Some denominations have more “organizing documents” than others. Presbyterians often get (many times lovingly) disparaged for being a little overkill in the organization-and-documentation department. I guess, then, that my love of my denomination’s constitutional documents, like our Book of Order, makes me “one of those.” Our Book of Order has a very helpful section on worship, and in Chapter 4 (“The Worship of God at Other Times”), it says this:
Days of Prayer and Fasting: The Lord Jesus Christ set the example for God’s people in a time of fasting. Throughout the New Testament there is frequent indication that Christians in the early Church practiced fasting. Therefore, the Church will do well in its spiritual life if it follows this example. The Church Session should be diligent and sensitive to those times when such a special day is called for and should be eager to order such an event. Christians individually and in particular families should observe special days when fasting is practiced.
…When the Church Session calls a day of prayer and fasting, the purpose of the occasion should be announced and adequate time given in order that members may prepare themselves. It is appropriate on such occasions for services of public worship to be conducted during the day set aside. All the members under the authority of a Church Session should make diligent effort to conscientiously participate in the day set aside.1
In a class on Christian ethics, one of my most influential professors—Douglas Groothuis—urged us to re-engage the lost art of fasting. He reminded us that our cultural setting is not conducive to denying ourselves, because it is a now-oriented, appetite-driven environment. (By the way, this is why our brothers and sisters in Ghana engage this Christian practice with much more regularity and effectiveness.)
Fasting is one of those things that is not popular because it does not appear to be powerful. It makes us weak and dependent—something that is not a part of the American psyche. Fasting, furthermore, not only makes us physically uncomfortable (something that Americans aren’t used to), but spiritually uncomfortable. Why? Because it is often during a fast that one’s idols, so regularly and conscientiously fed, go hungry. The idols, in turn, rise up in our hearts and cry out for feeding, attention, and worship. When this happens, our spirits become restless.
But here’s why fasting IS powerful.
1) Christ’s example shows us that fasting fills us with power (when connected to Christ, the source of that power). Luke 4 records Jesus’ forty-day fast: “He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry” (v 2). Then, the devil appeared and tempted Him three times. Jesus did not succumb, and the text implies that Jesus’ victory was not due to the mere fact that He was fully God, but that, in His humanity He relied on the Father for strength because His fasting had made Him utterly weak. Christ, the man, had the power to withstand temptation because He fasted.
2) One of the hallmarks of Christianity is that things that seem foolish to us end up being very, very wise. 1 Corinthians 1:27 says, “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” God’s wisdom confounds ours. This should be very instructive when we’re tempted to think that fasting is a weak, empty enterprise.
3) God chooses to unleash His power through weakness. 2 Corinthians 12:9 records God saying to Paul and to us, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” There is actually an obvious logic here. If God is using His power through someone, it would be most apparent that it is God’s power when that someone is noticeably weak and powerless. If God is using His power through a powerful figure, one could mistake that power as being from the person. But if someone is obviously weak, then such power can only be attributed to the work of God. It is backward thinking to us, but because fasting puts us in a position of physical and spiritual weakness, we become a more fitting conduit of the raw, unquestionable power of God. Wow.
At the start of the year, our church session (our leadership team of elders) chose to heed the wise admonition of our Book of Order and call for a time of prayer and fasting. This past Sunday, we had a special service of prayer and Communion, concluding with that call for people to fast. We left the duration and type of fasting up to the discretion of the individual.
Here’s what I’m discovering this week. By fasting and praying together as a church, we’ve extended our corporate worship out past Sunday. We’ve all taken the practice home with us, but we are still engaging it as a community. Here’s what I wait for in hopeful anticipation of the result of this period:
- · A more vibrant worship service this coming Sunday morning—people more fully engaged in mind, heart, and spirit.
- · A more evident hunger for the Word of God when it is preached. (I’m preaching this Sunday, so my antennae will be up.)
- · Some “breakthrough” wisdom from godly elders and congregants about how our church can fulfill our vision and mission in the near and far future.
- · Some restored relationships within families and within our church family.
- · Physical, psychological, and spiritual healing of individuals in our congregation.
Why do I wait in faith for this? Because, by fasting, our church has chosen to open a box full of pulsating power (one that we haven’t opened in a while), and I can’t imagine that when that power is unleashed among us that it will do nothing. I look forward to rejoicing when the stories come in.
1Evangelical Presbyterian Church, “Book of Worship,” in Book of Order (Livonia: Office of the General Assembly, 1987), §4-2