A First-Time Faster: A Journal of Spiritual Discipline

A First-Time Faster: A Journal of Spiritual Discipline

by Maison Jackson

I tried fasting for the first time... It stinks.

Fasting hasn't ever been something that's really been on my radar. I always have had the excuse of getting physically ill when I don't eat and my sugar crashes, but recently my wife and I listened to the challenge our pastor put to us and decided to fast a day.

By the middle of it I wanted to know, "Why are we doing this again?" I wondered what the point was. I wasn't spending all day not eating and only praying, I have two kids dontcha know? It just wasn't possible. So, why? What's the point?

I did some digging and noticed that fasting was a discipline, listed together with prayer and giving (Matt 6). That seems to infer that Jesus sees fasting as distinct from but equal to prayer and giving. And I don't know if you've noticed but he's REAL big on prayer and giving. 

Since fasting is a discipline, it also doesn't come naturally for most people. It's something you have to work at. And until you've practiced it and understand the ins-and-outs and the whys of what's going on, it will continue to stink. 

Compare it to getting in shape. When you haven't exercised and decide to start, your body is screaming at you to stop within a day or two, if not within the hour, of when you start.

In the same way, pushing your body in a spiritual way can get some physiological pushback as well. My head hurt, I was tired, I was grouchy, etc. But I tell you what: this morning I've written two journal entries and a worship song without even really trying to do so. 

It just seemed to put me in a spiritual mindset. It made me receptive to spiritual things.

Fasting in the Bible is done to show a commitment--to make it clear you intend to be heard by God, to humble yourself, to prepare yourself for important events, to change God's mind, and to work towards social justice.

There's a whole lot more that can be said about that list but for right now I've come to one real important conclusion: 

Fasting isn't fun, but maybe this fasting stuff isn't so bad after all...

When You Can't See Ahead, Look Back

When You Can't See Ahead, Look Back

by Toni Jackson

I feel stuck. And I have felt stuck in this heavy muddle for a very long time – two years, in fact. It’s been a long time of feeling like I’m idling… waiting to shift into gear. God, I’m just sitting here. Can I go now? God, I’m getting low on gas. Can we move now? And despite my questioning, my pleading, my yearning, I am still sitting here. Waiting for the light to turn green.

One of my favorite passages in the Old Testament is 1 Samuel 7. It has always resonated with me and has again during this time of prayer and fasting.

The chapter opens explaining how the Ark of Lord came to its location. Then it says that the Ark of the Lord just sat. Unmoved. For twenty years! Sound familiar? (Though, my two years seem pretty insignificant in comparison.) “During that time, all Israel mourned because it seemed like the Lord had abandoned them.”1

Then Samuel gives them a charge: return to the Lord. And they do! This entire nation comes together and surrenders. Can you imagine what that must have looked like? Everyone was praying, repenting and fasting together. How powerful! Then their leader pleads for them and presents to God a burnt offering. And do you know what the beautiful thing is?

God answers.

God answers in the incredible and astounding way He always does. So after Israel has this supernatural victory over their enemy, they pause and Samuel commemorates their win. “Samuel then took a large stone and placed it between the towns of Mizpah and Jeshanah. He named it Ebenezer – ‘the stone of help’ – for he said, ‘Up to this point the Lord has helped us!’”2 I can just hear that victorious roar of the Israelite army! It makes the hair stand up on my arms! God delivered. He delivered big time.

As exciting as it is, I still read this piece of scripture with a heavy heart. I am waiting for something miraculous. I am praying for something amazing to happen in our family. I have no idea what that even looks like – I can’t see anything ahead! But I have to remind myself of what I can see: victories past. Ebenezer after Ebenezer where God came through. He was on my side then and He is on my side right now.

The same charge Samuel gave to Israel is the same charge I am giving to both of us. Return to the Lord. I realize that will look different for each of us, but we absolutely need to. 

So while I idle and wait and anticipate the next move, I am going to listen to the Holy Spirit and just sit.

Here I raise mine Ebenezer
Hither by thy help I come
3

_____

1 – 1 Samuel 7:2b
2 – 1 Samuel 7:12
3 – “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” Robert Robinson

Burdened, Yet Rejoicing - Learning Focused Prayer

Burdened, Yet Rejoicing - Learning Focused Prayer

by Ava MacKinney

As Steve and I drove home from Vermont this past weekend, we prayed together about fasting and prayer. What kind of fast should we do? What specifically should we focus on in our prayers? I had already narrowed my prayer focus down to three areas, but I sensed that God wanted me to fine tune them even more. 

Well, God answered that prayer for sure! He narrowed it down to one area and then, unexpectedly, He put a magnifying glass over one very specific need in that area. This morning, as I went to pray, that magnifying glass intensified to the point that the sun shone through and focused it's burning rays onto this one desperate cry of my heart. I know without a doubt that this is God prompting me and encouraging me to not give up. I've been praying about this for years, but it's so easy to lose heart and to think that my prayers don't make a difference. It's as if He's saying to me, “Don't give up. I hear your prayers. I've heard every one of your prayers. Keep asking. Keep watching. Keep on doing spiritual warfare. Persist. Persist. PERSIST!”

I realize it may be years before I see the answer I'm looking for, but nevertheless, this is a need that must be continually bathed in prayer. Even in the middle of the night, God has been prompting me to pray. Why is God directing me in this way? I believe it's because this is a prayer He intends to answer; in His way and in His time, but He is at work even now, at this very moment. 

And mystery of all mysteries, He chooses to involve us in the unfolding of His plans. Why? I don't know. It seems as if He could simply do what He wants to do and not involve us. But out of His great love for us, He has decided that we, His children, should play a huge role in His Kingdom here on earth. Throughout the Bible we are commanded to pray. Continually! (1 Thessalonians 5:17) About everything! (Philippians 4:6) Things don't happen when we don't pray! (James 4:2) Things happen when we do pray! What a responsibility! What a privilege! 

To some, this could seem like an overwhelming burden. But again, the Bible makes it very clear, that's not God's intent. At times, yes, He will allow us to be burdened with the things that burden Him. But He is also our burden-bearer. We are to cast our cares on Him. (1 Peter 5:7) We are not to be anxious about anything. (Philippians 4:6) Both of these heavenly invitations are wrapped around prayer. And God's promise is that His peace, “which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7)

Am I burdened by this one major prayer focus God has laid on my heart? You bet I am! I've been bawling my eyes out this morning because of it and I've been choking back the tears as I write. But I also am filled with awe at the work that I know God is doing and will continue to do. Awe and a heart filled with joy! My God is on the move, folks! And I, for one, will be watching and waiting for His glorious answers!

Repetitive Prayer vs. Persistent Prayer

Repetitive Prayer vs. Persistent Prayer

by Matt Schmidly

Should we pray for something more than once?

On the one hand, Jesus said in Matt 6:7, “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.”  But on the other, Luke 1:18 says “And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” These are the opening remarks to Jesus’ Parable of the Persistent Widow in which the widow’s repeated request moves the unjust judge to action. So which is it?

There is a difference between repetitive prayer and persistent prayer.

Repetitive prayer thinks that God is somehow persuaded by a number—as if God is in heaven with a tally sheet and is just waiting for us to get to request number 53 before he answers. So we just need to keep asking as many times as we can to get an answer. It’s our equivalent to the kid in the back seat during a long car ride asking, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?,” thinking those repeated questions will get them to the destination sooner. 

The key words in the first verse are empty phrases and many words. “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.” God is never fooled by empty religious exercise.

But persistent prayer is different. Rather than being empty words, they come from faith. Persistent prayer acknowledges that we have a human need for which God has the answer. He is our loving Father who delights in giving good gifts to his children. So we demonstrate our faith in him and our need for his intervention by persistently bringing our requests to him and never giving up. It is the opposite of empty, repetitive prayers. It is the authentic cry of our hearts born out of a real relationship with him.

The two main characters in the parable are the widow and the judge. Jesus describes the judge as a man “who neither feared God nor respected man.” He only cared about himself. But it was not the injustice against the widow that moved him to action. Instead, “Yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.”

Does this mean that we have to wear God out with our prayers? That we are to bother him until he answers? Exactly the opposite. God is not the unjust judge in this parable. Rather, Jesus is teaching that if a self-centered judge can be moved by the persistent request of a stranger how much more will our loving Father be moved by the persistent requests of his children!

Should we pray for something more than once? Yes! But let them be persistent prayers of faith not empty prayers of repetition.

Walking through the Wilderness

Walking through the Wilderness

by Ibrahim Alahmad

As our church enters a time of prayer and fasting, I recall Jesus’s example in (Matthew 4:1). Those words, “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil,” strikes a chord in me. Honestly, we never think that following God’s leading will take us into a wilderness-temptation experience. Yet here it is, Christ is led by the Spirit of God to be tested. God allowed the enemy to tempt him, even in his most vulnerable moment.   

In searching scripture, we find that God does not take us away from temptation--rather, keeping temptation from overtaking us (1 Corinthians 10:13). This testing produces perseverance, and perseverance will bring character, and proven character, hope--which comes from Christ. And Christ died for us while we were still sinners and reconciled our transgressions (see Romans 5).

This stair-stepping progression is not something that happens overnight or just in one circumstance. Rather, it is a continual walk into the unknown where we give up the wheel and let God drive our decisions, checking each choice or opportunity with the question: Is this honoring Him? Sometimes this is an easy answer, sometimes it isn’t. But fasting has a way of bringing clarity in these difficult wilderness situations. So while I may be hungry now, I become more aware of my dependence on God to sustain me to keep going. And he does, every time:

Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved - Psalm 55:22

My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. - Psalm 73:26

But they who wait on the Lord shall renew your strength; they shall mount up with wings like the eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. - Isaiah 40:31

Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. - Isaiah 41:10

The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him. - Nahum 1:7

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world. - John 16:33

You may not be literally walking hungry in the desert, but sometimes you may be led into a rough situation, even tempted to take an easy way out. In those times, stand firm, and seek the Lord. He will sustain you; he will give you wisdom through his Word. What may seem impossible to overcome, God may surprise you.

Finally, for those of you who do stumble. Don’t give up, don’t lose hope. Because every time we get back up again, it’s another time we say say NO to the world, the flesh, the devil, and we say YES to God. So long as we keep our eyes on Him, He will renew us and give us the strength to make it through the wilderness ….and back.

Taking “I” Off Center Stage

Taking “I” Off Center Stage

by Christa Teachout

I want lasagna. Super cheesy from scratch lasagna with mushrooms and Italian sausage. A side of garlic bread would be heavenly, and a salad with garden fresh juicy red tomatoes and crisp leafy greens…and cheesecake. Turtle cheesecake with caramelized pecans and dark chocolate. 

Okay. I’m hungry. I’m also fasting. I both love and hate fasting. I hate it for obvious reasons, but I have never fasted and regretted it later. While I’m fasting meals I might have some regrets because of how hungry I feel, but afterwards reflecting on all that God said and did, it’s always worth it.  

At times when I’ve fasted it’s been about transitioning. God has used a time of fasting and prayer to speak to me about new opportunities for and change that He wanted to bring about in my life. Other times, He has called me to fast, so I can better hear what He has to say. For me, though, this particular fast has been about surrender, trust, and openness. 

It is easy for me to be so focused on what I want and where I’m going that I miss out on who I am meant to touch and what I am meant to do on the way. If I'm honest, I don't always invite the Holy Spirit to do what He wants to in my life, the way I do when I fast, because I'm afraid He just might show up and interrupt me. There’s not always room for interruptions in my nice neat little schedule…even interruptions that God might want to bring about in my life. While certainly my responsibilities are important, I think sometimes they are my excuse for not listening. When I say, “I don’t have time,” I’m really saying, “I’d rather not.” 

When God did the miraculous in the Gospels and Acts, though, it wasn’t because someone scheduled in that Jesus would heal the blind man at 9:30am. Jesus and the disciples allowed themselves to be interrupted. They were open to what the Holy Spirit wanted to do through them and made it a priority. Their plans and expectations for the day were set aside to make room for the Spirit of God. The disciples didn't tell the lame beggar, “Sorry. We don't have time for you. You're going to make us late for synagogue.” They were ready for what God wanted to do through them, even though it inconvenienced them. Fasting postures us to have this attitude, as well. 

Fasting takes “I” off of center stage causing our focus to be on God and His kingdom more than on us and our own. When “I” is in charge of things, my life stays pretty comfortable. I like routine and love schedules. I don't like interruptions, and if I'm truly honest, I don't keep myself postured in dependency on God as much as on my own self-sufficiency. 

So, while I look forward to this fast being over, and finding some delicious Italian-style food, right now I am grateful for it and what God is teaching me in it. I am challenged to live not only during this fast, but even once it is over, in a posture of submission to and dependency upon God. The Holy Spirit should be welcome in my life, not only when I’m fasting and expecting Him to speak, but every single day. 

Running Out of Prayers to Pray

Running Out of Prayers to Pray

by Matt Schmidly

Most of us have had the experience of setting aside an hour to pray, kneeling down and pouring our hearts out to God, praising him, bringing our petitions to him, praying about everything we can think of, only to look at our watches and see that only twelve minutes have passed! What are we going to pray about for the next forty-eight minutes! 

Don’t despair. This is normal when you set aside longer (than usual) times of prayer.

What do I do when I run out of things to pray?

Prayer is indeed simple; it’s a simple as talking to the Father. Yet when the disciples witnessed Jesus pray they said, “Lord, teach us to pray,” (Luke 11:1). Prayer is simple; yet we need to be taught. And one thing the Spirit has taught me is to let the Word aid my prayers and let my prayers aid his Word.

When you run out of things to pray for but are still wanting to spend more time in prayer, turn to the Scriptures. For me, this is not a time of Bible study or even Bible reading. I’m asking the Holy Spirit to spark a prayer in me.

 

For example, yesterday, after spending some extended time in prayer, I began to lose steam. My mind began to wander and nothing was really coming to mind to pray about. Nudged by a message Jeremy Weimer preached on New Year’s Day, I turned to Psalm 119 and decided to pray through the first section of the psalm. When I pray a psalm, I want to make the prayer of the psalmist my prayer—not just saying the words, but a prayer from my heart. So I began to pray this psalm out loud:

1 Blessed are those whose way is blameless,

    who walk in the law of the Lord!

2 Blessed are those who keep his testimonies,

    who seek him with their whole heart,

3 who also do no wrong,

    but walk in his ways!

4 You have commanded your precepts

    to be kept diligently. 

At this point, the word “diligently” jumped off the page. God has not called us to be casual in our obedience. “You have commanded your precepts to be kept diligently.” We are to be careful to walk in his ways, to work hard at obedience, to be mindful of the details of his ways. At this my own inadequacy was setting in. So I took a couple of moments to pray about being more diligent in keeping his commands. Then my eyes and voice went to the next verse:

5 Oh that my ways may be steadfast

    in keeping your statutes!

This is the psalmists petition. And it was mine too! And began to repeat this sentence in prayer—not in a lifeless, rote repetition, but the true desire of my heart. “Oh that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes!” That I too would be steadfast, resolute, single-minded, unwavering, and adamant in my walking in his ways! Soon my words were not the psalmists’ but my own, asking God to do this work in me.

Returning to the text I prayed:

6 Then I shall not be put to shame,

    having my eyes fixed on all your commandments.

7 I will praise you with an upright heart,

    when I learn your righteous rules.

8 I will keep your statutes;

    do not utterly forsake me!

I quickly realized these are the benefits of keeping God’s word. Disobedience leads us to all sorts of problems that inevitably lead to shame. But God’s ways keep us from this. Following him allows us to “praise you with an upright heart.” Rather than approaching him with guilt, confession, repentance, and (finally) forgiveness, we can praise him with an upright heart.

Now the full-orb of the psalmist prayer came into view for me. He begins with the (1) reasons for obedience—the obedient life is blessed and commanded by God. Then comes the (2) request for steadfast obedience. And ends with the anticipated (3) results—a life free from shame and an upright heart. With this in view, I prayed through the psalm again.

 

Now let’s return to the problem of running out of things to pray for. Our flesh often gets in the way of our prayers. The issue of steadfast obedience may not be something that I would naturally pray about. Especially since my flesh would try to make me believe that I’m doing pretty well in the obedience department.

But when the light of the Word of God shines into our lives, and exposes who we are, and words like diligently and steadfast confront us, then we have something to bring to the Father. Something that he can use to work in us. 

And I never would have made this a matter of prayer on that day had I not opened the Scriptures.

Fasting for Spiritual Breakthrough

Fasting for Spiritual Breakthrough

Though for many fasting is a regularly practiced spiritual discipline, when we embark on longer fast it is often for a specific purpose. Which leads to this question, “What should I fast about?”

As a church we are fasting for direction in this new chapter of King’s Chapel’s history. We’re fasting for a fresh moving of the Holy Spirit, for our leaders, and for our missionaries. 

But for you, individually, what should you fast for? What petition will you consistently bring to the throne of grace during this fast? Elmer Towns in his book Fasting for Spiritual Breakthrough looks at nine fasts in the Bible. Why did these people fast? What did they need from God? Here is a very brief overview of the nine fasts Dr. Towns’ studies:

1. The Disciples Fast: Fasting for freedom from addiction (see Matt 17:20-21). If we fast, we can break the besetting sins that limit a life of freedom in Christ.

2. The Ezra Fast: Fasting to solve problems (see Ezra 8:21-23). If we fast for a specific purpose, we may solve a debilitating problem.

3. The Samuel Fast: Fasting to win people to Christ (see 1 Sam 7:1-8). If we fast and pray for revival, God will pour himself on his people.

4. The Elijah Fast: Fasting to break crippling fears and mental problems (see 1 Kings 19:2-18). Through fasting, God will show us how to overcome negative emotional and personal habits.

5. The Widow’s Fast: Fasting to provide for the needy (1 Kings 17:12). When we sacrifice our own physical needs, God enables us to focus on and provide for the needs of others.

6. The Saint Paul Fast: Fasting for insight and decision making (see Acts 9:9-19). If we fast to subject our will to God’s, he will reveal his will to us.

7. The Daniel Fast: Fasting for health and physical healing (see Dan 1:12-20). When we fast for physical well-being, God will touch our bodies and enrich our souls.

8. The John the Baptist Fast: Fasting for an influential testimony (see Matt 3:4; Luke 1:15). If we fast for the influence of our testimonies, God will use us.

9. The Esther Fast: Fasting for protection from the evil one (see Esther 4:16). If we fast for protection and deliverance from Satan, God will deliver us from evil.

If one of these reasons to fast resonates with a situation you’re in, take time to study the scriptures about their fast. Then when you pray, pray with faith.

Though we consider all of these to be heroes of the faith, remember the words of James, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit,” (James 5:17-18).

The same God who heard and answered their prayers will hear and answer yours.

by Matt Schmidly

Not a Hunger Strike

Not a Hunger Strike

A prisoner on death row, a peace activist, a college football graduate assistant—all these and more have employed the hunger strike. The striker vows, “I will not eat until I get what I want,” often employing the strike pursuing a good, even just, cause. Their opponents much watch, or at least be aware, that the striker is so vehemently against them that they are willing to risk their life to impart change.

In 2015 Jonathan Butler, a grad assistant with the University of Missouri football team, began a hunger strike citing racial injustice on campus. He vowed not to eat until the university president resigned. Shortly after, thirty-two University of Missouri football players joined him, striking from all football activities and putting the rest of the (lucrative) football season in jeopardy. The head coach and rest of the team joined them the next day. And by the following day the university president and chancellor had both resigned. Butler’s hunger strike worked.

A hunger strike is a powerful thing.

Fasting is not a hunger strike.

Fasting is an act of humility; hunger striking is an act of pride.

Even a noble hunger strike that brings about positive change is built upon pride. It is about self-interest and personal rights. At its root a hunger strike says, “I won’t eat until I get what I want.” But when we approach the Lord through fasting we are not saying to God, “I will not eat until you answer my prayer.” Nor are we trying to show the Lord the earnestness of our request by our willingness to forgo food. 

Rather a fast is about denying ourselves. We give up something we need (food) in order to teach our flesh that we don’t need it as much as we thought. Food is good; God is better. 

For example, when Jesus was tempted to break his fast by miraculously turning stones into bread, he quoted from Deuteronomy, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” What was Jesus’ point? Food is good; obedience to God is better. It is better to starve than disobey. The blessings of God on an obedient life are far greater than the benefits and pleasures of an illicit piece of bread.

In fasting we deprive our flesh of a necessity to demonstrate that our flesh and its needs do not run our lives. We don’t have to act on every whim or craving of our flesh. If we can say no to our craving for food (and we can), we learn we can say no to many other fleshly cravings. There is a sense of freedom that comes when your belly is crying out (literally!) for food and you say it it, “I don’t have to fulfill your every whim!” 

We fast to humble ourselves. We subordinate the needs of our flesh to the needs of our own soul, or the needs of our loved ones, or the needs of our church. These are the things that are really valuable. Our next meal can wait.

“He must increase; I must decrease,” (John the Baptist, John 3:30).

by Matt Schmidly