Prayer & Fasting

Ezra 8.21-23, Matthew 9.14-17

Jason Procopio, March 5 2017

There is a practice which has been part of our faith since the very beginning (and even before, when it was practiced by the Jews), and which is intricately linked with prayer. It is one that we are all familiar with, that we’ve all heard of (for various reasons), and yet that most of us don’t fully understand. This practice is of course the practice of fasting. If I were to ask you, “What is the one Christian practice that you would remove from the equation if you could?” the vast majority of you, if you were honest, would probably say either tithing or fasting. 

As we know, fasting is generally defined as depriving oneself of food for a fixed amount of time. And before we go too far in expressing our distaste for the practice, we have to remember that fasting isn’t universally disliked. Gandhi made fasting an integral part of his political career. As we all know, there are certain diets or health regimens that require fasting, and there are people who could speak all day on the health benefits of fasting. The illusionist David Blaine once fasted for forty days and nights, surviving on nothing but water (while hanging suspended in a glass box from the bottom of the London Bridge), and scientists tripped over themselves to study his body after he finished his fast. In addition, nearly all religions which have ever existed include some kind of fasting ritual; their reasons for doing so vary wildly, but it’s always there.

If you’ve grown up in church, you’ve surely been subjected to a time of enforced prayer and fasting: those times we dread all year long, because we know we’re going to feel terrible, and we don’t even really understand why it is we’re doing it. What we don’t want to do today is simply imitate a ritual without getting to the bottom of it. So the question we’re asking today is not whether or not fasting is a good idea in general, or why one would choose fasting above more traditional methods of doing whatever it is they want to do. Our question—and it’s an important one—is this: Is fasting a Christian thing to do? And if so, why? Why on earth would God take pleasure in his people depriving themselves of food? And what is the link between prayer and fasting?

There’s a lot we could say about this, but one of the best clues is found in the book of Ezra, in chapter 8; the second is in Matthew chapter 9. So we’re going to do something unusual today and look at more than one text, to be able to get a fuller picture of not only the point of fasting along with prayer, but also what makes Christian fasting particular and different.

1) Fasting: An Act of Humility (Ezra 8.21-23)

Just a bit of backstory to set up this passage. The capital city of the people of God was the city of Jerusalem, but in the 6th century B.C., the people of God are exiled to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar.  Then, about fifty years later the King Cyrus of Persia overthrows the Babylonian king and takes over the lands he formerly occupied. And in 538 B.C. Cyrus issues a decree declaring that the Jewish people can now return to their homeland. The first six chapters of the book of Ezra tell us the story of the first wave of exiles returning to Jerusalem and rebuilding the temple of Solomon. Then, in chapters 7-10, we see the second wave of exiles coming home about 50 years later, led by Ezra the Priest.

So our passage picks up just as they are about to leave. Ezra has just been given permission by King Artaxerxes to return home and reestablish the Mosaic Law in Jerusalem. Now apparently Ezra has spoken at great length to the King about the God of Israel, telling him that God is a mighty God who is more than able to protect his people from harm; so the King sends Ezra on his way, free to go and be protected by his God. But this creates a tiny problem for Ezra, in that he’s got a long road ahead of him; he’s traveling with a large group of people, and there will be various obstacles and enemies on the road. And although he does believe what he told Artaxerxes—that God is a powerful God who can completely protect his people—he hasn’t yet asked God to do so.

And so, starting at v. 21 of chapter 8, we see Ezra encourage the people to ask God for help. 21 Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods. 22 For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king, “The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all who forsake him.” 23 So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty. 

Now there is one sentence here that is key to understanding why Ezra proclaims not only that the people should pray, but that they should fast. We see it in v. 21: Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods. Ezra declares that the people will deprive themselves of food for a time, and ask God for protection on the road; and this fast is declared that we might humble ourselves before God. 

Everyone who has ever prayed knows that they need God. This is one of the main reasons we pray in the first place: to ask God for something we can’t do for ourselves. But I’m sure you’ve all had this experience before—let’s say you need to find an apartment, and quickly. So you pray: “Lord, please let me find an apartment quickly.” And then what do you do? You go to work: you put together an immaculate renter’s profile for the owners; you go visit every bank in town to try and find the loan which will be the most advantageous to you and attractive to the owners; you visit real estate agencies and make phone calls and work your tail off. 

Now, these things you do aren’t bad; they’re necessary and good. But if you’ve ever looked for an apartment, you know the state of mind you’re usually in when you do so, especially if you’re pressed for time. Most of us going through this experience are bent over backward with stress and worry about it. Most of the time it’s not industriousness or work ethic that drives us to work as hard as we do, but fear—fear that if we don’t get everything just right, we won’t find an apartment on time.

Do you see the problem in this scenario? We’ve prayed to God to ask for help because we know that God can do something we ourselves are incapable of doing, and that he knows what is best for us. But although we know that’s true, we don’t completely believe it. If we believed it, we wouldn’t be worried! We would do the work we need to do, but we would do it because it’s the right thing to do, not because we doubt God’s abilities to help us. Most of us pray, then work our tails off in fear that God might not come through: our work is not obedience to God, but a way of providing ourselves with a safety net in case God doesn’t come through.

So fasting, in this context, is a way to help us humble ourselves before God, to not work in this way. Fasting is a way of expressing with our bodies our spiritual dependence on God, of helping us to feel dependent on him and to not just know intellectually that we are. Fasting helps us to feel that dependence in a keener way than before. Our stomachs ache for food, and we realize, Lord, I need you THIS MUCH, and more. As much as my body feels that I need food right now, I need you even more! And that kind of prayer honors God: that kind of prayer does not try to manipulate or strong-arm God into doing something he doesn’t want to do, but comes to God with open arms and an open mouth, saying, “I need you, Lord! Fill me! Help me!” That kind of prayer humbles us before God, because we don’t merely acknowledge with our mouths that we need God’s help, but allows us to feel with our guts that we need him. 

And what is the result here? v. 23: So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty. The Bible never says that fasting will automatically make God answer our prayers the way we wanted; but it does seem to incline his heart to act on behalf of his children in a particular way. The best example I can think of to explain why this is the case is, once again, an example about my son. Jack is five, and he is determined to do most things himself. I see he’s doing something wrong, and I say, “Here buddy, let me help,” and he is convinced that he knows better than me how it should be done. So I let him do his thing. But eventually he realizes that no, in fact Dad was probably right about this, so he’ll inevitably crack and say, “Daddy, I can’t do this; can you help me?” And because I love him, and I enjoy seeing him grow in humility (it’s a hard thing to admit you need help, after all), I don’t hesitate for a second to help him and give him what he needs.

When we humble ourselves before God—not merely verbally, but when we feel in our hearts and in our guts that we need him—God is inclined to come to the rescue of his children, because that humility honors him, and helps us grow. 

That’s the first key. But there’s a question we need to ask: Is there anything different about Christian fasting? There are multiple passages in the New Testament which talk about the reality that now that Jesus has come, Christians are no longer obligated to submit to rituals and rites to earn God’s favor, like the Jews did (including fasting). And this is true—to my knowledge there is no explicit command in the Bible that Christians fast. So when a Christian fasts, what is different about his fasting? How do we fast in a way that doesn’t try to manipulate God into giving us what we want, but that honors him?

2) Fasting: A Hunger for What We Have Tasted (Matthew 9.14-17)

For this, we need to turn to Matthew chapter 9. In this chapter, we find Jesus in full “breaking-down-the-Pharisaic-system” mode. The Pharisees were religious leaders who followed the Law of Moses to the letter: they observed every ritual, kept every law. And everything Jesus is doing goes against what they say is right. Just a few verses above our passage, in v. 9-13, Jesus has just called Matthew, a tax collector—one of the vilest occupations imaginable in that society—to be his disciple. And when the Pharisees see this, they’re shocked and outraged to see that Jesus is eating with these terrible people, and calling them to follow him. To which Jesus responds in v. 13, I came not to call the righteous, but sinners. This was mind-blowingly counter-cultural.

And it is in this context that the disciples of John the Baptist come to Jesus with a question in v. 14: 14 Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 15 And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. 16 No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. 17 Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”

Here’s what he means. The Jews fast to express their longing of something that hasn’t yet been fulfilled. They’re still waiting on the fulfillment of God’s promises, including coming of the Messiah. For the Jews, it’s an ascetic practice meant to show their devotion and their allegiance to God’s plan. The fasting of the Jews is the old wineskin, the old cloth—the old way of doing things.

But now, Jesus says, the kingdom has come! The old wineskins and the garments have been replaced with new ones, never before used or seen! The old way of doing things has been replaced by a far better one! They no longer need to long for the coming of the kingdom—the kingdom of God is here! They no longer need to long for the coming of the Messiah—the Messiah is sitting right there with them! We are no longer waiting expectantly for his arrival; he is here, we have seen him and know him!

And yet, Jesus does say that it won’t always be exactly as it is now (v. 15): The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. After his death and resurrection, Jesus ascended back into heaven and sent his Holy Spirit to fill his disciples and empower them to proclaim the kingdom of God all over the world. So soon, he says, he will be taken away from the disciples, and THEN they will fast. So yes, they will fast; but their fasting won’t the same as the Pharisees’. In some ways it will be similar, but in one massive, fundamental way, it will be radically different.

Christian fasting is similar to the Pharisees’ fasting in that it is expectant—it does express a longing in us. Jesus promised that when the time was right, when the gospel had gone out to all corners of the earth and all of God’s children had been called to him and given new life, that he would return. He will return, and establish his kingdom here on earth. As he says in Revelation 21.3-4: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” This will happen. This is what the children of God are waiting for; this is what we are longing for; this is what we our expecting. When we fast, our hunger expresses our longing for this time when the kingdom will be fully realized, completely fulfilled.

But at the same time, Christian fasting is wildly different from the Pharisees’ fasting, because the hunger we feel when we fast is not a desperate, painful hunger: it is a satisfied hunger, because the kingdom of God has begun. The Messiah has come, and we have seen him. We have been given a foretaste of that wonderful day. 

Until recently, we would travel back to America nearly every Thanksgiving to celebrate the holiday with my family. (For the last three years we’ve spent Thanksgiving with all of you.) If you don’t know Thanksgiving, it’s basically an excuse to eat insane amounts of amazing food we only eat on that day. Every time we would go home for Thanksgiving, I had a strange experience of going back to my childhood, and it always started with the smells. My mom begins cooking the Thanksgiving meal at around 5:00 in the morning, and as the morning progresses the smells—these very particular smells that I’ve known all my life—gradually fill the house. We don’t usually sit down to eat until 2 or 3 in the afternoon, which means we spend a lot of that time really hungry. It’s tempting to go into the pantry and grab a Twinkie or a Pop-Tart (or any number of unhealthy snacks) to calm our appetite a bit, but we don’t, because we know what’s coming. We’ve had this meal before, and we know it is so much better than the Twinkie in the pantry. And so not in spite of our hunger, but precisely because we’re so hungry, we wait: we stay patient, because we know that what’s coming will satisfy our hunger far better than anything else we could find to eat.

When we fast as Christians, we feel hungry, but our hunger is not desperate; ours is a satisfied hunger which says that we have seen the Messiah, we have tasted his graces, we have seen his glory, and we want more. We feel the stirring in our stomach that says it’s mealtime, and we turn that feeling to God and say, I long for you like this. I desire to see your glory this much. 

John Piper wrote a wonderful book on fasting called A Hunger for God (which goes into the subject far more than I have today), and in this book he says, “We have tasted the powers of the age to come, and our fasting is not because we are hungry for something we have not experienced, but because the new wine of Christ’s presence is so real and so satisfying. We must have all that it is possible to have. The newness of our fasting is this: its intensity comes not because we have never tasted the wine of Christ’s presence, but because we have tasted it so wonderfully by his Spirit, and cannot now be satisfied until the consummation of joy arrives.”

3) three questions

There is much more that we could say about this, but rather than go further for today, let me ask you a couple of self-examination questions.

First of all, think about how you pray for something that is important to you, and what happens afterward. Ask yourself this: After I pray, do I feel anxiety over the idea that he might not act? Do I attempt to do God’s work for him, just in case? If so, consider fasting: when we fast, we humble ourselves before God, allowing ourselves to not only verbally admit our dependence on him, but to feel that dependence. And that humility both honors God and helps us to trust that he really is in control, that he really is powerful to act, and that whatever it is he does really is the best thing—even if it’s not what I wanted in the first place.

Second question: Have I tasted the joy of knowing Christ? Do I delight in his grace day after day? Do I have joy in knowing him? It’s amazing how many Christians find this difficult. If I were to ask how many of us have a hard time with this, most of us would probably raise our hands. In some respects it’s to be expected: we live in a fallen, corrupt world and are confronted with pain and anger and sin every day. It’s hard to feel joy in a context like that. So we need help. We need something to pull us out of ourselves and remind us of what we have in Christ, and how much better he is than all the things we so badly want on this earth. If you have a hard time delighting in God’s grace, if you have a hard time feeling the joy of knowing him, then consider fasting: when we fast, we express our satisfaction with what we already have in him: whatever it is I hunger for, God, you are so much better!

Last question: Do I long for the day when his kingdom will come? or do I rather long for pleasure in this life? Most of us rarely think about heaven, partially because it’s a little abstract to us, but mostly because we’re so preoccupied with this earth that it doesn’t even occur to us to think about the new heavens and the new earth. But we should be longing for them; we should think about them often, because that’s where our hope lies—our hope is fixed on that day when Christ will make all things new, and we will be like him, and we will live with him on this earth, perfectly renewed, and we will rejoice in his glory forever. Whatever we could find in this earth, no matter how legitimate that pleasure is, pales in comparison with the pleasure of knowing him forever (cf. Ps. 16.11). If you find it hard to long for that day, if you are preoccupied with the pleasure of this world and this life (even if that pleasure is legitimate), consider fasting: when we fast, we express our longing for what is to come—we feel the ache of whatever we have given up, and we say, Lord, I long for you LIKE THIS. I need you LIKE THIS. I hope in you LIKE THIS.

4) A Call to Fast

So as we conclude our series on prayer, this week I would encourage you to join me in fasting. And let me be clear: it doesn’t matter what you fast. In the Bible, people generally fasted food—but it wasn’t always necessarily all food. We have examples of people fasting specific foods, like those who took a Nazirite vow and abstained from wine or other fermented drinks. We also see Paul, in the New Testament, encourage married couples to occasionally abstain from sexual relations, in order to devote themselves to prayer (1 Corinthians 7.5). The English pastor Martyn Lloyd Jones said, “Fasting if we conceive of it truly, must not . . . be confined to the question of food and drink; fasting should really be made to include abstinence from anything which is legitimate in and of itself for the sake of some special spiritual purpose. There are many bodily functions which are right and normal and perfectly legitimate, but which for special peculiar reasons in certain circumstances should be controlled. That is fasting.”

So it doesn’t have to be food, and if it is, it doesn’t have to be all food. But it should be something of which we’ll feel the lack. I occasionally go on an entertainment fast, during which I watch no TV, no movies, etc. I feel that (probably more than fasting food!). It should be something we feel, because the point of fasting is to remind us that whatever it is we’re giving up, whatever it is that hurts us to give up, God is so much better. 

So please pray and consider fasting this week. This afternoon we’ll have a prayer meeting, during which you’ll be given specific things to pray for during the week. Let’s humble ourselves before the God who has given us all things through the life, death and resurrection of his Son; let’s not only acknowledge, but feel our dependence on him; let’s remind ourselves, through what we’re giving up, of what we’re waiting for. Let’s feel more keenly, in our guts, the desire for that wonderful day, when Christ will return and make all things new.