Drawing Near to God
Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.
- James 4:8-10
In this particular passage James offers this idea of "drawing nearer to God" as a way of combating and neutralizing the division and conflict that was taking place among James' readers. The idea is that if you are making an effort to come closer to God, if you are investing your energies into becoming a holier person, you will not have the interest or energy to fight with your brothers or sister in the church.
It's interesting to note that in order to draw nearer to God James does not suggest that they take more Bible classes to gain knowledge, or do benevolent work for the poor.
These are good things in themselves and have their place in Christian life but James is very clear about what one needs to do in order to draw nearer to God.
- Vs. 8a - Cleanse your hands = do good things, let go the bad habits and evil things you are doing.
- Vs. 8b - Purify your hearts = make up your minds about what you believe, who and how you will serve, stand up for your faith.
- Vs. 9-10 - Humble yourselves, mourn, weep, be miserable.
Some think he means we should be unhappy here on purpose or make ourselves depressed. This isn't it. God doesn't want us to force ourselves to be unhappy and depressed - not with the knowledge of the resurrection in our hearts!
No here James is referring to the subjection of our bodies to our wills. In other words, to humble, mourn and weep means to lower ourselves before God in some way; and the way that first century Christians did this was through the practice of fasting and prayer.
We humble our bodies, we mourn and weep over our truly weak condition when we're made painfully aware of this by denying our bodies comfort, food, sleep, or other basic necessities. When you're poor and destitute the lack of these things is painful and a source of worry and despair.
However, when you have all those things and deny them to yourself in the form of a fast, then you are willingly lowering (humbling) yourself before God and bearing the consequences of this denial (mourning, pain, misery) as a sign of your faith. It is not the only thing you can offer God but James says that offering Him this is pleasing to God because He rewards people who do this.
How? He lifts them up.
- Lifts them out of bad habits
- Lifts them out of sorrow, fear, guilt, regret.
- Lifts them out from the burdens they may carry physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
A person who humbles himself through fasting, in addition to his prayer, demonstrates his seriousness, his sincerity, and his true need for God's help, and God promises to respond to this type of appeal. We're getting ready to experience a 24-hour period of prayer and fasting.
This lesson is to help us understand this biblical discipline and how it applies to us in the modern era.
What is Fasting?
A basic definition of fasting is:
- The voluntary disuse of anything, not just food.
- Abstaining from food or any other good or pleasing thing in order to obtain something better.
Deny physical things to gain spiritual things. In the Bible the Hebrew word: "Anah" and in the New Testament the Greek word "Nesteia" are translated into the English word, "Fast/Fasting." These biblical words meant - to afflict; to chasten; humble; to mourn. The idea is that the way to afflict / chasten the person is to willfully deny self food or other comforts for a time.
This has the effect of lowering one's pride before God, and opens the person's mind and spirit to greater understanding and knowledge of God, which in turn produces true humility. Fasting however does not take place if you are dieting or starving because of famine or war etc. A person must willingly give up food or comfort to gain something better on a spiritual level, not a physical level.
If you starve yourself to lose weight, your weight loss and better health is your reward. Fasting is a way for the physical and the spiritual to integrate in order to draw a person closer to God. It is an expression of our hunger for God. We go without food in order to be more full of His presence in us. We empty ourselves of food to be more filled with God.
Fasting helps us take our true position before God which is to humble ourselves before Him. In the end the true objective of a fast is to get to know God better (Hebrews 5:12-14).
Is Fasting for Today?
Now fasting is not a popular practice in our society. Few, if any do it in the secular world and it is even rarer within the church. When was the last time anyone here experienced a time of fasting and prayer? There are several reasons for this:
1. It is uncomfortable and involves a willful denial of self and this is not popular in our culture where we're trained and programmed to "consume."
2. Many religious people believe that this practice was for the "Jews" only and for those under the Law of Moses - not Christians.
3. Some teach that fasting was only for Jesus and the Apostles and early Christians who practiced it as a holdover from the Old Testament - much like many Jewish Christians still observed food laws or Sabbath Day in the first century because it was in their culture. Today, they say fasting isn't part of our culture so we don't have to do it, nor do we need it. Well, certainly fasting was part of the practice of the Jews in the Old Testament:
- Moses was the first to fast (40 days/fight) when he received the 10 commandments from the Lord. - Exodus 34:28
- Jews fasted as they repented of sins before the Lord - I Samuel 7:6
- Elijah fasted in order to strengthen his prayer life - I Kings 19:8
- Ezra had the people fast and pray in order to seek direction from the Lord - Ezra 8:21
- Daniel fasted to prepare himself for life in exile - Daniel 10:13
- Esther asked the people to fast and pray in order to get a favorable ruling from the king. - Esther 4:15-16
- David refers to fasting as a true expression of spiritual humility before God. - Psalm 35:12
There are many more but these example are enough to show us that fasting was an integral part of the Jews' religious life - for the leaders as well as the people. We see the same pattern of activity however as Jesus begins His ministry and teaching in the New Testament:
- Jesus prepares for His ministry with a period of 40 days of prayer and fasting (Matthew 4:1-11).
- But then when he's teaching His disciples about pleasing God, He clarifies the teaching about how to properly fast.
16"Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 17But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face 18so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
- Matthew 6:16-18
Note that He doesn't say "if" you fast but "when" you fast, assuming that this would be an on-going practice with His disciples. Jesus predicts in Mark 2:18-20 that after He is gone, His disciples will resume fasting (something they didn't practice while they were with Him). In his advice to couples with marriage problems, Paul counsels them to separate for a time of fasting and prayer (I Corinthians 7:5).
And Luke often describes the early church after it was well established as making fasting and prayer a normal part of their Christian experience and not some holdover from their Jewish culture.
- In Acts 13:1-4 Gentile church leaders fasted and prayed.
- In Acts 14:21-23 Paul fasted and prayed with Gentiles and Jews before appointing elders.
And so a combination of fasting and prayer was taught and practiced by the Apostles and the early church both Jewish and Gentile included. With time, however, it became a practice set-aside only for the clergy as Catholicism and monasticism evolved in the Middle Ages. Protestantism ignored this spiritual discipline because it may have reminded them too much of Roman Catholic practice.
And our modern, consumer oriented world and the churches that have been influenced by the world also give little attention to this spiritual discipline. However, if we want to restore New Testament Christianity and The New Testament churches, prayer and fasting must be included in our Christian experience. I'm afraid that one of the reasons why we have such small churches and many of us are weak spiritually is because we have neglected the powerful spiritual tool of prayer and fasting.
I'm going to finish this lesson next week when we'll discuss what fasting is for; some of the benefits of fasting; and how to approach this discipline in our day. In the meantime I want you to consider participating in our first Prayer and Fasting Weekend by doing the following:
- Review and familiarize yourself with the fasting do's and don'ts info sheet.
- Sign up for a block of time to pray over the 24-hour period.
- Put your prayer request on the sheets on the bulletin boards
- Prepare and bring food for our celebration potluck and devotional after the fast is over.
Hopefully our first Prayer and Fasting weekend will help all who participate draw nearer to God so that we will begin to make this type of spiritual practice a regular part of our relationship with God.