of prayer and reading the scriptures.
And during that time, let me invite you to meditate on and study the Beatitudes. Many of you have prayed that God would make you salt and light, to be used to affect this world in a positive way, to see your heart and your community changed by the Gospel in deeper ways. This is a good place to start.
 Blomberg, C. (1992). Matthew (Vol. 22, p. 102). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.”
 I’m going to use a lot of concepts from his chapter called “Christ’s Ideal of Character”.
What is Lent?
We are currently in the traditional season of Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday and goes until Easter Sunday. Most Protestants, Baptists included, don’t really celebrate much of the liturgical calendar, but the Lenten season has been celebrated by many Christians around the world since the third century.
Evangelicals usually avoid it, though it’s making somewhat of a comeback these days, because it’s associated with the rituals of Catholicism and old-school Christianity. The idea is that since the protestant reformation, we have thrown off the shackles of mindless pharisaical religion and now live as modern worshippers of God who follow the Bible and not the rules of man. But I think that by ceasing the practice of many of these traditions we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater and have lost some very powerful tools of Christian discipleship.
The protestant reformation was all about combatting false teachers who had moved away from the message of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus and were telling people they had to do certain things (like go in pilgrimages, say certain prayers, do penance, and give the church money) before God would forgive them.
But the protestants didn’t just get rid of the false Roman Catholic teachers, they also demonized many of the teachings of the traditional church, including the church calendar. The thinking was that since the Roman Catholics came up with it, it must therefore be wrong. In my opinion that’s too closed minded. I believe we can get a lot of benefit by participating in some of these traditions. Though they were eventually corrupted and used to manipulate ignorant people, they began with good intentions. Christians were encouraged to remember and celebrate the life of Jesus throughout the year, celebrate the saints and martyrs that had come before, and practice many important spiritual disciplines.
Lent is a period of 46 days – 40 regular days and 6 Sundays – that the church fathers set aside as a time of reflection and preparation before the high-holy days of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Instead of being like the world and avoiding feelings of sadness, lamenting, suffering and sacrifice, we choose to take a period of time to be more like Jesus and meditate, mourn, repent and fast.
Christians traditionally stopped eating certain foods and avoided celebrations so they could contemplate the meaning and significance of the ultimate sacrifice Jesus gave us on the cross. We choose to take a long time to think about why Jesus was crucified, what He went through, how much our personal salvation cost, what that means to us individually, to our family, and to our church.
It is a spiritual practice, a spiritual discipline, a spiritual exercise – something we are not very good, and is grossly undervalued these days. Lent is a time of prayer, meditation, fasting and repentance where we confront the sins in our life and try to put them to death. It’s a time to think less of ourselves and more about Jesus. It’s a time to give a special sacrifice of our time, energy, and efforts to God as an act of worship. It is a time to practice self-discipline and open ourselves to the amazing thing that God has done to save our souls.
We are Consumers
In the theme of thinking less of ourselves and more about God and others, I want to take some time today to address something that many of us struggle with – selfishness. If the season of Lent is about giving something up (like TV time, desserts, celebrations, internet) so that we can replace it with something better (a deeper relationship with God and a clean spirit), then the temptation to go along with that will be toward selfishly wanting to have it both – to have our cake and eat it too.
That’s what our society is all about, right? That’s the consistent temptation of where we live, isn’t it? Our society worships at the altar of consumerism. We are trained from very a young age that life is about accumulating pleasurable things and avoiding painful ones. We are born to go to school to get a job to get the money to buy the things that will make us happy. We find a person to live with that will make us happy and ward off pain. And if the job or the relationship brings pain, we get rid of it and get a new one.
Christianity doesn’t believe that. Christianity doesn’t agree with consumerism. Humans are not products, nor are the only valuable when they are contributing to society. Christians believe that all people, from their conception to death and at every stage in between – and even beyond death – have inherent dignity and worth. Every life is sacred and worthy of love and protection. Even the lives of our enemies are worth love and protection.
That’s what Jesus demonstrated to us when He died for us, His enemies. He came into the world that He created for goodness and perfection, but sinned, rebelled and destroyed itself in an attempt to usurp His position as God. But God made us His image bearers, and He loved us so much that He was willing to trade the life of His Son for us. Jesus was willing to trade His life for a bunch of disobedient, stubborn, gluttonous, vile, sinners who keep straying from His way, opposing His authority, abusing His goodness, twisting His privileges, and selfishly destroys His creation and continuously hurts the people around them.
But He came. He demonstrated the opposite of consumerism. He showed perfect unselfishness. He gave everything, received nothing, so we could have everything.
Nehemiah and the Wall
Nehemiah 5 describes a group of people that are just like us – people who have been saved from slavery to a foreign power, brought back to the promised land, but have to work with God every day to restore the ruins that were created by their own sin and rebellion. That’s the story of Nehemiah and the Israelites, but it’s also the story of every Christian.
The Jewish people had rebelled against God in every way possible and were disciplined by Him through being captured by their enemies (the Babylonians) and sent into 70 years of slavery. After that time, God brought them back to their land so they could start again. The land they returned to, especially the city of Jerusalem, was in ruins. The temple, homes, gates and defensive walls were all broken and burnt.
God raised up two important men, Ezra and Nehemiah to guide the people to rebuild their faith and their city. Ezra taught them the Bible and Nehemiah organized the rebuilding of the city. They faced many challenges from enemies outside the walls, but the work continued as people grew in faith and strength.
Then comes Chapter 5. If the story of Nehemiah is the story of the rebuilding of the people of God, then Nehemiah 5 shows what happens when Satan alters his attack against them from opposing them from the outside to tempting them from the inside.
Exploiting the Cracks
The wall, at this point, is a little more than half done, and the enemies outside the walls have been dealt with. Satan sees he’s not going to be able to shut down the city and the people by attacking them from outside the wall, so he changes his tactic to see if he can corrupt them from within.
“Now there arose a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers. For there were those who said, ‘With our sons and our daughters, we are many. So let us get grain, that we may eat and keep alive.’ There were also those who said, ‘We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards, and our houses to get grain because of the famine.’ And there were those who said, ‘We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our fields and our vineyards. Now our flesh is as the flesh of our brothers, our children are as their children. Yet we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but it is not in our power to help it, for other men have our fields and our vineyards.’” (vs 1-5)
So there’s the switch. The troubles move from outside the camp to the inside – which is a common tactic of the Enemy. If he can’t rattle our church or our families by having people attack us, he’ll switch to having us hurt ourselves.
The walls were being built up so there would be no cracks in their defenses, but the cracks were showing in their relationships. It’s not that they weren’t there before, but now that the community was coming together, the city was being rebuilt, the spiritual reformation was occurring, Satan chose to use one of the existing problems toward his advantage – and that problem was selfishness.
This will always happen, and continues to happen today. When revival and Godly spiritual growth is about to happen to an individual or to a group, whatever cracks are there will be exploited. Whether it’s a church, a friendship, a marriage, or a leadership team, the sin will be exposed and the fractures will deepen.
To the church in Ephesus Paul gave the warning to watch their relationships because their enemy would exploit their weaknesses:
“Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.” (Ephesians 4:25-27)
He told them to watch themselves for lies, and be careful with their anger, because their words to each other would give an opportunity to the devil to create divisions within the church.
You’ve no doubt seen this in your own homes. A husband and wife decide to recommit their lives to Jesus and strengthen their marriage. Suddenly all manner of hell breaks loose on them from the outside – job issues, money issues, car issues, illness all come at them, but they stay together and remain strong. The next attack comes from within. Satan looks for the crack in the spiritual armour – and it’s often selfishness.
The man starts to believe he deserves more “free time” because he’s earned it and spends more time away from his wife and family… or he believes he deserves something new and shiny so he spends more time at work. The wife feels likes she deserves more help because she’s doing everything, all the time, for everyone… she’s the victim, she deserves more respect, more free time, more presents, more affection, and since she’s not getting it, she’ll go get it herself from something or someone else.
It’s the same for the individual. They recommit their lives to Christ and all hell breaks loose. And then the inward battle starts. Fatigue, pride, anger, fear start to become more present – thoughts that never occurred before start to bubble up. That’s the spiritual battle we face.
It’s the same in a church. We commit ourselves to one another, preach, teach and sing the Word of God faithfully, serve one another, and commit to staying here. We are attacked from the outside, and it doesn’t shut us down, but causes us to grow closer to God and one another. Then he attacks us from the inside.
Like a boxer exploiting his opponents cuts and bruises by hammering on them until they break open, the enemy starts to hammer on the sins he finds in the individuals in the body. And, very often, the sin he hammers on most is selfishness and pride.
Little things that were never a big deal before – like the format of the bulletin, the name of a ministry, where someone sits, the placement of furniture, the clothes someone wears, people being late – start cause more frustration. Critical thoughts abound. People forget that God is the great provider and start talking about nickels and dimes. Relationships get stressed out. Volunteers feel unappreciated, leaders disconnected, bitterness starts to grow. Worries about attendance and finances and too few committee members start to take over conversations – and people start to look for where to lay the to blame.
None of these are new problems, but it keeps the church from concentrating on their mission. As long as they are arguing and stressing about the temperature of the room, how much ink costs, the colour of the music leader’s socks, they aren’t thinking about building their relationship with God or others – and Satan’s happy.
The attacks are subtle. We would so much rather have a frontal attack, but Satan knows that’s where your strongest – so he tempts us with pride, selfishness, laziness, fear, anger, lust, holding grudges, causing division, being overly critical, or giving in to distraction. We sense God calling us to go deeper, and at the same time the enemy is trying to set us up to be our own worst enemy.
I know I’ve been through this. I get more sensitive to what people say and see simple comments as attacks. “What did they mean by that!?” Innocent and helpful criticisms meant to help me do my job better throw me for a loop and I’m up all night wondering why that person doesn’t like me and if I’ll be fired at the next meeting. Satan takes my besetting pride and fear of man and presses on it until I’m half-crazed with worry and aren’t concentrating on anyone except myself and my own feelings.
When we commit ourselves to serving God, doing His will and living out his plan for our lives, we become a spiritual target. You may have been feeling that over the past while as you’ve been coming here – I know many of you have had the desire to connect deeper with God. But there is something nagging at you, trying to shut that down. It doesn’t want you do think spiritually, give up that sin, rebuild that relationship, or change your plans to line up more with God’s. The devil has ramped up his attacks and you’re feeling it.
All the little cracks get exploited and pounded on – and that’s exactly what was happening in Jerusalem. And the crack that Satan found and exploited was selfishness.
Exploiting the Poor
The Jewish brothers were taking advantage of the scarce resources and growing population and giving ample opportunity for the devil to have a field day with God’s people. The taxes were high because they had a foreign king and had to pay for the rebuilding of the city, so people had to borrow money against their homes and lands to pay their taxes. There was a famine in the land and people were on the edge of starving to death. So they would mortgage themselves to the hilt so they could by food for their families, but because of the drought, their crops weren’t paying off their debts.
But not everyone was poor. There were a group of successful Jewish businessmen and landowners who had left the exile in Babylon with a lot of money, and they were more than happy to lend it to those who didn’t have any – at a price.
The poor people, on the edge of starvation, were putting up their land, their homes, and their cattle – but it wasn’t enough. The only thing they had left was their children, and so they sold them to be slaves of the wealthy. And when that wasn’t enough, they sold themselves. They had to choose between starvation and slavery, and the wealthy men were snapping up houses, lands and slaves all over the place. Hostile takeovers, guaranteed forclosures, and the added bonus of free, slave labour.
In the Law given to Israel by Moses, we learn that it was fine for a Jewish person to lend to another Jew, but God forbid charging interest and exploiting people. Deuteronomy 24:10-14 teaches how God wanted His people to lend money to each other:
“When you make your neighbor a loan of any sort, you shall not go into his house to collect his pledge. You shall stand outside, and the man to whom you make the loan shall bring the pledge out to you. And if he is a poor man, you shall not sleep in his pledge. You shall restore to him the pledge as the sun sets, that he may sleep in his cloak and bless you. And it shall be righteousness for you before the LORD your God. You shall not oppress a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns. You shall give him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets (for he is poor and counts on it), lest he cry against you to the LORD, and you be guilty of sin.”
Basically, God is making sure that wealthy people don’t exploit poorer ones. If a man is so poor that the only thing he has left is his last blanket, and you take it as a pledge for the money you’ve lent him… at least give it back at night so he can sleep on it! Don’t go stomping into someone’s house and take whatever you think they owe you – stand outside and wait respectfully. If someone is just barely eking out a living, give them pay at the end of the day – don’t make them wait for it – because they need it more than you do! God told people to work hard to pay off their debts, but also had a lot to say to the lenders.
And those laws were governed by love, not greed or selfishness. In fact, if a person was totally destitute, the rich person was supposed to simply give the money as a gift!
Loving People and Using Things
What it comes down to is Loving People and Using Things. The greatest definition of Selfishness I’ve ever heard is: Selfishness is loving things and using people. Christians are supposed to love people and use things… or even better, use things to love people… but selfishness means Loving Things and Using People.
Warren Wiersby says in his commentary:
“When the Devil, or the enemy, fails in his attacks from the outside, he will begin or intensify his attack from within; and one of his favourite weapons is selfishness.”
We’re reminded in Ephesians 6:12:
“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
And those spiritual powers spend a lot of time tempting people and messing with relationships among the people of a community of faith by playing upon their fear, greed and selfishness. Fear of losing something that they want, greed to get what they want their way, and selfishness to take it from others who need it more.
And that destroys our witness and our relationships. A few people end up rich and happy while others die away. Good deeds are replaced by a lust for good things. Godly spirituality is replaced with a religion that worships religious things. Worship of God is replaced by worship of control and security. The costly risks that God asks us to take are forgotten and pushed aside so we can keep our treasures on earth for as long as possible.
When selfishness takes hold of a soul, a community, a church, or a nation, Godly Spirituality and a relationship with Jesus cannot continue. Jesus said:
“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)
James echoed Him saying:
“Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (James 4:4)
And the Apostle Paul did the same saying:
“But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” (1 Timothy 6:6-10)
We must be very, very careful to Use Things and Love People – never to Love Money or Things and Use People. If we get that backwards we will give the devil a foothold in our souls, homes, work, ministry, and community. Jesus loved people and used things, so should we.
How To React to Selfishness
So what should we do? I believe that Nehemiah sets a good example for us, because his example is like Christ’s.
1. He Got Angry
First, we see in verse 6, he gets angry. “I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words.” His first reaction to selfishness was to be action. Jesus did the same thing when he saw the selfishness of the money changers in the temple. This is a good, godly reaction to seeing people who are being exploited and abused by people who have means. We are right to get angry.
Selfishness is far too common among God’s people. It happened in Nehemiah’s time. It happened in Jesus’ time. And it happened again in Paul’s. He had to confront the Corinthian church because there were people that were starving in their church meetings while others were gorging themselves and getting drunk on the Lord’s Supper. (1 Cor 11:17-22) Selfishness among believers is a perennial problem that has to be continuously confronted by angry saints.
2. He Thought About It
Ephesians 4:26 says, “In your anger do not sin” and part of that is taking a minute to think about what you’re going to do. That’s exactly what Nehemiah does. In verse 7 it says, “I took counsel with myself…”. He wasn’t so tied up in the building of the walls that he didn’t have time to deal with the needs of his community. His job was to fix the rebuild the city, not mediate economic reform. But when he heard the outcry, saw the injustice, witnessed the greed, he took some time away from his work to think (and we can assume pray) about it to come up with a solution.
3. He Accused
The third thing Nehemiah did absolutely shows the heart of Jesus. Verse 7 again, “I took counsel with myself, and I brought charges against the nobles and the officials. I said to them, ‘You are exacting interest, each from his brother.’”
He got them together and flat-out accused them. He pinned them to the wall. He showed godly passion and conviction, knew his Bible, and knew what was wrong, and accused them using Biblical words. He does it privately at first, not publically, so that they are not embarrassed, and so the emotional charge doesn’t deflate morale and harm people who aren’t directly affected.
We must learn this courage! This is all over scripture:
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” (Jesus in Matthew 18:15)
“If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.” (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)
“As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him…” (Titus 3:10)
When we see sin and injustice, selfishness and ungodly behaviour, we have the responsibility to go to our brothers and sisters and accuse them.
4. He Taught Against It
After accusing the smaller group of nobles and officials who were part of the problem, it says at the end of verse 7 that Nehemiah “held a great assembly against them”. He gave a general warning to everyone involved in the sin. He privately accused the worst offenders to their face, and then, essentially preached a sermon to everyone else warning them of the same corruption.
Nehemiah was in a spiritual battle. He knew that Satan wouldn’t give up without a fight. He reminded all the people that God had freed them from Babylonian slavery, and how hypocritical it was for them to force these same people into slavery under themselves! He says, “Your selfishness – you’re using of people and loving things – is making us look like fools to the nations around us!”
Jesus said “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35) and that works both ways. The world is watching us and is looking for any excuse to call us hypocrites. They will either see us loving one another and trusting God… or using one another and trusting ourselves. We destroy our witness if we are selfish individuals, selfish families, or a selfish church.
5. He Made Them Give it Back
The next thing Nehemiah does is to tell them to make it right.
“Return to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the percentage of money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them.” (vs 11)
And to their credit they do. And Nehemiah goes even further.
“And I called the priests and made them swear to do as they had promised. I also shook out the fold of my garment and said, ‘So may God shake out every man from his house and from his labor who does not keep this promise. So may he be shaken out and emptied.’ And all the assembly said ‘Amen’ and praised the LORD. And the people did as they had promised.” (vs 12-13)
Nehemiah knew how dangerous and insidious the sin of greed and selfishness is, and so he forces them to make a public confession and an oath. That’s how you heal a deep hurt. That’s how you show repentance. That’s how we honour God. We ask forgiveness, and then make it right. Turn selfishness to forgiveness and promise not to do it again – and ask God to help us keep our word.
This shows everyone around how serious we are about following God, dealing with sin, loving one another, and committing ourselves to living by His Word. And the assembly ends with an AMEN! God is worshipped, the hungry fed, relationships restored, debts managed, the rebuilding of the walls continues, and God is honoured. It was hard work, and very costly for some, but it was the only way they could expect to receive God’s blessing on their lives.
6. He Demonstrated Generosity
And the final thing Nehemiah does was to go above and beyond. Satan was trying to corrupt the people through selfishness, so His response was to be overwhelmingly generous. He poured cold water all over hell’s flames by not only doing what was right, but by doing even more.
“Moreover, from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes the king, twelve years, neither I nor my brothers ate the food allowance of the governor. The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people and took from them for their daily ration forty shekels of silver. Even their servants lorded it over the people. But I did not do so, because of the fear of God. I also persevered in the work on this wall, and we acquired no land, and all my servants were gathered there for the work. Moreover, there were at my table 150 men, Jews and officials, besides those who came to us from the nations that were around us. Now what was prepared at my expense for each day was one ox and six choice sheep and birds, and every ten days all kinds of wine in abundance. Yet for all this I did not demand the food allowance of the governor, because the service was too heavy on this people. Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people.” (vs 14-19)
A faithful believer will set the example of how to do it best. He trusted God for provision and lived generously with others. That’s what good Christians do. He refused to give the devil a foothold in his city, his work, or his life. Satan tried to destroy the work through selfishness, he fight with generosity.
That’s my hope for us too. As we enter this season of Lent, my prayer is that we use it as a time to refocus our lives away from loving things to loving God and His people, from storing our treasures on earth to storing them in heaven. Not to be known as a philanthropist, but because it’s the good, godly, Christ-like thing to do.
Jesus and the Mob Boss
We’re going to talk about Mark 2:18-22, but let me set the context first.
Jesus is sitting at the table of Levi, also called Matthew, who has just left his Tax Collectors booth and has followed Jesus. They went to his home where Jesus sat down to eat with Levi and his friends. Somewhere around there were also a group called the Pharissees who had a serious problem with what Jesus was doing.
The Pharisees were a group of religious people who were always on Jesus’ case. They worked closely with the Scribes who were the lawyers and law-teachers of the day. They were the rule-keepers of Mosaic Laws and traditions, were the most educated, most pious, most respected, and were considered to be the elite of Jewish religious society.
They didn’t like tax collectors because in that time, the people who collected taxes were Jewish nationalists who were allied with the Roman government for their own profit and were backed up by Roman soldiers to squeeze people for more money which they took their commissions. Most people didn’t like Tax Collectors and to become one meant expulsion from your synagogue. They were considered to be thieves and traitors, so they hung out with other people who were just as hated and rejected by society.
This would have been one awkward party for Jesus to be in the middle of. To get a picture of the kind of party this was, picture Jesus sitting in the private section of a smoky night-club owned by a notorious mob boss. He’s surrounded by thieves, murders, drug dealers, pimps and prostitutes. Some of the group goes out to the terrace to get some fresh air. Jesus and the crew lean up against the railing, are talking about various subjects and having a great time when down below walk a group of Pharisees and their disciples. They look up and see the famous Rabbi Jesus, the great teacher and miracle worker, the man of God, talking with some of the most notorious law breakers in the nation.
Last week we heard them ask the question, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” (v 16), this week they ask another question. Let’s read it together:
“Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, ‘How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?’”
Jesus, You’re Doing it Wrong
Ever have a conversation in your head with someone? I can imagine the kind of conversation that was going on in the heads of these Pharisees. They were too cowardly to do this, but let me guess at what was going on in their heads at this moment:
“Jesus, what are you doing? Everything you do is so different, so strange, so wrong… so not like us. It’s like you don’t even know how to be a good person! You don’t associate with the right people. You’re a popular rabbi, and a powerful teacher, a worker of miracles, and yet you go right from that to partying with sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, and hot-headed fisherman. There you are, eating and drinking with the rejects of society and looking very comfortable there! Don’t you know what that does to a person’s reputation? I can’t remember the last time you hung out with the good people of the city… the religious people, the teachers, the rich folks… if you wanted to, you could be the best of them. And yet, you associate with such… such… dirty people. Just the other day I saw you touch a leper!
And then, just when we think we have you figured out, you turn around and spend the day eating at a Pharisees house with rich people and the Scribes, discussing religion and theology. So now even some of the rejects reject you!
You’re always doing things that make people upset. You could wait until Sunday or Monday to do your healings, and yet you seem to do most of them on the Sabbath… almost to spite the religious people! You’re not sensitive enough to how people feel, Jesus. You shouldn’t do things that upset people because then they won’t like you and you might lose friends, or even make enemies. You just don’t do ministry right!
And you don’t pray like you’re supposed to. You should do what we do. We have lots of memorized prayers that we do at the same time every day. The best of us stand on street corners and show everyone how great we are at praying! Don’t you know the best pray-ers actually make sure that they are in a public place when it comes time to pray? That way everyone can see them… they set a good example for others, Jesus! We’re not even sure that you do pray because you tend to run off to private places and then talk to God as though He’s someone you actually know personally. What brashness! What insolence! Who do you think you are? You should stick to the trusted, old ways and stop being so radical.
You clearly have supernatural power, but you don’t act very religious. And when you do finally do something religious, you don’t even do that right! Don’t you know that there are rules to how we do these things?
Perhaps you need a little education, Jesus, on how things are supposed to go: The scriptures only have one day that they command us to fast on. God told us in Leviticus (which is a book I know you know because you teach out of it all the time) to “afflict ourselves” on the Day of Atonement (Lev 19:29). We go without food, spend time in prayer, repent and humble ourselves before God. You have to realize, Jesus, that fasting is all about living out and understanding the disaster our lives are in. Look around Jesus! We need to mourn and wail and repent. It can’t get much worse.
Now, let me tell you something: Even though we only have to do it once a year, the really good people, the ones who really love God, the ones who are the best at this religion, fast twice a week! Every Monday and Thursday, like clockwork, all you have to do is look around and you can see all the religious, virtuous and moral people fasting. We know how devout and sanctimonious they are because many of them go right into the marketplace on the shopping days when people get their groceries, put ashes on their faces, wear itchy sackcloth and moan so loudly that it’s hard to have a conversation with the merchants. It’s those are people that are close to God, Jesus.
But do you know what? Now that I think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you fast! And you call yourself a Rabbi! Look around you. It’s Thursday! And where are you? Having a banquet laid before you and eating with that tax collector Matthew! What is wrong with you? You need to conduct yourself in a better manner. People need to see how good you are or they won’t know how close to God you are! Good people set a good example, Jesus… you don’t set a very good example.
And do you know what? Even the disciples of John the Baptist, who never agree with us Pharisees about anything agree on this one! So you are clearly wrong, wrong, wrong! They prepare themselves for the arrival of the Messiah by repenting in sadness twice a week. We are in a mess, Jesus, and until God sends the Messiah, we are never getting gout of this one. You need to spend time preparing yourself for him. What if he comes? He’ll be looking for the most holy, most righteous, most religious people, right? That’s us – not you. I’ve got to ask you again Jesus, what are you doing?”
Why Jesus’ Disciples Didn’t Fast
Read from verse 19:
“And Jesus said to them, ‘Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.’”
It seems that every time Jesus did anything it challenged the way people thought about life, relationships, God, religion and everything else. This especially bugged the most religious people – like the Pharisees – because they thought they had it all figured out. The Pharisees thought life was all about looking religious so others would see, doing religious things to make God impressed with them, and living by the rules to show their devotion to God (which, when you think about, sounds like the advice a lot of people give to kids when they are growing up – “Say your prayers, read your Bible, be a good boy or girl”), and Jesus challenged them on that!
I’m not sure how many of us would have. That sounds like a recipe for success. Do good, look good, be good. But Jesus said that the motives of their hearts were far more important than their actions. They wanted to show the world how holy they were, Jesus said that even a good thing, if done for the wrong reasons, will be sinful.
That’s why His answer to the question the Pharisees posed is so important. He didn’t give them an answer about behaviour, He gave them an answer about motives.
John the Baptist and his disciples fasted because they were in mourning for the sin of the nation of Israel and in preparing for the Messiah’s coming. The Pharisees fasted because they wanted to show everyone their piety.
Why didn’t the followers of Jesus fast? Because long awaited Messiah was standing right in front of them. It wasn’t fasting time… it was feasting time! They were in the middle of the celebration of the wedding of the Lord and His Church. They didn’t need to fast to be closer to God, or mourn, or seek direction, or for a miracle, or to get spiritual power… Jesus was standing right in front of them!
Yes, one day Jesus would be taken from them. (Here Jesus points directly to His death on the cross.) Yes, there will be a time when His disciples will mourn, feel the touch of disaster, and desire to be closer to God… and that day would be after His crucifixion. They would truly mourn. They would be so hurt and distressed that they couldn’t eat if they wanted to. Their hearts would be broken, their plans shattered, and their hopes dashed… and they would truly fast – and would begin again their times of regular fasting. But this wasn’t that day! Here stood the Son of God, Messiah Jesus, teaching, alive, and working miracles right in front of them!
So there’s what’s going on around the table and the answer Jesus gives. His answer makes it pretty clear that the Pharisees have no idea who Jesus really is and are completely messed up when it comes to their reasons for fasting – and really, any religious thing they are doing. His answer also seems to say that fasting is meant to be something that we do today as well.
Are We Supposed to Fast Today?
So let’s ask that question: Are we supposed to fast today? Let me answer it this way: There is nowhere in scripture that commands Christians to fast. It’s not something that we have to do. Our salvation is contingent on two simple things: repentance and belief. We realize we are sinners, repent from sin (which means instead of loving our sin, we now hate it and don’t want to do it anymore) which leads us to ask forgiveness of God. We can only get that forgiveness through a belief in Jesus Christ as the One who took the punishment for our sins and then proved His power to save by rising from the dead. Anything above and beyond that is a false gospel. We do not need to fast.
However, the Bible does present fasting as something that can be good for our spiritual lives – when done with the right heart. It’s also basically assumed, all throughout the New Testament, that Christians will fast (Acts 13:2, 14:23). So to close, let’s look at how to do it properly.
1. What Is Fasting?
Fasting is voluntarily giving up something you do regularly so you can focus more time, energy and attention on God. Another way to put it is “fasting is feasting on God.” We are not merely denying ourselves something, but making the choice to fill ourselves up with something else. We move from filling our stomachs with food to filling our souls with the presence of God. We move from filling our eyes with entertainment to filling our mind with thoughts of worship and thanksgiving. We move from listening to music to listening to the voice of God. It is not merely an absence of one thing, but the exchange of something for something else that is better.
2. Who Fasts?
Many religions have fasting as part of their religious life. Ba’hai, Buddhists, Hindus, Islam and many others all have times of fasting as a part of their religious activity. This is sometimes why Christians avoid fasting because they think that it’s cultish. Therefore it’s important for Christians to know that we have a great heritage of fasting in the scriptures and the tradition of the church.
Who was the first person in the Bible to fast? Adam. For a period of time he voluntarily gave up eating a certain fruit so that he could be closer to God. It is only when he broke his fast that the relationship was broken.
Here’s a list of people we know fasted regularly: Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Anna the prophetess, Paul, John, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney, Patrick Morley, Billy Graham, and many others today. Up until recently, fasting has been a big part of the Christian religion. It only really fell out of general favour during the Middle Ages when the church enforced rigid rules and some sub-sects fasted to excessive degrees where they included extreme pain and forms of self punishment. Essentially, they made the action more important than the reason for doing it. People stopped doing it because it lost its meaning.
It is having a little resurgence today among people who are tired of an empty, superfluous, superficial life, and who want to connect with a transcendent God who take them beyond what they see in the media, among their friends, and in their city and family.
3. Why do People Fast?
There are a number of reasons people fast. Here’s a few biblical reasons:
Repentance and Sorrow: In the Old Testament people fasted as a sign of repentance, mourning or humility before God. (Judges 20:26; 1 Kings 21:27; Ezra 8:21; Joel 1:14) Nehemiah is a great example of this (Neh 4:1). Sometimes you have sinned, and you feel as though you cannot be forgiven. You want to feel the presence of God, and His touch in your life, because you need to know that He still loves you. This can be a time to fast in repentance.
Sometimes your heart is broken for other reasons – the death of a loved one, loss of a job, a son or daughter who has fallen away. This can be a time to fast in sorrow. Think of it as a coming to your Father in Heaven and allowing Him to be the only thing that fills you up.
Seeking Direction or Need: Ezra and Esther are examples of this (Ezra 8:22-23; Esther 4:16). Jesus fasted in the desert so He might focus more on God and be spiritually prepared for His confrontations with Satan. When there is a great need, and you desire either direction or a special intervention of God, sometimes it is proper to fast. This is not because God listens better when we are fasting, but because during a fast we are more concentrated on God. Fasting clears the cobwebs from our life, and gives us the time and focus to tune our minds, hearts and spirits towards God. God honours those who seek Him with all their heart – and one way we focus our hearts is to fast.
As a Regular Act of Worship: Anna the Prophetess and many in the early church are an example of this (Luke 2:36-37; Acts 13:2). Fasting is not just something we do when we are in need, but can be a regular part of our personal worship times. During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks about some of the ways we worship God. He says in Matthew 6:2, “when you give to the needy…” – giving is a natural part of worship and obedience to God. Next He says, “when you pray…” — prayer is also a regular part of worship and building our relationship with God. Next Jesus says, “when you fast” — fasting too is a natural, regular, important part of worshipping God. They are tied together. Now is it commanded? No. It’s more assumed than commanded.
4. How to Fast
– Check Your Heart: Jesus had a serious problem with people who performed religious activities without focusing their heart on God. Remember his answer to the Pharisees was about motives, not behaviour. So if you’re fasting to show people that you’re spiritual, don’t bother. If you’re trying to manipulate God by saying “I’ll fast and then you have to do something for me.”, don’t bother. If this is a way for you to go on a diet, then don’t bother. Get your heart right.
Remember, Jesus is more interested in your heart being right with Him and others than even with your worship. Matthew 5:23, “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”
God is more interested in your heart being loving and merciful than seeing you perform any kind of religious ceremony. Hosea 6:6, “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”
God isn’t impressed by our religious activity if our hearts aren’t right. Micah 6:6-8, “6 With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
– Don’t Be Legalistic: There are no “rules” to fasting. Some people get hung up on things like “If you drink juice then you’re not really fasting.” That’s not the point, is it? That’s what a Pharisee would say. The important thing is that you are taking time to give something up so that you can develop your relationship with God in a more focused way.
– To Tell or Not to Tell: You can either tell someone or not – it’s your choice. Jesus said in Matthew 6:16-17, “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.”
But in Acts 13:2-3 and 14:23 the Apostles and Elders of the church are all fasting together as a group so they can discern God’s will together.
Since you have checked your heart and you’re not doing it to impress God or others, you can keep it secret or tell someone so they can pray for you during that time. You’ll probably be under spiritual attack so you could use the prayer support anyway. You should tell your wife or husband so they don’t cook you dinner, or make plans to go out with you, and then you cause problems because you didn’t tell them you were fasting. Tell the person you meet for breakfast the next morning that you can be there, but you won’t be eating. (You still have to tip the waitress because you took up her table, ok?)
This also means that you shower, shave, clean up, and go about your normal activities without drawing attention to the fact that you are fasting. Keep it between you, God and your prayer partners. As soon as you do start advertising it you will lose the spiritual rewards.
– Choose a Time: It’s not done for any particular length of time. You can fast anywhere from a part of a day to 40 days. If you’ve never done a food-fast before, I suggest you start small and work your way up. Try skipping a meal first, and then do 24 hrs from lunch to lunch. Take the time you normally would eat, and doing your best not to affect anyone else, use that time to pray, meditate, listen to Christian music, or read the Bible. Feast on God rather than Food.
– What to Fast: Food is a great thing to give up, but it’s not the only thing. What about giving up listening to music or the radio in the car and talk to God instead? That’s a fast too. Give up a TV show, or some other evening activity for a time and spend some special time with God instead.
I made a quick list of things that you can fast: Internet, video games, TV (either one show, a sport you watch or the whole thing), movies, cell phone, desserts, eating out, non-bible reading, alcohol, secular music or radio, any kind of music or radio in the car, a hobby or craft, e-mail, texting, Facebook, twitter, salty foods, make-up, meat, candy, working on Sundays…
I made a quick list of things that you can fast so that you can spend more time focusing on God, repenting, seeking direction and worshipping Him. Each of these can be done for any period of time:
Ipod, Internet, Video games, TV (either one show, sport or the whole thing), cell phone, desserts, eating out, reading that is not the bible, alcohol, music or radio while in the car, movies, a hobby or craft, e-mail, texting, Facebook, twitter, salty foods, make-up, meat, candy…
Let me encourage you to take up the challenge and make fasting a regular part of your worship routine. Do it with the right heart and you will grow closer to God.