Community Group Study Guide — When You Fast
We live in a time and place with a lot of abundance. It is true there was some scarcity this last year with our food distribution and stuff being out because of COVID hoarders. But generally we have a vast and stable food supply. There are also a few holidays right around the corner filled with great meals and seasonal delicacies like pumpkin spice lattes and peppermint bark… just kidding, kind of. For many of us these feasts and celebrations will look a bit different this year, but we should remember that feasting is commanded in the Bible and they are a sign of celebrating God, relationships and help us reflect backwards with praise and thankfulness. Yet there can be drawbacks to having so much abundance. For example, many of us have never gone hungry or have questioned when our next meal would come. Likewise, we have become self-sufficient and do not experience much desperation around our day to day provision. What if God gave us a spiritual practice to humble our hearts, express times of mourning and help us cling to him in dependence? The scripture teaches us that this spiritual practice is called fasting and it has a unique benefit to us especially in this culture and time of abundance.
The people of God practiced fasting during the 1st century and Jesus’ brings it up in the Sermon on the Mount to show how it was twisted for self promotion in Matthew 6. Jesus warned his audience to beware of practicing their righteousness for the purpose of being seen by others (Matthew 6:1). This teaches us that even good actions (giving, praying and fasting) can be done with the wrong motivation.
To fast would be to go without food for the purpose of seeking God and expressing one’s need for the Lord. The Pharisees would fast twice a week (Luke 18:12), however they would do so in a way that drew attention to themselves instead of whole-heartedly seeking God. Matthew 6:16-18 tells us that they would purposefully look gloomy, disfigure their faces and go about in public to be seen while they were fasting and that by doing so they would receive the reward of the praise of people for being “holy” and “spiritual” but they’d miss out on being rewarded by God who sees in secret. It is like fasting and pulling out your tattered and trashed clothing, messing up your hair and throwing some mud on your face and as you go around your day moping and groaning about how hungry or uncomfortable you are. It seems like they missed the point, right?
By focusing on themselves and calling attention to their fasting, they took something meant for self-denial and dependance on God and turned it into self-promotion and self gratification.
Notice in Matthew 6:16 that Jesus says “when you fast”, he assumes that it is a normal practice for people who are part of his kingdom.
Fasting is not a punishment from God as if he wants us to show some sort of physical penance for wrong done. Likewise, if you survey the scripture, it does not appear that fasting is an all the time or regular occurrence, but something God gives his people to cultivate dependance through forsaking food and seeking him in prayer. This means that fasting is not outdated or something for ancient people only, but rather something you can participate in today. The warning though is to not make it a public display or a production to exalt yourself.
When we look at scripture we see four general principles about fasting. First, fasting and prayer usually go hand in hand. There are many methods to combine the two, but it appears that as you fast your frequency of prayer should elevate and that fasting may be a good tool for special times of prayer. (Daniel 9:3, Joel 1:13, Acts 13:3). Second, fasting is an expression of humility and dependance on God. Fasting is a way to “afflict” your heart and seek humility (Psalm 35:13, Isaiah 58:5-6). When you feel that expression of pride it may be a good time to fast and pray. Third, fasting is used during times of mourning or brokenness to express physically what our soul is feeling. We see fasting occur during times of national emergency, repentance over personal sin or when someone dies and people are grieving (2 Samuel 1:12, Nehemiah 1:4, Esther 4:3, Matthew 9:15). It would appear that it is appropriate to fast when grieving or experiencing a season of brokenness. Finally, fasting can be done corporately or privately, but we should heed Jesus’ warning to not do it to draw attention to ourselves (Matthew 6:18). This does not mean that you cannot mention fasting or fast alongside others in your church community, but be aware of your motive and doing it to be seen by them instead of to be seen by God.
In the process, fasting will remind you to lean on God in faith and in a practical way teach you that you do not live by bread alone (Deuteronomy 8:3, Matthew 4:4). It is ok to feast and to enjoy food and what God has given because God has ordained them in his word and given them for us to enjoy; but be aware of these kinds of spiritual practices like fasting and how they can form and shape your heart to depend on Jesus more and more.
Fasting is a great spiritual practice to form our dependence on God in our time and culture of abundance. In it we can grow in humility, express our mourning and sorrow, and seek the Lord in prayer. However, beware making this spiritual practice a way to exalt yourself, instead remember that your Father who sees in secrete will reward you.
At your community group:
Take 15-20 minutes to share about how God has been at work in your life, prayer concerns and pray for one another.
How did God speak to you through the scripture and the sermon this week?
Read Matthew 6:16-18
The principle behind Matthew 6:1 would caution us against speaking of spiritual practices as a way to exalt ourselves. So if that is a temptation, do not answer this question together as a group. However, we can learn from one another and encourage one another to love and good works by discussing things (Hebrews 10:24). Have you practiced fasting before and what did God teach you during that time?
Why does Jesus warn us against practicing fasting like the Pharisees? See Matthew 6:16-17 and Luke 18:9-14.
What are some appropriate times to fast as a follower of Jesus? What does fasting teach us and how does it help us grow spiritually?
What are some of the obstacles you face when it comes to practicing fasting?