Friday, June 5, 2009

Prayer and Fasting

It has been requested we choose a day of fasting and prayer for Bryan and our family. For those who would like to participate, let's fast on Tuesdays, since that is Bryan's chemo day.

Recently, John Douglass gave a message on fasting. The following is a synopsis of what he said:

Fasting is a subject that is rarely addressed nowadays for a number of reasons:
1. Fasting seems so old-fashioned: In past ages when so much toil and resources just went towards people feeding themselves, skipping a meal now and then made a lot of economic sense, regardless of the spiritual effects. Today, the idea of fasting seems strange or stupid to a self-indulgent society, with food relatively cheap and easy to get in large quantities, where we’re taught not to deny ourselves anything. Why would anyone want to go hungry on purpose?
2. Another hindrance is the lack of commands in Scripture. There was only one command to fast in the Mosaic Law, on the Day of Atonement: Leviticus 16:29: “This shall be a permanent statute for you: in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall humble your souls and not do any work, whether the native, or the alien who sojourns among you.” “Humble your souls” = “afflict your souls” (Heb. word used of the Egyptian taskmasters over the Hebrews) and probably included a fast; practiced by Jews to this day. Also, Jews fasted in the fourth, fifth, seventh, and tenth months during the Babylonian captivity. These fasts commemorated various events involved in the siege and destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Jews in Jesus’ day would fast regularly. The Pharisee in Luke 18:12 boasted that he fasted twice a week.

But all this seems so Old Testament. There’s only one recorded instance of Jesus fasting, for the 40 days before the start of His public ministry. We see an explicit reference in the gospels to the fact that Jesus and His disciples did not fast as regularly as other Jews. There are a couple of references to fasting in the book of Acts, and that’s about it. In all the epistles, with the many commands to prayer, service, giving, and other aspects of the Christian life, there are no commands to fast. However, in passages mentioning fasting, it is assumed to be some part of a believer’s life. So what should it mean to us?

What is fasting? Roughly, it’s an abstaining from physical nourishment, either because of a lack of desire for food or a particular setting aside of food. In Scripture, there are various degrees of fasting. Sometimes it involved abstaining from food and all liquids entirely; sometimes just water was drunk; in other cases, especially for long durations, a fast would just consist of just enough plain food and drink to maintain minimal nourishment. Fasts could last for just one meal, or just during the daytime, for a 24-hour period, for several days, even several weeks. We see Moses, Elijah, and Jesus fasting for 40 days. John the Baptist ate locusts and wild honey while he taught in the wilderness; his life seems to have been something of an ongoing fast.

But it’s not just abstaining from food for the sake of abstaining, like some sort of diet program. For God’s people fasting is done for spiritual purposes.

In Scripture, we see fasting done on several kinds of occasions:
· Sorrow: Matthew 9:14-15; 2 Samuel 1:12; 2 Samuel 12:16; Nehemiah 1:1-4; Sorrow for others: Psalm 35:13-14: Daniel 6:18
· Repentance: Joel 1:14; 2:12; Nehemiah 9:1-2; Daniel 9:1ff.; Jonah 3
· Seeking God’s protection: Ezra 8:21-23
· Seeking the Lord’s will: Acts 13:2-3; 14:23
Nearly always explicitly associated with prayer

We can also organize the kinds of fasting in this way: public (as a nation or as a church) and private. And fasting may have a focus on ourselves, such as in times of personal or national sorrow or repentance, or it may be focused on the needs of others.

The Key to fasting as in all other aspects of our Christian walk is our heart:
· Matthew 6:16-18: secret, vs. Pharisees (Luke 18:12: boasting that he fasted twice a day); may be some times when others must know you’re fasting (especially during public fasts), but the point is not to do it to be seen by others
· Isaiah 58:1-12: echoes of Isaiah 1:11-15: must be done with the right heart. 3: “humbled” same as used in Leviticus about the Day of Atonement; they complained to God that they had performed all the rituals and God hadn’t given them what they wanted. They thought God was like a cosmic vending machine: you put in the required amount, push the button, and get what you want. Even if we fast and pray with the right attitude, that’s no guarantee that God will do what we want, how much less should we expect from God if our heart is wrong? But note that both of these passages say that God rewards proper fasting in His own way. Fasting without the right heart attitude is worthless; needs to be accompanied by heart devoted to love of God and others.

Matthew Henry: “If the solemnities of our fasting, though frequent, long and severe, do not serve to put an edge upon devout affections, to quicken prayer, to increase Godly sorrow, and to alter the temper of our minds, and the course of our lives, for the better, they do not at all answer the intention, and God will not accept them as performed to Him.” (quoted in John Piper, A Hunger for God, pp. 188-9)

What about fasting today? Can be difficult to come to a firm conclusion. Some commentators believe that fasting should be a regular part of a believer’s life, even weekly or monthly; others think it will be only done under unusual circumstances.

Calvin: “Whenever men are to pray to God concerning any great matter, it would be expedient to appoint fasting along with prayer.” (Institutes)

Jonathan Edwards: “[Fasting] is a duty recommended by our Savior to his followers, just in like manner as secret prayer is. … Though I don’t suppose that secret fasting is to be practiced in a stated manner and steady course as secret prayer, yet it seems to me ‘tis a duty that all professing Christians should practice, and frequently practice. There are many occasions of both a spiritual and temporal nature that do properly require it; and there are many particular mercies that we desire for ourselves or friends that it would be proper, in this manner, to seek of God.” (Piper, p. 111)

But keep in mind that food is good (1 Timothy 4:1-5) and asceticism is wrong (Colossians 2:23).

Fasting is not an end in itself, but demonstrates zeal and hunger for God to hear and answer our prayers, and a willingness to give up something good for something (and Someone) better. It’s a way to practice self-denial, “buffet our bodies”. Matthew 9:14-17: missing the bridegroom; John Piper: “This is the essence of Christian fasting: We ache and yearn—and fast—to know more and more of all that God is for us in Jesus. But only because he has already laid hold of us and is drawing us ever forward and upward into ‘all the fullness of God.’” (p. 48)

Other ways of “fasting”? Some may have medical or other reasons for not being able to fast. Of course, those with health problems should talk to their doctor before skipping meals. But there are other ways to fast:

D. M. Lloyd-Jones: “Fasting, if we conceive of it truly, must not only be confined to the question of food and drink; fasting should really be made to include abstinence from anything which is legitimate in and of itself for the sake of some special spiritual purpose. There are many bodily functions which are right and normal and perfectly legitimate, but which for special peculiar reasons in certain circumstances should be controlled. That is fasting.” (Piper, p. 16)

There may be times when we could and should give up some things that are important to us, things that we enjoy, for a time to focus on more spiritual things. Maybe it’s a TV or movie fast. Maybe it’s a Facebook fast. Certainly there are things in your life that you can do without for a higher purpose.

Also, fasting in a broader sense may not be just for the purpose of prayer. It might be for a special time of Bible study or meditation, or to free up some time for ministry that would be otherwise taken up by a meal. Some Christians take the money they would ordinarily use for the meals they skip and give it to the poor or otherwise give it to the work of the Lord.

However and whenever you choose to fast, remember that your fasting must be from the heart and have a God-centered purpose.

1 comment:

Nanci Smith said...

Count me in!