Let's be honest; fasting is a strange practice. Add to this the fact that some of fasting's major proponents are Christians who believe in a Gospel of grace, and it only gets more confusing. As New Testament believers we understand we cannot earn God's favor. Yet we see this pattern of self-denial used by God not only in the Old Testament, but in the New as well. What are we to make of this? What place does fasting serve in the New Covenant?
We can safely say Jesus' life is an example to us all. For Him, fasting served as a tool of transition. He moved from private relationship to public ministry through a fast. If we examine the Word of God, we see this is a pattern used several times by the Father to promote His children. The hallway between the old and the new is often a place of temporary deprivation and testing - and many times it includes hunger.
Scripture explicitly says, "Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tested by the devil." After 40 days of fasting, the enemy seized this moment of vulnerability to tempt Jesus to turn a stone into bread. Jesus responded with, "Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." In His answer, Jesus reveals one of the primary objectives of His time in the wilderness: establish His dependence upon the word of God to sustain Him.
Jesus' reply wasn't pulled out of thin air, however. It was a direct quote from Deuteronomy 8:3. In this passage we see that God had used this pattern before. In chapter 8 Moses reminds Israel of how God intentionally led them into the wilderness precisely to make them hunger. This was done to test them and reveal their hearts. The goal was for them to realize what Jesus declared: They do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from God's mouth. In quoting this verse, Jesus is identifying His testing with that of the Israelites transitioning between Egypt and the Promised Land.
Hunger is an interesting teacher. It reveals the heart like little else can. Human hunger creates Divine access to get to root issues. What is in man comes out when he is hungry. This is one of the benefits of fasting.
In his excellent book Bruchko, Bruce Olson shares about his missions work in the jungle along the Colombia-Venezuela border. Having no sending agency, he wandered into the Amazon at 19 years old with nothing more than a sense of a call from God. Having been riddled with arrows in an attack by hostiles, Olson was taken in by a friendly tribe and nursed back to health. Living among them, he lived like them. After many months, he decided to travel out of the jungle to contact family. During his journey, he lacked the food provided by his tribal hosts. One night, in exhaustion, he fell against a tree to rest. However his deep sleep was interrupted by something crawling up his throat. In panic he began to gag and cough. Reaching his hand into his mouth, he pulled a long worm out of his throat. Later he would realized his starvation caused this dormant worm to climb upward in search of food.
What Bruce Olson experienced in the physical is replicated spiritually in a fast. Dormant issues which lie unseen in normal life crawl to the surface in hunger, allowing us to identify and deal with them. I can appear spiritual, but deny me food for a few days and I can suddenly become unpleasant to be around.
God led His children into the wilderness to test them. They failed the test and were sentenced to live their lives out in the hallway between their origin and their destiny. Jesus was led into the wilderness as well. In His fast, He passed the test and emerged in the power of the Spirit to redeem us all.
As we head into January, Heartland will once again enter into a 21-day fast. Let's follow Jesus into this voluntary wilderness as a way of entering this new year. The Father is using an ancient pattern with us. He's inviting us into His hallway of transition which leads to a new season for each of us. Our response will determine whether we come out in power or are sentenced to that in-between area while heaven awaits a future people willing to respond.