Perilous Times Primer #11

 Fasting as a Means to Spiritual Power


This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting. Mat 17:21
The Effects of Spiritual Inconsistency
At first, it may seem a long stretch to connect the practice of fasting to preparation to face the turbulent times ahead. Read on and see if you agree with the connection.
This incident, which follows Jesus’ transfiguration, is significant for several reasons. Jesus had previously bestowed amazing spiritual powers on these twelve (Mat10:1), including the ability to cast out demons and heal all diseases. These powers were not unique to the twelve apostles to Israel (prior to the formation of the Church at Pentecost), but apparently included the inner circle of the 70 (Luk.9:1 and Luk 10:17) and might be compared to the spiritual gifts which were later given to members of the Church (1Co12:4–7; Eph 4:7–8, 11). Therefore, the implications are significant to us today.
The big question is this: Since power over demons was given, how could the apostles who were not with Jesus on the Mount have lacked that power? The anger Jesus displayed toward the disciples (Mat 17:17) implies that they were culpable for their diminished power, and that this relates to a crisis regarding their faith. Then, when they asked him for an explanation as to why they could not cast out the demon, Jesus responds, “Because of your unbelief … However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting” (Mat 17:20–21; please read the text in its entirety).
But just what does Jesus’ answer imply? It would be ludicrous to suggest that upon being confronted by the demon-possessed boy, they should suddenly call for fasting and prayer. Rather, it seems to suggest that their initial success had led to an attitude of apathy. As a result, they began to coast—relying on past victories rather than daily spiritual disciplines—to assure them of power when needed. Their “faithlessness,” rebuked by Jesus (Mat 17:17), was not a momentary lapse, but a gradual, unnoticeable slide into spiritual anemia.
To most believers today it is easy to understand the weakening effects of a prayerless life. Prayer is the most evident daily practice of Jesus (cf. Mar 1:35) and the subject of one of His most often repeated commands (Mat 9:38; Mar 13:33; Luk 18:1). In fact, when Jesus foretold the events of Jerusalem’s destruction, His warning against spiritual distraction included the command to be disciplined in prayer.
But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life,
and that Day come on you unexpectedly … Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to
escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man. (Luk 21:34, 36)
But what about fasting? To the world today, fasting seems to be an archaic and meaningless practice of asceticism and self-abnegation. I am often asked by many believers as I travel around the country just what value fasting could have (beyond possibly helping to lose weight). So let’s consider biblical fasting, and see what value it may hold for those of us living in this godless modern world.
The Biblical Role of Fasting
Let’s begin by considering a question that might help set the stage for our discussion. If you were to reduce the demands of discipleship down to one biblical statement, what would it be? We would be on target if we chose Jesus’ statement in Luk 9:23:
Then He said to them all, “If anyone desires to come after Me,
let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.”
Now consider another question. If you wanted to come up with a spiritual exercise, which would be fundamental in attaining to effective discipleship, what would that exercise be? How does one learn to “deny himself”? What does “taking up one’s cross” mean? For Jesus, the cross was the ultimate plan of God with great inner joy (Heb 12:2). Our daily cross, then, would be the consistent pursuit of the will and plan of God for our lives (Phi 3:7–14). This would of necessity require the ability to say “No” to our own selfish desires, and a willingness to suffer any attendant persecution or affliction (2Ti 3:12; 1Pe 4:12–14).
When we understand this, suddenly fasting comes to the forefront as a regular exercise to build spiritual muscle. In fasting, we say “No” to our natural desire for food, and experience—to some degree—the pangs of that decision. By learning to “deny ourselves” one of our most basic cravings, we learn a discipline and gain a power to overcome a host of other weakening factors in life. The practice of fasting recognizes that the greatest obstacle to dynamic discipleship is my own love for self. This is the root of all sin, the desire to serve and satisfy my selfish demands. To learn to “deny myself” is one of the most difficult tests of faith, and demands that I relinquish the sovereign claim on my life to Jesus Christ.
Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you
have from God, and YOU ARE NOT YOUR OWN? For you were bought at a price; therefore
glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s. (2Co 6:19–20)
This is a radical demand on self-surrender, not in a once-for-all moment of time, but in a day-by-day victory of voluntarily relinquishing the throne of my life to Jesus Christ (1Pe 3:15 NASV). Regular fasting strikes a blow directly at one of the most subtle and insidious strongholds of my self-love—the desire for food. If this sounds extreme, the next time you are out in public, take a look around and estimate the number of people who are overweight. I rest my case. We love to eat! Our “god is [our] belly” (Phi 3:19, cf. Rom 16:18). And, yes, I do understand that “belly” in the Greek represented affections and emotions. But there is strong reason to believe that it is so used for a reason. What other part of our anatomy could so well illustrate strong affection and selfish emotion? All one needs to do is mention to some overweight but well-intentioned Christian (especially a pastor) who loves to rant about the evils of tobacco or alcohol against the temple of our body, the equal evils of gluttony and slavery to appetite. You will see a display of emotional reaction and anger that you dared to equate an accepted form of slavery to an accepted taboo! Yet both are forms of selfish indulgence, which we are forbidden to allow to be master over us.
All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will
not be brought under the power of any. Foods for the stomach and the stomach for foods, but
God will destroy both it and them. Now the body is not for sexual immorality but for the Lord,
and the Lord for the body. (1Co 6:12–13)
Isn’t it amazing that Paul—in the midst of a discussion about sexual immorality—should bring up the issue of food? Is it because it is possibly our first addiction? And isn’t it probable that gaining victory over other areas of defeat in our lives could be gained by a regular practice of saying “no” to ourselves in our appetite? Please understand that the issue here is not whether we are slender or hefty, it is whether we are slaves to self, or to Christ.
This is why in our initial passage (Mat 17:21)—as with many others—fasting is often connected with prayer. To deny oneself alone is not an end, but to deny oneself in order to call on One who is “mighty to save” (Isa 63:1), is the path to victory. Fasting reveals to me just how weak I really am. My stomach cries out for food, and immediately I begin to feel sorry for myself. I want to rush to the fridge to “rescue” my poor self from the terrible pangs of hunger. But, if I use my hunger pangs to remind me that …
“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mat 4:4)
Then I let my puny physical hunger spur me to spiritual hunger, and drive me into God’s Word, leading me to the prayer of one who is weak and in need, to spiritual power not my own. My prayer becomes less like the self-satisfied “braying” of the Pharisee (Luk 18:9–14), and more like the cry of the tax-collector, “God, be merciful to me the sinner.” Having experienced my own spiritual poverty and frailty, I am then driven to the only hope, the redeeming and transforming power of Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.
We are indeed facing perilous times. This nation is tasting but a small portion of the impending wrath of God. Not only America—but also the world—is blindly stumbling toward the time of tribulation. It is foolhardy to allow the truth of the Rapture of the Church to make us complacent. Before that time, we will most likely be introduced to conditions Christians around the world have suffered for ages. We may soon be forced to do without many things we have come to take for granted. In the days ahead, we may have to decide whether we will eat, or go hungry so our children or grandchildren can eat. It would be wise if we take seriously the signs and warnings of growing food shortages around the world. We need to think ourselves into the harsh reality of our likely future, and decide now a course of training and preparation for such a time. One approach to impending hardship is to stockpile necessities. But we may be wise to consider the alternative—learning to do without. A regular practice of fasting and prayer would be the biblical approach.
Joining you in preparation,
Gene Cunningham

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