In the Wilderness: Learning to Fast

“Then Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordon River. He was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where He was tempted by the devil for forty days. Jesus ate nothing all that time and became very hungry.”

– Luke 4:1-2

After his baptism, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. This is an important detail of Scripture. First, that the wilderness came after the baptism. After Jesus made his public confession, the first thing God did to prepare Him for public ministry was lead him into the wilderness. He led Him at just the right time, when He was full of the Spirit, because the Spirit would be His strength. This is important to note because our times of greatest spiritual strength will be the times we are most vulnerable to attack from the enemy. We are susceptible in times of strength, because it is in our times of strength, when we are most full of the Spirit, that we pose the greatest threat to Satan and to his plans. When Scripture says Jesus was “led” it uses the Greek word “ágō” which means “to lead, or to take with one.” He doesn’t lead us into the wilderness alone, He goes with us. The word ágō means “to lead by laying hold of, to lead by accompanying, to lead with one’s self, or to attach ones self as an attendant.” Jesus being full of the Spirit when He was led into the wilderness was God’s way of attaching Himself and laying hold of Jesus as He began His earthly ministry. The Spirit had just descended on Him like a dove. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – Three in One – went into the wilderness to fight for us. They did what we could not do. When the Spirit leads us into wilderness seasons, He does not lead us where He has not already gone before. He prepared the way for us. He goes before us, and He goes with us. No matter how lonely and desolate it feels, we are not alone in the wilderness. Knowing this, believing this, and trusting this is the key to our survival.

In the wilderness, Jesus fasted for forty days. He ate nothing at all during this time, and Scripture says He became very hungry. It’s important to note that it says He became hungry. It does not say He was hungry while He was fasting, but after the fasting had ended. He was not hungry while He was fasting, because He was filled with something other than food. He was filled with the Spirit, and that’s what He drew from for His nourishment. That’s what sustained Him and satisfied Him for those forty days. When Scripture says the fasting had ended, it uses the Greek world synteléō, which means “to end together or at the same time.” The Spirit did not leave Him or forsake Him during those forty days. It sustained Him until the day of completion, until the day when He fulfilled the purpose He had been led into the wilderness for. Luke 4:13-14 says, “When the devil had finished tempting Jesus, he left Him until the next opportunity came. Then Jesus returned to Galilee, filled with the spirit’s power…” Jesus was not depleted when He left the wilderness. He was not empty; He was still filled the Spirit. He did not lose anything, but instead gained power through the Spirit, because of His wilderness experience.

One of the few plants that is able to not only survive, but thrive, in harsh wilderness conditions is the cactus. One of the few animals that is able to do so is the camel. They are both suited for these conditions because they can store water. They can carry what they need on the inside. They draw from within. They are not dependent on external circumstances for their survival. This is why we, too, should be filled with the Spirit – because only the Spirit can sustain us in the wilderness.

Most cacti live in dry areas. They often have short growing seasons, followed by long periods of drought, but they are able to survive the periods of drought because they have adapted to be able to store and conserve water. They react quickly to rainfall when it comes, quickly expanding and contracting to absorb the water through their shallow root system. They are succulents, which means they are able to store water in their stems. Water accounts for 90% of their total mass, and they retain this water in an interesting way.

Transpiration is the process of water moving through a plant and evaporating – only a small amount of water is taken up by the roots and used for growth and metabolism. Transpiration usually occurs during the cooler, more humid, night hours, so in order to reduce the water loss that occurs through transpiration, cacti store the carbon dioxide they take in as a malic acid until daylight returns, only using it in photosynthesis.

Carbon dioxide is present in the air we breath. It is absorbed by plants in photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the process used by plants to convert light energy into chemical energy through cellular respiration. It can then be released to fuel the plant’s metabolic activities. Photosynthesis comes from the Greek word phōs meaning “light” and sunthesis meaning “putting together.” Through photosynthesis, oxygen is released into the air. It essentially supplies the energy necessary to maintain life on earth.

Malic acid, on the other hand, what the cactus stores the carbon dioxide as until daylight, is what contributes to the sour taste of unripe apples and other fruits.

The word for Spirit in Luke 4:1 is the Greek word pneûma which means “a movement of air.” When take in the Spirit, we take in the pneûma as a breath of air, as oxygen in our lungs.

When God created Adam and Eve, He breathed life into them. He breathed His Spirit, His pneûma, into their nostrils and they became living beings. They were filled with the Spirit. Then Satan came, just as He did with Jesus in the wilderness. And Satan tempted them with food, just as He did with Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus was tempted with bread; Adam and Eve were tempted with fruit. They saw it and desired it, and they gave into the temptation that Jesus resisted. They took it and ate it – and they stored it within. The pneûma was replaced with a malic acid – a bitterness, a sourness. Instead of being filled with the Spirit, they were filled with sinfulness. And they navigated the darkness of this world with that bitterness inside – until the daylight, until the day the Son Rose. Until the day Jesus came and took that sinfulness and transformed it into light, and released it into the world, to sustain us until the day of His return, to energize us for the work of the Kingdom, and to maintain our eternal life in Him.

Nature is truly fascinating! There is so much we can learn through the intricate details of how God has created and designed this earth. Just as we can learn from the cactus, so can we learn from the camel.

Throughout history, camels have been used to transport people through the desert because of how well suited they are to endure the dry conditions. They don’t store water directly in their humps as is commonly believed, but the humps are used as reservoirs for fatty tissue, which yields water when it metabolizes. The process of the fat metabolizing also releases energy which causes water to evaporate from the lungs. When the camel exhales, water vapor becomes trapped in their nostrils and is reabsorbed into the body as a means to conserve water. Even their long legs serve a purpose, helping keep their body farther from the ground, which can heat up to 158°F. Camels rarely sweat, even in the intense desert heat, and when they do sweat it evaporates at the skin level rather than at the surface of their coat. While other livestock can lose 20-40 liters of water per day, a camel typically loses only 1.3 liters. Because of these adaptations, they can survive long periods of time without any external source of water. In fact, dromedary camels can drink as little as once every 10 days and can lose up to 30% of its body mass due to dehydration. In comparison, other mammals can usually only withstand losing 12-14% before cardiac failure results. Camels also have oval shaped red blood cells that make them better able to withstand the flow of blood during dehydration and allows them to drink large amounts of water in a short amount of time without rupturing. For example, a 1,300lb camel can drink up to 53 gallons of water in only three minutes.

Psalm 119:11 says, “I have hidden Your word in my heart, that I might not sin against You.”

Jesus had hidden God’s word in His heart, and He drew on it for His strength so that He might not sin when He was tempted in the wilderness. For every temptation, Jesus counteracted with a word of Scripture. For every lie, He came against it with Truth. He was prepared. He was girded with Truth, and the Sword of the Spirit was His weapon of defense. He knew the Word. He had stored the Word in His heart, so He could draw it to remembrance and speak it into life when He needed it the most.

 In John 4:13-14 when Jesus encounters the woman at the well, He tells her, “Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.”

Psalm 42:1-2 says, “As the deer longs for streams of water, so I long for you, O God. I thirst for God, the living God.”

We should pant after God as a deer panteth for the water, and we should lap it up as a camel laps up water from a stream in the desert. The blood of Jesus has changed us from the inside out. The blood of Jesus has given us a capacity that goes beyond human understanding – a capacity to love and be loved by the Creator this Universe. That love bubbles within us, and never runs dry. We can return to Him time and time again, and He will fill us to overflowing.

After her conversation with Jesus at the well, Scripture says the woman “left her jar beside the well” (v. 28) and ran back to the village, telling everyone to come and see Jesus, to taste and see that He was good. She left what she had brought to carry her water in, because she had been filled up on the inside. The jar was not enough to contain what she had received. She had drank to overflowing. She was filled, and she was pouring herself out to draw others in, so they too could draw nourishment from this stream of living water who’s name was Jesus.

“I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit.”

– Romans 15:13

Not only was the woman filled through this experience, but Jesus was filled too. Scripture says the disciples later came to Jesus urging Him to eat and He responded by telling them, “I have a kind of food that you know nothing about… My nourishment comes from doing the will of God, who sent me, and from finishing His work” (v. 32-33). True nourishment comes from within. It comes from the Word of God. It comes from the Will of God. Only He can satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts.

Jesus knew what it meant to be hungry. In Luke 4:2, the word hunger means, “to suffer want or to be needy.” It can also be interpreted to mean, “to crave ardently, and to seek with eager desire.” Because Jesus was hungry, that’s where Satan attacked first. “If you are the Son of God,” Satan said, “tell this stone to become a loaf of bread.” By starting his question with “if” Satan was attempting to get Jesus to question His very identity. But Jesus didn’t fall for his scheme. Jesus responded and told him, “No! The Scriptures say, ‘People do not live by bread alone.'”

Jesus had not only studied the Word to know this, but He had lived the Word to know this. Because He had fasted, He had feasted on God. He had been spiritually fed though His physical stomach was empty. He had been spiritually nourished, though physically famished.

What is it that you are hungering for? What are you thirsting for? Be aware of these desires, because they will be your point of weakness in the wilderness. As Max Lucado writes, “Bring your weakness to God before Satan brings them to you.”

It is no coincidence that both the temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden and the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness revolved around food. This is no coincidence because there is a clear correlation between food and sin when it comes our self-discipline. Food is necessary for our survival, but is also desirable for our own personal pleasure. In the same way, our sin is often instinctual because it is driven by our fleshly desires and pleasures, but we have to remain in control of it in order to avoid it controlling us. This battle of flesh vs. spirit is a battle of the mind.

When Jesus teaches on fasting in Matthew 6, He does not say if you fast, but when you fast. It was implied that fasting was already a part of the regular routine for those He was speaking to. Fasting is an essential spiritual discipline. It is vital to our spiritual growth and development. It is how we fight our battles – we starve the flesh to feed our spirit. We hunger and thirst for righteousness. Through fasting, we empty ourselves to be filled with the Spirit. In John 6:35, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Fasting is a way for us to disrupt our daily rhythms and set our minds on things above where our true satisfaction comes from. Fasting is a way for us to shift our focus so we are not dependent on bread for life, but instead are dependent on the bread of life. It is a way for us to break free from unhealthy patterns of eating and an unhealthy relationship with food. When we fast from physical bread, we feast on spiritual manna that comes from above. We trust God to provide enough manna for each day. We look to Him to satisfy the deepest longings and cravings of our hearts.

This is not easy, but this is necessary.

I heard a Pastor say recently that the first sign of a culture that is turned away from God is that the body becomes a new locus point of worship. How present is this in our society? Do we not see it in our culture’s obsession with sex, with food, and with physical appearance? We have to break free from this. We have to resist the urge to fit in. We have to stand up and stand out. We have to become counter-cultural. Our body is intended to be a place for the presence of God to dwell. Instead, we have made it a place of pleasure and performance. We allow it to dictate to us its desires, rather than us reminding it of it’s purpose. With fasting, we regain control over our bodies. We remind our bodies that they were created for God, and not the other way around. Fasting and prayer is a way for us to turn our bodies from an enemy into an ally in the fight against the sinfulness and principalities of this world.

“…God did what the law could not do. He sent His own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving His Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit.”

– Romans 8:3-4

In Scripture, fasting is almost always accompanied by prayer. In Matthew 6:5-18 Jesus teaches us about prayer and fasting. He doesn’t just teach us how to pray, He shows us how to pray. He tells us prayer should be private, personal, and purposeful. “When you pray,” He says, “Go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private” (v.6). Jesus lived this out. Throughout Scripture, we see Him “going away” to pray.

Mark 1:35 says, “Before daybreak the next morning, Jesus got up and went out to an isolated place to pray.”

Matthew 14:23 says, “After sending them home, he went up into the hills by himself to pray.”

Luke 5:16 says, “ But Jesus often withdrew to the wilderness for prayer.

The wilderness is a dry, desolate place. The Greek word “érēmos” means “a solitary place” or “a lonely place.”

Because the wilderness is a place of solitude, it is a place well-suited for prayer. But what we fear most about the wilderness, even more than the lack of food, is the loneliness. We fear being alone. That is why “solitude confinement” is one of the worst forms of punishment. We are afraid to get alone with our thoughts, alone with our fears, alone with our anxieties – but that’s exactly where God wants to meet us at. There is a deep internal work that sometimes only the wilderness can bring to light, and only prayer and fasting can work to transform.

In her book, Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown writes, “True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness.”

It’s important for us to remember that being alone is not the same as be lonely. We may feel lonely in the wilderness, but we are never truly alone. The Spirit always accompanies us where He leads us. He will not leave or forsake us. Still, we fear going into the wilderness, into the silence and solitude, because we know that just as sure as Jesus is there – Satan is also there, waiting to attack. We know that in the wilderness, our weakness will be exposed.

We could not survive the wilderness on our own – that is why we must learn to pray and fast. The keys to physical survival in the wilderness are fire, shelter, and water. The keys to spiritual survival in the wilderness are the Holy Spirit, Fasting, and Prayer. This is how will endure. This is how we will not only survive, but thrive. This is how we will learn and grow. This is how we will make the most of our wilderness experience. Eventually we will come to love the wilderness, because we will find it is the place where we fall in love with Jesus, where we build intimacy with Him. It will become our hiding place, our space space, our place of refuge. He will call us back to this place time and time again. As He says in Hosea 2:14, “I will win her back once again. I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her there.”

There is a song by Elevation Worship called Great Things and the lyrics provide such a beautiful perspective of the wilderness. It says, “Thank You for the wilderness, where I learned to thirst for Your presence. If I’d never known that place, how could I have known You are better? Thank You for the lonely times, when I learned to live in the silence. As the other voices fade, I can hear You calling me, Jesus. And it’s worth it all, just to know You more.”

Rest assured, the wilderness season you are living in now will not last forever. The Spirit led you in, and the Spirit will lead you out. But while you’re there, embrace this season for all that it is and all that it has to offer. Learn how to fast and pray, and allow these practices to draw you close to the Father. Allow these practices to shape you more into His image. Allow these practices to strengthen you and empower you for the spiritual warfare you are sure to encounter there. Don’t allow this wilderness season to leave you unchanged. Leave your mark on the wilderness, and allow the wilderness to leave it’s mark on you.

Even the wilderness and desert will be glad in those days.
The wasteland will rejoice and blossom with spring crocuses.
Yes, there will be an abundance of flowers
and singing and joy!
The deserts will become as green as the mountains of Lebanon,
as lovely as Mount Carmel or the plain of Sharon.
There the Lord will display his glory,
the splendor of our God.
With this news, strengthen those who have tired hands,
and encourage those who have weak knees.
Say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, and do not fear,
for your God is coming to destroy your enemies.
He is coming to save you.”

And when he comes, he will open the eyes of the blind
and unplug the ears of the deaf.
The lame will leap like a deer,
and those who cannot speak will sing for joy!
Springs will gush forth in the wilderness,
and streams will water the wasteland.
The parched ground will become a pool,
and springs of water will satisfy the thirsty land.
Marsh grass and reeds and rushes will flourish
where desert jackals once lived.

And a great road will go through that once deserted land.
It will be named the Highway of Holiness.
Evil-minded people will never travel on it.
It will be only for those who walk in God’s ways;
fools will never walk there.
Lions will not lurk along its course,
nor any other ferocious beasts.
There will be no other dangers.
Only the redeemed will walk on it.
Those who have been ransomed by the Lord will return.
They will enter Jerusalem singing,
crowned with everlasting joy.
Sorrow and mourning will disappear,
and they will be filled with joy and gladness.

– Isaiah 35

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