Here in the United States, we hurry to and from just about everything. Our fast-paced lifestyle reminds me of something the Red Queen in Alice In Wonderland said. It seems to me as if she was painting a perfect picture of the lifestyle in our area when she told Alice, “Now here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.”
Well, sometimes running faster doesn’t do any good. We just have too much to do and too little time in which to do it. And when that happens, we deal with our endless to-do lists by practicing what has come to be referred to as multi-tasking. This simply means we learn to do more than one thing at the same time, killing two birds with one stone. We do this by combining errands. We take work with us to do while we ride on the train or the metro or the plane. We use our cell-phones while driving to and from appointments. We take some files to look through during any lull in play in our kids’ soccer games.
We’ve even applied this two birds with one stone philosophy to other aspects of our lives. For example we are more likely to use credit cards that allow us to accumulate airline miles at the same time we make purchases. We sign up for long distance carriers that send a portion of our bill to the charity of our choice. And everyone loves those sales in which you can get two items for the price of one.
Well, today I’m applying this principle to my blog entry because in the space allotted to one topic, I am going to deal with two. So, I’m saving you some time today. You are getting a great deal, because the focus will be on not one but two of the classic spiritual disciplines…specifically: prayer and fasting…both of which are practices that God has given us to provide us a way to deepen our relationship with Him. I want to begin by looking at the discipline of fasting…something that most Christians these days are not familiar with at all.
Fasting is mentioned many times in the Bible but the text I want us to look at is in Matthew 6 …part of the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 6: 6-18. Here Jesus says…
16 – And when you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.17 – But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face.
18 – so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, Who is unseen; and your Father, Who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Now,what exactly is fasting? Well, it’s not dieting. It’s not skipping meals to lose weight. Whenever fasting is mentioned in the Bible it refers to abstaining from food for the purpose of growing spiritually. I am thinking there are several things that provide one incentive to learn this particular discipline.
1. First of all fasting is good for us PHYSICALLY.
This might come as a shock to some of some. We tend to think that doing without food might be harmful. People buy into this misconception because they have been conditioned to think that they cannot do without three full meals a day and several snacks in between which of course is not true. In fact fasting is good. It gives the digestive systems a rest. It also purifies the body by allowing built up toxins to filter out of the various systems.
2. But fasting’s main benefit is SPIRITUAL.
This is because it teaches self-control and encourages a prolonged un-distracted focus on Christ rather than on the temporary pleasures of this material world. Through this discipline one begins to see how easily nonessentials to take precedence…how quickly desires for things that aren’t really needed ten to enslave us. Richard Foster writes, “Our human cravings and desires are like a river that tends to overflow its banks; fasting helps keep them in their proper channel.” More than any other discipline fasting reveals the things that we allow to take control. In fact, just looking at the size and shapes of the average American body shows that food has too much control over many!
Well fasting brings things like this to the light. For example, if pride controls, it will be revealed through fasting. David said,
I humbled my soul with fasting. Psalm 69:10
Anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear…if they are within us, they will surface during fasting. Then we can take steps to deal with these shortcomings.
Now,fasting is not a command in the Bible. Jesus does not order us to fast but several passages of scripture show that our Lord did assume we would fast. For example in verse 17 of our text Jesus did not say if you fast but when you fast.
It is also important to know that in the Bible there are several different kinds of fasts.
a. The most common type is to abstain from food…not water for a certain period of time.
This was the kind of fast Jesus did when he wandered in the desert for 40 days and nights. A careful reading of the text infers that Jesus did have water during this time.
b. Another type of fast is to decide not to eat certain types of foods for a time.
In Daniel 10:3 the prophet said that …for three weeks he ate no delicacies, no meat, or wine.
c. And then, ABSOLUTE fasts involve consuming no food or water.
These fasts are done at times of dire emergency…like the time Queen Esther learned that execution awaited herself and her people and instructed Mordecai saying, “Go, gather all the Jews…hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days.”
The main teaching on fasting that Jesus gives us in our text for today is that it is a discipline that should be done secretly. Our fasting is for God to see but not others unlike the Jewish religious leaders of that day who fasted to appear spiritually superior. These people were painfully pious and proud of it. When you fast, the only ones who should know about it are the ones who HAVE to know. If you call attention to your fasting, people will be impressed but as Jesus said, that will be your only reward. This would be foolish because we fast for far greater and deeper rewards than the applause of others. We engage in this discipline to grow spiritually, to please God not our peers.
There are several books that I would recommend you read as you begin learn to practice this discipline, books that have lots of tips that will help you get the most out of fasting. Among those are:
- Fasting: Spiritual Freedom Beyond Our Appetites by Lynne M. Baab
- Fasting: A Spiritual Power Tool by Don Hooser
- Fasting for Spiritual Breakthrough By: Elmer L. Towns
- Fasting: Exploring a Great Spiritual Practice (Exploring a Great Spiritual Practice) by Carole Garib Rogers
One thing all fasters should understand is that fasting is never really all it can be without the discipline of prayer.
In fact, if we are to grow spiritually through fasting it must be done in conjunction with prayer, which is why I thought it would be good to look at these two disciplines together. Now prayer is a practice with which we are much more familiar than fasting of course, but we still have a long way to go when it comes to this particular holy habit.
I think that if we were to play a little word association game about now. I mean if I were to ask you to think about what first came into your mind when you hear this word: PRAYER. Well, I’m no mind reader but I bet the first word that would pop into some of your brains is the word, GUILT. You don’t feel you pray enough. Maybe there was a time when you prayed more often but then you became too busy, and this causes you to feel guilty. I bet when I said prayer others of you had the word FRUSTRATED to come into your mind. I mean you’ve been praying diligently and it seems like nothing happens. You cry out and all you get is silence. You lift your voice to God and you feel as if it falls on deaf ears. And then, maybe the word that popped into some of your minds is the word APATHETIC. You’re willing to sit in church and listen, or read this blog and comprehend, but you don’t have any real strong feelings about prayer. Maybe you’ve tried prayer in the past and it left you cold, so you don’t really care much about it. Or perhaps the word that prayer brings to your mind is FEARFUL. You don’t really know HOW to pray. You’re terrified about the possibility that someone in your Sunday School class might ask you to pray out loud. That very thought causes your throat to get dry and your hands to get sweaty. You feel like your words are clumsy while everyone else prays so naturally.
Well, if we were honest I think ALL OF US understand these responses to the subject of prayer because all of us have a great deal to learn when it comes to this discipline. And I think it might help motivate us to learn about prayer if we could begin to understand WHY prayer is so important.
One reason prayer is so important and so valuable is that it is literally life-changing. And the first thing prayer changes is US.
Prayer changes our attitudes. It changes is the way we feel about a situation. I mean, how many of you have faced a hopeless situation and after you prayed felt a little less hopeless? How often have you faced something that caused you great fear and after you prayed felt a little less afraid? How many of you have faced a dilemma where you did not know where to turn but after you prayed you felt a little less uncertain? Prayer changes things. It changes the way we look at the trials and tribulations of life.
It also changes us as individuals because as we spend time with God we become more and more like Him. In his book on the spiritual disciplines, Richard Foster writes,
“In real prayer we begin to think God’s thoughts after Him: to desire the things He desires, to love the things He loves. Progressively we are taught to see things from His point of view.”
You see, in the regular practice of prayer God meets us where we are and gradually moves us along into deeper things. In his classic book on prayer Foster also says,
“To pray is to change. This is a great grace. How good of God to provide a path whereby our lives can be taken over by His love, and joy, and peace, and patience, and kindness, and goodness, and faithfulness, and self-control.”
You know I heard somewhere that one way U.S. treasury agents spot counterfeit bills is by rubbing them against a sheet of white paper. If the paper turns green they know the dollar is genuine because the REAL thing rubs off. Well, God is the REAL THING and when we spend time with Him through prayer, His nature rubs off on us. It impacts us. It changes us like nothing else will. The great missionary William Carey once said, “Prayer, secret, fervent, believing prayer lies at the root of all personal godliness.”
But you know, prayer not only changes us. It also changes the SITUATION.
In I Corinthians 3:9 Paul says that you and I are God’s fellow workers.
9For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. ~I Cor 3:9
This and several other texts teach that we are working with God to determine the outcome of future events. This means that certain things will happen in the future IF we pray rightly. We can change the world through prayer. We see this repeatedly in Scripture: The miracles of Israel’s exodus from Egypt and journey to the Promised Land were all answers to prayer. So were Jesus’ miracles of stilling storms, providing food, healing the sick and raising the dead. As the early church formed and grew and spread throughout the world, God answered the believers’ continual prayers for healing and deliverance. God’s power can change circumstances and relationships. It can heal psychological and physical problems, remove marriage obstructions, meet financial needs. In fact, it can handle any kind of difficulty, dilemma, or discouragement. And that power is accessed through prayer.
As James 5:16 says, The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.
Someone has wisely said that when we work WE work; but when we pray, GOD works. His supernatural strength is available to praying people who are convinced to the core of their being that He can make a difference. Skeptics may argue that answered prayers are only coincidences, but as an English archbishop once observed, “It’s amazing how many coincidences occur when one begins to pray.”
You know like several other of you middle-agers out there, when I was a little boy I used to spend Saturday mornings watching old videotapes that my father thought were “great television”, including The Adventures of the Lone Ranger and Tonto. Well, this week I was reminded of an episode in which the Lone Ranger and Tonto were riding through the desert looking for bad guys which is pretty much what they did every episode. They came upon a monastery and they called out to the monk who lived there and he came out. The Lone Ranger and Tonto asked him which way the bad guys went. And he pointed and said, “They went that way.” Then he said, “I want to go with you.” Well, then The Lone Ranger looked down from his horse and said, “You’re a very brave man Padre, but things could get a little dangerous out there where we’re going. I think you ought to stay right here where it will be safe.” And the padre said, “But I want to do something.” And the Lone Ranger said to him, with a bit of condescension in his voice, “Well, you can pray.” And then, in a cloud of dust with a hearty “Hi ho, Silver!” the Lone Ranger and Tonto rode off into the horizon heading for the gun battle, to the showdown that was going to take place. Well, where do you think the camera went at that point? Who did the camera follow? Did it go with the monk back inside the monastery? Of course not! No, the camera followed the Lone Ranger and Tonto. Why? Because that is where the action was. That is where the thrills were, where the adventure was.
And yet, when you think about it, that monk was going to actually talk to the Creator of the entire universe, to the all-powerful God for whom a six-shooter is as puny as a cap pistol, the mighty Lord Who by merely speaking the Word can cause worlds to spring into existence, the God Who can and has changed the course of human history. This padre was going to speak to God, and God was actually going to listen to him and respond to him. So, let me ask you now. Where was the real adventure? In the monastery! In fact that gunfight wasn’t really going to be won or lost wherever the Lone Ranger found the bad guys, it was going to be won or lost in that monastery with that monk with his prayers because God has the power like nobody else to affect the outcome of human affairs. Prayer is an adventure you don’t want to miss. Prayer changes things.
Alright, now that I have motivated you a little – let’s talk then about HOW to Pray…
And, let me point out first of all that, like fasting, prayer IS something you learn. The disciples discovered that. Remember when they asked Jesus to TEACH them to pray? They had seen in our Lord a pattern for prayer that they yearned to master. And you know there is great freedom in that truth because this means we don’t have to come to God as prayer experts. We don’t have to study and learn all the right words and phrases before we start praying. We don’t even have to have the best of motives to pray. I mean, we don’t have to be perfect for God to want to hear from us. No, we simply come to Him as teachable children. Remember Jesus’ first prayer lesson was that we should address God as our Abba which literally means Daddy. If you are a parent then you know that children come to you with the craziest requests at times. Sometimes parents are saddened by the meanness or selfishness in their requests, but you would even sadder if they never came to you at all. You are simply glad that they DO come, mixed motives and all. And this is precisely how it is with prayer. We never will have pure enough motives, or be good enough, or know enough in order to pray perfectly. So the thing we must do is to simply set all these things aside and begin praying knowing that God receives us just as we are and accepts our prayers just as they are. Foster writes, “In the same way that a small child cannot draw a bad picture, so a child of God cannot offer a bad prayer.”
Well, one way we learn more about prayer is by asking an Expert and the number one Expert on prayer is of course, Jesus Christ. No one in history has ever understood prayer better than our Lord. No one has ever believed more strongly in the power of prayer, and no one has ever prayed as He did. So, we look back to our Bibles open to Matthew 6 verses 5-13, where Jesus says,
5 – And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men.I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.
6 – But when you pray go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, Who is unseen. Then your Father, Who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
7 – And when you pray do not keep on babbling, like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.
8 – Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.
9 – This then is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name.
10 – Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
11 – Give us today our daily bread.
12 – Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 – And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one for Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.
Notice that the first thing Jesus teaches us here about prayer is that we should do so REGULARLY.
After all, in verse 5 of our text Jesus said, “WHEN you pray…” not IF you pray. Jesus not only assumed that His disciples would fast, He also assumed that they would have a regular time of prayer and this makes sense because anything you want to learn, anything you want to excel in, you must practice. The first week of practice during the summer season, my team practices regularly three times a day. We put in an average of 20,000 meters per day for the first week. Given that 1500 meters is a mile (roughly) this equates to 93 miles. It’s a steep learning curve, but the swimmers know that by practicing in this volume, they will learn to swim quickly, efficiently, and will adapt to the best practices of swimming. This reminds me of the prophet Daniel who prayed three times each day. Well, it is important to pray regularly because with out regularity prayer will never become a habit. I mean, if we want to live with a constant awareness of God’s presence we need to LEARN to shut the world out and tune God in at least ONCE a day, every day, without fail. Otherwise the things of the world will crowd God out. We have to pray regularly so that we learn to instantly turn a switch in our mind and be in conversation with Him, no matter where we are or what we are doing.
Jesus also teaches here that like fasting we must also pray SECRETLY.
Our Lord warned us in this text to avoid the then common practice of lifting up prayers on the street corner in a show of spirituality. Instead he has taught us to find a private place for prayer, a closet, an inner room. Why? Because the purpose of prayer is not to impress others but to be in conversation with God. We do not pray to communicate to others how holy we are, we pray to communicate with God how holy He is. Prayer is not a spectator sport. It’s not something we engage in to give off signals of spiritual superiority.
Another reason Jesus says it is important to get ALONE in prayer is that being in an inner room shuts out distractions, music, phones, kids, dogs – anything that can break our concentration and interfere. We need to find a quiet place to talk uninterrupted with God. So, in your own prayer life, find such a place and make it your own. As you use it regularly I think you will find that it takes on a special kind of aura. When I was in college, the main chapel building had a closet that was set apart for students to pray. They had carpeted it and put a kneeling bench in there. It was a quiet place to go to be alone with God, and like other students I went there often. I don’t think it was my imagination but this closet seemed to be special, hallowed ground. It glowed with a unique quietness I believe because so many pilgrims went there to talk to our God.
Thirdly, Jesus teaches us here that we must pray SINCERELY.
He says that when we pray we must not use meaningless repetition and empty phrases. And this is important guidance for us to understand because it is very easy to get caught up in using certain jargon or terminology in prayer. Some phrases may sound appropriate, spiritual, even pious, but after a while if we are not careful, we can find ourselves stringing together a bunch of popular phrases to form what I refer to as autopilot prayer. The same phrases uttered over and over again by rote with no sincerity behind them. Heaping up fancy phrases or babbling on and on can’t replace heartfelt and sincere communication with God.
Have you ever played the game TABOO? It’s like PASSWORD but they give you a list of words you can’t say and if you do your opponents buzz you with an annoying buzzer, and you lose points. Well, I think if we applied this principle to prayer and had a list of words like Bless or praise or generalized phrases like forgive me of my sins many of us would have a hard time knowing what to say to God. We use words and phrases like that too much, so much that they have become meaningless to us. We must learn that Jesus invites us to talk with the Father authentically, personally, reverently, earnestly.
Lately I have gotten pretty fed up with prime time TV and have found myself frequently watching the TV shows of the past on the TV Land Channel. In this way I have become acquainted with the characters of Leave It To Beaver. Watching those old shows has taught me something about myself. I despise Eddie Haskel. One thing that bugs me about him is that in addressing his elders, he sounds so respectful. He knows and uses all the right parent-pleasing phrases, but they are all empty of sincerity. Ward and June hate to hear him talk like that. And God hates it when we talk to Him in that way using all the current religious words and phrases without any honesty behind them. God wants us to talk to Him. But he wants sincerity in our words and phrases. He wants honesty. Vague and general religious platitudes are not what touch the heart of God.
Prayers filled with lots of words or the same phrases repeated over and over again will not get you anywhere with God. They sound just as monotonous to Him as they do to others.
Fourthly, Jesus says we are to pray SPECIFICALLY.
In the prayer lesson from Matthew 6 Jesus gave us a specific pattern to follow in what has come to be referred to as The Lord’s Prayer. It is an excellent model for us to follow as we learn to pray rightly, but I don’t believe that it was ever intended to be a magical incantation to get God’s attention.
Jesus didn’t give us this prayer as a paragraph to be recited. In fact, He had just warned against using repetitions phrases. Instead, I believe He gave it as a pattern to suggest the variety of elements that should be a part of our prayers.
Many Christians use the word ACTS as an acrostic to remind them of these and other specific components we should include in our prayers.
* A stands for Adoration. This reminds us that we must begin our prayers by praising God in such a way that we remember Who we are addressing. We see this in the Lord’s Prayer as Jesus tells us to pray, “Our Father, Who art in Heaven, HALLOWED be Thy name.” This reverent praise sets the pattern for all that is to follow. I love the stained glass windows because when I come into church; they set a tone of reverence; their beauty reminds me of God’s beauty and holiness. This helps me to worship correctly, with the right attitude. Begin your prayer time by ADORING God, praising Him for all He is to you – let that set the tone for all that you are about to say!
* C stands for Confession. In this part of our prayer time we specifically list our known faults and failures and short comings and ask God to forgive us. We see this in the model prayer in verse 12 where Jesus says we must ask God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” In confession we not only experience God’s forgiveness and the peace that comes with it, but also the lines of communication are cleared so we can hear God and feel His presence more easily.
* T stands for Thanksgiving. In this part of our prayers we specifically thank God for all His blessings. If you are a parent then you know how wonderful it feels when your kids come to you and spontaneously thank you for something you did. Our Heavenly Father feels the same way when we show Him that we NOTICE all He does for us by expressing our gratitude.
* S stands for Supplication and it involves obeying Philippians 4:6 where it says, “In everything by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving present your requests to God.” These requests should involve not only asking God for our daily bread (our own needs) but also to intercede and meet the needs of others.
And then, I for one add another S to the ACTS acronym. For me this last consonant stands for Submission. In this part of my prayer I submit my will to God’s. Jesus taught to make this a part of our prayers when He said we must learn to pray for His kingdom to come and His will to be done. This part of prayer teaches us the importance of putting God’s will first in our life, in marriage, family, career, ministry, money, body, relationships, church. It involves admitting that He knows more than we do about my petitions and intercessions than we do and also asking Him to be our Lord in the coming day, using us as He sees fit.