HANG IN THERE WITH PRAYER (part 2)

 

In stark contrast to an indifferent judge, the Bible says many times, “God is good.” The psalmist writes, “O give thanks to the Lord for He is good, and his mercy endures forever.” The assault on the goodness of God started in the garden with the serpent attacking God’s goodness. He made Eve think that God was withholding good, that He was sneaky, manipulative, not to be trusted, and insecure. To the degree that we doubt God’s goodness we will faint in prayer. Why wouldn’t you persist knowing the character of God? You have everything going for you.

 

So we put two people together in a contest, an obnoxious man on the bench and an unrelenting widow who will never give up. Who wins? The widow. Now put a kind, loving Father together with a persevering child. Who wins that one? Both. The widow represents the people of God. And God the caring Judge takes our case. Bingo!

 

Do you stop when you feel like you have gotten a “no?” Or when you have prayed for ten years? Or when circumstances look negative?  We have two possibilities in our parable—persistent prayer or quitting. Maybe we have prayed what we think is long enough, so we stop, like taking a hike and giving up just before we reach the peak. When we persevere, the rewarding view makes the sore muscles worth it.

 

We need to persist…

when we think we are hearing a “no”

when the circumstances don’t favor a positive answer

when our faith begins to dwindle.

 

We give up…

when the circumstances override our trust in God’s sovereignty

when the difficulty looms larger than God.

 

When we give up,

we miss out on what we may be close to attaining

we may discourage others who need to persevere.

 

This is an end-times story. Jesus just finished a long teaching on the last days. One chapter later He is walking into Jerusalem, initiating His last week, in which He gives more teaching on the end than at any other time. He also closes His parable on prayer with a word about His return, tipping us off to a major theme in the story. He wonders if people will be looking for Him. Most will not.

Jesus is not a pessimist, but He does say in the Sermon on the Mount that “only a few find” the narrow way leading to life (Matthew 7:14). He says that “the love of most will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12). “Most” is a lot. Don’t let “most” include you. In Luke’s version of Christ’s end-time discourse, Jesus speaks about how His return will surprise most people, just like the flood hit people unaware. Jesus starts His story with a strong exhortation to persist in prayer and closes by asking if people will persevere. Let’s be among those who go for it if we’re around when Jesus returns. Two pictures will determine whether you do—your picture of God and your picture of yourself. What kind of people do not give up? Those who have a testimony of God’s faithfulness. Worked before; going to work again. People who believe in God more than in their circumstances.

 

Perhaps you want to offer this prayer: “Jesus, help me to keep persisting. I give up too easily. I want to be faithful to the end—regardless. I will pray until I have received what I have asked for.”

HANG IN THERE WITH PRAYER (part 1)

 

Our second child, Naomi (39) suffers from epileptic seizures. We have prayed twenty-five years for healing. We will continue until we see results. Wish I were this persistent with other needs.

 

Jesus tells us when to quit praying—when we get the answer! Only two stories give us the main point from the get-go: The Parable of the Persistent Widow and the Pharisee and Tax Collector. “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1).  The disciples had already asked Him to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1). He gave them a model prayer (The Lord’s Prayer), then encouraged persistent prayer by telling about a desperate midnight host who was given a volley of negative answers but went home with the bread. In the parable about the widow, Jesus is again teaching persistence.

 

Two characters–four short verses:

A widow.  We know nothing about the widow’s character, only about her need for justice. Widows and children are pictures of dependence and need. They are often taken advantage of. Widows have little recourse, no means to leverage a favorable position. Jesus told this parable knowing two things about us: our weakness and our temptation to quit praying and give up.

 

Passionate prayer is fueled by need, and great need means desperation. How badly you want an answer drives persistence. “If it be your will, please heal me” would be at one end of the spectrum. “I will not take ‘no’ for answer” would come at the other end. Jesus shows an overwhelming bias for the latter. The midnight guest received four “no’s” from his friend who had already gone to bed. A Canaanite woman received the same number of negative responses. Neither gave up. Nor did the widow back off because of a disinterested man on the bench.

 

A judge. He “neither feared God nor cared about men” (v. 2). Some people who don’t fear God still like people. Some love God but can’t stand humanity. And some have a problem at both ends, not the person we would want representing us in court.

 

Jesus could have told a story about a judge just like His Father. For the sake of contrast, He told about a judge with two major faults. He was, however, confronted with a persistent widow.  She went to someone who held the authority she lacked. The judge could not have cared less. The only reason he gave in was that she didn’t. Jesus was saying, “Pray like that widow persisted!”

 

Jesus often used contrasts to make His point, two very different sons, two opposite sisters, two contrasting pray-ers (a Pharisee and a tax collector). He is saying that if a persistent widow can get an uncaring judge to support her, persistence with a caring Judge in heaven who loves justice and cares for His chosen ones will work all the more. Jesus affirms that God “will see that they get justice, and quickly” (Luke 18:8).

 

Jesus is telling us something important about the Father and about ourselves. Sometimes God does not answer our prayers immediately that He intends to answer ultimately. In order to teach us endurance, especially in the last days, He wants us to learn to ask and keep on asking. If He answered every prayer instantly, it would not grow the kind of faith that we need in the end times (part 2 coming).

SO WHY FAST?

3 REASONS NOT TO

To impress others. God hates religious flesh.  Some are tempted to think that they are doing something religious, as if God will be impressed. Jesus warned against making one’s fasting obvious.  Those who do so get what they want–the approval of others (Matthew 6:16-18). Abstinence is meant to humble us (Deuteronomy 8:3). Heaven was not listening when the Pharisee “stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like all other men…I fast twice a week…'” (Luke 18:11,12).

To manipulate God. Fasting is meant to open us to God’s design, not our desire. The people of Israel once complained, “Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?” (Isaiah 58:3). True fasting bends us rather than demanding that God bend to us.

To stop being civil. Disciplines carried out in the flesh can make us mean, rigid, or judgmental. Isaiah had strong rebuke for people who fasted, yet continued to oppress their workers. They abstained “only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with wicked fist” (Isaiah 58:3,4). Those who fast should watch their motives.

7 REASONS FOR FASTING

To intensify prayer efforts. Hannah and Anna were two women who prayed with fasting. Both rejoiced as God answered. Prayer is often interrupted by the duties of life. In fasting, we give ourselves to God in a concerted way.

To receive guidance. God led the Israelites to victory after they had fasted for guidance. Daniel received understanding about Israel’s future.  Barnabas and Saul were thrust into mission work after fasting. Elders were appointed in the churches they had founded through prayer and fasting.  Arthur Wallis writes in God’s Chosen Fast, “Not a tea-meeting but a consecration fast marked the first missionary valedictory….Where are the churches today in which leaders are set apart in a solemn season of prayer and fasting?”  

To deliver the captives.  Fasting has the power to “loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke” (Isaiah 58:6).  Jesus prescribed fasting to deliver people possessed by demons (Mark 9:29).  Could it be that there are desperate people in our churches waiting until brothers and sisters fast for their release?

To avert judgment.  In the time of Jonah, a fast proclaimed from Nineveh’s throne turned back the hand of divine wrath.  Two proclamations of fasting in Joel’s prophecies were followed with a promise of God’s outpoured Spirit.

To seek help.  National fasts in Israel brought the intervention of God without exception.  They helped bring victory to Samuel and the Israelites, deliverance to Jehoshaphat from the Moabites, protection under Ezra, and salvation under Esther, when God reversed an anti-Semitic decree.

To express grief.  “Blessed are those who mourn…”  Fasting fits more with mourning than merriment. We, like Nehemiah, identify with the sorrow of God’s people and the world. David, Ezra, and Nehemiah all fasted with mourning.

To pursue holiness. Paul says, “Train yourself to be godly” (I Timothy 4:7).  Fasting is one way to do that. It opens the spirit to the Lord, because it quiets the flesh, often screaming for attention.  Whatever is flesh-denying can be character-forming. Hey, Lent is a good time to learn.

WHAT? ME FAST? (part 2)

 

  1.  What spiritual benefits can I anticipate?

Hard to say, but here are some that people attest to: a deeper sense of God’s presence, more focused prayer, a deeper love for Jesus, greater faith, fresh revelation, new victories in areas of defeat, displacement of apathy with fervency, a greater ability to identify with the needs of others, a clearer mind to do the agenda.

Two testimonies from church members where I was pastor: Betty came into my office all excited after a ten-day fast, seven of which were with water only. She said, “It has been so spiritually and physically invigorating. I didn’t get tired until the eighth day. That’s when I went on light juices. I woke up every morning with a different song on my heart.”

June, a young mother of six, went on a three-day fast, because she was concerned for an older son. She awakened the second night with something like a vision of an angel wrestling with Jacob. This gave her confidence that God would be victorious in her son’s life after a time of struggling. Time confirmed the vision.

  1.  Are fasts normally planned in advance?

In the Old Testament, people often began fasting spontaneously as the result of mourning or of need. More typical in the New Testament are times of premeditated abstinence. When Jesus was speaking with the Samaritan woman, the disciples returned from town to offer Him some food. He responded, “I have food to eat that you know not of” (John 4:32). They thought that someone might have slipped Him a sandwich.   Not really–He had gotten caught up in His Father’s business and did not want to stop for eating.

At the end of His forty-day fast Jesus told the devil, quoting from the Old Testament, “Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).

Some fasts may be directed by the Spirit, even though they are not written on the calendar. The practice of regular fasting prepares us for the unplanned ones.

  1.  Could I damage myself if I fasted for a long period of time?

It is unlikely. Wallis says in his excellent book God’s Chosen Fast, “During a prolonged fast the body is living on surplus fat, and at the same time it is acting like an internal incinerator, burning up the waste and the decaying tissues of the body. Only when this refining process is complete does it commence to consume its sound living cells, and that is when starvation commences.”  This phase comes between the third and sixth week.”

  1.  How is fasting related to other forms of abstinence?

God-directed abstinence from any pleasure brings positive results. Fasting is the most common form of physical denial. Paul recommended sexual abstinence by married couples as another way of strengthening a prayer focus (I Corinthians 7:4).  Abstaining from talking can be an effective way to correct bad speech habits. One woman observed that she was critical of other women, especially beautiful ones, so she decided to refrain from makeup and to wear only plain clothes until the problem was resolved. It worked. As Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself…” (Luke 9:23). Self-denial, fueled by the Spirit, releases grace.

WHAT? ME FAST?

Moses did it. Hannah did it. So did David, Ezra, Nehemiah, Paul–and Jesus Himself. But they didn’t have to contend with full-color ads for chocolate chip ice cream, supermarkets stocked with cheesecake, and boulevards lined with everything from Taco Bell to Red Lobster.

Who fasts today? Why? What is this ancient discipline supposed to do for us? Should everyone be doing it?

  1.  Are there different kinds of fasts?

Yes. A normal fast means no eating at all. The Hebrew word for fasting means “to cover the mouth.” The Greek word means “to abstain.” While “fasting” from TV may be a good idea, it is not a biblical fast in the same sense as going without food.

A partial fast means going without certain kinds of food, such as the menu plan of young Daniel and his friends (Daniel 1:8). He did something similar as an old man (10:3). And John the Baptist’s diet certainly reduced kitchen cooking!  

  1.  Must I fast?

No, but Jesus did assume that fasting would be a regular part of a person’s devotional life. He told those who wondered why His disciples didn’t fast, “When the Bridegroom leaves, they will” (Matthew 9:15). Jesus has been gone for two thousand years.  

  1.  I’ve tried fasting but haven’t seen any positive results.

You are not alone. Look to the Lord, not to the results. You are responsible only to submit to God’s Word. The benefit may come years later or in a way you cannot perceive. Trust the One who calls you to the fast, not the fast. Some people say the same thing about prayer. We don’t rely on prayer but on the God who hears prayer.

For some years I had fasted one day a week and didn’t see any clear benefits. Then I changed to one or two extended fasts a year instead.I experienced spiritual exhilaration and closeness to the Lord during those days, but I have also found that fasting has cleared up my mind and enabled me to get more work done.

  1.  Not only have I not seen positive results, but my prayers also seem to have  backfired when I have fasted.

Something similar happened to Christ. After forty days in the wilderness without food, one would have hoped the spiritual battles would ceased. They had just begun. The devil appeared for a showdown. Fasting brings us into the arena of spiritual warfare. The end of a fast may mean the beginning of a war. Persist even if you do not see victory. Scripture gives enough examples to encourage endurance.

  1.  What should I do while fasting?

Pray as much as your schedule allows–although fasting is a separate discipline from prayer, and the two are not always linked in Scripture. Don’t try to do strenuous physical work, although you might be surprised by the strength you feel. You can fast and go about your regular activities. But the more you pray, the more you will feel sustained by God. Drink plenty of water.

  1.  Is fasting healthy?

Yes, when followed under good spiritual and medical counsel. It purifies the bloodstream, cleanses the body of toxic acids, improves circulation and digestion, conserves energy, gives the stomach a rest, brightens the complexion, cleans the mind, and even helps to break addictions like tobacco or alcohol. How is that for positive reasons?!