Sunday, March 15, 2020

Special Times of Prayer and Fasting

“When great and notable calamities come upon or threaten the church, community, or nation, when judgment is deserved because of sin, when the people seek some special blessing from the Lord, or when a pastor is to be ordained or installed, it is fitting that the people of God engage in times of solemn prayer and fasting.” (OPC Directory for Public Worship)
A biblical practice which used to be a common practice in early America but which has been neglected in the present day is special times of fasting and prayer, sometimes known as "days of humiliation." Fortunately, our president still has called for a day of prayer, and our country has a regular day of prayer, but the note of repentance and fasting is notably absent from these modern proclamations. God calls people to respond to calamity by humbling themselves with fasting and prayer, either privately or together depending on the calamity. We see this especially in Joel 1-2. As disaster came upon the people, God called them to "Consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the LORD your God, and cry out to the LORD" (Joel 1:14, see also Joel 2:12–17).

We find this practice exemplified in Scripture. When Nineveh heard Jonah's declaration of impending judgment, its king proclaimed a public fast as they confessed their evil ways and sought His mercy (Jonah 3:5-10). The Jews held a fast for three days for Queen Esther before she went to the king to save them, in view of the threat to her life (Es. 4:16). Ezra proclaimed a public fast when the Jews returned to Israel and danger was impending, that they might humble themselves and seek from him a safe journey (Ezra 8:21-23). The church in Antioch was “worshipping the Lord and fasting” when the Spirit indicated that Barnabas and Paul ought to be set apart for ministry, which they did with more fasting and prayer (Acts 13:2-3).

Private fasting is exemplified by Nehemiah and Daniel, who fasted and prayed when they were distressed with the condition of God’s people and prayed to God, confessing sin and seeking mercy (Neh. 1:4, Dan. 9:3, 10:2-3). Anna regularly worshipped with fasting and prayer (Luke 2:37). Jesus assumes his disciples would fast privately (Matt. 6:18). Paul recognizes that a couple might agree to abstain from sexual relations for a special time of prayer and fasting (1 Cor. 7:5).

Fasting is not an end in itself, but serves other purposes. Drawing from John Calvin's teaching on fasting (here), I would note three main purposes for religious fasting: (1) it keeps you from over-indulging by keeping your senses from being dulled, (2) it prepares you for prayer and meditation, clearing your mind and taking away distraction, and (3) it expresses your sorrow for your sins and for the afflictions you or your family, church, or community experiences. The last two reasons are the relevant ones in times of public fasts.

A religious fast involves abstaining from food, more or less strictly according to the length of the fast and what one can handle. Sometimes a fast might only be from rich foods, like meat and wine, as when Daniel fasted for three weeks (Dan. 10:2-3). It also involves abstaining from other luxuries and entertainments which might be otherwise lawful, as well as other activities that may distract from the engagement to prayer, to the extent that one is able to do so. A public fast involves a shared commitment to private prayer, but usually involves public worship as well (Joel 1:14), with reading, preaching, prayer, and singing. (Our church will observe a day of fasting and prayer this Wednesday, March 18th, but we will observe the day from our homes because this will minimize contact with respect to the virus and because we only have access to our meeting facility on Sundays.)

In addition to days of fasting and prayer, the church can also call for days of thanksgiving, in response to particular blessings or deliverances. We are more familiar with this concept due to our annual day of Thanksgiving in November. An example of this type of day is found at the end of Esther (Es. 9:22). Psalm 107 speaks of giving thanks for particular deliverances, private and corporate.

The Westminster Confession of Faith describes these days as part of the occasional parts of worship: "religious oaths, vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings upon several occasions; which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner" (WCF 21.5). It also mentions them as times when we are called to worship by providence in addition to the regular day of worship (the Lord's Day) appointed in the word: “God is to be worshipped … more solemnly in the public assemblies, which are not carelessly or willfully to be neglected or forsaken, when God, by his Word or providence, calleth thereunto” (WCF 21.6).

For more information on days of fasting and prayer, you can read the chapter on the subject in our denomination's Directory for Public Worship here, as well as the chapter on the subject in the original 1645 Westminster Directory for Public Worship here (scroll down to "Concerning Solemn Publick Fastings" near the bottom).
“Yet even now,” declares the LORD,
“return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
       and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Return to the LORD your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
and he relents over disaster. (Joel 2:12–13)

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