Intensifying our prayer life: Sackcloth and the Day of Prayer and Fasting

Jul 7, 2016 | Events to pray for

Join me in suffering as a loyal soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer . . . Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this (2 Tim. 2:3-4,7).

Reading through Hebrews 11, the word ‘better’ occurs three times and it has been standing out to me. Great heroes of the faith were concerned to make a better offering, to search for a better country (a heavenly one!) and to gain an even better resurrection (Heb. 11:4,16,35). In this article, I want to consider ways by which we might seek the Lord to the very level of our ability, and so fulfil His highest purposes for us.

Some of you will have followed particular diets or trained hard to run for charity events. In this case, you will know something of the serious discipline that is involved in to reaching new levels of health and fitness. Those who seek success are prepared to voluntarily endure any amount of physical duress, and to deny themselves other pursuits and pleasures. But such attitudes have not always been transposed to considering training our spiritual senses out of love for Him, (and without even mentioning the rewards He offers those who seek Him in such ways!)

Does this mean God doesn’t want us to enjoy ourselves? By no means! CS Lewis rightly says that the enemy is quite unable to penetrate the joy of pure pleasure; but there is a quality of joy that comes only who take the Lord’s call to draw close to Himself by every means possible.

They may not rank in people’s 100 favourite verses, but have you noticed the call in Scripture that reminds us that it is ‘better to enter the house of mourning than of joy’ and that it is ‘better to go to a house of mourning than to a house of feasting,’ because ‘the heart of the wise is in the house of mourning’?  (Ecc. 7:2, 4)

There are times to turn away from easy and pleasant things in order to seek the Lord more intensely, whether for personal or wider matters – even if that means receiving commissions to understand and act on things which may ‘turn our stomachs sour’ (Rev. 10:9-11). We can be sure that many of the sobering oracles God gave to the prophets of old must have had just such an initial effect on them. Would we feel we were being asked to do something better if God asked us to lie on one side for 390 days in order to bear aloft to Him the sin of the nation in the way the Lord required Ezekiel to do? (Ezek. 4:4f)

There are depths of identification and intercession we are unlikely to reach in the hurly burly of activity; and hence the great value of sitting alone with the Lord, or meeting with others of like mind specifically to share more of His own heart.

It has been quipped that God answers wholeheartedly when we seek Him with all our heart, but half-heartedly when we are anything less than earnest in seeking Him. A day of prayer and fasting is definitely not the time to be half-hearted!

Praise God that prayer is caught as well as taught

Praise God for people who inspire us to go deeper in prayer! Living in a busy vicarage, Susannah Wesley, whose home conditions were quite exceptionally difficult insisted on making a quiet space for herself two hours a day by literally throwing her apron over her head. The children knew not disturb her, while at the same time observing and absorbing an example that would remain with them for life. Two of them, John and Charles Wesley, went on to lead countless souls to the Lord. Do look up the link to her story, it is extraordinary.

John Hyde, also known as Praying Hyde, strove for souls with great intensity, pouring out his heart to God, with sighing groaning and tears, often going days without food and nights without sleep pleading, “O God, give me souls or I die!” The place where he met with God was holy ground, and the result was that revival broke out in India.

David Brainerd likewise agonised in prayer for days at a time on behalf of the Native American people, urging others to the practice of secret fasting and prayer, and warning most stringently against misemploying our time or missing opportunities to pray. He was one who moved mountains in prayer, despite his early death at the age of 29. Come back later and read about him in the article below, and especially note the searching questions it asks at the end.

See also: Prayer Foundation book review – Praying Hyde 

Blessed are those who uphold the arms of such intercessors, and seek to follow in their footsteps. We need their powerful example! Despite their physical and emotional weaknesses God blessed and answered their prayers powerfully.

Stretched-out prayer

What we are talking about here is a notable notch up from merely “presenting our requests with thanksgiving” on a daily basis. It represents a pouring out of our hearts, such as we read about in Luke 22:44, where it says that Jesus “prayed more earnestly.” Some versions say “even harder,” or “more fervently,” but even these translations barely hint at the power that the Greek word conveys. You could translate it, “more stretched-outedly.” It is a graphic picture of the agonies that awaited Him, and that culminated on the Cross.

This is burden-bearing at its most intense – and it is the prelude to great breakthroughs in the Heavenly places. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus ‘offered prayers and pleadings, with fervent cries and tears’ (Heb. 5:7) The phrase “fervent cries and tears” translates the vividly onomatopoeic word krauge, which William Barclay describes as a cry which is wrung from someone in the stress of some tremendous tension or searing pain, such as torture. As the pressure intensified during His final hours on earth, Jesus reached at the very limit of even His ability to endure – but the power of stretched-outedness, of krauge crying out to God, gave Him the strength to endure to the end and so save the world.

By no means every situation Jesus faced called for this ultra-intense response – but some did, just as certain situations that we face or know about do. May we be prepared to stretch out in prayer as His burdens come upon us.

Self denial

“If any will come after Me,” Jesus urged, “let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matt. 16:24). The traditional word used to describe such denials is ‘mortification.’ It simply means ‘to make dead’ – that is, to discipline unhelpful attitudes and appetites in order to bring them under control.

Every time we choose to get up early in order to spend more time with the Lord; every time we choose not to watch something we would have been interested in because we know there is work to do, and that we need to be in training, then we are obeying the instinct of mortification, even though most of us would never have thought of using such a word.

Spiritual mortification involves denying our desires, our anger, our pride, our jealousy, our fears. After all, if we don’t control our base emotions – resentment, temper, and so on – these things are sure to master us; just as a person who does not drink alcohol in moderation makes himself a snare to himself and others.

Mortification is not a concept that comes naturally in the postmodern era, because we associate it with humiliation, loss of face or spiritual excess. Many Christians, from all traditions, deeply value both the practice and the spiritual effects of mortification such as fasting, but the Lord can lead us, under proper spiritual direction, to discover other ways that will help us to grow in fervour, persistent prayer and a purpose in life that will shield us from time wasting and fruitless pursuits – and undue inner softness.

It may be that, during the course of our prayer and fasting, the Lord challenges character issues in us that He wants to deal with. (He often does!) Rather than putting off attending to them until another day, let’s mirror Paul’s insistence that he was not playing around or ‘shadow boxing.’ “I discipline (chastise) my body, and bring it into subjection (under control), lest, having preached to others, I myself should be rejected (disqualified)” (1 Cor. 9:27).

The Lord notices when we are making heartfelt efforts to overcome in the areas the Holy Spirit is convicting us of – at which point it is entirely normal for us to be willing to make any kind of sacrifice if only He can work through us more powerfully.

Sackcloth: The Garment of Affliction

Praise God for news services and “knee-mails” that alert us to matters that require urgent prayer. (It is always good to carefully store people’s prayer letters, so we can take up the points for when we have quality time to pray). When something hits or hurts the heart it is not good just to minimise or try to explain it away but rather to find ways to express one’s grief, sorrow, indignation and longing.

Many times in the Bible, we see that the response of the king, priests and the people to a national crisis is not only to fast, but also to put on sackcloth as a means of demonstrating that they are taking the situation seriously, and heeding the call to pray more fervently.

I have taken some time to explore this concept. It sounds strange to modern ears, but I believe it may have something to say to us about how we may offer ourselves more intensely to the Lord, as well as serving as a counterbalance to a generation that is driven by the desire to ‘have a good time.’ It is worth noting that it is not a practice confined exclusively to the Old Testament: Revelation shows us that the two witnesses in Rev. 11:3 will be clothed in sackcloth!

Although sackcloth is mildly abrasive, there is no evidence from Scripture that people wore it primarily for the sake of the irritation that it bought. It was rather to identify with the harsh circumstances that they faced, and as a sign of mental and spiritual distress over the prevailing situation. Typically, sackcloth was worn below other clothes so as to preserve the secrecy aspect that Jesus praises. (Matt. 6:4,6,18)

The Bible speaks of sackcloth and ashes as being the outward evidence of true repentance, but I try in vain to remember even one acquaintance who ever repented like this.”
(Richard Wurmbrand, Alone with God, p. 103)

It is not hard to see how sackcloth would serve to provoke repentance in those who are sensitive to their own faults and failings as well as external dangers. When I read recently about a couple who were pondering how to celebrate the Jewish festival of Yom Kippur (the time when people traditionally repent before the Lord), and felt led to make themselves tunics of sackcloth, and to wear them for a full 24-hour period, it occurred to me that the Lord is perhaps answering the unspoken cry in Richard Wurmbrand’s words!

Discomfort has a way of making us face issues we might otherwise be unwilling to deal with. The couple found that the scratchy fabric drove them to repent of many faults and failings which the Lord showed them, before they were led to move on and cry out in prayer to Him with great intensity for their particular burden, which is for the people of Israel to come to know their Saviour.

At times, when they felt tempted to give up and remove their tunics, these modern day pioneers strengthened themselves by remembering how Jesus must have been tempted likewise to leave the wilderness, and how Ezekiel too must surely have longed to stand up or even just turn over.

They wrote subsequently of their experience, ‘We will do this again and we may do it more than once a year. We truly felt that Abba was pleased with us for choosing to walk down this Ancient Path. We could FEEL His love and blessing and comfort and help through it all.

Do we recommend that others wear a sackcloth tunic as a way to afflict yourself? Absolutely!! His grace is sufficient for all of us and when we are weak; He is strong and will enable us to do more than we could on our own (2 Cor. 12:9).

We are accustomed to the idea of discovering and counting on the Lord’s strength when weakness is forced upon us; but the concept of choosing to become weaker, whether through fasting or some other practice, is shocking to most of us since we would normally avoid discomfort whenever we can. Until, perhaps, we realise that Jesus’ command to deny ourselves and follow Him often turns out to lead us into the zone of maximum danger and intensity!

I have just discovered that sackcloth is not a word that falls naturally under the fingers when you are trying to type it! Neither is the thought of wearing it a natural one for modern Christians. When the Lord leads some to explore the value of garments made of hessian, however, they are joining a very long procession of intercessors and monastics who, to this day, have found the value of hair shirts to be a mild but persistent way of goading them to pray, with every prickle of the sackcloth serving as a prompt!

When we set our hearts to embrace such willing sacrifices, we often experience great sweetness, because it is there that we find particular streams of Holy Spirit power flowing through the offering. God hears and honours those who offer Him their all – and just as we do not share our deepest feelings with all and sundry, and neither does the Lord. He reserves the recounting of His sorrows to those who are prepared to draw close to His heart. To those who seek His face, He will reveal His heart.

Prepare your offering

So, as you prepare for your day of prayer and fasting for Britain and Europe and Russia, and whatever else He may lead you to, ask the Lord what you might do to stretch out further in prayer. Have a discussion with Him and find out!

As ever with Kingdom matters, the Lord is more interested in the fervour and direction of our hearts than in outward practices – but faith is often strengthened when we express it through prophetic actions. It is the spiritual benefits that ultimately matter rather than the specific means of obtaining them

He has “wired” us all so differently, and loves to lead us according to His purposes and our unique personality. In such ways we come to understand what Paul spoke of when he wrote of ‘filling up in our flesh the afflictions that are left of what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of His body, which is the church’ (Col. 1:24).

There are depths of sweetness in the Lord and intensity in prayer most of us have yet to plumb. May we approach our many sorties and assignments today for Him with proper earnestness – and be given strength as we do so – and may He lead every one of us who commits to this time of prayer and fasting for the nation.

Let’s commit ourselves afresh to the adventure of being led by the Lord. May we open our hearts as His burdens come upon us and cry out from the depths. We may be surprised by where He leads and what He shows us!






  1. lj5799

    Absolutely wonderful and right on time.

  2. lj5799

    This especially about John Wesley’s mother brought tears . Thank you x


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