Strength in Fasting
by Neatice Warner
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you."
Tense excitement must have filled the air as the assembly of Jewish men, women, and children camped on the banks of the River Ahava in Babylon, ready to travel west toward Jerusalem, back to their homeland. One delay had already happened, as their leader, Ezra the priest and scribe, recruited temple servants and Levites to join the expedition.
Then Ezra announced a three-day fast for prayer to the LORD, who more than 7 decades before had ended His people’s forced exile in Babylon. Now the Persian King Artaxerxes was permitting another group of Jews to return to Jerusalem. Ezra insisted that first they must fast and pray for God’s protection in the dangerous 1,600 mile march (Ezra 8:21-23). They should pray, but why fast? Why take more time and why avoid food and water that were needed for energy?
What about fasting? Why should believers fast now?
Only one official fast, on the Day of Atonement, was commanded by the LORD in the Mosaic Law (Leviticus 16:29-30). However, the Lord Jesus began His own journey of ministry with a 40-day fast in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). And while He did not command fasting, Jesus indicated that He expected His people would, but warned His followers not to use their fast to impress others (Matthew 6:16-18).
Fasting is hard! It’s uncomfortable, and we may for a while be distracted with thoughts of food. But as we look away from what physically satisfies us, we may lift our eyes to God, our soul’s satisfaction. Like Moses, we may ask to know Him more fully, even to see His glory (Exodus 33:13, 18-23; 34:28). Or like Ezra, we may come in real weakness, asking Him for a provision or protection that only He can give.
God brought Ezra’s expedition safely to Jerusalem, but soon Ezra learned that some of those already living there had defied God’s warnings and intermarried with the pagan inhabitants of the land. The devoted priest fell to the ground in grief, pouring out his despair, and confessing the people’s sin to the loving and holy God. And as Ezra continued to mourn, he fasted (Ezra 9:1-10:6).
Ezra himself was not personally guilty of the sin he confessed, but he knew its destructiveness for his nation. Just as fasting from food, sleep, recreation, or a dominant routine will free us to look up to God, we may also receive a clearer vision into ourselves and deeper insight for recognizing and confessing sin. We often fast before medical testing or surgical procedures, to ensure precision. As we deliberately deny ourselves expected pleasures and come humbly before the Lord and His Word, His Spirit leads us to repentance and energizes change.
Some years after his journey from Babylon, Ezra stood before the people, not to grieve but to read God’s Word to them at their own request (Nehemiah 8:1-8). The people were convicted of their failure to fully honor God’s Law and began to weep as they listened. Governor Nehemiah joined Ezra to tell the people, on that day, to go and enjoy the Feast of Tabernacles, for feasting and rejoicing were also God’s will and gift. “And do not be grieved,” Nehemiah said, “for the joy of the LORD is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). The people celebrated, then confessed and fasted again, and worshiped their merciful God (Nehemiah 9:1-5). Fasting releases us to look up to God’s glorious reality, to look into ourselves with repentance, and to look ahead for renewal and joy in God’s purpose.