There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions. (Ezra 8:21)
As soon as I started praying the other day I suddenly had an amazing sense of being right there with Ezra beside the Ahava Canal, where he had set up camp in order to marshal the second group of Israelites to make the long trek back to the Promised Land. I found myself thinking of all the pioneers who had set off on their daunting treks across America along the Oregon Trail not so long ago, and which is especially dear to us after our sojourn in Oregon.
God had done a wonderful thing in fulfilling His word to raise up Cyrus to conquer the Babylonians who had conquered Jerusalem, and to make it possible for the Jews to return to their beloved city of David. But we can never afford to rest for long in what God has done; we need to be prayerful and watchful for what we need to do next.
How right and wise Ezra was to call the people to avail themselves of a God given practice, and to go without food in order to devote themselves more intensely to prayer. And the Lord heard their prayers and kept them from bandits and other dangers on the way.
It is so important to sense in our spirits when the Lord is asking us to make a sacrifice in prayer, whether by getting up early or staying up late to pray, or by fasting. Sometimes the reasons why He calls us to fast is not quite as clear cut as it was for Ezra without such immediately compelling reasons and it is only with hindsight that we see the reasons for them, as He goes ahead to open doors on the one hand, or to protect us from danger on the other. But let’s be creative in what we go for.
Jesus said “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out [thrust out!] workers into His harvest field.’ (Matt. 9:37) Is that summons itself not an excellent motive for prayer and fasting?
Brexit – a trigger for prayer
The prospect of Brexit is causing Britain’s business as well as politicians a huge challenge, but whilst that is at the forefront of many people’s thoughts, it is at least equally important to remember the spiritual logjam that western nations are in. Nothing short of a supernatural breakthrough will suffice to break through in that, just as it is increasingly beginning to look like with respect to Brexit.
But since God releases supernatural power from Heaven when we are prepared to forgo our own comforts for a while and fast and pray let’s be sure not to not hold back through apathy or busyness – there really is no limit to what God can do!
It was a great joy to hear a powerful testimony in a joint meeting of the Malvern churches the other evening by Roy Godwin from Ffald-y Brenin about a remarkable breakthrough that happened in a top rugby player’s life (now a TV commentator) when he visited Ffald-y for commercial reasons. Very much to his amazement – and indeed reluctance(!) – he was spectacularly converted in just the sort of supernatural breakthrough we are talking about. And very much good is coming from that even a few years ago already – just as it did when God so dramatically converted the future St Paul, or Lydia, or countless others who were destined to serve as His pioneers.
The power of solemn assemblies
“Yes even now,” declares the LORD, “Return to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, weeping and mourning; rend your heart and not your garments.” (Joel 2:12-13)
As I was praying, what I was seeing in my spirit moved on to Ezra’s contemporary, Nehemiah. He was so grieved by the grief he felt when he heard the state that Jerusalem had fallen into that he resolved to fast about the situation until he knew what he should do about it. Because one godly man sat and prayed, a process was set in motion that led to the whole pitiable situation being turned around.
Later, as Governor of Judah, Nehemiah would replicate with the nation what he had previously done in private, calling all the people of Israel to assemble in sackcloth and to fast. (Neh. 9:1). We see something similar in Ezra 10:1 where the example of one man crying out to God with all his heart had a profound effect in causing others to join him in his efforts.
It’s lovely to meet together for celebrations of high praise – but let’s also be prepared to heed the word of the prophet to ‘Declare a holy fast; call a sacred assembly.’ (Joel 1:14, cf 2:12-15) Over the years I have called for, and led, several such ‘solemn assemblies.’*
I am so glad that Scripture presents us with no ‘one size fits all’ way of fasting. Our callings are as varied as our strength – and as we look . . . and pray . . . and explore, Jesus will help us find the specific way He has in mind for us. Because I am not actually able to fast from food (being even a few minutes later for a meal messes my system completely) I have had to find other ways to express intensify my prayer.
You can find suggestions for how to organise such a solemn assembly on the Internet, but as we initiate and direct them along the lines that both we and the Holy Spirit deem best it makes excellent sense to accompany our prayers with fasting.
How amazed Nehemiah would be to see the multitudes from South Korea and many other nations gathering on prayer mountains to pray and fast, whether in corporate assemblies or in tiny grotto cells where they spend many days in fervent secluded intercession. And the Lord is waiting for His people to rise up as one to call upon His name . . . the future shape and fate of the nation may be more dependent on this than many realise.
As to how long we may be called to fast for, the Lord often makes thus clear before we start. Sometimes, however, we may be called to begin without knowing for sure when we will complete the fast – or the call comes to extend it once we are underway. But given what a powerful weapon it is, we need to double check that that really is the Lord’s leading: it is right to be wary of any enemy attempt either to curtail the fast (“there’s no need to go that far!”) or to prolong it beyond what God has ordained.
How fasting shapes the work of the Kingdom
In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ (Acts 13:1-2)
Wherever we look in the Acts of the Apostles, we see believers on their way to or from a place of fervent, effective and corporate prayer. Here in Acts 13:1-2, we see how closely interwoven their fasting was with worship. It is a powerful reminder that we are called to meet with God rather than only to petition Him with specific needs.
There was nothing haphazard about mission in the earliest days of the church in the sense that people were led by the Lord as and when circumstances arose to witness. The fruit of God’s encounter with anointed leaders in Antioch, however, marked the start of a more deliberately strategic approach to missionary endeavour, with Antioch serving as a resource church from which representatives were sent out. One mission led to another, and one strand to others until eventually it became a worldwide movement that would bring billions into the Kingdom of God.
Think how much would have been missed had the leaders not taken time out to seek God – or if they were too confident in assuming that they knew what to do, and so missed the specific instructions God had in mind to share with them! It is so easy to assume that someone or something is the right way forward, instead of taking time to let Him point out the ‘Sauls and the Barnabases’ He has in mind.
May we recognise when wisdom is urging us pull aside to seek His face with fresh vigour and openness before plunging on with our plans . . . and to seek truth as we are increasingly at risk of being ‘shown and directed’ to the views we ought to have. Our prayer must always be that we ‘see beyond illusions and deceptions’, as a friend put it to me today.
It is wonderful to pray for people to come to know the Lord – and a very great deal of prayer may be needed to win even one such – but much prayer is still needed beyond any initial breakthrough for the maturing of that soul. What will it take to pray for God to take hold of multitudes in our country – and then to make of them maturely formed believers? Nothing less than that of which St Paul wrote to the Galatians: “You are my dear children, but I am in the pains of childbirth until Christ is fully formed in you. (Gal. 4:19)
Scripture clearly indicates that fasting may in some situations be not just helpful but even be the only way to achieve some longed for breakthrough. (Mark 9:29, Matt. 17:21, cf Matt. 6:16).
The church of God around the world is on its knees!
Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust. (Acts 14:23)
Just now we glimpsed the sight of thousands making their way to the prayer mountains of South Korea. According to this article in Wikipedia, many South Korean Christians wake at 4:30 and attend daily prayer meetings at the local church house. In Seoul alone, there are churches in nearly every corner that are filled up by parishioners attending the dawn watch every morning.
As we think about the countless believers through the ages who have wielded this mighty God-given tool as a regular part of their service for God, or in response to some specific burden, why not as it were ‘drop in’ on some representative group or individual in this vast pageantry of communities who have given themselves to pray and fast, whether as a regular part of their service for God, or in response to some specific burden the Lord has placed within their heart.
My own next port of call in the ‘tour’ the Lord was giving me, was at the Bible College of Wales, where Rees Howells gathered staff and students together to pray so intensely during the Second World War that the course of the war was changed. Rees had an advanced awareness that God had called him to identify with the things and people God placed on his heart. Hew realised that he needed to be as fully committed to the fight in the heavenly places to save the world from the perils of the Axis powers as the Allied forces were who fighting on the actual field of battle.
We have publicised this before but please do bear this in mind Norman Grubb‘s remarkable book Rees Howells Intercessor. The full book is free to download and read). More than any other book that I know, this one can change a person’s life if they read it ‘at the right time’. It is lovely to hear now that a new work of God is underway again in his original college, under fresh direction from Singapore.
Before we fast . . .
Since all is bound together in Scripture, it would be quite wrong to isolate prayer and fasting from the whole breadth of Christ’s counsel. Jesus warned passionately that unless we forgive people from their heart, our Father will not forgive us (Matt. 6:14-15 and Luke 18:35)
The following verses likewise set the call to fast within a broader framework: ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in Heaven.’ (Matthew 6:19-20)
Since human nature would leave us quite capable of trying to ‘use’ this powerful spiritual tool in order to get our own way, it is always good to check the motives of our heart, and to ponder what it is that we are going to pray for.
Then the word of the LORD of hosts came to me, saying, “Say to all the people of the land and to the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for these seventy years, was it really for Me that you fasted? (Zech. 7:4-5)
Jesus speaks about not ‘parading’ our righteousness in front of others, lest the reward we get from others be the only reward we receive – as opposed to the very lovely rewards He really does have lined up for those who are prepared to humble themselves and seek Him in private.
Some people find that they experience God’s presence God more deeply during times fasting than when they are eating normally; but for many the journey feels more like a trek across empty sand. And since we are seeking to take ground for Christ, why be surprised if we find downright unhelpful passions that ‘war against the soul’ surfacing? (1 Pet. 2:11). It is never the feelings we have during our fasting but the fruit that comes from it that matters.
I am reminded again that Ezra ordained his the fast so that everyone could humble themselves before the Lord. To be humble is to be trainable!
As my prayer time continued, I suddenly found myself with Jesus in the wilderness of Sinai. He was there both for the sake of being with His Father as well as to prepare Himself in his Father’s presence for the mighty task of ministry that lay ahead. How wise we are to join with Ezra and Nehemiah and with Jesus Himself in seeking God before launching out on some major plan or project – or when we need ‘reinforcements’ along the way.
And Elijah asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers. And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” (1 Kings 19:4-5)
Scripture has much to say about the power of fasting – but there are also reminders that there is such a thing as inappropriate fasting. This is all the more important to bear in mind since although fasting increases our spiritual awareness of spiritual matters, it can also weaken our bodily resistance and thereby make us more prone to certain types of thoughts and attacks. When Elijah’s faith buckled in the face of Jezebel’s threats, for example, it may well have had a lot to do with the fact that he had already spent a whole day without food. He might well have responded very differently had he had something to eat first!
As for King Saul, whose vainglorious attempts to be a great Generalissimo made him so woefully lacking in common sense, instead of rallying his troops on one occasion when his son Jonathan had created a splendid opportunity for pressing home an unexpected military advantage, he suddenly – and most inappropriately – ordered his troops to fast. He even went so far as to lay a curse on any who touched a morsel of food – and that at the very time when his men had most need of every ounce of their strength to pursue the fleeing Philistines. As a result his men were too faint to complete the task, and the job was left half done. (1 Sam. 14:24, 31)
May we learn to recognise the particular ways by which God shows us that He is wanting us to fast – and then to discern what type of fast it is that He is calling us to embark on. May we be sensitive to His leading in that respect – and take advice as appropriate – especially if it a touch more heroic than usual.
I have friends who have fasted a full forty days, and one who is regularly called and gifted so to do – and even to continue in a responsible job while she does so – but these, by western standards, are exceptional callings and strictly between these dear servants of the Lord, their Master and those who are ‘covering’ them. I am speaking here of something far less heroic but nonetheless noted in Heaven. Don’t be put off by what you do not feel able to do; God is so generous that even small sacrifices ‘count’ in His sight when we offer them to Him out of love for Him and concern for others.
There are many avenues the Lord may lead us to explore. We can fast from TV or social media or whatever the Lord directs us to. How about this counsel from Bernard of Clairvaux, for example? ‘Let the tongue fast from slanders and murmurings, and from useless, vain, and scurrilous words!’
Whatever avenues the Lord leads us to, may He provide us with wisdom and wise counsellors to do so effectively lest we take matters too far, or become obsessed with external practices and rituals.
The effects of fasting
‘So we fasted and implored our God for this, and He listened to our entreaty and did it!’ (Ezra 8:23)
One of the great benefits of fasting is the inner cleansing and purifying that come from these times of intensified prayer. God uses them to catch up on things we may have been ‘deflecting’ or even entirely blind to.
The extra time we devote to prayer and reflection may likewise bring certain things and people who had slipped from sight to mind. Be sure to make a note and follow them up! It may also highlight particular character defects in us that we may have been working hard to deflect – or even been entirely blind to before. Let’s use these times of fasting to seize the moment and address these issues, and to allow the Lord to burn away the dross.
Fasting helps us tune in to His heart
The logical consequence of stressing that grace is free for all is to turn it into what has been brilliantly defined as cheap grace – effectively, a do-what-you-like so long as you have accepted Jesus into your life attitude. Is this now why multitudes of believers in America are prepared to back obviously flawed candidates for public office? So long as they expressed adherence to the right creed, they can seemingly be excused any number of peccadilloes. And yet the Scriptures remind us that ‘without holiness no one will see the Lord.’ (Heb.12:14)
What strikes one so forcibly in such places as the underground church in China is that the intensity of their prayer is matched by the purity of their lives. What a contrast with the ‘Easy Street’ of ‘cheap grace,’ to quote the powerfully evocative phrase that is taken from the English translation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s powerful book The Cost of Discipleship, which did so much to keep many believers faithful to Christ in the face of the ever developing Nazi assault on the faith.
Bonhoeffer reminds us that, “If there is no element of asceticism in our lives, if we give free rein to the desires of the flesh . . . we shall find it hard to train for the service of Christ. When the flesh is satisfied, it is hard to pray with cheerfulness or to devote oneself to a life of service which calls for much self-renunciation.”
Paul would have nothing to do with such laxity. As a true warrior for Christ he declared, ‘I treat my body hard [discipline/subdue/pummel my body] and make it my slave [subdue it] so that I myself will not be disqualified after I have preached to others’. (1 Cor. 9:27 EXB)
Those who are inclined to denounce such an approach as ‘asking too much’ are unlikely to experience the depths of love that Jesus reserves for those who humble themselves to seek His face, no matter what the outward practices that they follow. The principle that Jesus taught holds forever true: that it is by their fruits that we recognise the value of all such practices as fasting.
Christians by no means have a monopoly, of course, when it comes to fasting. Apart from those who embark on it for health reasons, many do so with entirely different goals in sight. We are all aware of the central role that fasting plays for millions of Muslims during Ramadan, but there are also smaller but highly committed groups of satanists who are really serious about praying and fasting for the breakdown of Christian marriages – I’ve met some of them and they really are!
In one sense it reminds one of the doomed-to-failure plot that forty Jewish zealots concocted, swearing on oath that they would neither eat nor drink until they had seized Paul from the hands of his Romans guards and put him to death, because God is always one jump ahead. (See Acts 23:12-24) On the other hand it is entirely valid to recognise the darkness and oppression that this last-named group in particular exercise by their fastening on to particular people in their ‘prayer’ and fasting.
May the Lord use even our awareness that there are those who have committed themselves vigorously to such a wholly evil causes to renew our determination to press in to seek God the more wholeheartedly ourselves for the protection, well-being and fruitfulness of God’s key Kingdom partners on earth!
Examples from History
By adding fasting to our prayers we are deploying a powerful weapon, that is actively seeking to bring the light of Christ to bear upon the many forces that are at work spreading darkness throughout the world. This indeed takes us into spiritually intense territory.
History is full of wonderful and often dramatic answers of how God responds to the united cry of God’s people. The whole point about praying and fasting for specific events is that we are asking God to intervene clearly – if need be dramatically even!
You may be aware that King George II called the nation to pray and fast in 1756 against what was to become the very real threat of French invasion. May I also encourage you to read (or reread) this account of the fruit that came from the seven national days of prayer that were held during the Second World War.
Many of the challenges facing us today in both Church and nation require the same commitment to prayer as Ezra and Nehemiah displayed in their day. He is ever the same God who hears the heart cry of His people . . . So Father we pray, inspire and direct us and all Your people to fast at Your Spirit’s leading, in the ways and at the time of Your choosing – and may great be the fruit that comes from it – to the praise of Your glory!
* The principal word in Hebrew for solemn assembly, (ătsarah, cf asar, appears to indicate “a day of restraint”– primarily from work but also from other ‘conveniences’ of life. A key concept this word conveys, therefore, is that of keeping ourselves ‘restrained’ in order to seek God the more fervently.
If you can spare a few more moments why not feast on these reflections on the subject, with quotes from John Wesley, Arthur Wallis, John Piper and many more?
Derek Prince’s Shaping History through Prayer and Fasting and Arthur Wallis’ God’s Chosen Fast (Kingsway) have both become ‘classics’ on the subject.