There is a dramatic scene at the end of the book of Jonah where an entire city, the city of Nineveh, is confronted with the news that God is about to destroy them. How do they respond to impending judgment? They declare a fast. The king decrees that no one, not even their animals, is to touch food or drink. Of all things they could do in the face of a national emergency, why fast? Is God more impressed with us when we fast? Does it make our prayers more effective? Should we be fasting and praying as we face our own national crises of a pandemic and racial conflict?
Fasting is not meant to change the heart of God; it changes us. If you read the third chapter of Jonah, you will notice that fasting goes hand in hand with mourning. The people of Jonah’s world were quite expressive in their grief. They would remove their normal clothing and put on sackcloth, which was made of rough, uncomfortable material. They also sat in the dirt and poured ash and dust over their heads. You see all of this in Jonah chapter 3.
What were these people mourning? The fact that judgment was coming? I am sure that was part of it. But if you look closely, you will notice that they are in fact mourning their sin that brought about the judgment. Here is the king’s proclamation:
Jonah 3:7-9: Do not let man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let him eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.
Notice that fasting is connected to mourning, and mourning is connected to repentance – a turning from the sin that grieves us and turning to God. Fasting intensifies our grief and focuses our repentance. Our hunger for food reminds us of our deeper hunger for God’s grace and forgiveness. Our hunger drives us from our sinful practices and causes us to humbly return to God.
When Jesus fasted for forty days in the desert, Satan tempted him by urging him to turn stone into bread. Jesus replies by quoting the Old Testament:
Matthew 4:4: Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 8:3 where God explains to Israel that while he led them through the desert, he caused them to hunger, giving them just enough for each day. Why did God do this? So that they might learn that their true hunger is for God. Jesus had no need to fast and repent for his sins, for he had none. But he is demonstrating to us that as a true human being his deepest hunger and deepest need is not the food we eat nor the company of friends. Our deepest need is to be in communion with God.
The shutdown related to the coronavirus is a fast of sorts in that we have been deprived of many things that helped us feel whole: hugs, human touch, and social gatherings. Many of us feel empty, stressed, and anxious without the supports that we largely took for granted. This is not a lack of faith, but simply an expression of what it means for us to be human. At the same time, our country is racked with social upheaval and racial conflict. This conflict has been with us since 1619 and never seems to be resolved.
So what do we do with the fact that the coronavirus has caused the deaths of more than 117,000 people, the highest death toll in the world? How do we respond to the violence in our streets? We can try to numb ourselves and ignore it. We can rage in anger as we consume hours of talk radio and cable television news. Or we can cooperate with what the Holy Spirit is doing by intensifying our need for God in these desperate times through fasting.
Would you consider fasting and praying with me on Wednesdays? Fasting can take different forms:
- Go all day without food.
- Skip a single meal and use the time you would normally spend eating to pray.
- Skip something other than food if that is healthier for you, things like: put your cell phone away for a day, turn off the television, stay off social media. Use the time you save to pray.
Once you have chosen your form of fasting, allow the Holy Spirit to use the hunger and emptiness of fasting to bring you to a place of repentance and dependence on God. Allow the hunger to drive you to a deeper hunger for God’s forgiveness. Repent your sins and unbelief to God. Don’t run from the feelings of dependence, but allow your hunger pains to remind you of our deep need for God. Allow the hunger also to deepen the sadness you feel for our community and country and may that drive you to plead with God to restore peace and justice and bring relief from the pandemic.
Have you tried fasting before? What have been your experiences? What concerns do you have? Post a comment and keep this conversation going.