Then I set face toward the Lord God to make request by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes. – Daniel 9:3
Fasting is not the most popular of subjects, but it’s a subject often brought up in the Bible, and therefore needs attention. Throughout both the Old and New Testaments, we see people fasting in various ways for various reasons. We see extreme, supernatural fasts, such as when Moses ate and drank nothing on top of Mount Sinai for 40 days, all the way to small fasts by the early believers, who probably just skipped a meal to pray from time to time.
In the book of Leviticus, the people of Israel are instructed to afflict their souls on the Day of Atonement. This phrase, ‘afflict your souls,’ refers to fasting. This phrase also clues us in on the purpose of fasting, which we shall explore in this blog.
Have you ever lost your appetite? Have you ever had something happen to you (or did something yourself) that distressed you to the point of not being able to eat? If you’ve lived long enough, you probably have. Whatever it was, it so negatively engrossed your mind that you had no desire for food. In other words, your soul was afflicted.
I’m usually the kind of person that eats if I’m distressed. However, there was a time that I did something really, really stupid at one of my jobs. I won’t go into what it was, but I was called by the highest level of management and I thought for sure that my job was on the line. My mind was so engrossed over this and my thoughts so intense, that I lost my desire to eat. Thankfully, my supervisors saw this thing for the youthful stupidity that it was, and let me keep my job. But this episode was my first instance (and only so far) of involuntary fasting.
Now think of all of this in reverse. What if something is very important for you to do, but you keep getting distracted by this and that, and never get it done? What could you do? Well, you could fast. You could tell yourself, “No food will touch this mouth until I get done what I need to get done.”
This is what the Jews did when they were determined to kill Paul in Acts chapter 23. They saw Paul as the ultimate troublemaker, so they bound themselves by oath to neither eat or drink until they killed him.
And when it was day, some of the Jews banded together and bound themselves under an oath, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. – Acts 23:12
Why did they do that? They did it because they viewed killing Paul as something of supreme importance. It was first on their to-do list, and eating wasn’t going to happen until the deed was done. Of course, they never did kill Paul…I bet they’re pretty hungry by now (:
You see, the purpose of fasting was to focus their minds. Their hunger was going to be the reminder that something still needed to be done. They weren’t going to let themselves get comfortable until it was.
In our title verse, Daniel is setting himself to seek God. He was in Babylon, and he had read the prophecy of Jeremiah which stated that the Babylonian captivity would last 70 years. Those 70 years where drawing near and Daniel needed to hear from God about it. So the Bible says that he set himself to ‘prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes.’
This was the ultimate focus setting. Besides fasting, Daniel was clothed in sackcloth, and laid in ashes. These are both methods of making oneself uncomfortable. Sackcloth was abrasive, and ashes are dirty. You’re not going anywhere with this stuff on, and you won’t be falling asleep. Its the perfect makeup of extreme focus.
We see this idea of focus in other episodes of fasting in the Bible. When Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights, He was separating Himself apart for a time of focus as He prepared for the ministry He was called to. We see in Acts 13 how the disciples fasted as a way to devote special time to minister to the Lord. We also see that special prayer and fasting was offered in response to Paul’s call into the ministry. It was a time of focused prayer.
And, of course, we see fasting during times of great trouble. For example, we see Esther fasting before her entrance to the king. We also see the people of Nineveh fasting to avert judgment.
And then my favorite story of fasting and prayer–found in 2 Chronicles chapter 20. This is not only an amazing story, but a perfect example of effective fasting and prayer.
The story goes that king Jehoshaphat received word that an army of a coalition of nations was only miles away; an army that far out numbered Jehoshaphat’s forces. This army was sure to come topple the city, kill all the males, and carry away the woman and children as plunder. In response to this news he proclaims a fast throughout all the land, and sets himself to prayer.
Why did he proclaim a fast? He proclaimed a fast because they needed an answer ASAP. Everything was to be dropped in order to focus on this one thing: calling on God for help. There was nothing more important, not even eating.
The truth is, eating everyday is not necessary. Many would argue that it’s healthy to go without food for a while. We don’t NEED to eat everyday; we do it because we want to. If every one of us skipped a day’s worth of eating each week, it wouldn’t hurt us at all. It’d probably greatly benefit us! The truth of the matter is that we are so incredibly spoiled, and our bodies so much our master, that many people shudder at the idea of going without food. Our bodies, however, can survive quite a long time without food. Any healthy adult could easily go for a week without food, and most healthy adults could go a month or longer! Jesus fasted for 40 days, and it’s not unheard of for people to do it now-a-days, as well.*
But, back to our story.
After Jehoshaphat proclaimed the fast, he called all the people together for prayer. There was nothing more that could be done to show God how serious they were. They were fasting, and they were dropping whatever normal thing they did to come pray. It was focus time.
Jehoshaphat’s prayer was fantastic. I’m so glad we have it recorded. (I’m not going to included the prayer here, but you can look it up in 2 Chronicles 20.) In his prayer, he reminds God of his promises, presents his case, and throws his entire confidence upon God’s help alone. And, boy, does God show up! The enemy is defeated without anyone having to lift a sword, and God’s people are busy for three days collecting the plunder!
God loves to answer prayer. He delights in it so much. But He doesn’t answer half-hearted prayer. He doesn’t answer casual prayer. He answers ‘energized’ prayers (see the Greek of James 5:16). When we focus our mind and energy on prayer, God answers. Fasting is way to help us do this.
We all need to have fasting in our lives. Fasting may just be the thing that gets you over the hump that’s been blocking you. Is there an issue you haven’t been able to overcome? Go to fasting and prayer. Is there a prayer that is yet to be answered? Add fasting. But don’t just fast for fasting’s sake. You must fast with the intent to focus on praying. Otherwise, you’re just on a bad diet.
*Although our bodies can go without food for so long, it cannot go without water for more than about three days. If you decided to go on a long fast, it would be a good idea to seek advice from a medical professional.
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