"The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant. They’re full of formulas and programs and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. Don’t fall for that nonsense. This is your Father you are dealing with, and He knows better than you what you need. With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply." (Matthew 6:7-9, The Message Bible)
By Bishop Robert Hayes Jr.
So much of what we know about the Christian season of Lent is shrouded in old assumptions, beliefs, and practices. Two areas that especially confuse us are praying and fasting.
Some of us adopt the "pray quickly, fast lightly" approach. The pace of our lives seems to leave little or no time to pray. And when we hear the term fasting, some of us think it means eating lunch at 1 o’clock instead of noon. We must acknowledge these statements are true for many.
Is this the approach you use when it comes to those two important disciplines of the Christian life?
In our daily rush, our prayers resemble a drive-by event. From the moment our feet hit the floor in the morning until we climb into bed at night, we move at the speed of sound, all the while murmuring some incomprehensible mumbo-jumbo to God as we scurry about.
Sorry, God. I’d love to spend more time with you, but I’ve got so much to do! Amen!
Thank you, God, for all you’ve done. Bless my family—got to run now. Amen!
Some of us adopt an I’m so tired method of praying. That occurs when we try to pray as we are falling asleep, or as we struggle to wake up.
Have you ever given much thought to what God thinks about all of this?
Prayer is the most important tool we have to bring God closer to us. Christmas Evans* wrote, "Prayer is the rope in the belfry; we pull it, and it rings the bell up in heaven."
God doesn’t look at the rhetoric of our prayers, how elegant they may be; nor at the geometry of our prayers, how long they may be; nor at the arithmetic of our prayers, how many they may be; neither at the logic of our prayers, how methodical they may be.
God looks at the sincerity of our prayers and our willingness to open the floodgates of our souls to let our Creator work in us.
During Jesus’ lifetime, people prayed to heathen gods, thinking their gods could be moved to act when the people repeated certain prayer words. Jesus taught that such praying is heathen because it denies trust in the heavenly Father. We do not need to pray in order to inform God of our needs or to convince God to care enough to do something about our needs. God already knows and cares.
Prayer does not change God’s nature. When we pray, we ourselves are transformed.
According to one story, the theologian Augustine was annoyed by his neighbor.
"Oh, Lord," Augustine prayed, "take away this wicked person."
God answered, "Which?" (Augustine or the neighbor?)
Bill Hybels, founder and pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, shared this insight on prayer.
"When I am wrong, God says ‘grow.’
"When the timing is wrong, God says ‘slow.’
"When the request is wrong, God says ‘no.’
"But when I am right, the timing is right, and the request is right, God says ‘go.’"
Prayer is misunderstood, but fasting certainly ranks at the top of our "most confused" Christian practices.
In Jesus’ day, many Pharisees kept two fasts each week, on Thursday and Monday, marking when Moses respectively ascended and descended Mount Sinai. They observed this ritual with faces unwashed, gaunt expressions, bare feet, and ashes on their heads.
As he so often did, Jesus took issue with these religious leaders. Jesus taught that fasting should be occasional, secret, and joyous, as with gifts of charity. Fasting should be free of any display of spiritual pride.
Today amid abundance and greed, fasting has almost disappeared as a spiritual discipline. Yet no devotion to life, music, employment, or any other pursuit is possible without some discipline. And the requirement of self-restraint is still very much applicable as a part of our Christian walk.
Simply put, you don’t have to fast 40 days, as Jesus did in the wilderness. You don’t have to shout your testimony from the rooftop or walk around with a depressed look on your face to let the world know you are fasting.
Go without food long enough to acknowledge your utter dependence on God. Do without until you arrive at the point where you convince yourself that your physical needs are not as great as your spiritual needs.
Fasting is an act of submission. It is an act of surrender of your will to God’s will. It is the cleansing and purification needed in order to tune your life to what God wants for you and not what you want for yourself.
It is saying to God: Not my will, but Your will, be done.
(*Born on Christmas Day 1766, Christmas Evans is regarded as one of the greatest preachers in Wales.)