Perhaps I'm putting the cart before the horse in writing this one. With all the questions about prayer that I mentioned in my last post, perhaps I should start with something a little more basic. I probably should study prayer itself before throwing anything else into the mix.
But let's live dangerously. Because this is a topic that's been especially on my mind lately, I was eager to study it and discuss it here. The topic is prayer and fasting.
All my life, growing up going to church, I heard multiple lessons on prayer. More than I could even begin to count. I can't recall EVER hearing a lesson on fasting. Seriously. The first lesson I think I ever heard on fasting was back in the spring of 2006, when, one Wednesday evening, we discussed the idea of participating in Lent; that is why we, in the CoC, typically don't; but why maybe we should, why it might be a good thing. So I was 22 years old before I ever heard something that even resembled a lesson on fasting.
So I decided to do a little bit of research and study myself, just to see what I could come up with. Here' s a little bit of what I found, and what I've learned from it:
--Fasting was done for several different reasons, but what I noticed most often is that it was done in mourning/confession/repentance. When people faced their sin and recognized their need for change, fasting, in sackcloth and ashes, was a common response. In I Samuel 7, after the Philistines have returned the ark of the covenant to Israel, Samuel urges the people to devote themselves to God, and the people assembled and fasted as they confessed. (I Sam. 7:2-6) In II Samuel 12, David spends days in fasting and prayer after he is confronted by Nathan regarding his sins, as He pleads with God for his son's life. (II Sam. 12:13-17) In Ezra 10, we see Ezra in prayer and bitter mourning over the sins of the exiles, and their unfaithfulness to God. As he mourns for them, he takes no food or drink. (Ezra 10:1-6) We see the same response in the opening verses of Nehemiah. When Nehemiah hears the report of the condition of the exiles that have returned to Jerusalem, he spends several days in fasting and prayer. (Neh 1:1-4) In Jonah 3, the king of Nineveh responds to Jonah's warning by declaring a fast. (Jonah 3:3-9) There are other mentions of mourning with prayer and fasting in the books I've already mentioned here, and even more, too numerous to mention, in the Psalms and Prophets.
--Another reason people fasted was in asking God for assistance or guidance. This can also be seen in Ezra, as he proclaims a fast in order to ask for God's protection as they travel back to Jerusalem. (Ezra 8:21-23) We see Queen Esther request that her people fast with her as she prepares to speak to the king regarding Haman's edict. (Esther 4:15-16) Most interesting to me, though, were the examples that we have in the New Testament, of Christians fasting. In Acts 13, the church at Antioch spends time in fasting and prayer before sending Paul and Barnabas off to do missionary work. (Acts 13:1-3) And in Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas appoint elders in the church with prayer and fasting. (Acts 14:21-23)
--Fasting was done in community as well as individually. So often, in the situations listed above (and many more like them not listed above) a fast was "declared" for the whole community to participate in. This grabbed my attention just because I'm so incrediby intrigued by the whole concept of community; the idea that a group of believers, a community of believers, living out their worship to God together seems to warrant special attention from our Father. (Matt. 18:20)
--God is more concerned with the heart than with the outward actions. This seems to be a major motif, not just of the passages that I looked at on fasting, but of the Bible in general. Often times, God would not accept the fasting and the sacrifices of His people, because they were just paying Him lipservice. The would participate in such religious activities and at the same time fail to treat each other with love and brotherly kindness. This is mentioned often in the prophets (Micah 6:8, Amos 5:21-24) and is repeated in the New Testament by Jesus Himself. (Matt 23:23) This idea most definitely applies to fasting, In fact, I couldn't help but notice Zech 7:1-10 (which applies to fasting) and its similarity to what James tells us is God's idea of pure and acceptable religion at its core. (James 1:27)
--God promies that we will be blessed by fasting. He promises healing and righteousness. He promises His Presence to guide His people. He promises joy in the Lord. (Isaiah 58) If we approach God with prayer and fasting, with the right heart and spirit, He will take notice.
--Just because you are fasting, that does not mean that God will give you everything that you ask for right at that moment. He is still God, His ways are still higher than ours, and He still knows what we need better than we know what we need. Even when you are fasting and praying for something in particular, you may not necessarily see the results that you expect. Let's look again at David, for example. After he sinned, he spent days in prayer and fasting, pleading for the life of his child. But what was the end result? And what was David's reaction to it??? I think there's alot to learn from David in this situation. (II Sam 12:18-23)
--Finally, we can look at the example of Jesus, who fasted forty days and forty nights before beginning His ministry. If Christ took some serious time for himself to fast and pray before beginning such a task, why shouldn't we? Jesus took time to teach His followers about fasting (Matt. 6:16-18), which leads me to believe that it is something we should still practice.
A couple of weeks ago, in our Singles class, we were studying Ezra, and we noticed that he fasted often when praying. Our singles minister asked if anyone had ever fasted and if they would possibly share that experience. I don't recall anyone having any comments at that point. He challenged us to do so--to spend some time in both prayer and fasting. I had never done that before, at least not until recently. So I guess you could say it's something I'm still working on. For about the past month and a half, I've decided to pick just one day a week to spend in fasting and prayer, as I work on certain things...but mainly just on keeping my focus on Him. For me that day is Wednesday. The amount of time varies...sometimes it's not quite 24 hours, sometimes a little more, that I abstain from food. After I go to bed on Tuesday night, I try not to eat until after church Wednesday evening (usually around 8:30 p.m). However, I don't go completely on nothing. I usually drink a little juice throughout the day, just to keep my blood sugar from completely bottoming out. (But then, a part of me can't help but wonder sometimes if this demonstrates a lack of faith on my part?) And I also usually have a cup of coffee (black--no cream or sugar) during class on Wednesday night.
It doesn't seem like much, I know, especially in light of our Savior's example. My goodness, I can hardly imagine going without food for 40 hours, much less 40 days! But I'm convinced that God has blessed and will continue to bless my feeble efforts. I use the extra time that I have on my Wednesdays to spend in more fervent prayer, both for myself and for those that I care about. I pray that God will use this to teach me to rely on Him, rather than self. I pray that He will use this to teach me how I should hunger and thirst for His kingdom and His righteousness.
But more than anything, I pray that He uses my hunger to teach me how I should desire Him.
What about you? Is fasting something that you practice or have done in the past? Do you feel that it's something that we don't study and/or practice enough? Why is that???
Just some more of my ramblings...
Much love to you all.