For even young people tire and drop out, young folk in their prime stumble and fall. But those who wait upon God get fresh strength. They spread their wings and soar like eagles, they run and don’t get tired, they walk and don’t lag behind.
Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble . . .
—EARLY CHURCH FATHER SAINT AUGUSTINE (354–430)1
Fasting in the biblical sense is choosing not to partake of food because your spiritual hunger is so deep, your determination in intercession so intense, or your spiritual warfare so demanding that you have temporarily set aside even fleshly needs to give yourself to prayer and meditation.
—WESLEY L. DUEWEL, LONGTIME MISSIONARY AND PRAYER LEADER2
THE REALITY IS THAT LIFE-LEAKING MOMENTS HAPPEN to all of us. Thousands of years ago the prophet Isaiah wrote that even young people in the prime of life can stumble. The good news is that opportunities for life-renewing moments are also available to everyone. Fasting is one of those life-renewing opportunities that are available for no costs. It gives us a thrilling opportunity to gain fresh strength and spread our wings and soar like eagles. We can run and not tire out in the race of life. We can explore the land of the living without lagging behind. Earlier in his book Isaiah reminded people of their mortality: “All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. . . . The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isa. 40:6, 8, NKJV).
Who among us cannot identify with those words? Life has a way of reminding us of our mortality, whether through fading beauty, increasing wrinkles, graying hair, balding, or the diseases of aging. If natural life is all there is to humanity, that will be depressing. Thankfully there is more to us than our decaying bodies. No wonder the Apostle Paul confidently declared: “So we’re not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace. These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us. There’s far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can’t see now will last forever” (2 Cor. 4:16–17).
How can we give up on life when we have an opportunity for inward renewal? Even though on the “outside” things seem to fall apart, on the “inside” God is at work to renew and refresh us. There is more to us than frail bodies; we are spirit beings and have souls. The spirit and soul are the inward parts, which defy mortality and live on long after the body decays and dies. The external world may include trials, pains, and difficulties, but with fresh strength within the soul, we can carry on. We can embrace a joyful exploration of the land of the living.
When we fast, we provide God a wonderful opportunity to make life new within. Could this be why the wise preacher wondered aloud: “A healthy spirit conquers adversity, but what can you do when the spirit is crushed?” (Prov. 18:14). A healthy spirit sustains a person in his or her physical infirmities, adversities, and sickness. However, when the person is crushed within, where will he or she summon the strength to overcome the vicissitudes of life? Such a reality shows how renewing the inner person is vital to life’s journey.
Dawning of hope
I have always been fascinated by that simple word but in the Scriptures. It is an interesting word that negates the previous line of thought and redirects our attention to a new reality. Even youths may fail, butthose who wait on God can find fresh strength. The body may age and become frail, but. A marriage may end up in flames, but. Whenever God inserts a but, it reverses negativity and brings us hope. He draws us away from the insistent noise of pain and mortality to His divinity within. He sparks in us an openness to the possibility of a new life, the hope of a new beginning, and the possibility of recovery. This rings a note of joy and assurance deep within our souls. Those who wait on God will get a fresh start, fresh strength, and fresh grace. This begs the question: What does it mean to wait upon the Lord?
The idea of “waiting on the Lord” is central to Christian fasting. This discipline involves letting go of food or other pleasures in order to wait on God. Fasting is therefore an integral part of this wait, but not nearly the whole picture. Fasting provides the right conditions for us to wait on God—a blessed means to a wonderful place of waiting.
No doubt you have been to a good restaurant. From the moment you arrive, someone welcomes you and gets you seated. Another attendant comes along to ask for your food and drink order: “Any appetizers? Sweetened or unsweetened tea? Do you want your steak medium or well-done?” After you are served, the attendant comes along periodically to ask: “Is everything OK? Is there anything else I can get you?”
We know what it means to be waited on—to have someone anticipate our desires and meet them. Waiting on God is a lot like that. During periods of fasting, we make time to wait on the Lord. We extricate ourselves from self-indulgence in order to indulge His presence. We commit to listen and hear what He wants, what He says, and to any instructions He gives. Waiting on God means becoming attentive to God. That is the first and perhaps the most important aspect of that waiting. We ask ourselves: “What is He saying? What is He doing? In the light of what He is saying and doing, what am I doing? Which direction have I been going?”
However, as with the restaurant attendant, the point isn’t our desires but His: His will, His ways, and His glory. Perhaps this is our greatest need—to pause long enough during our busy rat race to gain a divine perspective and look at the big picture so we can find out what He is doing at this time and in this place. Modern life is hectic; we can easily get so consumed in reaching the destination that we lose sight of the journey itself. We may become so enamored by the challenges of surviving in the land of the living that we do not live the life God wants from us. But the country where we live is designed in such a way that the journey is as important as the final arrival. It is not only the land we are called to explore, it is the life we are living—the very expression of our being, personality, and purpose.
Every step in the land of the living is meant to be in itself an arrival of sorts,3 a celebration of grace. For example, are you so taken in by the need to provide for the kids that you work so much that you no longer have any time to spend with them and enjoy them as they are growing up? You may wake up one day and discover they are grown up and ready to move on in the world without your input in the areas that matter most, such as character formation, love affirmations, and attentive presence.
The gift of presence
Likewise, fasting gives us an opportunity to be present to the One who is ever present with us—to be present in this place, with the people in this place, and to what God is doing in this phase of our journey. This land of the living is filled to overflowing with God-shaped events, God-breathed words, God’s salvation, God’s unexpected provision and recovery, God-arranged “chance” meetings, and God-inspired comeback stories. This land of the living is the land in which God’s story is being played out daily. Are we paying any attention to this unfolding story?
It turns out that we are central to this God story. It’s God’s story, but in many ways it is also the story of God’s love and mercy and grace toward us. God wants us to be involved in living out the dynamic story of His love and rescue, even in the midst of a difficult country. During fasting we are forced to quiet down enough to pay attention. When we listen to God during our fast, we can learn enough about what God is doing to become aware of our own role in the plot.
There is also another element of this waiting on God. It involves attending to God. During fasting we take a break from “me, I, and mine” to pay attention to Him—to do His will, serve Him and His people, and intently give ourselves and what is ours to Him. When we listen to Him, we gain the wisdom to respond in obedience. In the place of waiting we choose to prioritize our life and our health based on His wisdom. Waiting on God means not only being attentive but also offering a resounding “yes!”
My sense is that an important component of waiting on God is to literally wait for God. Indeed, we are so used to today’s instant-gratification society that patience has taken on a more significant dimension. Patience has to have its way fully with us—and in us—so that we may grow into the image He has created for us. In the land of waiting on God quick fixes aren’t of much help. Life is long and sometimes painstaking. Fasting teaches us to be patient. The only alternative is to take matters into our own hands; many can testify that this didn’t quite work out like they hoped.
These days it seems common to hear the stories of husbands and wives who feel shortchanged in their marriage. He prays, talks to his wife, and maybe even attends some counseling sessions with her, mystified by her seeming unhappiness. Meanwhile, the wife wonders, “How can he? I’m making my best effort to address his concerns.” He is not happy, but neither is she. Still, they love each other and want to see each other happy. Patience knocks daily at their door, but more often than not, they lock him out.
Finally the husband declares, “I can’t take it anymore.” He proposes a divorce, and to his surprise, she eagerly agrees. As it turns out, she is also feeling like she can’t live like this one more minute. They divorce, but when they meet a few months later at a social event, they wonder, Why did we part from each other? What happened? Did we separate too quickly? Should we have allowed patience more time to do its work?
Fasting for patience
Waiting is hard for us typically impatient humans, but wait for God we must if we want Him to complete His work of grace in us. Although waiting can indeed be painful, fasting trains us to grow and develop our patience. As the writer of Hebrews said, “But you need to stick it out, staying with God’s plan so you’ll be there for the promised completion. It won’t be long now, he’s on the way; he’ll show up most any minute. But anyone who is right with me thrives on loyal trust; if he cuts and runs, I won’t be very happy. But we’re not quitters who lose out. Oh, no! We’ll stay with it and survive, trusting all the way” (Heb. 10:36–39).
May I suggest that we stick it out with God’s plan until the promised completion? It is tough to endure. Life doesn’t always give us what is fair. Yet when we give patience an opportunity to complete its work in us, God is glorified, even in the midst of the challenge. We are called to thrive on loyal trust—trusting God that He will come through. We stay with His plan to the end. In fasting, as tough as this is, we receive the grace to try.
Fasting itself may not be much fun. Our body craves food and nourishment, and rightfully so. But there are immense benefits to the whole being, especially the inner person, that come from fasting. The first is renewed strength. What is this fresh strength? That inner zest to live and keep living; in other words, the courage that comes from the inner being that carries on even when there seems to be no reason to keep going. It is that kind of inner empowerment that Paul prayed that the Ephesians would know: “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Eph. 3:16–17, NIV). This is the kind of strength that comes from God-breathed renewal—a strength that comes from the Holy Spirit, who out of His vast riches of grace imparts some of this grace into our inner being.
Have you ever gone through a season when you felt hunkered down or defeated—maybe on the verge of collapse? It is those times when life-leaking events often occur: the doctor diagnoses a disease, or love given is not returned. At such times the inner person becomes broken and loses the will to carry on. Yet after a while, you find a fresh spark as something happens in your soul to give you a new hope and the courage to start afresh—to keep going, to smile, and to love again. Fasting creates the conditions for God to renew our strength from within, kindle a new fire, and breathe a new life within our souls. As Isaiah said, those who wait on the Lord shall receive fresh strength.
And, as the prophet wrote, when we receive this strength from waiting on the Lord, we shall also spread our wings and soar as eagles. Life is no longer a boring chore to endure. Instead, it becomes an exciting adventure—a daily anticipation of what God will do next. We take each step in hopeful expectation as we turn each corner, knowing that He who knows the end will lead the way. We dare to dream again. In fact, we dream so big now that others who don’t understand think we are being presumptuous. We come in good company with the psalmist as we “taste and see that the LORD is good” (Ps. 34:8, NIV). We fall in love again, and go at it with all our heart as though it had never before been broken.
Taking on new meaning
With this kind of outlook, life takes on a new meaning and a new urgency. We learn a new trade, or go back to school. We go to work with a song in our hearts, not because the conditions in the workplace have changed, but because God has given us fresh strength within. We accept God’s love and move on in the world. While the scar of hurt hasn’t vanished, we know He holds the future in His hand. Pain has clipped the wings of many who should be soaring as the eagles. Past hurts and disappointments often debilitate otherwise productive people. Yet when we wait on God through fasting and prayer, and receive His fresh grace within, we dust ourselves up from the sad dust of self-pity and despair and take our place in life.
Fasting in God’s presence tends to have this kind of impact. This land of the living isn’t all it is meant to be without our active participation. Now, we are thankful for this land, for this moment, for this day, for this place. We spread our wings and soar as the eagles.
However, there’s more. As Isaiah 40:31 says: “They run and don’t get tired, they walk and don’t lag behind.” I have always wondered why the prophet followed this progression: first, we fly and soar as eagles; then, we run and are not tired; finally, we run and won’t lag behind. You would think that we would start off walking, then run, and finally take off flying. Yet when a person has been granted new strength from the riches of God’s Spirit, they come out flying. How can we come out of an encounter with God’s fresh grace and merely walk? We come out greeting life with a swagger. Do you think that Abraham walked up to his wife and family and nonchalantly told them how God met him and told him to go to a far-off place, where He would bless him and make him a father of many nations? I don’t think so! His joy and enthusiasm must have represented the equivalence of soaring as an eagle.
When you first fell in love with your spouse, what was it like? Were you cautious and careful about what others thought about the two of you? I bet you came out swinging at this new way of living and loving with all your energy. You came out soaring as an eagle in this sky of loving and being loved. When you first started that business you had long dreamed about, did you go to work the first day bogged down, cautious and indifferent? I doubt it. I sense that you went to work that day excited and delighted for this opportunity. You were soaring. Being above, in the sky—the challenges of this new life are there, all right; yet to us they don’t seem that significant. After all, we are way above them, in the sky. God’s renewed grace and opportunity always have that effect on us.
Still, over time those initial feelings of exuberance tend to wear off. We get past the wide-eyed phase and notice the challenges associated with this opportunity; we must deal with them. Yet here is the miracle Isaiah talked about—even though we grapple with life’s problems, they no longer weary us. We are running now in this rugged land; we are aware of the twists and turns, but we are OK with that. We continue to run the race God has called us to run. While we are not unmindful of the challenges, in spite of them we keep going. Periodic fasting and waiting on God create the conditions for that to happen. We have to continually renew our spirits and bring freshness to our souls. While there is no going around it and no easy way out, we still have pure joy. We are not praying for challenges, but we are ready to step over what the enemy hopes will be a stumbling block. We run and don’t get tired, because we have learned to draw from God’s strength in the place of fasting and prayer.
Walking to the end
In the final phase of life’s journey we are no longer able to fly or run as in younger years. Now, we can only walk. Yet though we walk, we don’t lag behind. We are more hesitant now to make bold declarations of faith, but we don’t lag behind one bit in trustful obedience. We are no longer cocky or self-assured, but we are even more certain of God’s over-reaching grace. We may be considered weak by some, but God’s strength is being made ever perfect in us. We may have seen many difficult days and shed many tears, but we have also seen so many “God moments” that we stand in awe of Him.
We don’t have as many words as we used to, but our hearts are filled with inexplicable wonder of His glory. As we bow before Him during fasting and prayer, we marvel that He has loved us through these many years, stuck by us, and has done us good. We get up from our knees amazed, grateful for life, and yielded to Him. We may not clap as loud as the younger folk, but our thanksgiving rings just as loud and true. We may not always study the Bible as often and as long as we used to, but we have treasured up His Word in our hearts, so much that in Him we live and love and have our being.