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Fasting and Tithing
The passages below are taken from D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “Studies in the Sermon on the Mount,” published as Second Edition in 1976 by Inter-Varsity Press.
What exactly is fasting? What is its purpose? There can be no doubt that ultimately it is something which is based upon an understanding of the relationship between the body and the spirit. Man is body, mind and spirit, and these are very intimately related to one another and interact very closely upon one another. We distinguish them because they are different, but we must not separate them because of their inter-relationship and inter-action. There can be no question whatever but that physical bodily states and conditions do have a bearing upon the activity of the mind and of the spirit, so that the element of fasting must be considered in this peculiar relationship of body, mind and spirit. What fasting really means, therefore, is abstinence from food for spiritual purposes. That is the biblical notion of fasting which must be separated from the purely physical. The biblical notion of fasting is that, for certain spiritual reasons and purposes, men and women decide to abstain from food.
This is a very important point, so we must put it also in a negative form. I was reading recently an article on this subject, and the writer referred to that statement of the apostle Paul in
1 Corinthians 9:27 where he says: ‘I keep under my body’. The apostle says that he does this in order that he may do his work more efficiently. The writer of the article said that this is an illustration of fasting. Now I suggest that, of necessity, it has nothing whatsoever to do with fasting. That is what I would call a part of man’s general discipline. You should always keep under your body, but that does not mean you should always fast. Fasting is something unusual or exceptional, something which a man does now and again for a special purpose, while discipline should be perpetual and permanent. I therefore cannot accept such texts as: ‘I keep under my body’, and ‘Mortify your members that are upon the earth’, as being a part of fasting. In other words, moderation in eating is not fasting. Moderation in eating is a part of discipline of the body, and it is a very good way of keeping the body under; but that is not fasting. Fasting means an abstinence from food for the sake of certain special purposes such as prayer or meditation or the seeking of God for some peculiar reason or under some exceptional circumstance.
To make the matter complete, we would add that fasting, if we conceive of it truly, must not only be confined to the question of food and drink; fasting should really be made to include abstinence from anything which is legitimate in and of itself for the sake of some special spiritual purpose. There are many bodily functions which are right and normal and perfectly legitimate, but which for special peculiar reasons in certain circumstances should be controlled. That is fasting. There, I suggest, is a kind of general definition of what is meant by fasting.
Before we come to consider the ways in which we fast, let us consider how we are to regard and approach the whole question. Here again the division is simple, for finally we have but the wrong and the right way. There are certain wrong ways of fasting. Here is one of them. If we fast in a mechanical manner, or merely for the sake of doing so, I suggest that we are violating the biblical teaching with regard to the whole matter. In other words, if I make fasting an end in itself; something of which I say, ‘Well now, because I have become a Christian, I have to fast on such a day and at such a time in the year because it is part of the Christian religion’, I might as well not do it. The special element in the act goes right out of it when that is done.
This is something which is not peculiar to fasting. Did we not see exactly the same thing in the matter of prayer? It is a good thing for people, if they can, to have certain special times for prayer in their lives. But if I make up my programme for the day and say that at such and such an hour every day I must pray, and I just pray in order to keep to my programme, I am no longer praying. It is exactly the same with regard to the question of fasting. There are people who approach it in precisely that way. They become Christians; but they rather like to be under a kind of law, they rather like to be under instruction. They like to be told exactly what they must or must not do. On one particular day in the week they must not eat meat, and so on. It is not the thing to do in the Christian life; you do not eat on a particular day. Again at a certain period of the year you abstain from food, or you eat less, and so forth. Now there is a very subtle danger in that. Anything we do merely for the sake of doing it, or as a matter of rule or rote, is surely an entire violation of the scriptural teaching. We must never regard fasting as an end in itself.
But we must add to that something at which I have already hinted, and which can be put in this form: we should never regard fasting as a part of our discipline. Some people say it is a very good thing that on one day in the week we should not eat certain things, or that at a given period in the year we should abstain from certain things. They say that it is good from the standpoint of discipline. But discipline is surely something which must be permanent, discipline is something which is perpetual. We should always be disciplining ourselves. That is something about which there can be no discussion at all. We should always keep our body under, we should always be holding the reins tightly upon ourselves, we must always be in a disciplined condition in every respect. So it is wrong to reduce fasting merely to a part of the process of discipline. Rather is it something that I do in order to reach that higher spiritual realm of prayer to God, or meditation, or intense intercession. And that puts it into an entirely different category.
Another false way of regarding fasting I would put like this. There are some people who fast because they expect direct and immediate results from it. In other words they have a kind of mechanical view of fasting; they have what I have sometimes called, for lack of a better illustration, the ‘penny in the slot’ view of it. You put your penny in the slot, then you pull out the drawer, and there you have your result. That is their view of fasting. If you want certain benefits, they say, fast; if you fast you will get the results. This attitude is not confined to the question of fasting. We saw earlier in dealing with prayer that there are many people who regard prayer in that way. They read accounts of how certain people at one time decided to have an all-night prayer meeting, how they went on praying right through the night, and how, as a result of that, a revival broke out. So they decide that they will have an all-night prayer meeting, and they expect a revival to follow. ‘Because we pray, revival must come.’ Or you can find it in connection with holiness teaching. Certain people say that if you only obey certain conditions you will get a blessing, that there will be an immediate and direct result. Now I never find that anywhere in the Bible, in connection with fasting or anything else. We must never fast for the sake of direct results.
Let me put it even more pointedly like this. There are people who advocate fasting as one of the best ways and methods of obtaining blessings from God. Some of this recent literature to which I have referred, I regret to say, seems to be guilty of that. People write an account of their life and they say, ‘You know my Christian life was one which always seemed to be “bound in shallows and in miseries”; I was never truly happy. My life seemed to be a series of ups and downs. I was a Christian but I did not seem to have what certain other people whom I knew seemed to possess. I was like that for years. I had gone the round of all the Conventions, I had read the prescribed books on this subject, but I never seemed to get the blessing. Then I happened to come across teaching which emphasized the importance of fasting, and I fasted and I received the blessing.’ Then the exhortation is: ‘If you want a blessing, fast.’ That seems to me to be a most dangerous doctrine. We must never speak like that about anything in the spiritual life. These blessings are never automatic. The moment we begin to say, ‘Because I do this, I get that’, it means that we are controlling the blessing. That is to insult God and to violate the great doctrine of His final and ultimate sovereignty. No, we must never advocate fasting as a means of blessing.
Let us consider another illustration of this point. Take the question of tithing. Here we have another subject that is coming back again into prominence. Now there is very good scriptural basis for tithing; but there are many who tend to teach the question of tithing like this. A man writes an account of his life. Again he says that his Christian life was unsatisfactory. Things did not go well with him; indeed he was having financial troubles in his business. Then he came across the teaching of tithing and he began to tithe. At once great joy flooded his life. Not only that, but his business also began to be successful. I have read books which actually go so far as to say this: ‘If you really want to be prosperous, begin tithing’. In other words, ‘You do the tithing, and the result is bound to follow; if you want the blessing---tithe’. It is exactly the same as with fasting. All such teaching is quite unscriptural. Indeed it is worse than that; it derogates from the glory and the majesty of God Himself. Therefore we should never advocate, indulge in, or practise fasting as a method or a means of obtaining direct blessing. The value of fasting is indirect, not direct.
The last thing to consider under this heading is that we must obviously be very careful not to confuse the physical with the spiritual. We cannot consider this fully now, but, having read some accounts of people who have practised fasting, I do feel that they cross the border line from the physical to the spiritual in this way. They describe how, after the preliminary physical misery of the first three or four days, and after the fifth day especially, a period of unusual mental clarity comes in; and sometimes some of these friends describe this as if it were purely spiritual. Now I cannot prove that it is not spiritual; but I can say this, that men who are not Christian at all and who undergo a period of fasting, invariably testify to the same thing. There is no doubt whatsoever that fasting, purely on the physical and bodily level, is something which is good for one’s physical frame as long as it is done properly; and there is no doubt that clarity of mind and brain and understanding does result from it. But we must always be very careful that we do not attribute to the spiritual what can be adequately explained by the physical. Here again is a great general principle. It is what some of us would say to those who make claims in the matter of faith and holiness, as also to those who are over-ready to claim something as miraculous when it is not certainly or unmistakably so. We do harm to the cause of Christ if we claim as miraculous something which can be easily explained on a natural level. The same danger is present in this question of fasting---a confusion between the physical and the spiritual.
Having considered, then, some of the false ways of viewing this matter of fasting let us now look at the right way. I have already suggested it. It should always be regarded as a means to an end, and not as an end in itself. It is something that a man should do only when he feels impelled or led to it by spiritual reasons. It is not to be done because a certain section of the Church enjoins fasting on a Friday, or during the period of Lent, or at any other time. We should not do these things mechanically. We must discipline our lives, but we must do so all the year round, and not merely at certain stated periods. I must discipline myself at all times, and must fast only when I feel led by the Spirit of God to do so, when I am intent on some mighty spiritual purpose, not according to rule, but because I feel there is some peculiar need of an entire concentration of the whole of my being upon God and my worship of Him. That is the time to fast, and that is the way to approach the subject.
But let us come to the other aspect. Having looked at it in general, let us look at the way in which it is to be done. The wrong way is to call attention to the fact that we are doing it. ‘When ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast.’ Of course, when they did it in this way, people saw they were undergoing a fasting period. They did not wash their faces or anoint their heads. Some of them went even further; they disfigured their faces and put ashes upon their head. They wanted to call attention to the fact that they were fasting, so they looked miserable and unhappy and everybody looked at them and said, ‘Ah, he is undergoing a period of fasting. He is an unusually spiritual person. Look at him; look at what he is sacrificing and suffering for the sake of his devotion to God.’ Our Lord condemns that root and branch. Any announcing of the fact of what we are doing, or calling attention to it, is something which is utterly reprehensible to Him, as it was in the case of prayer, and of almsgiving. It is exactly the same principle. You must not sound a trumpet proclaiming the things you are going to do. You must not stand at the street corners or in a prominent place in the synagogue when you pray. And in the same way you must not call attention to the fact that you are fasting.
But this is not only a question of fasting. It seems to me that this is a principle which covers the whole of our Christian life. It condemns equally the affecting of pious looks, it condemns equally the adoption of pious attitudes. It is pathetic sometimes to observe the way in which people do this even in the matter of singing hymns---the uplifted face at certain points and the rising on tiptoe. These things are affected, and it is when they are affected that they become so sad.
. . . . . . . .
What then is the right way? Let us begin by putting it negatively. The first thing is that it does not mean going out of our way to be as unlike the Pharisees as possible. Many think that, because our Lord says, ‘But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret.’ They say that we must not only not disfigure our faces but that we must go out of our way to conceal the fact that we are fasting, and even give the opposite impression. But this is a complete misunderstanding. There was nothing exceptional about washing the face and anointing the head. That was the normal, usual procedure. What our Lord is saying here is, ‘When you fast be natural’.
We can apply that in this way. There are some people who are so afraid of being regarded as miserable because they are Christians, or afraid of being called foolish because they are Christians, that they tend to go to the other extreme. They say that we must give the impression that to be a Christian is to be bright and happy, and so, far from being dowdy in dress, we must go to the opposite extreme. So they go out of their way not to be drab, and the result is they are quite as bad as those who are guilty of dowdiness. Our Lord’s principle is always this: ‘Forget other people altogether.’ In order to avoid looking sad, don’t put a grin on your face. Forget your face, forget yourself, forget other people altogether. It is this interest in the opinions of other people that is so wrong. Don’t worry about the impression you are making; just forget yourself and give yourself entirely to God. Be concerned only about God and about pleasing Him. Be concerned only about His honour and His glory.
If our great concern is to please God and to glorify His name, we shall be in no difficulty about these other things. If a man is living entirely to the glory of God, you need not prescribe for him when he has to fast, you need not prescribe the sort of clothes he has to put on or anything else. If he has forgotten himself and given himself to God, the New Testament says that man will know how to eat and drink and dress because he will be doing it all to the glory of God. And thank God the reward of such a man is safe and certain and assured, and it is mighty---‘Thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.’ The one thing that matters is that we be right with God and concerned about pleasing Him. If we are concerned about that, we may leave the rest to Him. He may withhold the reward for years: it does not matter. We shall receive it. His promises never fail. Even though the world may never know what we are, God knows, and at the great Day it will be announced before the whole world. ‘Thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.’
‘Men heed thee, love thee, praise thee not:
The Master praises: what are men?’ (353-360)
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