Prayer and fasting are indispensable disciplines that believers must restore to their rightful place in faith and practice. Both of these disciplines are some of the basic expectations that Jesus established for every believer, not just a select few. The motive behind prayer and fasting, though, decides whether or not they are acceptable to God.
During our early Christian years we knew a man in his twenties that was deeply confused over the subject of fasting. He decided to fast 39 days because he did not want to compete with Christ’s 40 day fast. As the fast progressed he started to get sick and had to be hospitalized— he was actually killing himself. One long term effect of this self-imposed fast was that the young man lost every bit of his hair which never grew back.
It is interesting to note that the only fast God commanded in the Old Testament was on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). All other fasting was voluntary. The huge list of required fasts that the Hebrews eventually observed predominately developed after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple and then deported a large portion of the people to Babylon. God never required these extra fasts, the rabbis and religious system did. By Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were fasting at least twice a week (Lk. 18:12). Although the New Testament does not mandate any special or regular fasts, Jesus did expect His disciples to practice the discipline.
The problem the Lord often had with Israel’s fasts was not so much over the fasts themselves, but with the legalistic and selfish motives that defined them. They became dead rituals that were detrimental to the spiritual wellbeing of the people. Once the Lord questioned the people to expose their wicked motives, “When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted?” (Zec. 7:5). They were deceived into thinking that religious acts made them righteous rather than living a surrendered life to the Lord through contrition, personal transformation and authentic love for God. The people had an outward form of godliness but did not have a true relationship with the Lord. Jesus exposed the corrupt motives behind the religious practices of Israel’s leaders by saying “Everything they do is done for men to see” (Mt. 23:5).
Their fasts had degenerated into worthless, selfish rituals that they believed would appease God’s wrath and grant them personal prosperity. What their cold hearts failed to understand was their religious rebellion against God was actually fueling the approaching Day of Wrath. His righteous, holy anger could only be assuaged through heartrending repentance. But repentance is a byproduct of surrender and love to God; both of which they refused to do. Their fasts were all about themselves and not about God (Isa. 58:2-4). They were deceived into believing that self-denial and self-abuse was equivalent to right standing with the Lord (Isa. 58:5). However, if the heart is not right with God, or seeking to be so, then fasting becomes an offense to Him.
The motives behind true fasting are not selfish, but selfless. This is why the one who fasts for incorrect reasons is no better than the one who refuses to fast – both are selfish. Those who begin to understand the privilege of sharing in the fellowship of Christ’s suffering will selflessly subdue their flesh to accomplish that which can be done no other way. They are driven by the knowledge that fasting will “loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke” (Isa. 58:6). Their deepest desire is that the hunger they feel when fasting will cause an intense spiritual hunger for Jesus in the one that desperately needs to be freed.
Let’s look at Moses’ example of fasting which Scripture tells us was the type of fasting that God receives. Moses spent forty days interceding through prayer and fasting that the Lord would not destroy Israel because they had built and worshiped the golden calf. Through his selfless act men, women and children were spared from having to face the wrath of God. Is it not the same today? Do we truly believe that fasting and prayer loosens the yoke of those enslaved to Satan, the world and sin? While it is true that our fasting will not save a soul from hell (Jesus is the only mediator), yet this story teaches us that we can prevail with God when we have a heart like Moses – which is really a heart like our Savior.
As the account of Moses’ intercession unfolds we find an incredible petition uttered from the lips of this great spiritual giant: “please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written” (Ex. 32:32). What Christlike compassion—Moses was willing to go to hell that his people might be saved. Obviously, God was moved by Moses’ sincere and heartfelt prayer, even though He would never grant Moses’ request in the literal sense (Ex. 32:33). The Lord did spare the nation, but there were consequences for their sins. Mercy coupled with severe discipline was granted to the repentant people, judgment to the unrepentant. This very account begs us to ask a heart-wrenching question: “Who among us could pray such a prayer today in all honesty?”
The intercession of Moses comes to a climax. It is at this point that prayer and fasting either becomes truly successful or a dismal failure. It speaks of the primary motive behind why we do, or do not, fast and pray. While Moses was in the Tent of Meeting continuing to intercede for the people he prayed, “Now show me your glory” (Ex. 33:18). Though Moses prayed and fasted for the people, his spiritual craving to know the Lord is what drove him. Without a passion for God, Moses would have never had compassion for the people that drove him to his knees for hours, days and even weeks at a time. He understood the prize to be coveted from fasting and prayer was to see God’s glory.
The ultimate prize we are to seek through fasting and prayer is Christ Himself. That is why we must guard our hearts when we practice the disciplines Christ demands of us lest they become dead religious practices. Jesus must always be the ultimate prize we seek, even when we are interceding for the needs of others. When the motive of the heart is right then the promises attached to fasting will break forth upon us: “Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I” (Isa. 58:9). So what is the greatest reward of prayer and fasting? Christ Himself! When we seek Him with all of our being then we will hear Him speak to us the most beautiful of words, “Here am I.”
Glenn Meldrum has been a national evangelist since 1997. Prior to his calling as an evangelist he pastored for 15 years. He is ordained and holds an M.A. in theology and church history from Ashland Theological Seminary. Visit www.ihpministry.com for articles, sermons, books and information on Glenn Meldrum and In His Presence Ministries.