We can become no greater than those things in our lives over which we do not discipline ourselves to conquer. The control of our destiny is always limited by our lack of control over those obstacles that limit our dreams. We can thus better understand why the Holy Spirit exhorted that we give “all diligence” in order to add to our “faith virtue, and to virtue knowledge, and to knowledge self-control …” (2 Pt 1:5,6). Fasting energizes our self-control, and when self-control is energized, we are able to do great things for God.
The apostle Paul realized that any lack of self-control in his spirit or behavior could disqualify him from receiving the crown for which he so diligently struggled: “I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified” (1 Co 9:27).
This is the reason for which we fast. We seek to discipline our bodies and minds in order that we bring under control those areas of our lives that may be out of control. This was Paul’s admonition and example for those who would be disciples of Jesus. He admonished the Achaian disciples, “And every man who strives exercises self-control in all things” (1 Co 9:25). If one would strive to receive the crown of life, then he or she must exercise self-control in all areas of life (1 Co 9:25). For this reason, we are exhorted to “continue in faith and love and holiness with self-control” (1 Tm 2:15). Fasting trains our minds in self-control.
Children who are undisciplined will often lead undisciplined lives in their adulthood. Undisciplined children who do not learn the emotional skills of self-control through discipling are often out of control as adults. The lack of discipline in our childhood results in a life that has little direction and determination. Nevertheless, the lack of discipline in our childhood is no excuse for not disciplining ourselves when we are adults. Paul wrote, “When I was a child I spoke as a child. I understood as a child. I thought as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Co 13:11). Christian maturity comes through self-realization. For this reason, no saint can use his or her childhood as an excuse for undisciplined behavior as an adult.
We must take ownership of our minds and bodies by putting away childish things. This is specifically true in reference to our spiritual behavior. Through fasting and prayer we seek to put away our lack of discipline in order to train our minds to be in control of our being, and thus, our future. In this context of behavior, Paul exhorted the Achaians, “Brethren, do not be children in thinking. … but in thinking be mature” (1 Co 14:20). Fasting is a means by which we seek to put away all childish behavior in order to be spiritually mature in Christ. Spiritually mature Christians have taken ownership of their destiny.
If there are areas in our behavior where we lack discipline, then these areas of personal dysfunction hinder our function as disciples of Jesus. God seeks to help us in these areas of personal dysfunction. In order to mature in Christ, therefore, God works with our spiritual dysfunctions. “My son,” the Hebrew writer reminded his readers, “do not despise the disciplining of the Lord, nor faint when you are rebuked by Him. For whom the Lord loves He disciplines …” (Hb 12:5,6). Because we understand that God disciplines us through trials, we can rejoice in our trials (See Js 1:2).
Discipline should be associated with God’s love for us, because in discipline God is working with us in order that we become the best we can be as His children. We do not despise the discipline of the Lord, for through discipline the Lord is trying to spiritually mature our being for a better future. The Lord seeks through discipline to help us “put away” childish behavior that holds up spiritual development. Through His discipline we learn to think and behave as mature saints in Christ.
Though the preceding statement of the Hebrew writer was stated in the context of outward discipline that God would allow to come into our lives in order to build our character, through fasting we can help ourselves in this spiritual transformation of our character by working on the inside. God allows of outward disciplining to aid our personal inward disciplining. All disciplining, both from God and from ourselves, therefore, is for the purpose of building a better future, as well as making us better candidates for eternal dwelling.
It is interesting to see the reaction of those who have committed themselves to the world to satisfy the lusts of the flesh. When they encounter the self-control that is revealed through the behavior of the children of God, they fear, or at least, they are intimidated by an example of self-control and godly behavior. Paul once spoke of these things to a worldly leader in government. When Paul “reasoned about righteousness, self-control and judgment to come, Felix became frightened …” (At 24:25). Felix evidently saw in Paul’s behavior a man who was in control of his entire emotional being, and thus, one who was prepared for the judgment of God. Paul was not like other prisoners who had stood before him with fear and trembling.
Fasting itself certainly frightens a great number of people. Just the thought of going without food for any period of time in order to grow in self-control is not a pleasant thought to some. Hunger pains will strain one’s lack of self-control. But once the hunger pains are gone in a prolonged fast, the “muscles” of the soul can be strengthened by the nourishment of the Spirit.
Nevertheless, we must continually keep in mind Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 9:27. As a disciple, and as a Christ-sent apostle, Paul said that if he did not discipline himself and bring his body into control in all aspects of life, then he could be disqualified for eternal dwelling.
Our deepest secrets that are out of control must be brought under control. We fast in reference to all aspects of our life in order that our total being be brought under the control of the Spirit of God. That which is outside the body that has control over the body must be brought under control. That which is within the body that has control over the body, must also be brought under control. In reference to married couples, Paul even speaks of bringing under control the sexual drives of individuals:
Do not deprive one another [of sexual intercourse] except by agreement for a time so that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer. And come together again so that Satan not tempt you because of your lack of self-control (1 Co 7:5).
All those emotions within the body that war against the Spirit must be brought into control in order that we lead the disciplined life as a child of God. Fasting in all aspects of our lives is the means by which we gain confidence that we are not out of control.
The reason we must seek to bring under control all physical and emotional characteristics of our being is that Satan is looking for areas in our lives that are not under control. Therefore, we must be sober and vigilant in reference to our spiritual self-discipline. Our “adversary the devil walks about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pt 5:8). Satan is seeking to devour us in our weakest areas. When he sees a weak point in our character, it is there that he attacks. It is in these areas where we are weakest, therefore, that we fast in order to conquer, lest we be conquered by him who wars against us (See Ep 6:12).
Those who are specifically designated to be leaders among us must be “self-disciplined and sober-minded” (1 Tm 3:2). God expects the same character of every disciple of Jesus who is led by those who are sober-minded and disciplined in their lives. These two characteristics of Christian living are strengthened through prayer and fasting. The early Christians realized that they must bring under control through prayer and fasting, the totality of their physical and spiritual being.
It may be significant to conclude this book with a variant reading in the text of the book of Mark that indirectly reveals that fasting was commonly practiced among the Christians of the second and third centuries. The variant reading is in Mark 9:29. The event in the context was in reference to the disciples’ not being able to cast out a particular evil spirit. “Now when He [Jesus] came into the house, His disciples asked Him privately, ‘Why could we not cast it out’” (Mk 9:28). Some manuscripts give the reading that Jesus replied with the words, “This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting” (Mk 9:29 – King James Version).
All recent renditions of this text leave out the reading, “and fasting.” Because the manuscript evidence is weak for this reading, and because those manuscripts that have the reading are late in reference to the original autograph, the reading was possibly deemed by many translators to be an addition by a later scribe.
The manuscript evidence is indeed weak to include “with fasting,” but there is an important point why the reading does show up in later manuscripts, if indeed the reading was not in the original autograph. We would conclude that prayer “and fasting” were so commonly practiced among the early Christians in the second and third centuries that the reading may have been added. The practice of prayer with fasting was so common that some scribe may have thought that the reading “with fasting” was possibly forgotten by some earlier scribe in copying the text. Or maybe a particular scribe at the time thought that fasting was so important in the lives of the disciples of Jesus, that he added the reading. We will never know why the reading is in the text of some manuscripts.
Our point is that fasting was very common among Christians in the centuries that followed the first Christians. It was so common that some scribe concluded that fasting was should be linked with all prayer, and through fasting, prayer was empowered to accomplish the most difficult tasks in our lives.
Fasting certainly accomplishes some great things physically in our bodies. However, this is not the primary purpose for the fasting of the Christian. The Christian seeks those great things that originate spiritually from fasting. These benefits would be in reference to our behavior as the children of God. In reference to our spiritual health, we would conclude that fasting empowers our prayers in reference to calling on God to be attentive to our pleas for His help.
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