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The Humbling Element of Fasting

Well, this week our church did something a little bit unusual – something that has never done in this church before. In fact, as far as I can remember, I’ve never been part of a church that did anything like this. But on Wednesday over the lunch hour, together as a church family, we fasted. Instead of eating our normal Wednesday lunch, we instead, spent that time fasting and  praying for our community. Which was really pretty cool, and if you didn’t get a chance to join us this time, I’m sure we’re going to be doing this again… But for those of you are just joining us today, let me give you some quick background to all this.

Over the past couple of months we have been looking at the spiritual disciplines – or the healthy habits of Christians that help us draw near to God and that help us grow deeper in our relationship with Him. They change our understanding of who God is and how He’s working in our world.

We looked first of all, at how we can see glimpses of God in Creation. God’s fingerprints are everywhere around us – in the vastness of the galaxies or the complexity of our DNA or in the wonder of a baby being born or simply in the beauty of a sunset. We see the evidence of God everywhere.

But of course, while the heaven’s do declare the glory of God, His creation doesn’t tell us everything we need to know about what He has done. That’s why God has given us His Word – the Bible. And so we spent several weeks looking at how we know that the Bible really is God’s Word and how reading and understanding it changes us as we learn more about who God really is and what He’s really like.

And while God communicates to us primarily through His Word, He has given us the ability to communicate with Him primarily through prayer. And so we spend a few weeks looking at why would should pray. Why pray to a God who already knows everything we need and who has already promised to provide it? We saw how prayer is an invitation for God to be active and involved and sovereign in our lives. It’s actually an act of worship when we pray.

And then most recently, for the last two Sundays, we’ve been talking about fasting. And fasting isn’t nearly as common-place these days as prayer or Bible reading – although I think it should be because it is an excellent way for us to draw close to God.  Fasting is a way for us to focus on the most important things in life – not just the urgent things in life. When we give up food for a certain amount of time, to instead focus on God and our relationship with Him, our hunger reminds us how desperate we are for Him – and how much we depend on Him every moment of every day. It also reminds us that this life here and now is not all there is! We are looking forward to the day when this life is over and we can see Jesus face-to-face and can spend the rest of eternity with Him – feasting and celebrating and being fully satisfied for the rest of all time! Fasting is such a good reminder of that.

And so that’s why on Wednesday, we decided to fast together as a church. I know that many Christians have never fasted before. It’s a relatively new practice for me as well. And so this was really an experiment in fasting and I hope you’ll continue to experiment with it!

Now today I want us to look at one more aspect of prayer and fasting. And by no means, have we covered it all! The more I learn about fasting, the more I realize how little I know. So far, we’ve spent quite a bit of time looking at how fasting impacts us – how it changes our perspectives and reminds of things that we are usually quick to forget. But today I want to focus on how fasting impacts our prayers.

As you read through the Scriptures, there just seems to be example after example of people fasting and praying when they really need God to come through in some way.

    • King Jehoshaphat and the people of Judah prayed and fasted when a massive army from Edom was approaching.
    • Esther and the Israelites prayed and fasted when they were faced with genocide at the hands of Haman.
    • Ezra and the exiles in Babylon prayed and fasted before their journey back home to Jerusalem
    • Jesus spent 40 days praying and fasting in the wilderness before beginning his pubic ministry
    • The church at Antioch prayed and fasted before sending Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey.

There seems to be this theme that whenever people really need to hear from God or they really need God to give them wisdom or guidance, or they really need God to come through in a miraculous way… they fast and pray!

Why is that? How is prayer and fasting better than just prayer? I mean, does fasting impact the effectiveness or the power of our prayers? Do we hear God more clearly when we fast? Does God hear us more clearly when we fast? What kind of an impact should we expect fasting to make when we pray?

And to be honest, I’ve really wrestled with this question over the past month, because the Bible just doesn’t give us a quick and easy answer. But I think it’s a question that we really need to answer in order for us to grasp how important and valuable fasting is in strengthening our relationship with God.

And so one of the things that I did to try to answer this question of “How and why does fasting impact our prayers?” – was that I looked any several of these incidents in the Bible where people fasted and I tried to find some common themes. Because there are all kinds of different circumstances recorded in the Bible for why people fasted (we’ve looked at several of those already) And if I could identify a common theme between them all, that might give us a good clue as to how fasting impacts our prayers.

Now one of the most common reasons for fasting, particularly in the Old Testament, was as a sign of repentance. For example, I’ve mentioned before how the entire city of Ninevah fasted when they heard Jonah’s message that God was going to destroy them. Let me read that for you in Jonah 3:6-10.

6 When the king of Nineveh heard what Jonah was saying, he stepped down from his throne and took off his royal robes. He dressed himself in burlap and sat on a heap of ashes. 7 Then the king and his nobles sent this decree throughout the city:

“No one, not even the animals from your herds and flocks, may eat or drink anything at all. 8 People and animals alike must wear garments of mourning, and everyone must pray earnestly to God. They must turn from their evil ways and stop all their violence. 9 Who can tell? Perhaps even yet God will change his mind and hold back his fierce anger from destroying us.”

10 When God saw what they had done and how they had put a stop to their evil ways, he changed his mind and did not carry out the destruction he had threatened.

Jonah 3:6-10

Keep that in mind and let’s jump over to 1 Kings 21. Another example of fasting as a sign of repentance was Ahab. King Ahab is usually known as being one of the most evil kings of Isreal, but later on in life when God declared that He was going to completely wipe out Ahab’s family because of his sinfulness, Ahab actually repented. Let me read that for you…

27 But when Ahab heard this message, he tore his clothing, dressed in burlap, and fasted. He even slept in burlap and went about in deep mourning.

28 Then another message from the Lord came to Elijah: 29 “Do you see how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has done this, I will not do what I promised during his lifetime. 1 Kings 21:27-29

And in that last verse there, I think we get a hint of how fasting impacts our prayers. Notice in verse 29 how God says “Do you see how Ahab has humbled himself before me?” It wasn’t just the fasting per se or the dressing in burlap, it was the fact that Ahab had humbled himself before God. I think we would see the same thing in the story of the Ninevites – their fasting and sitting in ashes and dressing in burlap – those were all signs of humbling themselves before the Almighty and Sovereign God.

The idea of humbling ourselves before God seems to be very much connected with fasting.

And we don’t just see this when people fast out of repentance and sorrow. We see this humbling element when they fast for other reasons as well. Take the story of Ezra for example. After the Israelites had spent 70+ years in exile in Babylon, there was this priest named Ezra who was going to lead a group of Isrealites back to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. And before they headed out on their journey – which back then, would be a massive undertaking and very dangerous at that, Ezra gave orders that everyone should fast.

21 And there by the Ahava Canal, I gave orders for all of us to fast and humble ourselves before our God. We prayed that he would give us a safe journey and protect us, our children, and our goods as we traveled.  Ezra 8:21

So this isn’t a prayer of repentance – It’s a prayer for divine protection – but humbling themselves before God is still a major part of it.

And I found that as I looked at all the different stories of people fasting, there is always that element of humbling themselves before God – no matter what their circumstances – no matter what they were praying and fasting for – fasting was always a sign of humbling themselves before God.

    • When King Jehoshaphat and the people of Judah prayed and fasted when a massive army from Edom was approaching, they were humbling themselves as they acknowledging that they were helpless to save themselves – they need God to come through for them or they were done!
    • When Esther and the Israelites prayed and fasted when they were faced with genocide at the hands of Haman, again, they were humbling themselves as they acknowledge that only God could change their situation.
    • When the church at Antioch prayed and fasted before sending Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey, they were recognizing that they were completely dependant on God’s wisdom and guidance and protection and empowerment for this missionary journey to be successful!
    • Even when Jesus spent 40 days praying and fasting in the wilderness before beginning his pubic ministry, he was humbling Himself and submitting Himself to the will of his Father.

In every incident of fasting in the Bible, we always see that key element of humbling themselves before God.

And that really fits with how I’ve experienced fasting. Fasting in itself is very humbling. It’s a humbling thing to recognize your own neediness and your own desperation. It’s humbling to recognize how dependant you are on something as trivial as food. We tend to see ourselves as being so independent and able to take care of ourselves – fasting reminds us that… that’s just not the case. We depend on food. We depend on water. We depend on oxygen. There are so many things that we dependant on. Fasting is a humbling reminder of that.

And that’s a good thing because the Bible is very clear that God loves to show up for those who are humble. He’s not that crazy about the proud, but He loves to come through for those who are humble before Him. Psalm 138:6 says…

6 Though the Lord is great, he cares for the humble,

    but he keeps his distance from the proud. Psalm 138:6

“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” 6 So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honor.

1 Peter 5:5-6

27 You rescue the humble,

    but you humiliate the proud. Psalm 18:27

As a dad, I think I understand that a little bit. My little girl is three years old now and she can do everything herself! (Or at least, so she thinks!) You try to help her with something and she’s quick to let you know “I can do it myself!” I don’t need your help! I can do it myself!” And sometime she can. But many times, she can’t. Many times she really does need help, but she is too proud to admit it. And so, usually I have to wait until she tries and fails on her own before she is willing to come to me for help.

And I think we’re often like that with God.  We become proud and think that we’re fine without Him. We can do it ourselves. We don’t need Him. We don’t want Him. And so God, being our gracious Father, allows us to try. He allows us to struggle and fail on our own until we humble ourselves enough to realize we can’t do it on our own and that we need Him to help us.

And when we do that, God is more than eager to jump in and rescue us and to show up in big, amazing ways!

And I think that’s what makes fasting so powerful. Not that fasting in itself is powerful, but fasting, because it naturally humbles us, prepares us and puts us in a position where we acknowledge that we can’t do it on our own and that need God to to jump in and rescue us.

Now of course, we don’t have to fast in order to humble ourselves before God. We can be humble without fasting. But fasting certainly amplifies and expedites the process. That empty, growling stomach quickly forces us to recognize our weakness. It drives us to acknowledge that we are not self-sufficient. We are absolutely needy.

So when we fast, it’s like we are saying to God “Ok God, I’m ready for you to jump in now. I recognize that I can’t do this on my own. I can’t change this situation. I can’t fix this problem. I need you to do something!”

And that’s exactly the kind of scenario where God loves to show up! God loves to come through for us when we need Him most! His power is most evident in our weakness!

It’s like Paul and his thorn in the flesh… Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12:7. He says…

So to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud.

8 Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. 9 Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. 10 That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:7-10

And I think that right there is a great summary of why we fast: For when I am weak, then I am strong. Or rather, that’s when God is strong for me. His power works best in my weakness. If I don’t acknowledge my weakness – God’s not going to show up with his power.

But on the flip side of that, when we do acknowledge our weakness (and fasting is a great way to do that), and we call out to God for help, God promises that He will show up.

And that shouldn’t be surprising to us because that’s exactly how every Christian is saved in the first place.

There’s not one of us who received forgiveness because of all the good things we did. Not one of us has the promise of eternal life because we had our act together. No! Romans 5:6 says…

“When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners.” Romans 5:6

That’s how God works. He comes through for us when we realize that we are utterly helpless. But if we refuse to acknowledge that – if we refuse to admit how helpless we are – God doesn’t force his help upon us. Like a patient Father, He gives us the freedom to fail and and to flounder until we realize how desperate we are for his help.

And the moment we look to him for help – He’s right there. He is so eager to rescue us and to show up big time in our lives.

That’s true for our Salvation. That’s true for every other issue that we face in life.

Our problem is that we just hate to admit that we’re utterly helpless. We’re too proud! And that’s why fasting is such a valuable practice.

Fasting is something that we choose to do that forces us to acknowledge our helplessness. It forces us to humble ourselves before God. If forces us into a position where God can come in and rescue us and to show up big time in our lives.

And its important to note that fasting is something we choose to do. We mentioned two weeks ago that we’re never commanded to fast – but Jesus expects that we will.

He doesn’t command us to do something that will force us to humble ourselves before Him – that’s got to be our choice. But as followers of Christ, Jesus expects that we will. He expects that we will want to humble ourselves before Him so that He can show up in our lives with His mighty power.

I know that’s what I want. I want God to do mighty things in my life. I want Him to do the impossible. I want Him to change those situations where I’m helpless to do anything about it. I want Him to change people’s hearts. I want Him to break the chains of addiction and the cycles of poor choices. I want Him to rescue my friends and family and neighbors from an eternity of pain. I want God to do all those things that I am powerless to do myself.

So that’s why I fast. I want to make sure that I’m not just living and working in my own strength – in my own power – because that is so limited! Over these last few months, we’ve read over and over again that verse in John 15:6 where Jesus says…

“For apart from me, you can do nothing.” John 15:6

I don’t want to be that guys who does nothing. And fasting is a way for me to acknowledge that apart from Christ, I can do nothing. I am utterly helpless in so many ways. But at the same time, when I fast, I’m acknowledging that although I am weak – He is strong!

Paul writes in Ephesians 3:20…

20 Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think.” Ephesisans 3:20

When we acknowledge that we can do nothing – God is able, through his mighty power at work within us, He’s able to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think.

That is incredible! So let’s stop trying to do things in our own strength! Let’s let go of that pride and humble ourselves before our Almighty God – who loves us more than we can imagine – and let’s invite Him step in! Let’s let Him accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think!

And if its a struggle for us to give up our pride, and I imagine that it is – at least it is for me – then let’s fast. Let’s choose to put ourselves in a position where we are forced to acknowledge our own weakness and our own insufficiency, so that when we are weak, then He can be strong.

And that’s why I would recommend to all of you, as a regular part of your spiritual disciplines – to fast. We need that regular reminder to humble ourselves before our Creator. We need that regular reminder that we are weak and that He is strong. Because we forget it so quickly!

It’s so easy to let that pride creep in and for us to start living and working in our own power – apart from Him. Let’s not let that happen. Why not fast on a regular basis?

Maybe you want to begin your own weekly fast. Maybe just take one meal a week to spend that time, instead of eating, humbling yourself before God and inviting Him to come and do all those things that you simply can’t do yourself.

  • Maybe you have a family member or friend that has no relationship with God – fast and pray for that person. You can’t change their heart – but God can. Call out to Him to do the impossible!
  • Maybe there is a situation at work or at home that’s just totally messed up – and you just have no idea how to deal with it. Fast and pray about that situation. Go to the infinite, all-powerful, all-knowing God of the Universe for help! He is ready and eager to jump in!
  • Maybe there is a relationship in your life that seems far beyond repair – fast and pray for that relationship. Perhaps you’ve done all that you can do – it’s time to let God step in and do what He can do.
  • Maybe there is an illness or injury – maybe there’s that kid at school – maybe you’re in a financial crisis… whatever impossible situation you’ve facing – why not fast and pray about it. Humble yourself before God and invite Him to rescue and to guide and to do the impossible in your situation.

Now to be clear, I’m not saying that God is going necessarily to do exactly what you’re asking! Fasting is not some magic recipe that forces God’s hand. It’s not like that. But I guarantee, that if you humble yourself before God, and you invite Him to have His way (not your way, but His way), then God will do infinitely more than what you could ask or think.

So I want to encourage you to fast.

This last week we did a one meal fast together as a church. Perhaps this week, you’re ready to stretch that out a little more and you want to do a two-meal fast or even full-day fast. Great! Do it! I’m not going to coordinate a church-wide fast or anything this time, but go ahead and just do it on your own.

Maybe as we’ve been talking this morning, God’s brought to your mind a certain situation where there’s really nothing more you can do, but God’s just waiting for his invitation to get involved. So maybe you want to take some time this week to fast and pray and to humble yourself before God and call out to Him and ask Him to do the things that you can’t.

And you may not see the immediate results – but then again, you may! God loves to come through for those who are willing to humble themselves before Him. He loves to give good gifts to his children and as long as we come humbly before Him, He will do infinitely more than what you could ask or think.

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