Is God Calling Us to Fast? (part 2)
So here’s the question that I’m asking in this moment of coronavirus crisis. Now that even our most brazen politicians have begun confessing that the problems that are facing us are too difficult for governments to solve, is God calling his people to respond with a fresh season of fasting together before him? How big do the challenges to our healthcare, to our economy, to our children’s education, and to our churches need to become before we rediscover fasting as a mighty weapon in the Christian arsenal?
Don’t get me wrong. I understand why talk of fasting is unpopular these days. Like you, I’ve read all about the ancient ascetics and the medieval monks who turned the life-giving practice of fasting into a dead work, attempting to curry favour with the Lord through the harsh treatment of their bodies. I get why many believers today have filed fasting away in their minds as something unknown, unnecessary and undesirable. That’s why I am writing this mini-series of four blogs to invite you to blow away the cobwebs from the Scriptures that encourage us to fast in times of crisis. I believe that God is calling you and me to a fresh season of fasting, amidst of the greatest crisis of our generation.
In the first blog in this mini-series, I took you to some Bible verses which teach us that the primary motive for our fasting ought to be its benefits to God, rather than its benefits to ourselves. Fasting expresses our delight in the Lord, our desire to reconsecrate our lives to him and our deep longing for a greater revelation of him. In the remaining three blogs, we will look at the other three great motives:
Motive 2: Fasting expresses our humility and repentance
Motive 3: Fasting pushes back the Devil and his demons
Motive 4: Fasting helps our prayers to be heard in heaven
Motive 2: Fasting expresses our humility and repentance
Fasting often accompanies prayer, but it is itself distinct from prayer. It is more than merely ‘prayer plus’. It serves a mighty purpose of its own. It is a powerful aid to our humility.
The Bible warns us that a full stomach physically invariably leads to pride spiritually. The root of Sodom’s sin was not sexual perversion, but an excess of food. “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned” (Ezekiel 16:49). The sins of the Israelites were also rooted in their full bellies. “He humbled you, causing you to hunger … to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes out of the mouth of the Lord … Be careful … Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied … your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:2-3&11-14). Those of us who live in prosperous, well-fed and spiritually lukewarm nations need to take this lesson from Israel’s history particularly seriously. “When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot me” (Hosea 13:6).
It isn’t hard for Christians in the West to trace their nation’s rejection of God’s Word back to its relative prosperity. Nor is it hard for us to trace the rapid growth of the Church in many nations of the Global South back to the poverty of those nations. But when we fast, we go further than mere commentary on the effect of full and empty stomachs on other people. We make an active decision to empty our own earthly bellies for a season in order to increase our hunger for the things of heaven. We voluntarily embrace the path of poverty and lack in order to feast, instead, on the promise of Jesus: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6).
King David understood this. He tells us that “I wept and humbled my soul with fasting” (Psalm 69:10). Ezra understood this too, proclaiming “a fast … that we might humble ourselves before our God” (Ezra 8:21). Fasting is a God-given corrective to the pride that so easily infects the heart of any well-fed human. It is a powerful accompaniment to prayer, but it is also powerful on its own. “God opposes the proud but shows favour to the humble. Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you” (James 4:6-8).
The Bible also explains that fasting has a second, similar significance for the believer today. It was a major element of the elaborate mourning rituals of Israel (1 Samuel 31:13, 2 Samuel 1:12 & 3:35). As a result, the Israelites would often fast as an expression of their grief-stricken repentance, demonstrating to God the profound sorrow that they felt about their nation’s sin against him. Samuel led the Israelites in one such fast of repentance in 1 Samuel 7:6. Ezra fasted in this way personally (Ezra 9:3-6 & 10:6) and he went on to lead the returning Jewish exiles in a similar national fast of repentance (Nehemiah 9:1-2). Even the wicked King Ahab and the pagan citizens of Nineveh fasted to humble themselves in repentance when warned about the judgment of the Lord (1 Kings 21:25-29 and Jonah 3:4-10). On each of these occasions, the threatened crisis was averted. If even out-and-out idolaters enjoyed the benefits of fasting, why wouldn’t we do the same during our own coronavirus crisis today?
I know that Christians in the past have treated fasting in the same way that Muslims treat Ramadan – as the accrual of ‘good deeds’ to tip the scales of divine judgment in their favour. I know that fasting has frequently become a source of pride to its practitioners (Luke 18:11-12). I know that medieval priests taught that fasting is a ‘penance’ that can top up what is lacking in the work of Jesus on the cross for us. I despise that false teaching every bit as much as you do, but the remedy for abuse is never disuse, but rather proper use. We mustn’t allow the mistakes of others to rob us of the powerful tool that God has given us to activate deep humility in our hearts and to express sincere repentance for our sin.
We mustn’t miss the way that Jesus, shortly after teaching his followers about “when you fast” (not if you fast), uses “fasting” and “mourning” as interchangeable and equivalent terms (Matthew 6:16-17 and 9:15). Nor must we miss the link between this teaching about fasting and his earlier promise that “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). We cannot afford to allow the misguided legalism of others to blind our own eyes to that fact that fasting remains a mighty channel of God’s grace towards those who believe the Gospel.
John Wesley encourages us fast primarily for the Lord’s sake and secondarily as an expression of our humility and repentance towards him: “Let it be done unto the Lord, with our eye singly fixed on Him. Let our intention herein be this, and this alone, to glorify our Father which is in heaven; to express our sorrow and shame for our manifold transgressions of His holy law … Let us beware of fancying we merit anything of God by our fasting. We cannot be too often warned of this; inasmuch as a desire to ‘establish our own righteousness’, to procure salvation of debt and not of grace, is so deeply rooted in all our hearts. Fasting only a way which God hath ordained, wherein we wait for His unmerited mercy; and wherein, without any desert of ours, He hath promised freely to give us His blessing.”
I believe that God is calling us to rediscover the forgotten blessings of fasting as part of our response to the present coronavirus crisis. In the final two blogs in this mini-series, we will look at Scriptures which teach us that our fasting pushes back the gates of hell and makes our prayers heard in heaven. But you don’t have to wait for those blogs to start doing what the Lord commands in Joel 1:14 and 2:12:
“Declare a holy fast; call a sacred assembly. Summon the elders and all who live in the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord … ‘Even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.’”
The John Wesley quote comes from his ‘Sermon 27’, on Matthew 6:6-18.