Fasting and the Season of Lent – 2/19/17

According to the Roman Catholic calendar, Lent for 1 billion Christians worldwide begins on Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017 and ends Saturday, April 15, 2017, the day before Easter. Traditionally Lent is supposed to be a 40 day period in which Christians prepare themselves for the celebration of Easter. It is intended to be a time marked with prayer and fasting, a time of reflection, repentance and a time to draw closer to Christ. Though the observance of this season is not found in Scripture it is a tradition which has evolved and is based Christ’s 40 days of fasting in the wilderness, when he was tempted by Satan (Matt.4:2 ).

Fasting from food can be interpreted in many different ways. In the medical field it can be interpreted across a broad spectrum. For example, fasting can be mandated by treatment providers as a course of healing or it might be necessary prior to certain diagnostic tests. But excessive fasting for no apparent reason can also be seen as anorexia, a pathological condition. As a religious observance it can be welcomed or dreaded. Sometimes believers and nonbelievers alike are willing to go along with the Lenten season. I’ve even heard it said that fasting is a good way to justify a change in dietary habits, to improve one’s figure or just shed a few pounds.

But in Matthew 17:21 Jesus made a specific reference to the need for fasting. Recall his disciples returned to him complaining that there were certain spirits that they could not cast out. Jesus responded “this kind comes out not but by prayer and fasting.” Moreover, this passage has NOT gone unnoticed among many in the Christian world. In some circles where exorcism is a public spectacle the need for dietary fasting is often stressed, presumably so that the intercessor can successfully exercise the evil spirit. I know of one well-known Christian minister who openly boasts that she fasts at least one day a week. She alludes to this calling so that she can be prepared to do battle against the devil.

But the practice of fasting is not just found in the New Testament or among a minority of religious groups or individuals today. Jehoshaphat called for a solemn fast in 2 Chronicles 20 when it seemed that the kingdom of Judah would be destroyed by invaders. Again a solemn fast was proclaimed by Nehemiah and Joel to call God’s people to repentance and to invoke God’s blessing around specific events.

However, in Acts 19:15 we read one of the strangest episodes of demonic activity recorded in the Bible. Apparently there were these 7 sons of Sceva who considered themselves exorcists but were not necessarily believers in Christ. It seems that they attempted to cast out an evil spirits using the name of Jesus, believing , I suppose, that his name alone carried with it some type of magical power. In any event these 7 brothers were far from successful. For In this passage it is recorded that the evil spirit leaped onto them, and overcame them. The result was that these brothers fled out of the house naked and wounded. Given the previous exhortation mentioned in Matthew’s gospel one might conclude that perhaps these 7 brothers had not properly prepared themselves through sufficient prayer and fasting? But this assumption was clearly not the case. Reading from Scripture we discover that the evil spirit spoke to the 7 brothers and explained, “Jesus I know and Paul I know but who are you?” So here we see that a personal relationship with Christ is imperative when casting out demons. Indeed, abstinence from food or “fasting” was not even mentioned. So what exactly did Jesus mean when he said “this kind comes out not but by prayer and fasting?”

But perhaps before we offer an alternative explanation for fasting as a prerequisite to exorcism let us consider carefully the words of the evil spirit. Indeed, the evil spirit’s response is quite revealing. That is, the evil spirit suggests that even the demons of hell were terrified of Paul because his “knowing Christ” had brought him into complete union and intimacy with our Lord. Essentially, to this evil spirit Jesus and Paul were synonymous or one in the same. If fasting from food was sufficient, a Lenten season should produce enough champions in the faith who are well-equipped to rid the planet of all evil.

Instead, let us examine an altogether different fast that is mentioned in Isaiah 58:9-10. It’s a fast that has nothing to do with food whatsoever. We read:
“If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity; and if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity and the darkness be as the noon day.” In fact verse 6 of the same chapter reads: “Is not this the fast that I have chosen to lose the bands of wickedness, and to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?”

Essentially this fast which is called THE FAST OF THE LORD has nothing to do with food and everything to do with prejudice and a judgmental posture towards others. Of course fasting from food can be valid especially when led by the Holy Ghost. But, without the leading of the Holy Ghost fasting can be nothing more than a ritual and a work of the flesh.

Consider for a moment Jesus and fasting. Aside from his 40-day wilderness experience we read nothing of Jesus observing ritual fasting prescribed by Jewish law. In fact his enemies even falsely referred to him as a glutton and a winebibber (Luke 7:34).  Instead consider Jesus and the Samaritan woman (John 4:4-26).  Recall how his disciples criticized him, complaining that the Jews were to have nothing to do with Samaritans.  Indeed, his disciples tried to scold Jesus for his LACK OF BIGOTRY.  And recall his words to the woman who is caught in the act of adultery, “Neither do I condemn thee, go and sin no more” (John 8:1-11). Despite every opportunity to do so Jesus offered no prejudice, no bigotry, and no judgmentalism.  When feasting at the home of a rich man a prostitute came in unannounced, washed the Master’s feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.  Of course this DID NOT GO UNNOTICED and Jesus was criticized for not judging this “disreputable woman” (Luke 7:36-47).  Fellow believers, the lists of individuals that Jesus could have rightfully judged according to the law are seemingly endless, but instead we read that He repeatedly demonstrated compassion and mercy everywhere instead of judgment.

If you are a believer that acknowledges the season of Lent consider the thoughts and intents of the heart (Heb 4:12) which are more meaningful to God than the outward activities of fasting from food or going to church for ashes.  “Man looks on the outward appearance but the Lord looks on the heart” 1 Sam 16:7.  As the corporate Body of Christ let us together examine our hearts and see if there yet remains some form of prejudice, judgmentalism, or a critical spirit that looks down on others.  If you call yourself a Christian and feel the need to criticize Communists, Muslims, homosexuals, child molesters, heroin addicts, prostitutes, those filled with lust or greed, those you think are involved in the cult, or even those who say they worship Satan, I urge you, do not argue or contend with them.  Love them even if you despise their behaviors or beliefs, “for against such there is no law” (Gal 5:22-23).  It is not for us to judge (Matt 7:1).  Even the Archangel Michael when contending with Satan over the bones of Moses “Durst not bring railing accusation against him but said only the Lord rebuke you” (Jude 1:9).

Beloved, let us resolve as his Body to “take away from the midst, …the putting forth of the finger.” In other words, we should not be pointing fingers at others, we should not judge others, but we should keep our eyes on Jesus (Heb 12:2).  As his Body let us walk in love and fast from judging others.  Leave judgment to God. Join with me in the FAST OF THE LORD not just for this Lenten season but for all time.

Lord Jesus, Fill us with your Spirit.  Empower us to walk in love toward our fellow man.  We confess our pride, arrogance and our bigotry.  We place these beliefs and attitudes at the foot of the cross and look to you for healing and deliverance.  We desire to be the expression of your will and instruments of your love.  All this is committed to you in the matchless name of Jesus, Amen and Amen.  Thank you Jesus that your word does not return void.

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