A little church I was once part of placed significant importance on prayer and fasting. Every year, in January, we were encouraged to fast for a week.
Some of us would have missed one meal a day during the week and spent the time in prayer and reflection. Some denied ourselves our favourite food or drink for the week, and some refrained from eating solids, relying only soup or puréed food.
We would meet together on the evening of the seventh day, a Saturday evening, and afterwards we’d all head to Charlie’s Burger Joint. Burgers never tasted so good!
As we sat in a circle taking turns in telling the others what we had found during our week of prayer and fasting, it was fascinating to hear of the different experiences enjoyed or endured by our fellow travellers.
Then it was Gerry’s turn.
‘And what did you find Gerry?’ asked our leader.
‘We found some very thick soup!’
There is no biblical injunction to make a habit of prayer and fasting, but there appears to be an assumption that it should form part of every Christian’s experience. After all, Jesus did it, Queen Esther did it at a key time, and King David did it. Indeed, the practice is referred to around 30 times in the Bible.
That said, I do recall one occasion when a particularly motivated member of our group, who was carrying a heavy burden due to one of his family members being terminally ill, having to be restrained. He was told: ‘This is praying and fasting, it is not a hunger strike’.
And I have to say, that’s what it had become for some.
So, what are prayer and fasting? If you read through the various accounts in the Old Testament it is clear that fasting is associated with humbling ourselves before God, of seeking after God. Yet the old prophet Isaiah saw something in the hearts of the people that concerned him: a certain arrogance, for they said: ‘We have fasted before you! Why aren’t you impressed? We have been very hard on ourselves, and you don’t even notice!’
Isaiah answered: ‘It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves.’ In other words, rather than using the practice of prayer and fasting to hear from God, to draw near to him, to find out what is on God’s heart, they were seeking to push God into a corner, to manipulate the Almighty, to put him in a position where he had no option but to accede to their demands.
As I write, there is a petition sweeping across Northern Ireland, urging more and more people to pray for the healing of a lad whose family I know. While I fully understand that, for I did the same thing 20 years ago when my late wife was dying from cancer, what exactly are they trying to do?
A word of advice from one who has walked the walk? God did not send the cancer, it’s the lottery of life. It is only by drawing close to our Father that we will gain the strength to deal with what life throws at us, always remembering, he never promised to take our burdens away. He said: ‘Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.’
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