Several weeks ago in this column I wrote about a number of instances in our national history where duly elected officials called the nation to a day of fasting and prayer. Upon further research I found a striking pattern that often followed.
In 1746, the French fleet threatened New England settlements, and the people of New England called for a day of prayer and fasting. It is true that a storm destroyed the fleet. But it is also true that within a few years the colonies were engaged in the French and Indian War, which lasted nine years.
On June 1, 1774, the Virginia House of Burgesses called for a day of prayer and fasting in support of the people of Boston, and again in 1775 the Continental Congress called for a day of prayer and fasting. The long, hard ten year War for Independence followed.
On March 30, 1863 the Senate and President called for a day of prayer and fasting. The Battle of Gettysburg and Sherman’s March were not far behind.
Congress called for another day national day of prayer and fasting in March of a different year. The resolution asserts that "through prayer, fasting and self-reflection, we may better recognize our own faults and shortcomings and submit to the wisdom and love of God in order that we may have guidance and strength in those daily actions and decisions we must take."
But there was a bit of wisdom in this resolution that separated it from many of the predecessor proclamations. It listed three purposes for the fast:
1. Seek guidance from God to achieve greater understanding of our own failings
2. Learn how we can do better in our everyday activities; and
3. Gain resolve in how to confront those challenges which we must confront.
Surprisingly, these three purposes are exactly the reasons that we should fast. Too many think of fasting as a tool to get God to conform to our own will. In fact it is exactly the opposite, for fasting is a way for us to seek God’s will. The people of Isaiah’s day fasted, but when frustrated by silence from heaven, they cried, “Why have we fasted and you have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls and you take no notice?” (Isaiah 58:3)
God answers them in the verses that follow, and the answer reflects that they lacked what Congress understood, namely, they failed to “achieve greater understanding of our own failings” and “learn how to do better in our everyday activities”.
The people were certainly fasting, but they weren’t bringing themselves into God’s will. They exploited their workers. They fasted for strife and debate. They physically assaulted each other. Yet like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, they paraded their piety before their countrymen, wearing long faces and bowing down in sackcloth. They would not change their ways, but they expected God to change his. (58:3-5).
“Is this not the fast I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out, when you see the naked that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh?” (Verses 6 – 7). Or, as Congress said, “Learn how to do better in our everyday activities.”
Now here is the surprising thing. That Congressional resolution that got it right is probably one you never knew about, and because you never knew about it, you probably didn’t do anything about it. That resolution set aside as a national day of prayer and fasting March 17, 2003! Looking back over the last four years, we can see that the day failed its intended purpose, and that’s a shame because the resolution had it right. “The fault,” as Shakespeare once put in the mouth of Cassius, “is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
History does not tell us if out forefathers kept the fasts that their leaders had called, but it is evident that the events that followed more often than not were less than desirable. I would submit that it is not too late to fast in conformity with the call of the Congress of four years ago, but more important than that, to get our lives and hearts to conform with the call of Isaiah, to care more about the healing of others and their release from bondage than our own ability to practice religious ritual.
Nevertheless, fasting is surely scriptural when practiced for scriptural reasons, and for that cause a number of people in our church have committed to a day of fasting on May 5, 2007 for the reasons outlined in the Congressional resolution of March 2003. We would hope that others will join us. If you wish to do so, please let us hear from you.