Midweek Fellowship – April 13, 2016
“The Virtue of Hunger”
Fr. Gary W. Thurman
I am about to make a statement which you might not agree with at first. You might even think I am a false prophet! But I pray that we all allow the Holy Spirit to speak to us tonight, and stir up this truth within us. I am here to tell you tonight:Hunger is a virtue.
This sounds odd at first, because right now so many politicians are busying themselves promising everyone who will listen that they have a plan to end hunger. Isn’t hunger is our enemy, a manifestation of poverty? How can hunger be a good thing? But stop and remember what Jesus said as one of the Beatitudes, which are the foundation of the Gospel of the Kingdom: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” Also think of the words of David: “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for You, O God,” (Psalm 42: 1) and “O God, You are my God, I shall seek You earnestly; my soul thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” (Psalm 63: 1)
Does this relate to food, or only to spiritual things? This question reveals a trace of dualism within us, an attitude that everything is divided into two parts, natural and spiritual. But the catholic faith understands that there is no such thing, but all of creation is one seamless whole ever since Christ reconciled creation to the Father. On another plane, there is also 1 Corinthians 15: 46, which says, first comes the natural, then the spiritual. Before we can understand spiritual hunger, we must experience physical hunger - not necessarily because we are forced into hunger by poverty or deprivation, but because we choose to embrace it as an expression of our faith.
I speak specifically tonight of the topic of fasting. Again, this is not something we hear a lot about today. Perhaps that is because Jesus told us that when we fast we should not make a big deal about it, and not make it obvious to everyone. But that does not mean we should ignore it entirely. After all, Jesus addressed it in very dogmatic terms in the Sermon on the Mount with the words “When you fast …” (Matthew 6: 16-18) There was no option given as to whether or not his hearers would fast.
First of all, let me explain why I am talking about fasting when our current series is on prayer. Actually, prayer and fasting are Siamese twins: they often go together in Scripture. Anna served the Lord with fastings and prayers. (Luke 2: 37) InActs 13: 3 and 14: 23 the men were doing the same. Both Ezra and Nehemiah called the people to times of prayer and fasting. (Ezra 8: 23, 10: 6, Nehemiah 9: 1) Then there is the most familiar example, the words of Jesus that “This kind comes out only by prayer and fasting.” (Matthew 17: 21, Mark 9: 29) There are numerous other examples. This is why I call prayer and fasting Siamese twins; they are so often seen together.
The topic of fasting is mentioned around seventy times in the Bible. That’s hardly marginalized, is it? But what is fasting, and how is it done? Fasting is a spiritual discipline that obtains spiritual results. It is basically an abstaining from food and/or drink for a period of time. It is not done accidentally, but purposefully. Today, many medical practitioners espouse its medical benefits, to purge the body of toxins. This has nothing to do with biblical fasting. It is also not a method of social generosity, wherein we fast a meal for the purpose of giving the money that would have spent on that meal to charity. Those things are not wrong, but they do not touch on the purpose of the fasting instructed in the Bible.
Today we are told that we can fast many things: TV programs, soda, social media, and other favorite practices or even vices. But there are only two things in the bible that are subjects of fasting: food and sex. (Exodus 19: 15, 1 Samuel 21: 4-5) But when fasting marital relations, take heed to the words of St. Paul: make it is by mutual consent, and don’t make it too long! (1 Corinthians 7: 3-6) Also, there is one thing that should never be fasted: the Eucharist. Fasting the Eucharist is not spiritual, it’s just foolish, setting yourself up for the spiritual weakness that comes from the lack of spiritual food.
Another thing about fasting: it is always coupled with prayer. As mentioned before, they are like Siamese twins. Fasting without prayer is just a crash diet, no more. Believers are expected to fast. Some will point to Mark 2: 18-20, when it is said that Jesus’ disciples did not fast. (Notice, they did not say that Jesus did not fast; we know He did!) But Christ responds by saying that a day would come when His disciples would fast. Look at the examples of St. Paul and his companions: they were disciples of Christ, and we see them fasting. But we will see later the results of His disciple’s lack of fasting, even while He was with them.
How long and how often should we fast? The Scripture gives no hard rule. We can see from the examples of others, however. Moses and Jesus both fasted for forty days. I do not know if that is expected of us, unless we are involved in ministry at their level. Daniel fasted for twenty-one days. The people of Ezra’s time fasted for three days, as did Esther and her companions. In most other instances where we are told people fasted, the duration is not mentioned. Perhaps this is intentional, to prevent us from getting too legalistic about it. Like all spiritual disciplines, fasting should be done by the Spirit, and no by the letter. Let the Holy Spirit lead you as you go along.
There are three basic purposes or occasions for fasting. The most familiar is in times of crisis. The spiritual condition in the time of Joel prompted him to call a fast, that the people would repent (Joel 1: 14, 2: 12, 15) When Ezra was taking a perilous journey and needed God’s protection, he called a fast before departure. (Ezra 8: 21-23, 31) Again in a time of moral weakness among the people, he, too, called for a fast (Ezra 10: 6). Nehemiah did the same (Nehemiah 9: 1). When the evil Haman threatened to conduct genocide on the Jewish race, Mordecai and his fellow Jews, then Queen Esther and her maidens, called a fast (Esther 4: 3, 15-16). Fasting at such a time brings about a great outcome: it breaks the yoke of bondage and frees the people from the work of the enemy (Isaiah 58: 6-7), so that God’s people are blessed.
Another occasion for fasting is at the onset of a new ministry. Before beginning his ministry of bringing the people into the Promised Land, Moses fasted forty days. Jesus did the same at the start of His earthly ministry (Mathew 4: 2) Paul and Barnabas were fasting when they were called as missionaries (Acts 13: 2), and before they began their missionary journey they fasted some more (Acts 13: 3). Later when they ordained elders for the churches planted in their mission, they did so with prayer and fasting (Acts 14: 23). Who knows what Anna’s lifetime of fasting did in preparing the way for Israel’s Messiah? She was certainly not fasting for herself, but for all the people of God.
For centuries, every new candidate for baptism or confirmation has undergone a certain period of fasting. This was actually the origin of Lent. Also, before any group of bishops would consider ordaining a man into the priesthood, diaconate or episcopacy, they would fast, and likewise the candidate, before the ordination, would fast for a time. A priest presiding at the Eucharist must do so fasting, the Body and Blood being the first thing to have passed through his lips that day. In times past, all communicants were encouraged to receive communion having been fasting at least for the previous 2-4 hours.
The third purpose for fasting is for ongoing spiritual discipline. Remember when the disciples could not cast out the spirit of the epileptic boy in Mark 9? Jesus explained their failure by saying, “This kind comes out only by prayer and fasting.” Remember, in chapter 2 the people had noticed the disciple’s lack of fasting. It seems the evil spirit noticed it, also! Jesus, Who had fasted, was able to cast the spirit out of the boy. So we see a need for fasting as a regular discipline; the traditional standard is at least one day per week. The thing about fasting, you can’t always wait for the crisis to arise before you do it. The need was immediate; there was no time to call a fast! Even prayer was not done by Jesus at that time; He spoke to the evil spirit. But He was effective because He had fasted and prayed previously! You may never know when you will need the extra spiritual power which prayer and fasting bring you, so you must execute these disciplines beforehand, before the need arises! That is what St. Paul means when he says, “Be ready in season and out of season (2 Timothy 4: 2). Of course, the spiritual discipline of hiding God’s Word in your heart must be approached in the same way.
If we are to be the children the Kingdom God calls us to be, we must return to this forgotten discipline of fasting. There really is no valid excuse not to do so. I have heard some use the excuse of age, either advanced years of lack of them. But remember Moses, fasting for forty days at the age of eighty! Anna, as well, at age eighty six, fasted continually. If they could fast at an advanced age, how could a strong young man refuse? There might be an issue for some with blood sugar levels. In this case I would encourage you, “Prove God! At least give it a try, if even for a short duration at first.”
For many, their reason for the rejection of fasting is the false “gospel of comfort” that is so rampant today. We have become used to the gospel meeting our needs, feeding our desires, and making us comfortable. But that is not the full Gospel! That’s just “comfort food”, and any nutritionist will tell you that comfort food has no substantial nutritional value. Remember the words of St. Paul: “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.” (Philippians 4: 11-12). Remember, this is the same man who said, “I have been in sleeplessness and in hunger,” (2 Corinthians 6: 5) and “I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.” (2 Corinthians 11: 27) Does that sound comfortable to you? How about Jesus, Who had no place to lay His head? (Luke 9: 58) How comfy is that? Jesus said that true love is demonstrated by laying down one’s life for his friend. Again, that’s way out of our comfort zone. And yet, one of the most practical ways to lay down our life for our friend is to fast on their behalf, that the bondages of Satan over their lives would be broken. Are we willing to do this?
The thing is, we say we want to minister to the hungry. But how can we truly do that if we have never experienced hunger? We say we are hungry for the Lord, that we want to please Him. But the best way to do that, to prove that, may be to move out of our well-fed comfort zone on occasion. How many of our Church-related activities involve food? That’s not bad; the Lord even chose His Table as the primary place of communion with His children. But, as St. Paul said to the Corinthians, “Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink? (1 Corinthians 11: 22) We have so many activities based on eating, and quite few on fasting and abstinence.
Again we say, “Hunger is a virtue.” But know that for people, and even animals, there are three reasons for abstaining from food, and going hungry: Devotion, Depression, or Disease. When we are depressed or ill, we have no appetite. That is not the same as being hungry for the sake of the Kingdom of God. That kind of hunger must be healed. However, we must embrace, encourage, and develop spiritual hunger, because when you hunger for the things of God, you are blessed.
After all, “Some things come only by prayer and fasting.”