Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Fasting - Hungering for God

As we are heading into a week of prayer and fasting From January 7-14, I thought I'd post a pamphlet on fasting that I put together a few years ago.

After the story of the transfiguration in Mark 9, when Jesus and the three disciples come down from the mountain, there is a crowd waiting for them.  There is a little boy who has been terrorized by a demon.  The demon keeps him from talking and often throws him into fits that endanger his life.  Jesus casts the demon out and frees the boy to live the life of God.  The nine disciples that were waiting at the base of the mountain had already tried to cast the demon out.  Afterwards they ask Jesus, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”  Jesus answers, “This kind can come out only by prayer and fasting.” 

Since Jesus cast the demon out immediately, He must have been talking about the regular practice of prayer and fasting rather than a concerted effort of prayer and fasting for this particular boy.  Which brings us to the question, “What is fasting, and how do we do it?”

What is Fasting?
Simply put, fasting is the voluntary abstinence from food for spiritual purposes. It is important to note that fasts have a spiritual purpose – it is not just missing lunch because you are too busy .A fast can last anywhere from one meal to forty days without food. 

There are different types of fasts. The most typical fast is to go without any food; some people will fast from food and water – although you can only do this for a short time.  There are limited fasts, when people will allow themselves juice or other liquid sustenance during their fast. There are partial fasts, where you will give up certain types of food for a period of time.  Many people do this during Lent when they will give up sweets, or meat, or something else for the forty days from Ash Wednesday to Easter.
While we are going to concentrate on fasting from food, people will also fast from TV, screens, and other media, from talking, from computers, computer games or social network sites;  from shopping; married couples can fast from sexual intimacy… You can fast from anything that is habitual in your life.  It is good to fast from the things that you obsess about – it reminds you that you can get by without them.  I have a friend who hates holidays – work is so important to him that a holiday is like a fast from work rather than a rest!  Another friend fasted from going to the gym  for lent—he realized that he was obsessing far to much about fitness.

Is Fasting Christian?

The simple answer is yes.  Everyone of importance in the Bible practiced fasting: Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Anna, Paul, Jesus, just to name a few.  When Jesus taught on fasting, He would say, “when you fast,” not “if you fast.”  He assumed that we would fast.  It is not just the great people of the Bible that practiced fasting, but also the great saints of the church down through the ages that practiced fasting as part of their regular spiritual discipline.

Why Fast?

Fasting can increase our hunger for God

John Piper writes in his book, A Hunger for God:
If you don’t feel strong desires for the manifestation of the glory of God, it is not because you have drunk deeply and are satisfied.  It is because you have nibbled so long at the table of the world.  Your soul is stuffed with small things, and there is no room for the great.  God did not create you for this. There is an appetite for God. And it can be awakened. I invite you to turn from the dulling effects of food and the dangers of idolatry, and to say with some simple fast, “This much, O God, I want you.”  (p.23)

Fasting reminds us that we can get by without most things in our lives for a time, but we cannot get by without God.  The first and main pupose of fasting is to draw closer to God.

Fasting can train our passions

We are so used to giving ourselves whatever we want. We say, “I feel like a doughnut,” so we go get a doughnut.  Richard Foster says that our stomach is like a spoiled child, and spoiled children do not need indulgence -- they need discipline.  Even Oh! Henry commercials speak to the control that our stomachs have over our lives.  We are not to be controlled by our stomachs, but controlled by the Spirit of God.  Fasting is spiritual training in self-control.

The way that gold was refined in ancient days was that the ore was placed in a great cauldron with fire underneath it. As it heated up, the ore would melt, and all the impurities would rise to the surface.  The smelter would then skim off the impurities – the dross.  But he wasn’t finished there; he would stoke the fire more, and more impurities would rise to the top.  He would skim those off, and heat it up even more.  He would continue this process until the gold was pure.  And it is said that he knew that the gold was pure when he could see his reflection in the gold.

God does the same thing.  He heats things up in our lives so that the dross rises to the top. When we go through hard times, things in our lives are brought to the surface: sins, things that we are holding on to that we need to let go of, pride, etc.  These things can become very obvious when we go through struggles, and it gives God the chance to skim them off and purify us.  He knows when He is done when He can see His reflection in us.

God wants us to be like pure gold. We can turn up the heat ourselves, or we can wait until He does. Fasting is voluntarily turning up the heat in our lives.

 Richard Foster says:
More than any other single discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us.  This is a wonderful benefit to the true disciple who longs to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ.  We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface.  If pride controls us, it will be revealed almost immediately.  David said, “I humbled myself with fasting” (Ps. 69:10).  Anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear – if they are within us, they will surface during fasting.  At first we will rationalize that our anger is due to our hunger; then we know that we are angry because the spirit of anger is within us.  We can rejoice in this knowledge because we know that healing is available through the power of Christ. (p.48)

The Apostle Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 4:7-8:
Spend your time and energy in training yourself for spiritual fitness. Physical exercise has some value, but spiritual exercise is much more important, for it promises a reward in both this life and the next.

Out of all the spiritual disciplines, fasting is most like physical exercise.  It is both physical and spiritual, and it builds our “faith muscles” so that we can withstand the bigger contests that come our way.

Fasting can be earnest prayer

Many people fast when they are desperate for God to answer their prayers.  We can fast for rescue from a bad situation, for healing of a loved one, for direction in life or for other requests that are close to our hearts.
Fasting is not some kind of spiritual hunger strike that compels God to do our bidding.  The Israelites got this wrong in Isaiah 58:3 when they say,
Why have we fasted,
       and you have not seen it?
       Why have we humbled ourselves,
       and you have not noticed?

On the other side, fasting can bring a note of urgency to our praying.  We are coming to our Father and telling Him (and ourselves) how important this issue is to us.

Arthur Wallis writes:
Fasting is calculated to bring a note of urgency and importunity into our praying, and to give force to our pleading in the court of heaven.  The man who prays with fasting is giving heaven notice that he is truly in earnest… Not only so, but he is expressing his earnestness in a divinely-appointed way.  He is using a means that God has chosen to make his voice to be heard on high.

When my sister Faith was diagnosed with cancer, as I prayed for her, Jesus’ words that “these can come out only through prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29) kept coming to me, so I began a weekly fast for her as well as my constant prayer.  When we fast with a specific request in mind, our fast can be a wordless prayer to God.  Our hunger pangs also remind us to lift our voice up to God.

Fasting for change

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, would not ordain anyone for ministry unless they fasted every Friday.  While I was looking into the horrors of the modern slave trade, I discovered that the reason that Wesley fasted, and required his clergy to fast, was to see the end of the African slave trade.  Two hundred years ago, his prayers and fasting were answered when the British parliament abolished the slave trade in the British Empire.  Today, groups like Living Water International are inviting people to fast for fresh water provision in the developing world.  The modern slave trade is actually more extensive than the African slave trade was; Christians need to renew the practice of fasting for social change.

Fasting can help us humble ourselves

Fasting can humble us. Oftentimes all the things in our life that we take pride in are stripped away in fasting – the ability to move and think fast, the ability to be productive, and our physical strength are all reduced in fasting.  Fasting really should be called “slowing!”

Fasting can be an act of humility – just as kneeling or bowing before God is an act of humility, so is fasting.

One of the most wicked men in Jewish history, King Ahab, eventually humbled himself before God and demonstrated it by fasting: “When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly.
Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite: ‘Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day …’ ” (1 Kings 21:27-29)

David, one of the most righteous kings, also humbled himself through fasting (Ps. 35:13).

Fasting can be a sign of repentance

Repentance is a decision to turn away from sin in our lives. In Christianity today, repentance can be a light thing.  It is just some words we say, and it can be over in seconds.  But many people in the Bible fasted to show their seriousness in repentance.

You might be uncomfortable with this, but God isn’t.  While we would like our confession and repentance to be as short as possible, fasting takes time.  This might lengthen our discomfort with our guilt, but it might cause us to take more seriously our decision to turn from sin.

When we fast in our repentance, it is not an attempt to punish ourselves for our past sin, but a commitment and preparation for our future righteousness.  It is a sign that we are starting something new.

People have also fasted out of grief for others’ sins, not just their own.

There are many more reasons to fast and you can read about them in the resource material listed at the end of this pamphlet.

How to Fast

Start small. Fasting is a bit like physical exercise. You want to train yourself. You wouldn’t try to run a marathon without training, so don’t jump into a forty-day fast without training; Start by fasting for one meal, then two, then do a twenty-four hour fast.  You may want to use the season of Lent to fast once a week, adding a little to the fast each week.

Determine the purpose of the fast. Is it to seek God, to seek direction, to pray for others, or for change?

Determine the nature of the fast. Is it a partial fast?  Many people do partial fasts through Lent. Is it an absolute fast, or solid food only?  As a person who suffers from low blood sugar, I actually find it easier to fast with only water.  When I have allowed myself juice, it spikes my blood sugar, and for every high there is a low.

Plan for the fast. Set the time specifically. It is likely best not to be fasting if you have a presentation or a job interview that day. Determine the length of the fast. Is it one day? Two meals or three? Is it longer? (For fasts longer than three days, please read the supplemental material recommended at the end of the brochure, and consult a doctor if there are any medical questions.) Don’t plan to decide as you go – that doesn’t work so well.

Is it going to be a working fast, where you keep your schedule the same, but use the time that you would otherwise be eating to pray? Or are you going to clear your schedule and retreat during your fast? Is it also a media fast? 

Get people praying for you. There is so much potential power in seeking God in this way that Satan will do whatever necessary to derail your plan.

Don't call attention to your fasting. A simple "I'm skipping lunch today" will be an adequate explanation for most situations.

Stay continually focused on the Lord. If your fasting leaves you irritable with family or coworkers, it will not honor God.

Pitfalls of Fasting


The Pharisees were very self-righteousness about their fasting, and it is easy for us to become self-righteous as well.  Remember that your fast is about you and God, not about impressing others, or even yourself.
When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18, TNIV)

There is also the temptation to judge others who don't fast, or who don't fast as long, or who don't deny themselves as many things.

Fasting can also trap its participants in legalism. As soon as rule-making begins about whether juice is okay or water only, or what media are excluded, the joy and power of the Spirit will be lost. 

Coercion of God

Remember that we are not twisting God’s arm; we are trying to draw closer to Him. 


There is a heretical tradition in Christianity of punishing ourselves for sins.  God’s forgiveness of our sins comes with no requirement of us except confession and repentance.  We shouldn’t deprive ourselves of food as a way to punish ourselves or gain favour with God.  We already have God’s favour through Jesus.

It is tempting to see fasting as a great weight-loss program. Although you can shed weight during fasting, this is not its first goal.  The goal is spiritual, not physical.  If you want to lose weight, find a way to eat more healthily and exercise; if you want to draw closer to God, try fasting.

Mental Health
Fasting can complicate mental health issues that you may be dealing with.  I’ve had friends go into a deep depression after a prolonged fast.   If you struggle with mental health, talk to your doctor or therapist before you fast, and have someone monitor your health during the fast.  If you have an eating disorder, fasting from food may not be healthy for you.  Again, make sure you talk with your doctor, therapist, or 12-step sponsor before you fast.

For further reading:
John Piper, A Hunger for God (Crossways Press, 1997).
Arthur Wallis, God’s Chosen Fast (Christian Literature Crusade, 1980).
Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline (Harper, 3rd. ed., 1988), ch. 4.

Check out more on the web!
Go to Navpress.com, click on Magazines, then Discipleship Journal, then Archives, and search for these articles: A Day to Pray, Confronting Prayer Myths, Speaking God’s Language, The Listening Side of Prayer, Fasting on a Full Stomach and other articles on fasting.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

2016 Christmas Letter - #FashionSanta

Social media told me that Yorkdale Mall hired model Paul Mason, and “his glorious white beard,” to play Santa Claus this year.  If you google #FashionSanta you’ll see that he might actually look a little more like the real Saint Nicholas than the Coca-Cola version of a very large elf in a very large suit.

The whole thing got me thinking about how we celebrate the birth of Jesus with all sorts of glitz and glamour when the Prophet Isaiah describes the coming savior like this,
“He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
   nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
   a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
   he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
  • Isaiah 53:2-3

I’m all for having fun with Christmas, but in the midst of the lights and tinsel we can’t forget that we are celebrating the birth of God who came as a poor, homeless, helpless infant.  I love how Brennan Manning writes it in a chapter called “Shipwrecked at the Stable”: “God entered into our world not with the crushing impact of unbearable glory, but in the way of weakness, vulnerability and need. On a wintry night in an obscure cave, the infant Jesus was a humble, naked, helpless God who allowed us to get close to him.”

While we might celebrate Christmas with “unbearable glory,” that is not where we will find the One we celebrate.  He is not in the lights and tinsel – he is in the stable.  To quote Bruce Cockburn, “It isn’t to the palace that the Christ Child come, but to shepherds, and street people, hookers and bums.” (The Cry of a Tiny Babe)

As “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” says, “He puzzled and puzzled till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before. Maybe Christmas, he thought... doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps... means a little bit more!
It actually means a lot more – it means that God has come to be among us, to show us who he truly is: “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” – John 1:18

This Christmas, celebrate well! Get out the lights and tinsel, the turkey and the trimmings, but make sure that you find the One whom we celebrate as well.  You won’t find Him in the lights – he won’t come in unbearable glory, he’ll come “in the way of weakness, vulnerability and need.”  Among the rejected ones, that’s where you’ll find the Christ Child.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Wear a RED X tomorrow

God often asks His people to do things that make other people ask: "Why do you do that?"  One of my favorites is the time the people of Israel cross over the Jordan River into the Promised Land, and Joshua has a man from every tribe pick a rock from the river and heap the twelve stones up into a pile "to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?'’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.” (Joshua 4:6-7)

Tomorrow (February 27), people all over the world are going to paint a red "X" on their hand.  "Why?" you might ask.  (This is the correct response!)  

And all those people (those of us with X's on our hands!) can reply: "We are wearing the red X to bring attention to the problem of slavery in the world today.  Today, it is estimated that 27 million people are enslaved. That is more than were enslaved at the height of the African slave trade!

I'm inviting you to go to http://enditmovement.com to get informed and then tomorrow, before you go out to work, school or wherever, paint a red "X" on your hand.  When people ask "Why?" tell them that you want to see slavery end.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Saint Patrick and Evangelism

You might celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day this Saturday by wearing green and patronising your local Irish Pub, but to really celebrate the man, you might want to bring a friend along and tell them about Jesus!
Patrick is the apostle of Ireland – credited with most of the population of the island embracing Christ within his lifetime. There are some who would say that he is the first true missionary since the apostle Paul: if not, he is surely the first missionary to venture outside of the Roman Empire.

By the time Patrick died at the ripe old age of 115, after 60 years of ministry, the vast majority of Ireland would have adopted his very indigenous, very vibrant Christian faith.

In many ways it was best explained as a conversion not to Christianity, but to Christ. Patrick was not spreading a religion: to have more people under the control of the Church; but he was spreading the Good News that the Creator wanted to have a relationship with them through his Son. It was the good news of inviting people to live the life that they were created to live, in the family of the One that they were created in the image of.

Patrick’s message was good news that pulled people out of fear based, and often-oppressive religious systems and beliefs. Patrick himself recognized that the gospel was good news as he suffered as a slave on the hills of Northern Ireland. He returned to Ireland not to conquer it for Christ, but to woo people into Christ’s love.

Patrick was a missionary unlike many others. Patrick was not Irish (gasp!), he was born in Roman Briton. But he didn’t reach the Irish as his “target audience.” In his writings he speaks of “we Irish:” he sees himself as one of the Irish. Because of his enslavement, he already had an understanding of the culture and ways of the Irish, and he felt no need to “civilize” them into Roman ways.

Even the Celtic cross is a sign of the marrying of the Celtic culture and Christian faith – The circle was an important symbol to the Druids, and instead of destroying it as evil and devilish, Patrick placed the cross over it. This doesn’t mean that he adopted the traditional religion into his Christianity: there was much to be discarded it was a fear-based religion that included human sacrifice and fearsome and arbitrary gods. But the Celtic Christian faith was one that spoke to the same earthy “felt needs” of the people, and it adopted much of what was good and pure from the traditional culture.

George G. Hunter III writes about Patrick’s method of spreading the gospel in “The Celtic Way of Evangelism:” “Patrick’s entourage would have included a dozen or so people, including priests, seminarians, and two or three women. Upon arrival at a tribal settlement, Patrick would engage the king and other opinion leaders, hoping for conversion, or at least their clearance, to camp near the people and form into a community of faith adjacent to the tribal settlement. The “apostolic” team would meet the people, engage them in conversation and in ministry, and look for people who appeared receptive. They would pray for sick people, and for possessed people, and they would counsel people and mediate conflicts. On at least one occasion, Patrick blessed a river and prayed for the people to catch more fish. They would engage in some open-air speaking, probably employing parable, story, poetry, song, visual symbols, visual arts and, perhaps, drama to engage the Celtic people’s remarkable imaginations. Often, we think, Patrick would receive the people’s questions and then speak to those questions collectively. The Apostolic band would welcome responsive people into their group fellowship to worship with them, pray with them, minister to them, converse with them, and break bread together. One band member or another would probably join with each responsive person to reach out to relatives and friends. The mission team typically spent weeks, or even months, as a ministering community of faith within the tribe. The church that emerged within the tribe would have been astonishingly indigenous.” - p. 21

Patrick’s is a great model for evangelism today in our post-Christian world. Some of the people who walk in his spirit today are The Alpha Course, Ed Silvoso & his model of Prayer Evangelism & the people involved in the MoveIn movement.

Wish someone a happy Saint Patrick’s Day & tell them about the Jesus that Patrick loved!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Saint Patrick and the End of Slavery

We’re a few days away from Saint Patrick’s Day, and it will be a day of grown men marching in funny green hats, drinking way too much green beer & inviting anyone to kiss them because, for today, they are Irish. Like many of our Saints’ Days, the celebration has taken over, and it has become much less than the actual person we are celebrating.

Contrary to popular belief, Saint Patrick looks nothing like the guy on the front of Frosted Lucky Charms cereal! Patrick was born in Roman Briton in 387. At the age of 16 he was captured by Irish raiders and sold into slavery in Ireland. In slavery, he embraced the Christian faith he was born into. Through dreams and visions from God, Patrick was able to escape back to his family.
He was trained as a priest and, through dreams from God, he was called back to Ireland to be an apostle to his former captors. Patrick was an amazing evangelist: in his lifetime, Ireland was converted to Christianity.

Patrick preached a holistic faith that encompassed every area of life. Thomas Cahill says in How the Irish Saved Civilization; ”Patrick is the first human being in the history of the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery. Nor would any voice as strong as his be heard again till the seventeenth century.” By Patrick’s death, slavery was completely abolished as a practice in Ireland – way better than driving out the snakes!

We have two writings from Patrick that have survived into our time. One is his “Confession,” which is a brief autobiography; the other is his letter to Coroticus. This public letter to Coroticus is a powerful statement against slavery.

As the Romans pulled out of Briton, the Romanized Britons had very few ways to support themselves so some of them took to piracy, raiding the neighbouring counties for booty and slaves.

You can imagine how horrified Patrick was to hear of the tables turning and British Christian raiders coming to make slaves of the Irish. One of the raiders was named Coroticus. Patrick describes how he had just baptized and confirmed a large group of young men and women, when on the very next day, the chrism “still gleaming upon their foreheads, they were cruelly cut down and killed.” Those that resisted faced instant death; the remainder were taken prisoner – the men into slavery, the women to endure a lifetime of sexual abuse at the hands of the pagan Picts.

Patrick writes a hasty letter and sends a delegation of priests after Coroticus and his men to call them back from their wicked ways and return their Christian brothers and sisters to their homes. The priests were rebuffed and laughed at. So Patrick wrote a second open letter; a great rebuke, calling Coroticus and his men to repentance. If they do not repent, the letter calls all other Christians to excommunicate them and have nothing to do with their company or their wicked ways. In the letter he derides Coroticus and his men as “dogs and sorcerers and murderers, and liars and false swearers… who distribute baptized girls for a price, and that for the sake of a miserable temporal kingdom which truly passes away in a moment like a cloud or smoke that
is scattered by the wind.”

Today, slavery is as great an issue as it ever was in Patrick’s day. In fact, there are more slaves today than there were at the height of the African slave trade or any other time in human history! This March 17, you can honour Saint Patrick by doing something to end slavery in our generation. You can become part of advocacy organizations like Not For Sale, rescue organizations like International Justice Mission, and after-care organizations like Ratanak International. And pray for the 30 million people enslaved today, that they would see justice and freedom in our time.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Saint Nicholas and National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women

December 6 is Saint Nicholas Day! In Germany, children put out their stockings (or shoes) on the eve of Saint Nicholas and he fills them with fruits & candies (or coal). In my house we celebrate Saint Nicholas Day because we have our own Saint Nicholas (our twelve-year-old). I usually just wish him a happy Saint Nicholas Day and buy him some chocolate. Lately I’ve taken him out for lunch to celebrate his saint’s day.

Another “tradition” that we’ve had on Saint Nicholas Day is to wake up to the radio reminding us that it is the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women in Canada. December 6 marks the anniversary of the murders in 1989 of 14 young women at l'École Polytechnique de Montréal. I’ve always had troubles reconciling the fun celebration of the patron saint of children with the remembrance of that terrible crime.

Today, as Matt Galloway reminded me of the memorial this morning, it seemed to make more sense. Saint Nicholas isn’t the Santa Claus of Coca-Cola ads, nor is he even Father Christmas. He was a real person living in the early fourth century A.D. As Bishop of Myra, located in modern day Turkey, he attended the Council of Nicea from which we have the Nicene Creed. Nicholas was a great protector of women. A story is told of a poor old widower with three daughters for whom he had no dowry. Without a dowry, the girls were destined to be sold into prostitution. In order to save the girls, and retain the widower’s dignity, Nicholas secretly provided the dowries by throwing bags of gold through the family’s window. (The gold supposedly landed in stockings or shoes drying by the fire.) You may have never thought of Santa Claus as someone doing what he could to stop the trafficking of vulnerable women, but Saint Nicholas surely did. He followed the example of his saviour Jesus in protecting vulnerable women and honouring them.

So, we can celebrate Saint Nicholas Day and remember and take action on violence against women on the same day. You can remember Saint Nicholas and wear the white ribbon in his honour; and like Saint Nicholas, you can take action to protect women who are some of the most vulnerable to violence: those who are trafficked, especially in the sex trade. One place to start is where many people at Runnymede Community Church help out: supporting Vancouver-based Ratanak International in their work to restore and rehabilitate Cambodian women and children from slavery in the brothels in Cambodia.