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Fasting & Prayer

Mighty Weapons of our Warfare

fasting

by Dennis Pollock

Imagine you are a soldier, just recently inducted into the army. You are given a high-powered, air-cooled, gas-operated, magazine-fed M16 rifle, capable of killing the enemy at 500 yards. On your first battle your company is given the command to charge the enemy and overrun their position. As you move out with your comrades fear grips you and causes your mind to go blank. Forgetting about the rifle slung over your shoulder, you advance on the enemy screaming at the top of your lungs and throwing whatever rocks you can find on the ground.

Such an individual would be most foolish indeed, and yet that is not such a far cry from many Christians who never avail themselves of one of the most powerful weapons Jesus Christ has provided them in their spiritual warfare: prayer combined with the practice of fasting. Nearly all Christians recognize the need to pray, but for some the idea of fasting is completely out of sight and out of mind. This is a great shame because fasting is without a doubt one of the mightiest weapons in the arsenal of the followers of Jesus, and can often make the difference between success or failure, between breakthrough or breakdown, between desires fulfilled or continual disappointment.

God's People Fast

Fasting has long been associated with the people of God. We find this practice sprinkled throughout the Old Testament. Nehemiah writes: "So it was, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned for many days; I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven" (Nehemiah 1:4). When Esther was told by her uncle Mordecai that there was a plan to exterminate the Jews, and that she must appear before the king to intercede for her people, she replied, "Go, gather all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me; neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will fast likewise" (Esther 4:16). When Daniel went to prayer to seek the Lord for a return of the Jews from captivity, he writes, "Then I set my face toward the Lord God to make request by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes" (Daniel 9:3). Although Moses gave no directives about how, why, and when to fast, the people of Israel always seemed to recognize that when things got serious, it was time for fasting and prayer.

But fasting is not just a practice reserved for colorful Old Testament characters from days long ago. It is every bit as prominent in the New Testament era. Our Lord Jesus makes it clear that His followers will fast, and gives some instructions about its practice:

Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. (Matthew 6:16-18)

First we notice that Jesus says "when you fast," not "if you fast." He expects fasting to be a part of our lives, just like praying, going to Bible studies, giving money to the poor, singing praise songs, and sharing our faith. Secondly He makes it clear fasting must never be done to impress others. No going around looking miserable and wearing a sign on our backs which says, "Please notice me! I'm fasting and I'm really suffering for Jesus' sake." The worst thing you can do when you fast is to Fasting and Prayertell someone that you are fasting who does not absolutely need to know about it.

And finally we notice that Jesus promises us that there is reward associated with fasting. He says our Father, who notices our secret fasting, will reward us openly. Doors will open, breakthroughs will come, prayers will be answered, obstacles removed, enemies defeated, delays ended, strongholds broken, limitations shattered, and victories won because we took the time and made the effort to seek our God by prayer and fasting.

Response to a Crisis

One of the primary times when fasting is called for is during a crisis. In the book of Joel Israel has been punished for their sins by a terrible drought. Joel describes the situation this way: "The vine has dried up, and the fig tree has withered; the pomegranate tree, the palm tree also, and the apple tree --- all the trees of the field are withered; surely joy has withered away from the sons of men" (Joel 1:12). What must be done? We don't have to read long to discover the proper response. Joel declares: "Consecrate a fast, call a sacred assembly; gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land into the house of the LORD your God, and cry out to the LORD" (Joel 1:14). Today every one of us will have our own personal droughts, and the remedy that Joel called for still applies: "consecrate a fast and cry out to the LORD." This is not complicated; this is Knowing God 101. When things go dry and the pressure seems unbearable, we do what God's people have always done – we turn our hearts to the Lord to seek His face. We put aside the eggs and bacon, the soup and sandwiches, and the steaks and potatoes. We take time we might normally spend in eating and instead spend it talking to and pleading with our gracious Creator.

But fasting is not merely for crises; it is also a powerful means by which we approach our God when we need guidance and direction, or seek His favor and blessing on a new endeavor or a time of transition in our lives. It was a routine aspect of the early church in appointing leaders in the local assemblies. Luke writes: "So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed" (Acts 14:23). When Paul gives married couples instructions about married life, he expects that there will be times of fasting. He writes: "Do not deprive one another (sexually) except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control" (1 Corinthians 7:5).

Fasting and Prayer

We notice that in the Bible the word fasting is so often combined with the word prayer. We do not merely refrain from eating to show God how spiritual we are, or what a martyr we can be. We are not trying to earn points from God based upon our willingness to suffer hunger pains. Fasting is an asset to our praying; it complements our seasons of prayer. It does little good to go a day without eating when our minds are distracted with work and family issues and we make little time for prayer. We must not conclude our time of fasting with the thought: "Well, I haven't had much time to pray, but at least God will notice the fasting." Perhaps He will, but fasting is always most effective when it is combined with fervent, earnest, faith-filled prayer. Prayer is so powerful and effective than any kind of praying is good, provided there is at least a little faith behind it. You can pray with a stomach gorged with doughnuts and coffee, and still touch heaven. God is not so picky that He will only hear prayers attended by a growling stomach. But fasting seems to add weight and efficacy to our prayers, in a way that no other practice does. And that brings us to the power behind fasting…

Humble Yourself

When you study the ways of God, you find that He is very big on humility and very much put off by pride. James writes, "Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up" (James 4:10). Twice the Bible tells us "God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble." The last thing in the world any sane man would want, would be God resisting him. And the best thing we can ever hope for from our God is grace. Anything we can do to increase humility should by all means be sought. But how do we humble ourselves? Shall we make a valiant effort to belittle ourselves, and constantly tell ourselves what worms and fools we are? Shall we spend hours and hours trying to think humble thoughts?

No, these will serve no purpose, but according to the Scriptures, the practice of fasting is a powerful means by which we can humble ourselves. In the Psalms, David writes: But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth; I humbled myself with fasting… (Psalm 35:13). When Ezra had gathered a group of Jewish exiles from Babylon to return to Jerusalem, he was ashamed to ask the king to provide soldiers for their protection on the road from the many roving bands of thieves they might run into. Instead he called upon God to be their protection. Ezra writes: "Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from Him the right way for us…" (Ezra 8:21,23).

It seems that fasting is a voluntary humbling of oneself before God, a deliberate weakening of yourself, that God may be magnified in your prayers and in your life. We normally associate strength with a feeling of self-confidence. We are doing well, we have known nothing but success, we are the master of our fate and the captain of our soul. We are strong! But God's view of things is exactly opposite. When we are feeling the most successful, when the euphoric feelings of self-confidence and memories of past successes cloud our judgment and erode genuine faith, we are at our weakest and most vulnerable. For this reason the apostle Paul writes, "Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12:10). Most infirmities and distresses come upon us through circumstances that we would never have chosen. But in the case of fasting, here is a practice we deliberately choose. We choose to weaken ourselves, to put ourselves in a place of weakness and physical distress, that Christ may be magnified in our season of prayer. We humble ourselves before our God.

Even wicked, foolish king Ahab found a blessing in fasting. This miserable king had done about everything wrong in his life and reign, including a marriage to one of the most wicked women the world has ever seen. The Bible tells us: "There was no one like Ahab who sold himself to do wickedness in the sight of the LORD, because Jezebel his wife stirred him up" (1 Kings 21:25). Finally God had endured all He could take. Through Elijah the prophet He promised death and destruction to him and his entire family. And then a strange thing happened. The Bible says:

So it was, when Ahab heard those words, that he tore his clothes and put sackcloth on his body, and fasted and lay in sackcloth, and went about mourning. And the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, "See how Ahab has humbled himself before Me? Because he has humbled himself before Me, I will not bring the calamity in his days…" (1 Kings 21: 27-29).

Once again we see how God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble. Humbling ourselves through seasons of fasting and prayer is a powerful weapon of our spiritual warfare. Sometimes it may be a simple fast that lasts only until evening; other times it may involve several days. Some people have foolishly decided that since Moses and Jesus went on forty day fasts, they should as well. Here's a simple little point of theology for you: you are not Moses and you're definitely not Jesus. So don't try anything so radical. But unless you have a medical condition that prevents it, most people can endure one to three day fasts without any problem, and in fact some doctors suggest that they are healthy for us. Spend more time in God's word and prayer during these seasons than you normally do. Turn off your television and phone, and put your computer to sleep. Take some uninterrupted time to soak yourself in God and His Son Jesus Christ. Dare to humble your soul with fasting, and trust God to lift you up.

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