A Call to Fasting

A CALL TO FASTING

In May 2020, our consistory sent a letter to all congregations in the URCNA. This letter asked congregations to partner with us in a day of prayer and fasting. The letter only went out two weeks before the proposed date, which didn’t give consistories much time to consider the proposal. Some churches have never had their members involved in fasting, so for them it was a strange concept. Our consistory thought, in light of Covid-19 and the shutdown of churches in many states and Canadian provinces,  the time was ripe for a day of prayer and fasting.

The Heidelberg Catechism describes prayer as, “…the most important part of the thankfulness God requires of us” (Answer 116). Prayer is always important and dear to the child of God. It is how we speak to God. Singing also is a form of prayer to God. Throughout the Scriptures and throughout the history of the Christian church, the call to prayer often coincided with times of fasting. Prayer was elevated because the physical needs of the body were denied. You might wonder, “Can’t people diligently pray without fasting?” The answer is yes. However, I am convinced, that fasting will strengthen times of prayer and communion with God. What I hope to do in this article is to encourage the biblical practice of fasting, and then give an aid to help in the process of individual or corporate fasting.[1]

BIBLICAL PRECEDENT

The scriptures do not demand the spiritual discipline of fasting; however, they do give many examples of godly individuals, churches, and nations that fasted in order to pray. Fasting can be simply defined as temporary self-denial during a specific season of extraordinary prayer. There are dozens of scripture passages dealing with this subject, but l will mention just a few.

David

We see David as God’s servant who points us to Christ. He is called a man after God’s own heart. Nevertheless, he was a sinner. In one such occasion we read in II Sam. 12:15-17 that after David was told that the child that was to be born to Bathsheba would die, David fasted and prayed. David spent those following days fasting and in prayer. II Sam. 12:16 says that David “pleaded” with God. Verse 17 says that he would not get off of the ground. David was showing great remorse and humility for his sin. We see David fasting at other times in humility before the Lord (e.g. Ps. 69:10). It is no secret that David was a man who lived in deep communion with the Lord.

Daniel

In the book of Daniel, we see a theme of fasting. The book begins with Daniel and his friends fasting from the choice foods of the kings table. They only ate vegetables in order to show their faithfulness to God (Dan. 1:12-21). Later in Daniel, when Daniel is thrown into the lion’s den, King Darius fasts for Daniel (Dan. 6:18). A couple of chapters later, as Daniel is going to pray for his people, we read, “Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and please for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes” (9:3). What follows in that chapter, is a prayer of confession on behalf of his people.

Daniel’s fasting coincided with his devotion to the Lord. In chapter 9, it is clearly connected to his petition for a specific purpose. The purpose was to confess the sins of his people. Fasting is a way to humble ourselves before the Lord. Each time the pain of hunger is felt in our bellies, we are reminded of how much we depend upon the Lord.

Jesus

In Luke 4 (cf. Matt. 4), we see Jesus fast for 40 days while in the wilderness. What was Jesus doing in the wilderness anyways? He was being prepared for his public ministry. He was tempted by the Devil, but he was obedient to the Lord. Both Matthew and Luke explicitly mention that Jesus had been fasting. Satan even tempts Jesus with the allurement of food. How did Jesus respond? “Man shall not live by bread alone.”

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke positively about fasting. In Matt. 6:16, he says, “When you fast…”. Jesus doesn’t command fasting there, because he assumes it is happening. What he warns about is an abuse of fasting by doing it publicly, so that one is praised by others. If we are fasting in order to be seen by other people, we are doing it wrong.

Fasting is a reminder of the basic essentials of life. God warned the Israelites that when they had settled in the land of Canaan,  the danger that would arise when they had eaten and lived in prosperity would be that they would forget the Lord their God.

We live in a society that has so much abundance, that to go a day or longer without food seems absurd. The fact  is that self-denial is absurd when measured according to the flesh.

The Early Church

In the book of Acts, we see believers gather in a time of prayer and fasting when an important decision is to be made. Acts 13:2-4 and 14:23 are both examples of this. In Acts 13, Paul and Barnabas are set aside for their particular work. This was the Spirit’s answer during their time of fasting. In Acts 14, we see that the appointment of elders in each of the churches was done with prayer and fasting. Why?

Because fasting helps focus the mind upon the leading and will of the Lord. Fasting, when combined with scripture reading, scripture singing, and prayer, is a tremendous Christian discipline unto godliness.

Church history continued this practice of fasting. In the days of the Reformation, there was an abuse of fasting that took place. Fasting became formalized and was stripped of its true spiritual import. Therefore we see some Reformers (e.g. Luther) discourage the practice as it was done in the Catholic church.

MODERN DAY

You might be wondering why Christians do not fast today. The answer to that question is that they do fast. They fast in most countries in the world where Christianity is present. Oftentimes, the places of greatest persecution are filled with the greatest practices of fasting. There are also many North American Christians that fast.

May 24, 2020

In May, our consistory called for a day of prayer and fasting. It was made clear that this was voluntary. Some of our members cannot fast because of health reasons, but they were encouraged to fast from other things in their lives (like phone/electronics, etc.). In anticipation, we invited our URC sister churches. 16 of them joined us in our day of prayer and fasting. It was a tremendous blessing. It was the first time that we as a family were involved in a 24-hour spiritual fast.

My wife and I decided that we would include our children in our fast as much as possible. It is unhealthy for children to fast, so  we decided that we would only feed them at meal time. They would only be allowed water to drink and they were not permitted to use electronics. They joined our times of pray, singing, walking, etc. I trust we all grew in our faith through it. It was a tremendous time for my wife Rachel and I to reconnect with a particular spiritual goal.

From the congregation, I was asked a few questions beforehand. Many of the senior members mentioned that they had never fasted before. I told them to give it a try. Every single person I heard from spoke of the positive spiritual experience it was. Let me share with you a few of their comments.

Testimonies

“It was a good experience for me….I also knew it was such a good practice for deep fellowship with the Lord. I found it easier this time physically and it surprised me at how much light I felt emotionally this time, having no distractions and being able to deeply commune with the Lord in prayer.” Grandmother in her 50’s.

“Taking a day specifically to fast and pray is a good thing to do. It is so easy to become distracted by the affairs of everyday life. This was our first experience with fasting and it certainly made us very aware of the pandemic….It was an effective way of making ourselves aware of the brokenness not only of this world but also our own brokenness and how greatly we need the mercy of God.” Married couple in their 60’s.

“I was surprised how much my emotions and mood shifted at the beginning when considering God’s holiness and my sinfulness and how it become lighter and more cheery when breaking the fast and remembering God’s faithfulness. A whole day of fasting had the feel of a service trip, a time of heightened worship and closeness to God, which doesn’t come if it is only done for an hour or so. It also gave a lot of perspective on the real problem, our sin and our country’s sin, and God’s solution for it.” – man in his 30’s.

“Fasting- a new concept for us….We were able to spend much extra time in Bible reading, singing, praying together, and also individually. We both found it very beneficial. With it being Sunday, and being able to worship twice, the day was spiritually full.” – couple in their 70’s.

Conclusion

I would encourage each consistory and each believer to prayerfully consider incorporating fasting into their regular spiritual life. At Rehoboth, where I pastor, we have not made a final decision, but our discussion as consistory afterwards was positive. I could see us call for a day of prayer and fasting annually (maybe on a National Day of Prayer).

Ministers and consistories should begin the process of explaining the Christian discipline of fasting. This way, it will not remain such a foreign concept. Our countries are in turmoil in so many ways. The solution will not be a vaccine or social justice. The solution is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Let us fast and pray and look to the Lord of the church to work Reformation.

I am including an amended guide that I shared with the congregation to aid them in a day of fasting. I hope you find it useful as well.

 

Directions for Private Fasting[2]

 Fasting: Temporary self-denial during a specified season of extraordinary prayer.

I. PREPARATION

  1. PLAN: Choose a suitable time and place, ordering your affairs in advance, such that you may seek the Lord’s face without distraction. Select a time of 24 hours when you are free from ordinary work.
  2. PRAY: Most often, we fast as a means of enhancing the vitality and earnestness of our prayers concerning a specific person or situation. However, it is important to remember that we must always, to the best of our ability, pray for things in accordance with the revealed will of God. In order to confirm that this fast is of the Lord’s choosing, we must ask ourselves the following questions:
  3. – What chief petitions do I plan to offer up to the Lord during this fast?
  4. – Are my petitions founded upon what God has already promised to do (e.g. “Give me victory over this sin.”) or at least consistent with the Scriptures (e.g. “Grant me physical healing from this disease.” or “Draw this sinner to Christ.”).
  5. – What providential factors have awakened me to the importance of fasting and praying for these matters?
  6. – Am I content to know that although God may not grant the specific result for which I am asking, yet my prayers will glorify His name, increase my communion with Him, and receive a rich reward according to His perfect wisdom?
  7. FOCUS: Leading up to your fast, be careful to avoid anything that might reduce your spiritual focus on the task ahead of you or deaden your spiritual sensitivity. For instance, you might be especially careful to avoid worldly activities, entertainments, and companions, as well as to resist the temptation to eat more than usual for lunch, which is to mock God and cheat yourself.   

II. SELF-EXAMINATION

Evaluate and record the state of your heart and life in light of God’s law, making a list (as you follow the steps below) of personal, family, ecclesiastical, and national sins in order to lament and confess them before the Lord at the very beginning of your fast.

  1. Read (or sing) Psalm 19:7-14 and pray for the Spirit’s convicting illumination.
  2. Read about the vile, destructive nature of sin. Helpful passages are: Ps. 50:16-23; Prov. 6:16-19; Matt. 23:23-33; Rom. 1:29-32; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19-21; 2 Tim. 3:1-5; and Rev. 21:8.
  3. Identify the specific consequences of your sins, whether they be direct (e.g. my sinful anger has hurt my marriage, Prov. 1:31) or indirect, by way of divine chastisement (e.g. God has sent calamity to humble my pride, 1 Cor. 11:27-32; Heb. 12:5-9; Rev. 3:9).
  4. Consider the merciful fatherly justice of God in chastising you for these sins (Ezra 9:13; Ps. 51:4), that you might forsake them (Lk. 15:14-18).
  5. Pray for a spirit of humility, repentance, and assurance of pardon, as you await your time of confession the next morning.

III. SUGGESTIONS FOR FILLING YOUR DAY

Once you have completed your time of self-examination, conclude the day with a brief prayer and go to bed to get some sleep for the day ahead.

  1. Go to bed at a decent hour, so that you will have energy for the day ahead.
  2. Rise early in the morning, lest you keep back for yourself a portion of that time which you have devoted fully to God (Acts 5:1-11).
  3. Avoid all distractions (especially media), lest the fire of your holy devotion be quenched by common (or even sinful) thoughts. Let the Lord’s face be the first one you see in the morning (Ps. 139:18b).
  4. Complete your ordinary morning devotional exercises (prayer, Scripture, etc.), since extraordinary duties were never meant to replace ordinary ones.
  5. Get out of the house for some fresh air for roughly an hour by taking a walk in the local neighborhood (or in a nearby park) to get your juices flowing and clear your mind. It would be helpful to do this in the afternoon as well, as time permits.
  6. Listen to a convicting sermon on mp3 (while you walk) or meditate on your experiences during self-examination the previous night.
  7. Use specific times of the day for scripture reading and prayer. Mealtimes, where you would normally eat, lend themselves to this pattern.

IV. CONFESSION AND RENEWAL

Review the sins and situations that became clear during your self-examination. Be specific and confess the sins on the list you made (personal sins, family sins, national sins, and church sins).

  1. Be as specific and thorough as possible in your confession (Josh. 7:20-21), laying all your spiritual wounds before the Lord, to the best of your knowledge.
  2. With each confession, reaffirm the holiness, justice, and goodness of God the Lawgiver and His perfect law, both in its precepts and in its penalty of eternal death.
  3. In a spirit of humility, recognize that whatever evils or hardships have befallen you, it is far less than the everlasting torment which your many sins deserve.
  4. Take a believing, soul-satisfying look at Christ and Him crucified for all your sins.

– Cry out with the publican: “God be merciful to me a sinner!” (Lk. 18:13).

– Plead with Jeremiah: “Turn thou me and I shall be turned!” (Jer. 31:18).

– Lay all your grievous sins at the foot of the cross, trusting in Christ’s precious blood for remission of sin, sanctification, and complete salvation (1 Cor. 1:30).

  1. Commit yourself, in covenant renewal, to the Lord. Read of the promises of the covenant of grace. Ps. 32:1-2; Isa. 53; Rom. 5, 8, 12; Eph. 1; and 1 Cor. 15.

– This would be a good time to review the questions that were asked to you when you made profession of faith. Pray through each one of them.

V. SUPPLICATION AND REFLECTION

Approach God in prayer for the reasons that moved you to fast. It might be helpful to pause during your prayer to read scriptures or sing a Psalm/Hymn.

It is wise to pause and reflect on how the fast went. By doing so, you can confess your need for the Lord, you can see the blessings of the fast and a growing closer to the Lord. (It might be helpful to write down/journal your reflections on the fast). Pray that the Lord might continue to uphold you as you move forward and as you wait patiently for His will to be done.

 

[1] Helpful resources for this subject are: Wilhelmus, a’Brakel. The Christian’s Reasonable Service. (Grand Rapids, Reformation Heritage Books) 1995. Pages 3-10. Donald Whitney Disciplines of the Christian Life. (NavPress) 1997.

[2] Much of this material has been adapted from an article Rev. Adam Kuehner (RPCNA) wrote for the congregation he pastors in Michigan. Used with permission.