Waiting in His Presence: What Fasting means to God’s People.
If you live in the United States or in any developed nation of the world, you are likely to have learnt to obey the electronically generated voice at the intersections, commanding you to WAIT, while trying to walk across a busy road. Thanks to the creative genius of man, made in the image of God, for developing the technology that has saved many pedestrians from untimely deaths in traffic accidents. It is always in the interest of all road users to obey the traffic lights’ command to STOP, GO or SLOW DOWN represented by The Red, Green and Amber lights.
At the beginning of every year, some churches in my country declare days of fasting and prayer ranging from 21 to 70 days or more. The annual ritual has been with us for quite a while. Fasting is perceived as a measure of spirituality needed to ensure the wellbeing of church members throughout the year. So the more fasting you can do the more God’s blessing you should expect in the new year.
No question, fasting like prayer is a spiritual discipline encouraged in Christianity and in other world religions. Scriptures, both Old Testament and New have a lot to teach us about fasting.
Fasting is defined in Britannica as “abstinence from food or drink or both — for health, ritualistic, religious or ethical purposes. The abstention may be complete, partial and lengthy.”
With roots in the ancient world, fasting was a practice for preparing persons, especially priests to approach the deities. In the Hellenistic mystery religion such as the healing cult, the gods were thought to reveal their divine instructions in dreams and visions after devotees have fasted to register their total dedication.
New converts to Christianity may ask, What is the big deal about fasting? What makes fasting attractive to Christians and the church? And what lessons and spiritual benefits can we derive from fasting?
In the Bible, fasting is mentioned over fifty times; It is observed that God’s people fasted for a variety of reasons. They fasted when facing crisis; when they were called to repentance and when seeking protection and deliverance, among other reasons. Jesus discussed fasting in his very first sermon — the Sermon on the mount, all of which underscore the importance of fasting.
God’s demand for fasting which involves abstention from food, and from indulgence in other physical pleasures, says a lot about how God wants His people to live their lives for them to stay close to Him. He demands a disciplined holy lifestyle that is devoid of gluttony and other physical excesses. Fasting becomes critical to getting into God’s mind — into conforming to His will and stay in His presence. It is the gate to something deeper, spiritual, and precious.
Inherent in fasting however, is the danger in the practice of any spiritual discipline. Pastor Lance Witt writes in THE SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINE OF FASTING,
“We can turn fasting into an end unto itself, rather than a means to an end. Fasting can become merely an external practice without internal passion. It can be reduced to a habit without a heart!”
We see an example of this in Luke 18:12, where Jesus tells the story of a Pharisee who bragged to God in prayer that he fasted twice a week. Pharisees habitually fasted twice a week, usually on the 2nd and 5th days of the week — two major market days when the city was packed with farmers, merchants, and shoppers. They were two days with potential target-audience for adverts and for showcasing exceptional spirituality.
Such was the background against which the Lord condemned fasting done in a way to attract public adulation (Matt. 6: 16–18).
Humans have the tendency to take that which is sacred, holy, and meant to draw us closer to God, and turn it into a merely mechanical, religious drill that we use to impress others of our spirituality. What was intended to draw us to God actually distances us from Him because we have perverted it.
God prompted the Prophet Zechariah to ask the priests and the people of Israel:
“During those seventy years of exile, when you fasted and mourned in the summer and at the festival in early autumn, was it really for me that you were fasting?” (Zechariah 7:5 NLT)
Pastor Lance Witt cites the case of an orphanage in India where the staff and the children fast every Friday. They call it their day of feasting on Jesus! They actually spent the time praying for the American church. He writes:
“Fasting is not a means of seeking God’s blessings, but a means of seeking God; Fasting is not a test for super saints; it is not a means of twisting God’s arm — not a magical formula for getting through to God. Fasting is feasting on the Lord; It is looking to Him for comfort, power, strength, guidance and hope.”
My take is that we can combine the tool of fasting and prayer with studying and internalizing the Word at individual, personal level toward attaining desired transformations that reflect the image of God in us. We are called to act contrary to our sinful nature. To move from self-centeredness to focusing on the good of others. It is the substance of what Christ taught his disciples, then and now.
Paul in his letters to the Corinthian church, identified two categories of church membership. He was looking to parley with spiritually mature Christians, but what he saw were mere infants in Christ. He writes:
“Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the spirit but as people who are still worldly — mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly.” (1 Corinthians 3:1–3 NIV).
Among the many troubling issues in the Corinthian church, were claims of spiritual superiority over one another, suing one another in public courts, abusing the communal meal, and sexual immorality.
Called to Wait on the LORD:
We can learn from the examples of Moses and Jesus, both of whom fasted for 40 days and 40 nights. They teach us to leave our comfort zones and wait in God’s presence — in the wilderness — and remain there until we receive specific directions from Him.
God invited all descendants of Jacob (Israel) to come to His presence so they could hear him speak and confirm the covenant He established with Abraham, their ancestor. They were told to sanctify themselves in preparation to appear before the holy God.
The LORD said to Moses,
“Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes and be ready by the third day, because on that day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people…They were to come close to the foot of the Mountain, “Only when the ram’s horn sounds a long blast may they approach the mountain.” (Exodus 19:10–13).
After preparing the people, something happened on the third day: The coming of the LORD was heralded by “thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. The LORD descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. But Moses said to the LORD, “…The people cannot come up Mount Sinai because you yourself warned us, ‘Put limits around the mountain and set it apart as holy” (Exodus 19:20–23).
So, of all the people of Israel, only Moses and Aaron met God’s condition for ascending the Mountain of God. We are told in Exodus 34:28:
“Moses was on the mountain with the LORD forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant — The Ten Commandments.”
Fasting is waiting in God’s presence. To wait in God’s presence is fasting. One cannot wait in God’s presence like Moses and be hungry. All fleshly demands are suppressed in God’s presence. Moses’ waiting crystalized into God’s covenant laws to guide God’s chosen people in their relationship with Him, and in their relationships with one another.
Jesus, our other example, fasted for 40 days and 40 nights prior to the beginning of his earthly ministry. Jesus was full-God, and full-man. He came to the earth to atone for man’s sins. So he identified with man’s weakness, and exemplified man’s need to wait on God, the Father before stepping out into the world. Jesus waited 40 days and 40 nights before confronting “ the prince of the power of the air.” It is about getting clarity on the way forward.
Matthew 4:1–11 starts with “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights he was hungry.” Then the tempter came.
It is noteworthy that Jesus was not hungry until after fasting forty days and forty nights. The Holy Spirit led him to the wilderness away from the busyness and distractions of the world. “He was led by the Spirit,” and was alone with the Spirit for forty days and forty nights in the wilderness.
The devil targeted the human side of Jesus, touting him with food, religious and political powers of this world. The devil tempted Jesus, trying to lure him to give reign to the flesh, but fasting for 40 days and 40 nights equipped him to resist the cravings of the flesh in all the three areas of his temptation.
Fasting is waiting — waiting on God for guidance. There will always be times and seasons when believers have to wait on God for direction — when one is uncertain of the future, and uncertain of the next step to take. Young Christians in need of career choice and life partners, are called to wait in God’s presence for guidance and clarity. Waiting ensures His abiding presence with believers in marriage, career, and in all situations of life. Then we can rest on His promise that says, “I will never leave you, nor forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6).
Fasting is a spiritual tool for accessing God, and for drawing strength from the source of all power. We all need divine empowerment to rise above our sinful nature, and overcome evil with good.
Needless to say that there can be no fasting without prayers. Fasting and prayer will help us to grow the divine character and bear fruits of the spirit. Fasting with prayer opens the door for the Holy Spirit to take full charge of our spirit and emotions. With fasting and prayer we become channels through which power flows from God to the sinner-man.
The bottomline: Fasting is a relational medium between Father and His individual children that cannot be boxed into a ritualistic formula.
This is the framework for corporate fasting as church leaders seek God’s face for revival, and for guidance and directions regarding evangelistic mission, church plant, or related projects, and for the Lord’s intervention in emergencies.