A couple years ago, we challenged our young adult group to a series of spiritual disciplines. One month, we focused on kneeling prayer. Three times a day, we were to physically kneel during our prayers. It didn’t sound like a particularly difficult challenge. But it was.
In the morning, when I was groggy and not fully awake, I didn’t always feel like dropping to my knees.
At my mid day lunch break did I want to make a scene at work? I will honestly say I opted for the open palm hand posture as a workplace compromise.
And in the evenings, I often felt too tired to do one more thing before crawling into my comfy, cozy bed. It was hard. Why? Because I not only had to form a new practice, I had to conform my body to it.
The Spiritual and the Physical
There is something profoundly spiritual yet profoundly physical about prayer. It is a marriage of the body and the soul that does not come naturally to us. Prayer is primarily spiritual, of course, as the final piece of our armor to battle the forces of evil (Ephesians 6). But it isn’t only spiritual. It has a real world effect. It changes lives in real time.
As C.S. Lewis writes “God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. . . . He likes matter. He invented it.”
The delicious flavor of local honey swirled into your favorite cup of tea, the smell of freshly baked cinnamon rolls on a Sunday morning, the blue of the sky, or the touch of a newborn’s fingers wrapped around yours. All of these human senses ground us in reality. And remind us of God’s grace in our daily lives. The posture of the bended knee, the reverence of a bowed head, humbles our hearts and quiets our minds as the spiritual and the physical collide.
Perhaps that’s why I’ve come to appreciate the physical role of fasting in prayer. It intentionally uses your body, something as normal and mundane as hunger, as a way to connect you to the spiritual realities we cannot see.
What Fasting Is and What Fasting Isn’t
I used to think that fasting was about “sacrificing” or “suffering” for God, showing Him just how much we loved Him by giving something up for Him. But this year, that all changed. I’ve personally only fasted a few times in my life. Yes. You read that. Only a few times. Recently, our church had a month-long fasting and prayer challenge, and for the first time I saw it in a new light. Fasting isn’t about sacrifice. It’s about finding our satisfaction in Jesus Christ.
It’s easy to be consumed by the demands of the day and forget to pray. But fasting makes us more alert. It turns our minds and our cravings to the only One who can satisfy. Fasting helps us “Pray without ceasing”, like 1 Thessalonians 5:17 commands. And isn’t our obedience what God desires? 1 Samuel 15:22 says, “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice.”
The goal of fasting isn’t to suffer or to sacrifice something for God but to live in obedience to the One who has sacrificed everything for us. Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient. He suffered for us, and His work is finished. Hebrews 10:10 tells us that the Day of Atonement was fulfilled when Jesus made the final sacrifice on the cross, and with it the prescription for fasting ended (Isaiah 58).
Even so, we continue to fast and pray, not out of sacrificial compulsion, but out of desire to deepen our relationship with God. The early church practiced fasting, Paul himself, and even Jesus, as a regular part of the Christian life. And while fasting isn’t directly commanded for New Testament Christians, we are commanded to “Pray Without Ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). And fasting helps make that a reality in our lives. It helps us be obedient prayer warriors by keeping prayer top of mind with every hunger pang. Fasting prompts us to pray because of something our body naturally craves or desires. And in its place, we turn to God instead of those things.
Viewing fasting this way has helped me see it, not as a way to earn favor with God, but as a habit of grace that allows me to more fully experience the favor that already surrounds me. In fact, I’m so convinced that fasting isn’t about sacrifice, that I’ve even broken my Lenten fast once or twice! Why? Because of God’s grace. It is only because of His grace that I can even enjoy the goodness of delicious desserts in the first place (I’ve been fasting desserts for Lent). It is only because of His grace that I don’t need to earn His favor. And it is only because of His grace that I can break a fast without punishment.
How amazing that our bodies, our hunger pangs, our natural desires and inclinations, can serve as reminders of God’s grace! When we practice fasting, not as a self-righteous sacrifice but as an obedient act of love, it turns our thoughts and prayers toward Him, drawing us ever more into the satisfaction of His grace.
So in these two weeks leading up to Easter, I challenge you to consider what you could fast. Food? Entertainment? Something your body regularly craves! And use that craving to turn your attention, not toward your own suffering, but toward the satisfaction of His grace!