Help In Hard Places
Dr. Jim Denison
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,To the last syllable of recorded time,And all our yesterdays have lighted foolsThe way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor playerThat struts and frets his hour upon the stage,And then is heard no more: it is a taleTold by an idiot, full of sound and fury,Signifying nothing (Macbeth, act 5, scene 5).
Now, don’t you feel better? But Shakespeare was more right than we’d like to admit. A shocking seven of eight Americans say that our country is worse off than it was five years ago.
George Barna makes his living surveying Americans on nearly every subject. Here’s his summary of the current scene: “For most Americans, the search for meaning in life continues. Despite our technological sophistication and political savvy, millions of adults are desperately seeking the keys that will unlock the secrets to achieve significance in life and bring them greater fulfillment. As a nation, we are exploring many avenues. Comparatively few have arrived at what is deemed to be a reasonable or satisfying conclusion.” The title of his book is descriptive: Absolute Confusion.
The truth is, America is one of the best-fed nations in the world physically, but we are starving spiritually. Our souls are famished. What can help?
Jesus, in a wilderness setting, faced the same temptations we struggle with today, and defeated them all. When we come to our own wilderness, what can we do? Where is there help in hard places? What should we be doing right now?
Fasting (Luke 4:1-4)
“We turn from self to God, seeking strength not in ourselves but in him. We turn from food, possessions, our bodies and ourselves, to magnify God.”
I mentioned in a recent sermon that every day we Americans eat 53 million hot dogs, 3 million gallons of ice cream, and 75 acres of pizza. It seems that fasting is the most un-American of all the spiritual disciplines. We seldom talk about it in our churches; in fact, most Baptists have never really studied this subject at all.
Fasting defined is simply abstaining from food for spiritual purposes. Let’s ask three questions about this discipline, from Matthew 6:16-18.
First, should we fast? Or is this an outdated practice from biblical times, like eating kosher food? Jesus fasted for 40 days. When the tempter showed him a rock—round, white, sun-bleached, looking very much like the loaves they baked in those days—Jesus refused to turn it into bread. He refused to break his fast, choosing not to live “by bread alone.”
In Matthew 6:16 he says, “When you fast ….” Not “if” but “when.” He assumes that his hearers will fast. All through Scripture we find people practicing this discipline. Moses fasted 40 days while receiving the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28); Elijah fasted for 40 days (I Kings 19:8); Daniel fasted from meat and wine for three weeks (Daniel 10:3); Paul fasted from both food and water for three days after his conversion (Acts 9:9) and later said that he “often” fasted (2 Cor. 11:27).
Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline is the best book in recent decades on the subject of spiritual disciplines. He says, “Fasting can bring breakthroughs in the spiritual realm that will never happen in any other way. It is a means of God’s grace and blessing that should not be neglected any longer” (p. 60).
Should we fast? The answer seems obvious.
Second, how should we fast? We’ve answered this question in some detail in the booklet we’ve prepared on spiritual disciplines. For now, let’s observe these facts. We are to fast regularly. Our text puts this in the continuous tense: “As you are fasting ….” We are to fast humbly, not to impress people, like the hypocrites do (v. 16). We are to fast joyfully. We “put oil on our head and wash our face,” a sign of rejoicing in Jesus’ day (v. 17). And we are to fast expectantly, knowing that “your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (v. 18). Fasting does not earn God’s blessings, but it puts us in position to receive what God wants to give.
Third, why should we fast? Fasting has clear physical benefits for us. Numerous studies have concluded that periodic days of fasting can cleanse our bodies of impurities, rest the digestive system, and make us healthier people. But the greatest benefit is spiritual. When we fast, we turn from our bodies to our souls, from what we can see and feel to what we believe, from ourselves to God. We learn to magnify God. To be grateful for the food he gives us, for our bodies, our breath, our lives. To focus on him in gratitude and worship.
We want to magnify our Father, to glorify him with our lives, our church, our service. If Moses, Elijah, Daniel, Paul, and even our Lord Jesus needed to fast to defeat the enemy, win spiritual victory, and magnify God, what of us?
Meditation (vv. 5-8)
“In meditation we turn from ourselves to God, seeking power to defeat the enemy, not in ourselves but in his strength and presence.”
Bill Hybels, the founding pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, tells of a time when he nearly “crashed.” He was watching the physical gauge on his personal dashboard, eating and exercising, and all was well. He was watching the spiritual gauge, spending time in prayer and Bible study, and all was well. But he wasn’t watching the emotional gauge which records our souls, our inner selves, and had to experience depression and come near to burnout before he realized the problem.
Satan has tempted Jesus physically—now he tempts him emotionally. “You can have all this authority and splendor, and avoid the cross with its pain and shame,” he says. But when the enemy tempted him with worldly power he already had emotional and spiritual power. His soul was well. How can this be true for us?