Scripture Reference: Deuteronomy 9, Matthew 4:1-11, Matthew 6:16-18
Desperate PrayingDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | January 1, 2012
Selected highlights from this sermon
How hungry are we to meet with God? Desperation leads us to prayer. And part of our prayer life should include fasting. In this message, Pastor Lutzer dispels misconceptions about fasting, then explains how and, more importantly, why fasting should be incorporated into our prayer life.
Spiritual victories can be achieved when we humble ourselves and fast before God. Let us fast and seek God’s face.
It’s true to say that only desperate people pray. It’s only desperation really that drives us to our knees, either the desperation of a situation and circumstances, or possibly the desperation to know God, which is a much better desperation. But only desperate people pray. And another reason why people don’t pray is that they think that God doesn’t really answer prayer anyway. It’s not going to change anything, so even Christians have been known to go day after day without any substantive praying. What a tragedy!
And then when it comes to desperate praying, I’m reminded of the fact that in the Bible fasting is mentioned at least fifty times. And even though it occurs so often in Scripture – Moses fasted, the prophets fasted, Nehemiah fasted, Jesus fasted, Paul fasted, all of the apostles and the early Church fasted – somehow we think to ourselves that that doesn’t apply to us. We think that fasting went the way of medieval mysticism. It went the way of the monastery.
Why should we fast if we can actually feast? You know the Apostle Paul says (and I think it’s the King James Version) in First Corinthians, “I buffet my body,” and we change that a little and say, “I buffet my body.” (laughter) “Why should we do without food?” we say to ourselves, and then in addition to that we add the other stipulation and say that we don’t understand why it works. Why is fasting important? After all, no matter when we pray, we always come to God on the basis of Jesus Christ. God hears us and we know that God hears us. Why is he going to hear us any more just because we fast?
And so Christians don’t fast by in large. A few do. And yet fasting, which played such a great role in the history of the Church, and the writings and the experiences of the Biblical characters, has all but disappeared from the Church, and I want to change that beginning today. But first of all let me share a couple of misconceptions and misuse regarding fasting. In fact, maybe the reason why we are so reluctant to fast is because we know that it can be misused. For example, misuse number one is it’s a way to manipulate God. After all God hasn’t answered my prayer when I just pray generally, and now I am going to fast and it’s about time that he come through for me, and my fasting will prove my sincerity, and how can God in heaven say no if I fast? Watch it! That’s a misuse of fasting. It’s not a way to manipulate God. It’s not a way to get your will. David fasted when he was told that his child was going to die. In fact, the Bible says that he went out and he lay on the ground, and yet the child died. It’s not a way to manipulate God.
There’s a second problem that people have with fasting and it’s a great danger, and that is they use it as merit. By that I mean they think to themselves, “Well, you know after all I’ve done a lot of bad things. I’m living in sin. I’m sleeping with my girl friend. But if I fast surely that will kind of balance things out and even the score.” God has a great deal to say about that. You know in the book of Isaiah the Lord made it very, very clear that he was not interested simply in people fasting and doing all the right things and even humbling themselves. He says that the fast that he has chosen is a day for a person to humble himself. “Yes, and will you call this a fast and a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose? To lose the bonds of wickedness, to undo straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke and to share your bread with the hungry and the homeless,” and on and on it goes. God is saying, “If your fasting doesn’t change your heart, and does not increase the amount of love that you have in your heart and your ability to do good works, then stop it. I can’t stand this outward act of fasting unless it brings about an inner change.”
There’s a third misuse, and that is, of course, piety. Jesus referred to this you remember in the book of Matthew, and he made it very clear. He said, “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, 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.”
Now don’t become obsessed with this business that other people shouldn’t know that you are fasting. Many of you are going to fast this week. Wednesday is the day that we have designated, and in your bulletin today there is information as to how you can make the best use of that day of fasting. But the fact is that many people make this syllogism. Pious people fast; I am fasting, therefore I must be pious.
If you go out for lunch with someone on Wednesday, just simply tell him or her that you are not eating – you are fasting. Don’t make a big deal of it. That’s what Jesus is saying. But whatever you do don’t think to yourself, “Wow, I want everybody to know that I fasted this past Wednesday,” so they all say, “Oh, he’s so spiritual, he must glow in the dark at night.” (laughter) That’s what Jesus was speaking about.
Fasting is a full body response to God, usually at a critical time, and a critical time of desperation. That’s what fasting is. I want to say a few words about your body when you fast. Your friends will tell you that you are going to starve to death. Your stomach is going to tell you that they want to take you to court because this is cruel and unusual punishment. You are going to think of every reason in the world why this is a very bad idea. Do you know why camels have a hump? It is because it’s their pantry so that when they run out of food they take some of the food that is on the shelf in their hump and they use it. The hump that is on a camel is full of water, yes, but primarily food.
We’re like that too. We walk around and we have some extra pantries that we are bringing with us, but we always want to keep the shelves stocked. (laughter) We don’t want to ever take anything that is in the pantry and use it because our stomach cries out and says, “What are you doing to me now?”
So first of all, what fasting does to the body is it teaches us some discipline. It says to that stomach of yours, “No matter how much you holler, no matter how painful it gets, I am going to show you I don’t have to eat.” Now if you are anorexic don’t fast. Go to a doctor. Get some help. Put on some weight. But most of us don’t fit into that category, and I have some news for you. If some of you were to fast a full 36 hours I assure you that you would still be alive at the end of the fast. You will be. I promise.
So that’s one benefit to the body. The other benefit is that is reminds us of a lesson that we need to learn. Just as we need food for our body and our bodies cry out when we do not give it that food, in the very same way that’s what God is to the soul. And you see we spend all of our time being concerned about the body, and how much we eat and sometimes what we eat, and all that is important and how our body looks, and our soul is totally neglected when really God is to the soul what food is to the body. How important is God to you? So when you have those hunger pains, and when your stomach tells you that this is a very, very bad idea, and you are going to be irritable, at that moment you say, “God, I wish that I desired you as much as I desire a hamburger right now.” Wouldn’t that be wonderful if we desired God that way?
Now in the Bible there is very little evidence that fasting was ever done for physical reasons, and I know that doctors disagree on this. But I was talking to one person who said that a longer fast (maybe 7 days or maybe 21 days), of course with a lot of water and maybe juices, would actually bring about a cleansing and a healing of the body. He said that when you go through this period of time there may be aches and pains that you are experiencing, and the body is healing itself, so there may be benefits to the body. But in the Scripture the real benefit of fasting is always connected with the soul. It is connected with the soul, and in the Bible fasting is always connected with confession of sin. That’s why fasting and mourning always go together. You’ll notice, for example, that Joel speaks about this, and he says, “Yet now, declares the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning, and rend your hearts and not your garments, and return to the Lord for he is gracious and merciful.” You see what the people were doing, because in biblical times the ripping of your clothes indicated your mourning, was they would go through all of these rituals. They’d tear their clothes; they would let everybody know that they were fasting, and God says, “Don’t tear your clothes. Don’t rend your garments. Rend your heart. Understand that the real purpose of fasting is a deeper kind of repentance.” You see, fasting will bring out your sin. As a matter of fact, the very fact that you are so irritable because you haven’t eaten, Lord help you, for a couple of hours shows that you are still quite a sinner, aren’t you, and quite unsanctified? Why should skipping a few meals cause you to be so difficult to get along with? I remember one person saying, “I’m not sanctified in the morning until I have a cup of coffee.” Oh really? Chapter and verse please! The Holy Spirit can’t work in my heart until I have some coffee? Why can’t the Holy Spirit of God give you a sense of peace and tranquility even in the midst of hunger? Thousands of Christians throughout the world have had to prove that because remember many people are starving. In fact, there was a news report on the news just this week that about 25% of the people in North Korea are starving, and among them there are Christians. So can the Holy Spirit of God work in our hearts when we are hungry, or does the Holy Spirit only bring about his fullness and his satisfaction when we are fully satisfied? That’s the purpose of fasting. It’s to help us to see that we are greater sinners than we realized so that we may repent more fully of our sin.
Fasting also enables us to have heightened spiritual sensitivity, and when we begin to have that we oftentimes find that in the process of fasting we become involved with spiritual warfare. I mean certainly Jesus did when he was there in the desert, and after he had fasted for forty days and forty nights the devil came to him. And don’t be surprised that the devil shows up when you fast. He’ll tell you that fasting is useless, that you shouldn’t do it, that there’s no reason to it and you should not be that desperate for God anyway, and so he will come to you and give you all kinds of reasons why you should not be fasting, so fasting benefits the soul.
Let me say also that fasting helps us to win spiritual victories. Do you remember when Jesus was on the Mount of Transfiguration he came down and he saw that there was a man who ran to him who said, “You know I have a child with an unclean spirit.” We don’t know how that child got the unclean spirit but evidently there was such a thing as demonic involvement in certain families, maybe because of occultism or whatever, and the father said, “This evil spirit throws the boy down and he foams at the mouth and the spirit tries to kill the boy by throwing him in the fire.” And Jesus came and the demon left, and then later on the disciples said to Jesus, “Now why couldn’t we cast him out?” They were trying to do it. They had the power to do it. They had the authority to do it, but Jesus said, “This kind does not come out unless there is prayer,” and then many manuscripts add that Jesus said, “and fasting.”
There are times when we could just serve the Lord and an ordinary prayer is important and it’s good enough, but there are times of desperation where we say, “We are going to seek God in a focused way. For us to eat food during this period of time would almost be sacrilege because we are absolutely desperate to see God work here and to do a miracle.”
Now in the Bible there are many illustrations of victory that has come about in people’s lives as a result of fasting. I spoke about Jesus a moment ago. He’s there forty days and forty nights without any food, and of course, the tempter came to him. And Jesus reminded the devil that man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.
Now this week I assume that you are going to fast. Jesus assumed that people would fast. Jesus never said, “Now if you fast, do this.” He said, “When you fast, then make sure that you don’t do it as an outward show.” So I am expecting you to fast this week. And Jesus gave us a good word. When you are so hungry and you think to yourself that you are not going to make it throughout the day, why don’t you quote that verse of Scripture? “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” And say, “Oh God, give me a hunger for yourself that is as great as the hunger that I have right now for food.” Spiritual victories, personal victories have been won.
Let me ask you. Are some of you parents desperate for a child that has wandered from the fold – a prodigal son or a prodigal daughter? How desperate are you for God to intervene in their life and to do something? How desperate are we to see issues of economics in our lives and relational issues resolved, and let me ask you how are we at Moody Church going to see marriages that are on the rocks, where there is hostility and where there is oppression and demonic work in the life of this couple, how are we going to see victories unless we are willing to pray and to fast and to finally get serious about seeking God? How long are we going to be satisfied with complacency instead of individual victory?
I never realized this before till this week but in Deuteronomy 9 Moses said this. “When the children of Israel sinned with the calf (you remember the golden calf that they made) Moses said, ‘I went up unto the mountain and for forty days and forty nights I ate no food and drank no water. I fasted and I called on God,’ and then he goes on to say, ‘and the Lord listened.’” How many of us would be willing to do that? By the way, Moses and Jesus both fasted forty days and forty nights without food or water, and that’s a very bad idea for us to do. You say, “Well, why can’t we use them as role models?” News flash! You are neither Moses, nor are you Jesus. All right?” (laughter) If you fast, you drink water, you drink juices because your body needs it, and if you have some medical condition you check with your doctor before you fast. But the question still is, “How desperate are we to see the work of God at Moody Church?” That’s the question that I am laying before you here today.
And then we have oftentimes corporate victory – great corporate victory. I love this passage. I’ve used it many times. In Second Chronicles the enemy is coming against them. “Jehoshaphat was afraid and set his face to seek the Lord and proclaimed a fast throughout all of Judah. And Judah assembled to seek help from the Lord, and all the cities of Judah came and they sought the Lord.” Jehoshaphat prayed a wonderful prayer, but I’ll give you only the conclusion. “Our God, will you not execute judgment on them for we are powerless against this great hoard that is coming against us. We do not know what to do but our eyes are on you,” and I’ll tell you today we don’t know what to do.
I have at least a dozen or more books on my shelf that tell us how we can win America back, how we can re-establish this country and get some of our freedoms back, and all of that. And we don’t know what to do, and all the books and all the ideas simply are not working. Have you ever thought about how weak the church is? Two percent of the population, and I’m speaking now about homosexuality (and I am not referring to those of you who are listening to this and struggle with homosexuality but about those who are the radicals), have more power in the legislatures of this world, and have the ear of more politicians and the support of more politicians than the Christian Church in America today. We don’t know what to do but our eyes are on the Lord.
I think of creeping Sharia in America and all of the implications of that. I think, for example, of us economically and in every other way. We need God, and we don’t know what to do, but our eyes are on the Lord. Jehoshaphat says, “Proclaim a fast.”
Now it’s possible to grow a big church without prayer – essentially without prayer. I mean you know you can begin a service with prayer and then say some things along the line, and people can pray before they eat or pray before their Bible study. The reason I know that is because sad to say there are some rather large churches in America that don’t even have a prayer meeting. They would never think of proclaiming a fast or a solemn assembly where the whole church is praying together and fasting on a certain day. They wouldn’t think of that, and I know that personally because I’ve asked some of the pastors. But you know what you don’t have in those churches is the deliverance of people – people who are on drugs, people with habitual sins and addictions, and marriages that are falling apart. You don’t have a lot of stories of miracles of God doing the impossible in people’s lives. That only happens through prayer and fasting, and that’s why developing a culture of prayer here at the Moody Church is so incredibly important.
Let me mention a couple of things in conclusion. First of all, the true fast that we are proclaiming on Wednesday, and at times throughout the year (and I hope that Wednesday is only an example of when we fast corporately, and I hope that you fast more often than that individually) deepens our repentance. That’s the fast that God has chosen, where it isn’t an outward show, where we set time apart and say, “Lord, show me what you see. Search me, oh Lord, and know my heart, and see if there be any wicked way in me and lead me in the everlasting path.” That’s the kind of fast that God has chosen.
Secondly, it’s a fast that seeks God’s face, and not just God’s hand. You see, most of us would like to have God answer our prayer. “Lord, I have a son that isn’t following you. I’ve got a financial issue. I’ve got this, this, this, and that’s my list for the day, Lord, and just in case you don’t do it I’ll give you the same list tomorrow.” And you don’t even look in God’s face.
How would I like it if one of my grand children came to me and said, “Papa (and they all call me Papa), give me some money,” and the kid has just come in. He’s just arrived in the house and he hasn’t even looked me in the eye but he says, “Give me some money. What’s in your hand? What can I take?” I say, “Wait a moment. I don’t like the way this is going. I can give you the money but would you please look into my eyes first? Can you and I connect together?” You see our greatest need is not to have all our requests answered. Our greatest need is to see God to connect with God. Our greatest need is to seek God’s face because in doing that we submit to God, we submit to his purposes, and fasting isn’t a time when we finally get from God what we want or what we need nearly as much as it is a time when we develop an intimate relationship with God that’s just between us that is both satisfying and meaningful, and then all of the other things begin to take care of themselves. Like Jesus said, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.” And we go to the add-ons first, don’t we? Seeking him and his righteousness becomes passé.
So let us seek God’s face and not just his hand. And then of course, fasting affirms a life of continued obedience. It’s not a matter of saying, “Well, you know I’m going to fast on Wednesday (and we’re expecting all of you to) and then that’s going to be it for the year. I’ve done my fasting.” That’s a wrong attitude. It should be a lifelong desire that you and I submit to the sovereignty of God and in his presence fast. And let those hunger pangs drive us to God, and say, “Oh God, I wish that I loved you; I wish that I desired you as much as I desire food right now.”
I’m sorry to have to say that I have often fasted 36 hours, but only once did I go way beyond that to several days, and those first days were so difficult, but when you get beyond the first three or four days actually fasting is not that difficult at all. It is just that in that phase where our stomach tells us that we should stop doing this, that’s the difficult part. Get through that and above all meet God.
So the question that I am going to leave with you today is how hungry are you for God? Are you desperate or not so desperate because you know you are doing well? Your bills are paid. You are in good health and so you don’t see any real reason why you have to seek the Lord. Let me tell you. This coming year God may bring circumstances into your life where you are driven to your knees because only desperate people pray. And we come with our need and we end up with a whole new relationship with God, which is really what it’s all about anyway.
As a deer pants for the water brook, so my soul pants after you, oh God. What do you want God to do in the next months? Are you and I desperate enough to say we will do anything from our point of view? Yes, it is God’s decision what he does, but we are going to align ourselves with the breath and the wind of the Spirit and seek God. And even if we don’t get what we are seeking after, we will find him. As it says in Joel, “You shall find me if you search for me with all your heart.” That’s the fast that God has chosen.
Will you join me as we pray? I do want to ask you the question again. How thirsty are you for God? How hungry are you for God? Does this hunger consume you or is it a sideline? I’m asking myself the same question.
Father, here at this church where you have been so good to us, and you have blessed many, may it be said that we have only begun to see what you will do and can do in the transformation of lives, lifting oppression, bringing victory, connecting, helping, serving and being your people and being all that we can be to your glory in Jesus’ name, Amen.