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About this series
Cultivating a Lifestyle that Makes Room for God
We all do life in rhythms. Getting up for the day, meals, school, work, church... there are rhythms we live in. In this series, Chip introduces the idea of living in sacred rhythms. He tells us there's a specific way to arrange our lives that will cultivate practices and help us grow in intimate relationship with Jesus. Chip's son, Ryan Ingram, unpacks the specifics of how to live life in Sacred Rhythms.More from this series
What do you do when you don’t know what to do? When life is uncertain, when the future, you’re not exactly sure what is going to happen. It may be you have a relationship that is falling apart. Maybe your kids are heading down the wrong road. You get a biopsy report. What do you do when you have a major decision to make, when you have lost your job, or when you have sensed that God is calling you into a new direction or to a big step of faith? Like, how do you pray when life is desperate? How do you pray when you are at the end of your rope?
We have been journeying in in the Sermon on the Mount with Jesus. And we said sacred rhythms are spiritual practices or disciplines that we embrace that actually cultivate the very life of Christ in us.
In ancient Judaism, there are three central disciplines that they engaged in, the discipline or practice of giving, the discipline or practice of prayer, and then the discipline and practice of fasting. And these are three practices that Jesus has been talking about, teaching us, and defining: how do we actually engage in these in such a way that it’s not a religious activity, but it develops relational intimacy. We become more and more like Jesus.
And this morning, we are going to look at the practice or the rhythm of fasting. Now, here’s the problem with fasting. We don’t know anything about it. Some of you are somewhat familiar with it, because it has become kind of hip, kind of popular. All the health benefits that are associated to fasting have become in vogue.
And so, intermittent fasting, some of you do that. You’re into that. And there’s tremendous health benefits connected to fasting, but in the Church, in the West especially, we have lost this rhythm. It’s almost completely died. It’s not a part of our practice.
And as a result, we miss out on this spiritual power and blessing of this rhythm. And fasting, by the way, it’s not starving. We think, Oh, I’m just starving myself. No, no, no.
Fasting is just abstaining from something, generally food, for a spiritual purpose or reasoning. We are just going to stop something, say no to something so that I can say yes and focus in on God.
And Jesus actually invites us when we don’t know what to do, when life is uncertain, to embrace and engage in this sacred rhythm of fasting.
If you’ve got your Bibles, would you open them up to Matthew chapter 6? We pick it up in verse 16. Listen in as Jesus teaches us about this rhythm of fasting. He says this, “When you fast,” three words in, let’s stop already. Because Jesus says this repeatedly. “When you pray, when you give, when you fast.” Circle that word when in your notes or in your Bible.
And we have said this. These practices are not commands to be obeyed. He doesn’t say, “You fast. You must fast.” He says, “When you fast.” They are not commands to be obeyed. What they are is they are wisdom to be embraced. There is a way about going about life that when you embrace it, it produces such joy and peace in your life.
He says, “When you fast,” meaning that there will be times when you need to fast. Meaning that there are going to be some moments in your life where the only productive thing you can do is fast.
It’s funny, the disciples of Jesus, when they were with Jesus, walking with Jesus on this planet, didn’t fast at all. It actually really bothered the Pharisees and it actually bothered the disciples of John the Baptist, so much so, that they confronted Jesus on it.
If you’ve got, if in your Bible you just flip over to Matthew chapter 9, you can see in verse 15. He is getting questioned about: why don’t His disciples fast the way everyone else does? This habit and practice. And Jesus answered this way, “How can the guest of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them. Then they will fast.”
Translation: there are moments and seasons of celebration and feasting and you should enjoy them and recognize them. And there are moments and seasons in our life when there are moments of mourning and fasting. And those are the proper, right response.
And so, He says, “When you fast,” He is going to then teach us how not to fast. “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. I tell you truly, they have received their reward in full.”
The hypocrites over and over, Jesus is talking about these hypocrites. They are the Pharisees. They are the ones who look good on the outside, but their hearts are not right. The ones that wanted to put on a performance for everyone else to see how good they are. It’s being more focused on outward rightness than internal heart connection.
The Pharisees, these were the religious elite. They considered themselves above everyone else. And so, they wanted everyone to look up to them and they certainly looked down on everyone else. They had this sense of – air of superiority, of power, of prestige. Jesus says, “When you fast, don’t fast the way they fast.” You see, there’s a way even to do the right things in the wrong way that can produce bad results. Your motives matter. Check your motives.
The Pharisees, they fasted twice a week. They fasted on Mondays and they fasted on Thursdays. Interesting, the market days in their culture was on Mondays and Thursdays. And so, when the greatest amount of people were in the town or in the city buying and selling goods, the Pharisees made sure that they were fasting.
And so, they wouldn’t clean up, they wouldn’t put on oil, they wouldn’t comb their hair, if you will. They would even put on dust and ashes on their heads and walk around just with a dead face. Eyeore-ish. So that everyone saw. Everyone could see, “Wow! Look how good and holy they are!”
And Jesus is saying, “Your motives matter.” Why you do what you do matters. And there is this subtle temptation in these spiritual practices, especially when you’re in the community of other believers, is to use them as a badge of honor, to use them as somehow a checklist that makes you better than others, rather than an avenue or a tool to develop relational intimacy with Jesus.
And He says, “Don’t let it go that way.” But here, listen t what He says. Now, notice, He says, “But when you fast, put oil on your head, wash your face so that it will not be obvious to others that you’re fasting, but only to your Father who is unseen and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”
He says, “When you fast, comb your hair, please. Brush your teeth for everyone else’s sake.” There are even certain fasting, we are going to really unpack this in a second, that are just deeply personal. Don’t let other people know.
Just between you and God. Secrecy, by the way, is such a good safeguard for hypocrisy. He talks about it with giving and when you’re able to give in secret, you’re not able – it keeps you from puffing up in pride. And praying and just allowing your heart, intention, and motives just to be laid bare before God. And He says, “When you do that, you’ll experience the spiritual blessing of God.”
Okay, so, the question then is: what exactly is fasting? We have been talking about it for the last ten minutes. I’m not exactly sure what this is. When and why should I fast? And how do I do it actually? Let’s spend the remainder of our time talking about what fasting is, why and when we should do it, and how to actually go about doing it.
Okay, what is fasting? If we look through the Hebrew Scriptures, you’ll notice the word fast actually means to humble one’s soul. And so, the Hebrew understanding of fasting was a physical action that humbled one’s soul before God.
You move into the New Testament, the Greek word means one who hasn’t eaten, who is empty, or suffering hunger. So, fasting is this act of humbling your soul before God by abstaining from something. In the Scripture, that abstaining is always referred to food.
And so, another way to give us another definition for fasting, you may want to write down: fasting is setting something aside to focus intensely on God. Okay, I am going to set something aside. I’m going to set eating aside. I’m going to set media aside to focus intently on God.
I love how Richard Foster says it, because some of wrestle, well, why do we fast? What is this all about? In his book The Celebration of Discipline, he says this, “The central idea in fasting is the voluntary denial of an otherwise normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity. There is nothing wrong with any normal life functions. It is simply that there are times we set them aside in order to concentrate.”
Let me maybe give you a picture or an illustration that might help you understand this concept of fasting for a little bit and why we would embrace it.
If you have paid attention to any sports at all, during the playoffs, you watch these elite athletes often post on social media: time to lock in. Meaning they are spending a time of focused, intentional activity that they are saying no to things like social media, saying no to other stuff so that they can perform at their best.
Here’s what fasting is: fasting is saying no to certain activities, saying no to certain food so that you can say yes to intentionally focusing and pursuing God. Now, some of you are going, Ingram, I can’t fast. I get hangry. I get hangry.
Listen to what Richard Foster says again. He says, “More than any other discipline, fasting reveals the thing that controls us.” You see, when you fast you know what bubbles up? You know what rises up? You know what comes to the surface? The thing that controls you. I just get hangry. No, maybe there’s an anger issue that you can kind of sedate with food and media that bubbles up. Maybe there’s a bitterness issue. Maybe there’s a jealousy issue. Maybe there’s some fear in you. And it begins to bubble up.
But, by the way, fasting is so powerful it brings about breakthroughs spiritually that cannot be done otherwise. There are some things and some longing and some dreams that you actually have to stop and intensely focus your heart and mind and life on who God is and by saying, “Okay, I am going to spend a season where I am saying no to food, because my need for God is greater than my need for my food.”
Jesus would say it this way, “My food is to do the will of My Father who sent Me.” Okay, I want to get to the place where I recognize my spiritual need is greater than any physical need and bring my physical reality in alignment with my spiritual reality.
So, what is fasting? The act of humbling our soul before God by abstaining from something. It’s setting aside something to focus intensely on God. So, how and why should you fast? How and why should we go about this?
Let me give you just five areas for you to consider, Okay, how do I go about fasting? When do I know I should intensely focus after God? And here’s what’s fun about this. Because we don’t talk about this.
As I was going through this with teaching team, all of them were like, “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon on fasting ever.” And this is going to be a little bit like, how many of you have bought a brand new car or bought a car, got a certain brand of car, right? A Honda Pilot or a Volkswagen or whatever and you never noticed that car, but then you bought the car and then you drive around and what do you do? You see that car everywhere!
Friends, I bet you you never noticed fasting in the Bible. And as we are going to unpack it together, what you are going to see as we are talking about it, you’re going to start to go, Oh, it’s literally all throughout the Bible. We might want to pay attention and listen up.
Five areas where you might consider the rhythm of fasting. The first area is if you have a major decision to make or you need guidance.
Nehemiah gets word from his hometown, Jerusalem. He is living in the capital city of Persia, Susa. He’s cupbearer to the king. He has this position of authority and influence. And he gets word from Jerusalem that the people of Israel, his people, are in distress. The walls are torn down. And he is brokenhearted about it and he realizes God has placed him in a position to make an impact.
And so, before he jumps and moves forward, risking his job, risking his position, risking success – even his life – what does he do? He fasts and prays. Nehemiah 1:4 says this, “When I heard these things, the problem and the struggle of Jerusalem, I sat down and wept.” It emotionally connected with him. “For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.”
Do you need wisdom? Do you have a big decision in front of you? Like, maybe who to marry? Maybe what job to take? Maybe it’s about where your kids are going to go to school. Maybe whether to stay in the area or to move. Do you need guidance? I would invite you to consider the rhythm of fasting.
I remember when I was in college, just before I met this incredibly beautiful blonde-haired girl named Jenny. And we met over the summer and I was just smitten right away. I don’t know if she was. I really, I don’t. I was doing whatever I could to just hang out and be around her. Now, the problem was, I went off to school in Chicago to Moody and she went back to school to Cal Poly down at SLO.
That was back in the day when we didn’t – nobody had cell phones except for wealthy people. Email was, you had to show up to the computer lab to email one another. And so, I got her email address. I remember emailing her while I was in Chicago and then waiting a month to get an email back.
How torturous. But, man, it didn’t take – that little summer, she got my heart in that little summer. And I’m going, What’s the deal? Are you kidding me? And I’d email her right back. I would be checking my email every, single day. Get another email a month later, like, Oh, this is so torturous. And so, I got frustrated.
I’m at school in Chicago with this incredible people around me, all following Jesus. There are lots of beautiful girls here who all love Jesus. Why can’t I like one of them? And so, I’m not saying you need to do this, but I’m just telling you how I did it.
And so I said, Okay, God, I took a specific day. I said, I am going to fast. Before we are dating, I fasted and I prayed and I said, God, either You take this girl off my mind or You let me marry her. It worked out okay. If you need guidance, if you have a major decision, maybe you should consider this rhythm of fasting.
What about facing intense opposition?
Esther was queen in Persia and she was facing intense opposition. She was facing this moment of all of her people being eradicated. And she is put in a position to do something and, yet, it would cost her her life if it doesn’t go well.
And so, listen in Esther chapter 4, verse 16 what she says to her uncle Mordecai, “Go gather together all the Jews who are in Susa and first… fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days.” This is known as an absolute fast where you fast from water and food.
And I just want to say right here, you should never do it more than three days and it should always be done in the most dire of situations. We only see this a couple times in the Bible, but it is serious. Fasting from food you can live for a month without food, by the way. You’re not starving even until thirty days after not eating, especially in America. But it is dangerous to fast from water for over three days, okay?
But she does this absolute fast. They are in a dire situation. “And I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go before the king, even though it’s against the law,” and I love her surrender, “and if I perish, I perish. But we are going to seek the heart of God together and ask for His favor.”
Maybe you’re facing intense opposition. Maybe it’s at work. And you have a boss or a co-worker that is just against you. Maybe there’s literally an evil person in your life. It could be even in your family.
Are you experiencing injustice? Maybe you’re undergoing spiritual opposition. Maybe there’s physical opposition. If you’re having any of this, I would encourage you: perhaps step into the rhythm of fasting and see God begin to work in situations where it feels impossible and beyond you.
Five areas that we might consider fasting: a big decision, opposition. Third area is the preparation of ministry. If you’re preparing for a ministry of some kind. We know that Jesus actually fasted for forty days before He ever did any ministry. The apostle Paul and Barnabas were hanging out at a church. They are fasting and pray together. We see this in Acts a couple different times where before any new ministry action took place, they would fast and pray.
We see in Acts 13:3, it says, “While they were worshipping the Lord and” – what? “fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart Barnabas and Saul for the work I have called them.’ So after they fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.”
Has God given you a vision of what could be and should be? Has God placed something that’s in your heart?
I would encourage you, maybe you would take twenty-four hours and fast and pray and ask God to really begin to use you in that way, in that role, to bring about supernatural good. If you’re stepping into a new role, maybe going on a mission trip.
I have a friend that fasted and prayed before the birth of his kids. Each one of his kids, because did you realize that’s a new ministry role in your life as well? Maybe you are starting a new job. And you understand that we all are ministers of the gospel and you are a minister at your workplace. And so, your work is actually a ministry. And so, every new job is a new ministry position because you have been called there to be the light of the world. And so, then, you’re going to go, “Hey, I’m stepping into this and as I step into it, I’m going to fast and pray for the favor of God and for my workplace and the people there, that they would experience Him and come to know Him.”
Five areas: big decision, intense opposition, preparation for ministry. Fourth area is a physical expression of sorrow and mourning. This is actually how we see fasting in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, most often is this expression of mourning and sorrow. And this is a way that is pretty foreign to us in America. One way of expression of sorrow and mourning is is your heart heavy or burdened over your own sin? It’s an expression of confession and repentance.
Back to Nehemiah, they get done rebuilding the walls and they gather everyone together and now notice what happens. It says, “On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth, putting dust on their heads. Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners. They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors.
An expression of mourning over your sin. Oh gosh. We think so little of it and excuse it, and yet, it sent Jesus to the cross because we needed to be saved.
Is your heart heavy? Is there habitual sin in your life that it’s just a constant flow of your life that you have allowed in and you are going, I don’t want this to be a part of me anymore and I’m grieved and I’m mourning and I long for You to do something in my life. And so you fast because it’s serious.
Would you consider that? And for some, you’re like, I’m not there. Would you even consider for God to give you the grace to feel the burden of your sin? When I pray prayers like that, I pray it this way, God, would You be as thorough as You need to be but as gentle as You can be? I want You to be as thorough, and He doesn’t show us all of our junk because we would just be overwhelmed and a mess and we would just be like, “I can’t even move forward in life.”
In His grace, He keeps all of our brokenness somewhat shielded from us. But show me those areas so I can be right with You.
Maybe you’d consider fasting as a physical expression of sorrow, mourning when it comes to circumstances. A crying out for God’s will and deliverance. Daniel, the prophet, he is in Babylon, exiled. And he gets this vision of what is to come with the kingdom.
And it’s a bad, troubling vision. And he is grieved. And it says, “At that time,” Daniel writes, “I mourned for three weeks. I ate no choice food, no meat or wine touched my lips, and I fasted for three weeks, until three weeks were over.” And in Daniel’s story, we get what we call the Daniel Fast.
Maybe you need to fast because there is sorrow and grief. Maybe it’s personally. Maybe it’s death that is going on. The death of a relationship. Loss. You’re just hurting for the needs of the world. Like when you feel the weight of what is happening in our country and happening all around the world, that you just go, Man, I am grieved. And I’m just going to allow the physical expression of fasting to be part of the way I respond and express my grief to God.
And inviting Him, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done here, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Finally, as we close on the when and why to pray… fast: in times of great need. Like, is there a need in your life? It’s kind of like the catch-all one here. Do you need something from God?
Ezra is leading the people out of bondage, out of exile, back to Jerusalem. They are on this journey. There’s a whole caravan of people. And he realizes: we need God’s protection. And so they literally stop and he says, “There by the Ahava Canal I proclaimed a fast so that we might humble ourselves before God and ask Him for a safe journey for us and our children and with all our possessions.
Some, you’re going, I’m stepping out and I need God. I need some protection! Okay! Would you fast? Maybe it’s around your health. Maybe it’s with a job. Maybe you need provision. Maybe it’s in your marriage. I need God to show up in our marriage! Would you fast? Maybe it’s with your kids. Would you fast? Would you take a season of fasting?
This last fall, we had the Comers come, Phil and Diane Comer, and they did a parenting conference and it was awesome, fantastic. And their intentional parenting. And I love this. They had a daughter that was dating a guy that was no good. And as parents, and I now am in, I have kids that are in the teenage stage, so I understand this a little bit more.
But as parents, we know that if we try to tell our kids not to do something or try to push them away from a guy specifically, or a gal, it’s only going to make them want them more, right?
And so, sometimes we can feel like our hands are tied. Well, what do you do when you don’t know what to do? Fast. And what they did is they instituted together as a couple, fasting Friday, where they fasted and engaged in the sacred rhythm of fasting. They fasted every, single Friday for this daughter of theirs and for this guy to be gone. And God answered their prayer in that.
You’ve got to keep it real. Got to keep it real. When do you do when you don’t know what to do? Engage in the rhythm of fasting. Fasting is setting aside something to intensely focus after God.
Well, then how do we actually go about doing it? Let me just give you four steps really for you to engage in this rhythm of fasting. First way that we fast is we first have to prepare ourselves spiritually. You’ve got to do some spiritual preparation.
And here’s what this looks like. Examine your motives. Why are you fasting? Remember what Jesus said? He was talking all about our motives and why we fast. Examine your motives. And for some, you’re going, Well, I have this tension in my heart, because I know if I fast, I might lose weight. That’s okay. That’s a secondary issue and it’s okay. You’re like, okay, that’s going to be a benefit. People do this as a health, just intermittent fasting.
But would you go, Okay, I know that might be a temptation, but I am going to make this fast about You. Centered on God. And I am going to begin to align my life with You.
How do we prepare spiritually? First, examine your motive and then is there any area in your life that you have unconfessed sin? The Scripture tells us that sin blocks our prayers. And before you get into that, you just go, I’m going to get clean with God. I’m going to ask the Spirit of God to examine my heart.
And then, finally, ask God to powerfully work during that time. Invite Him to speak to you during the time that you fast.
So, the first thing we are going to do when we fast, we are going to do some preparation work. We are going to prepare our hearts spiritually. Then we are going to set aside a specific time and reason. Set aside a specific amount of time, whether it’s a twenty-four hour fast. Maybe it’s a three-day fast. For some, you’re like, Hey, I want to do a Jesus fast. Forty days. That’s fantastic.
Start small. Start with twenty-four hours. For those who do want to do a long fast, you would love to do that, one, I would encourage you – do research on it. You want to actually incorporate juices and different things into your diet over that time. Also, you need to talk to your physician and make sure your body is healthy to do and undergo something like that.
But we are going to, then, set aside a specific time – how long is it? And reason.
And thirdly, be attentive to God.
This is not just about going hungry! What did you do? Not eat. That’s just called not eating. Fasting is setting aside eating, specifically, to focus intensely on God. So, would you be attentive to God? Would you pray during the time you normally would eat? Would you allow those pangs of hunger to remind you of your need for God? To remind you of the brokenness of our world? To remind you to bring before God those that are actually around you when you feel those pangs of hunger?
That you would be attentive to God. And we spiritually prepared ourselves in this, we set aside a time, and then we are just keeping company with God, even throughout the whole day. It doesn’t have to be you’re sitting at your desk and I’m like, I’m fasting and so I’m going to pray and I’m going to sit here. You can sit normally like this and just have a conversation with God and no one really knows.
So, you can do it at work. You can do it in your car. Beautiful part about the car is with everybody with the Bluetooth, you no longer look crazy when you talk to God in the car. Right? I used to look so crazy in the car. I’m not going to lie. Before Bluetooth and before all that stuff, you’re just driving and you see someone just talking and, like, who are they…? They are insane!
Now, you don’t look insane! You can pray out loud all the way driving in your commute to work. But would you be attentive to God throughout the day?
And then, finally, be aware of the enemy’s attacks. As you draw near to God, you will experience opposition. Be aware of the slanderer. That’s one of the names for the devil: slanderer. He wants to put you down. Thoughts of guilt and condemnation that come.
Be aware of any distractions or discouragement. Here’s what I find when I pray and I don’t prepare spiritually for it and go through this process when I have done it in the past. Those days are the busiest days of my life. And I find myself just running through the whole day. And so, you be aware of the enemy’s attacks, even to the point of noticing, Wow, it got ramped up and it’s super busy. I can be busy and pray though, so I’m going to be attentive to Him. I’m not going to allow my busyness to push out my attentiveness to God.
Alright. So then, for some, you’re thinking about, Well, who can actually fast from food? Let me just go through that and just talk about this, because I think it’s important, because I don’t want some of you to step into this where physically you shouldn’t.
People who are physically too thin or emaciated. Those who are prone to anorexia, bulimia, or other eating disorders. Those who suffer weakness or anemia. If you have tumors, bleeding ulcers, cancer, blood diseases, heart disease; if you suffer chronic problems with kidney, liver, lungs, heart. Other important organs.
If you take insulin or diabetes, blood pressure problems, hyperglycemia. Now, most people, no, okay hang on here. For many of us, we are self-diagnosed hyperglycemic. Just a word of caution there. I’m hyperglycemic. Okay, are you really? Or did…okay, anyway. Never mind.
Women who are pregnant and nursing, please, please don’t fast from food in that regard. Well, what can I do? One good way that you can join us is do a media fast. We do a media fast every so often in our home.
And so, part of that media fast helps us out to know, it just allows us to be more attentive. So, we say no to social media, to TV, and to movies. I remember the first time we really did this as a married couple and my wife saying, we did a thirty-day media fast. And after about a week, she’s like, “I hear God better.” And so, you’re like, “I can’t fast from food,” but you can fast from the media and you take that same twenty-four hour period and join with this, okay?
What do you do when you don’t know what to do? Jesus invites us into the rhythm of fasting.