In Matthew 6:16-18, we read: 16When you go without eating, don’t try to look gloomy as those show-offs do when they go without eating. I can assure you that they already have their reward. 17Instead, comb your hair and wash your face.18Then others won’t know that you are going without eating. But your Father sees what is done in private, and he will reward you. (CEV)
I have not fasted very often, but I believe that it can be an important act for any Christian, in particular those who are serious with God and who wish to remember a particular person or item in prayer.
It is not easy for us: most Americans have bodies that get used to the routine of three meals a day, supplemented with snacks. We adjust to the body and mind’s call for nourishment—even when we don’t really need it.
Of course, there are many areas of the world, including our own, where people do not get three meals a day and who live with starvation and malnutrition all around them. Such people are looking for something to eat and cannot practice food-fasting: they are like the beggar Lazarus who sat near the gate of the rich man’s house, happy for scraps of food to eat. For such people, prayer is for food, and not in the absence for food.
However, for many of us, giving up food to pray should not be burdensome. I think my problem is that I don’t want to pray that intensely.
Recently, I had to think about it again. A friend of mine was in pain and needed (or so I thought) my prayers. I had a concern and a burden for him and I wanted to express this to God with an intensity that confirmed my anxiety. I wanted God to know how worried I was about my friend and his condition and I wanted to appeal to God to help him.
I did fast and I did pray, but not with the continued concentration that mirrored my feelings. My mind wandered, I got sleepy, the telephone rang, and it was hardly the picture of prayer I had envisioned.
Did it do any good? That is completely up to God—as C.S. Lewis put it, “all prayers are conditional.” Of course, I was hopeful that it helped and I am confident that God heard my prayers. I know that “Everything depends on having faith in God, so that God’s promise is assured by his great kindness“ (Romans 4:16a) and that I don’t know how God answers my prayers. Sometimes I can look back and see what he has done, but I can’t look forward and see what he will do.
James 1:2-4 lays it out like this: 2My friends, be glad, even if you have a lot of trouble. 3You know that you learn to endure by having your faith tested. 4But you must learn to endure everything, so that you will be completely mature and not lacking in anything.
Certainly, we can have trouble: sickness, disease, misfortune, people who annoy or hurt us, and so on. There seems to be no shortage of trouble, even for the most optimistic person. And in such instances, Christians (and others) generally acknowledge their need for help.
The more desperate we are, the more sensitive we are to people or things that might help us: a new drug, a doctor’s advice, even praying. Most people would not keep on playing for the orchestra like some supposedly did in the sinking of the Titanic. They would be crying to God for help.
The atheist claims that he (or she) would not resort to such a temptation. They would resolutely face sickness and death, “knowing” that there is nothing else for them. The Christian who fasts is not like that: she (or he)cries out to God unashamedly in their trouble, knowing that there is no one else who can assist them.
I may not have done a very good job at fasting, but I am certain at such times that God knows my heart and sees the need of my prayers. It is a holy relationship and one for which I strive.