Why Jesus fasted and Why We Should Too

January: Matthew 4; Luke 4-5

This morning, at dawn, I got down on my knees to pray. I greeted the Lord and expressed gratitude, lots of gratitude, for the many blessings in life; I asked, and even pleaded, for guidance in ordering my priorities and receiving support to do the things I already knew the Lord wanted me to do, I prayed friends and family with special challenges be given the support and healing help they needed, and… I got distracted: by the dogs, the cat, a phone call from my mother, and the call of nature. 

Later, after letting out the dogs, putting in a load of laundry, starting the dishwasher, feeding the chickens, and happily tidying the messy evidence of a visit from grandchildren … I realized the guidance I’d received through prayer was not clear to me. Why? 

There are numerous reasons we may not recognize responses to prayer. One possible problem is it takes time to receive and process inspiration from the Spirit. Sometimes we miss that vital piece in the practice of prayer: quiet, reflective time spent just listening for answers. 

So, how to deal with the sometimes incessant interruptions which corrupt our ability to understand answers to prayers. There are different approaches to clarifying and codifying communication from heaven. Marianna told us recently she immediately writes down the promptings that come to her first thing in the morning when she prays and meditates. It is one way to capture the inspiration that can help you head in the right direction every day, no matter what’s on the agenda. It has worked for me.

On a recent Saturday, a day with a to-do list as long as my arm, I prayed for direction in the morning and got a quick, clear answer…just focus on one thing: celebrating my son-in-law’s birthday. His wife, my daughter, was out of town, so he didn’t have the help and support of his partner. What he did have were a lot of serious professional responsibilities bearing down on him, two of my high-energy grandkids, and an out-of-town houseguest. This one, clear prompt allowed me to, guilt-free, push everything else on the to-do list off until Monday. The grandkids had a grand day exploring our mountains together, and we all enjoyed a birthday dinner and cake that evening. No second thoughts. Without the clarity provided by that morning prayer and inspiration, I think I would have been second-guessing my choices all day into the night. Feeling assured this was the divine plan, I could devote my undivided self to planning a satisfying excursion and celebration somewhat worthy of my extraordinary son-in-law.

Another beloved friend, Patricia Holland, has said, in her book, The Quiet Heart, she sometimes feels she is drowning amid all the demands of life. When she does, she stops — for half an hour, an hour, or a day, and sometimes even two — to dedicate herself to understanding the direction the Lord would have her take and how her priorities can be in harmony with heaven’s. The time invested is not lost. After devoting herself to a prayer retreat, Sister Holland can move forward with confidence, knowing what the Lord wants of her, and that she will be supported in her efforts to fulfill His purposes. 

This kind of prayer retreat was a requirement as I sought to homeschool our large brood  (beginning in the early 1980s when homeschooling was a very novel phenomenon,) in the midst of many nay-sayers and even more incessant endless emergencies and distractions. Whatever steadfast conviction I demonstrated was the product of answers to prayer that assured me this was the path we’d been directed to take. I should have prayed more. I was blessed with a husband who was calm, clear-eyed, and confident once he set foot on a prayerfully identified path. That helped me stay the course in my younger years. 

The conviction she understood the Lord’s will for her life was worth a lot to Sister Holland and it is to each of us. Without divine guidance, we can fruitlessly spin wheels or busily go in the wrong direction. We can anxiously fret about balancing competing priorities rather than basking in radiant peace. I know, because I have too often been that person. A very wise custodian at a school where I once taught, advised me that his wife believed the word “busy,” was actually an acronym B.U.S.Y. which was short for: Bound Under Satan’s Yoke. And it’s not hard to see why. When we believe we are too busy, we rarely stop to heed the promptings of the Spirit to do the Lord’s will rather than our own. We need to know making room in our lives to seek and receive divine direction will be the best investment of energy we make. It will make all the other investments of time worthwhile. 

Today, we are reviewing two short verses in Matthew 4 that describe what Jesus did to get the inspiration and direction he needed as he began his world-changing ministry.  

“Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 

And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was an hungered.” Matt 4:1-2 KJT. Forty days and forty nights is a significant chunk of time in a life that ended so early. But that time was a vital prelude as our Saviour embarked upon his eternally all-important mission for each of us.

Right here we need to stop for a moment and consider the Joseph Smith Translation of these two verses. It is fascinating how an inspired translator’s adjustment can make a statement make so much more sense. 

“Then Jesus was led up of the Spirit, into the wilderness, to be with God. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights and communed with God, he was an hungered and was left to be tempted of the devil.” Matt.4:1-2 JST

The alterations made by the prophet Joseph as he sought inspiration to translate the Bible correctly bring such clarity and believability to these two verses. Knowing the purpose for Christ’s retreat to the wilderness, and the chronology of His subsequent confrontation with Satan adds so much to this episode. 

I would like to take a moment here to talk about the concept of the “Canon.” Canon, when referring to scripture, denotes writings that are universally agreed to be inspired, in a profound and particular way, by God. The Canon are those works which are not open to change or alteration. The word comes from the Greek/Hebrew word which means a measuring stick or rod, “Kanon.” How interesting that we have the interpretation in the Book of Mormon that the iron rod means “the word of God.” Anyway, this idea, of inspiration of God being intrinsic to scripture, makes it so logical that a prophet, called by God, would be given the task of restoring correct inspiration to scripture that had been copied and recopied and potentially altered over many, many centuries. For this reason and others, I feel VERY grateful for the Joseph Smith retranslations of particular passages like these two verses of Matthew 4.

Jesus would not have been led into the desert to commune with the adversary. Why on earth would He have sought to commune with the adversary? Jesus went to the wilderness and fasted for forty days to commune with God. But, after all the communing, when He was hungry, tired, and thirsty, He, because he was also human, was more vulnerable to the temptations the Devil would now push before Him; temptations to prove to Himself He was indeed the Son of God. These temptations and the Lord’s response to them are worthy of careful consideration, but in this post, we are looking at how the Savior prepared Himself to meet His mission and fend off temptation.

Fasting as a tool for communing with God is an ancient practice common to many faiths. Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and even Zoroastrians join Christians in incorporating some kind of fasting into their religious practice. On certain appointed days, or at certain periods of the year, fasting can mean total abstinence from food and water, or deliberately not consuming some specific sort of food (Zoroastrians don’t really believe in fasting but, in general, love meat. As a kind of fast, they forsake meat for a month*); Catholics choose something to ‘give up’  for the period of Lent; Jews fast on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement; and Muslims fast all day every day for an entire month during Ramadan.

When I feel alone, powerless to alleviate another’s need, or crave heavenly attention for my own soul, fasting is the spiritual tool that helps me focus on the issue at hand and remain focused on it for a good stretch of time in spite of inevitable interruptions and the unrelenting demands of every day. Remembering NOT to eat or drink requires attentiveness that jolts me into re-centering, like a GPS, on the subject of the fast. Fasting is not something to do instead of extending other help, but sometimes it seems nothing one can do will help, and fasting is something we can always do. Furthermore, fasting can facilitate inspiration. After fasting, I often receive ideas of what and how to help most. Fasting also provides encouragement and a sense of unity and community to those to whom the fast is dedicated and their support group. And fasting can help us feel some measure of peace as the Lord accepts our small sacrifice in the midst of the tumult and tribulations of life. 

There are practical benefits of fasting as well. We cleanse our inner vessel and in Church, every month on the first Sunday we fast and contribute the money we would have spent on food, (or ten or twenty times that amount, if we can,) to help the truly needy. Though in our Church a typical fast on Fast Sunday now means going without food or drink for two meals, fasts used to mean abstaining from food and drink from sundown to sundown…usually around 24 hours. A fast can also be customized when necessary. It is very difficult for many bodies to go without water, so some fasts involve abstaining from food but not water. Some who cannot abstain from all food can forsake certain foods, ideally those they may crave but don’t need to sustain themselves. Each approach can be a fast, of sorts. 

Jesus fasted for forty days AND forty nights. I cannot quite imagine that long a fast, but the body, according to research, can survive for even 43 days or a bit longer without food, though not without water. It is possible for the human body, and Jesus pushed His human body to extremes in His mission to do His Father’s will. Jesus’ fast certainly weakened him, and when He was most weak Satan tempted Jesus to prove His divine identity in ways that were not right…and Jesus knew it. Jesus responded to the temptations for prompt physical gratification, showy demonstrations of His divinity and the lavish possibility of earthly power by quoting scriptures that presented a higher eternal perspective and turning His back on the source of these enticements. 

The Savior has given us a template for seeking guidance, resisting temptation and fearlessly doing the Lord’s will in our own lives. We will probably never fast by going without food and water for forty days, but we can fast and pray and be fortified to face our own missions with courage and confidence.

*This, just in from my friend who does the joke ministry: Q: “What kind of dance does a butcher go to? A: ” A meatball.”

**It is interesting to think how often the answers we receive after communing with the Lord are assailed by selfish concerns for personal justice or self-promotion.

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