Spiritual Disciplines – Prayer and Fasting

Last Thursday at CSF we continued our look at Spiritual Disciplines, using Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline as our guide (and the Bible, of course).  We talked about two of the more well-known, thought not necessarily well-practiced, practices: prayer and fasting.

Just to share a couple key points:

 1. We must be taught how to pray.  On one hand, there is a religious impulse in all humanity that has led to every culture having some form of religion.  To some degree, reaching out to God or the gods is natural.  Yet in Jesus’ day it was common for rabbis to teach their disciples to pray.  Thus it is no surprise that Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1).  I don’t think this means that God only listens if we say good or the right words; the truth is God will listen to whatever we say and understand our needs better then we can ask.  But being taught how to pray is for our benefit.  My own frustrations with my mind wandering and my words rambling is often remedied when I use the Lord’s Prayer or one of the Psalms to help me pray.  We see then the connection of prayer to the Bible – we learn to pray by reading scripture;

2. People in the Bible pray as if there prayers really make a difference.  This could lead to all sorts of fun theological and philosophical questions.  That aside, when we read scripture it appears that prayer actually changed things.  In Exodus 32 God announces the Israelites will be destroyed.  Then Moses prays and then God relents.  Other examples could be offered, but the point is that we are wrong if we think our prayers are just going through the motions and God is going to do what God does anyway.  We are not mere pawns living in a deterministic world.  Somehow, someway, our prayers do make a difference. 

3. Prayer is entering into communion with God our Father.  When my daughter talks to me, I listen.  I love hearing her talk, especially as her babbling is growing into words, sentences and conversations.  In the same way, God listens to us.  Through prayer we enter relationship with God.  As we talk to, and listen, to God we learn more about God and are able to pray more in line with what God wants to give us anyway

4. Prayer transforms us.  As we live in prayerful relationship with God, we are changed.  Foster quotes PT Forsyth who says, “Prayer is to religion what original research is to science.”  As we embark on this “original research” we are changed.  As Foster says, “To pray real prayer, we begin to think God’s thoughts after him: to desire the things he desires, to love the things he loves, to will the things he wills.”

 5. Prayer ought to be confident.  Foster points out in his book that when Jesus prayed for other people he never concluded by saying, “if it be thy will.”  Such a comment may be fine for a prayer of guidance, literally asking God to reveal God’s will for us.  But if we are praying for something we know God desires – reconciliation between friends, healing for cancer, etc – we can confidently ask God for these things.  For more on this one, look up Psalm 138:3 and 2 Chronicles 7:14. 

6. Prayer for others is intimately connected to compassion.  As we begin to pray for others, we need to think good thoughts and love toward them.  And if we want to learn to love our enemies, a good first step is praying for them.  Through praying, active love begins to look more possible. 

7. Prayer needs focus.  My mind wanders all the time.  I appreciate this from Teresa of Avila – “This was my method of prayer; as I could not make reflections with my understanding, I contrived to picture Christ within me…I did many simple things of this kind…I believe my soul gained very much in this way, because I began to practice prayer without knowing what it was.”  In the same way, it sometimes helps me to imagine Jesus sitting right there in the room with me as I pray.  In terms of focus, it also helps to journal – my mind does not wander as easily when I write my prayers. 

8. Pray not when you feel like it – pray because you know you need to.  This is a basic truth for all things in life.  Your feelings are over-rated.  Prayer, along with any good act, is done not just when we feel like it but any chance we get!  It is a lifestyle.  As Foster says, “We must never wait until we feel like praying before we pray for others. Prayer is like any other work; we may not feel like working, but once we have been at it for a bit, we begin to feel like working. We may not feel like practicing the piano, but once we play for a while, we feel like doing it. In the same way, our prayer muscles need to be limbered up a bit and once the blood-flow of intercession begins, we will find that we feel like praying” (45). 

9. Prayer is the Christian battlefield.  In Ephesians 6:12 it says our battle is not flesh and blood but against powers and principalities; our battle is in the spiritual realm.  I think of the early Christians who argued that their prayers did more for the success of the Roman military then the soldiers did.  Whatever is going on in the visible world, the world of prayer is where the real battles are.

10. Prayer is not just spiritual – it requires your whole body.  What this means is that our body matters, we are whole, complete people.  This leads into the discipline of fasting.

Fasting

Foster says a lot about fasting in his chapter on it.  For the most part fasting is to give up food, though there are a few times when only a type of food is given up (Daniel) or when both food and water are given up for a short time.  The point of fasting is to grow closer to God.  Though there are times of public, communal fasting, in general fasting is an individual and private act.   Basically, we are free to fast whenever we desire.  Which for most of us is never.

Jesus says “when you fast,” not, “if you fast.”  Yet in my 33 years in church I have heard little talk on or encouragement to fast.  Either everyone is doing a REALLY GOOD job of the whole keeping-it-secret thing or not many of us fast.

In the end then, I just challenge myself and the members of CSF to fast in the next week.  Here are some helps from Foster for this challenge:

  • Choose one day this week and commit to fasting from lunch till at least breakfast (if not lunch) the next day.
  • Drink fresh fruit juices only (or just water)
  • When you would normally eat, pray and read scripture.
  • Remember – your body has been trained to expect food; when you first feel hungry you are not really hungry, this is just your body reminding you that you usually eat at this time. Take control and rely on god.
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