This Wednesday, 2nd March, the Pope has called for a day of fasting in response to the war in Ukraine. Many churches and Christians around the world will join in this initiative, devoting themselves to prayer and asking God to intervene and bring peace.
For lots of Christians, fasting is a practice that rarely features in our regular lives, but in the Bible it was a core part of how people would pray, both as individuals and corporately.
Fasting simply defined is ‘going without food for a spiritual purpose.’ It is closely coupled with prayer, but it is not just the case that we go without food to make time for prayer – although that is true – but rather fasting is itself a kind of prayer. It’s a prayer that doesn’t only include our words, but our entire beings. It’s a way of bringing every part of what you are as a human – body, soul, mind and heart – together in one unified expression of longing.
In his book Fasting, Scot McKnight writes:
‘Fasting is the body talking what the spirit yearns, what the soul longs for, and what the mind knows to be true. It is body talk… for the person, the whole person, to express herself or himself completely. Fasting is one way you and I bring our entire selves into complete expression.’
In Scripture people fast for 12 or 24 hours, or for prolonged periods such as 3, 7, 21 or even 40 days. Shorter fasts were part of the rhythm of life, and many people made a habit of fasting once or twice a week, whilst longer fasts were usually called for a specific purpose, often in response to some catastrophe that needed focussed prayer.
Whilst the regular fast was an individual practice, and Jesus even suggested that we should keep it private, not allowing others to know when we were fasting (Matthew 6:16-18), longer fasts were often corporate public events where a nation was called to set aside a period for collective fasting and praying. It is this kind of fasting that the church is being called to on Wednesday.
As I’ve been praying and preparing to fast this week, I’ve found it helpful to remind myself of the purpose and power and fasting. I gave a talk two years ago on fasting in moments of crisis, which you can listen to or watch here. Here is a summary of three of the points I explored in that talk.
1) Grieving Sickness and Death
There are countless examples in Scripture of times when people fasted as a way of grieving sickness and death. The story of David, for example, contains many moments where the King fasts, whether in response to the sickness of his own child, or the death of King Saul (e.g. 1 Samuel 31:13; 1 Chronicles 10:12; 2 Samuel 1:12; 3:35; 12:16-23).
In the face of death, fasting is a way of recognising our powerlessness. It’s a way of expressing the deep ache we feel in our hearts through a corresponding deep ache in our bodies. We bring our grief to God with our whole beings, crying out for Him to comfort us, rescue those who are injured, and ultimately bring about His New Creation, where there will be no death for all eternity.
On Wednesday, you may want to think of your fasting in this kind of way; as grieving and lamenting the death of innocent people in Ukraine, and crying out for God to comfort their loved ones and restore the wounded.
2) Solidarity with the Oppressed
A second reason for corporate fasting is to express solidarity with the oppressed. Isaiah 58 speaks about people who fast whilst at the same time oppressing others, and then turn around to God in surprise, complaining that He doesn’t seem to have heard or accepted their fasting. In response God says,
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:(Isaiah 58:6-7)
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”
When people criticise Christians for offering ‘thoughts and prayers’ and say ‘stop praying and actually do something!’ part of me agrees with the sentiment. Prayer should not be a substitute for action. But neither should we think that prayerless action is sufficient. True prayer and fasting must be coupled with action.
When we fast on Wednesday, it’s a way for those of us who are suffering very little to identify with those who are suffering greatly, bringing their needs before God in prayer, and committing ourselves to action on their behalf.
As we experience temporary hunger in our bodies, in some tiny symbolic way, it helps us to identify with those who are without food and shelter, and to keep their plight at the forefront of our minds while we pray.
Fasting like this should also lead us to action. So while you fast, ask God what practical steps you can take to support those in need. It may involve donating to a charity supporting people in Ukraine. I know some people who fast regularly and donate the equivalent of their day’s food bill to charity; that may be a helpful practice for you, to represent you ‘sharing your food with the hungry’. For others it may be as simple as reaching out to people who know who are affected by this crisis to offer practical support, or joining a demonstration to express your support for those who are oppressed.
3) Praying for protection and victory
There are many occasions where fasting is a way of crying out to God for victory in areas where we are powerless and need Him to intervene. Perhaps particularly in the face of injustice, violence or threat to life.
The story of Esther is a great example of this. Mordecai discovers that Haman is plotting to wipe out the Jewish people, and he knows that barring a miracle from God, his people will suffer and die. So Esther prepares to go before the King and seek justice for her people. As she does this, at great risk to herself, she instructs Mordecai to gather the Jewish people and fast for three days and nights, crying out for God to do what seems impossible; to protect His people and bring victory and justice.
God hears their cries, and He intervenes.
When we fast on Wednesday we are not simply lamenting, but we are asking God to intervene in miraculous ways to bring an end to this war. Fasting is about both recognising our powerlessness, and invoking the power of God. And the testimony of Scripture is that when we respond to crisis through fasting, God often responds to our prayers through miracles.
One of the reasons I struggle to pray for situations like this is that I cannot imagine how it will be turned around, and what it would take for the chaos to be reversed. But I don’t need to know or understand for me to bring the situation to God in prayer. Whether God chooses to act through human intervention, or through so-called ‘supernatural’ means, I don’t mind. We just need Him to move!
So this Wednesday I hope you will join with Christians around the world in praying and fasting for peace in Ukraine and an end to the conflict. And if you want to make fasting a regular habit you may find this talk useful.
Perhaps you might find it helpful on Wednesday to use these three prompts to focus your prayers through the day: starting the morning with lament, before moving through solidarity and a commitment to action, and culminating in a cry for protection and victory.
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