It’s a new year, and many people are reprioritizing their goals and, therefore, their time. Many churches and individual believers have chosen to begin this process by fasting, in an effort to connect more deeply with God’s heart and align themselves more closely with His desires for them in the year ahead.
It seems this has become a regular practice among religious circles in recent years – to jumpstart the year with a fast. I happen to attend a church that participates in this tradition, and I (we) understand and believe completely in the importance of fasting. However, I also understand the ease with which things like fasting, prayer, and serving God, especially out of tradition, can become twisted and end up feeling more like burdens than blessings.
When it comes to going deeper in God (which most people who choose to fast and pray are looking to do), it’s not about working harder. Since the days when Jesus walked the earth as a man, people have missed this. It was the religious camp of his day, in fact, that ended up the most confused about the whole thing.
In their best efforts to please God and get His attention, they fasted and acted in all the “right ways.” They worked hard and pushed their bodies and lives to the limits that were spelled out in all their ritual laws, only to find out that none of it was good enough to secure the one thing they were after: God’s approval (read Isaiah 58).
This might seem cruel to some, and might even cause others to throw up their hands in resignation, deciding that God is just too hard to please. But pleasing God isn’t about the things we do “for Him.” Really, pleasing God boils down to getting closer to Him, getting to know Him more.
And getting closer to God boils down to the attitude of our hearts. And the attitude of our hearts boils down to the ruling authority which dwells there. Either it will be our own selves, serving our own selfish ends, or it will be the Spirit of God, serving the glorious purposes of Jesus.
When I’m on the throne of my own heart, I will fast and pray and serve God because it’s “the right thing to do.” It will fit nicely into the big picture of my life as I seek to get everything in order, all in its proper place, so that everything will run the way it ought to. All my efforts will leave me feeling entitled to see God do something in return for me. Of course, we never blatantly, or even consciously, set out with this mindset, but it’s what happens when we’re busy working hard in an effort to go deeper in God.
And sooner or later, all my hard work will become a barter more than a delight. It will become a burden more than an invitation to rest, to see more clearly, and to trust more deeply.
When the Spirit of God is on the throne of my heart, however, I will fast and pray and serve God because it’s what He said will bring me closer to and deeper in Him. I’ll do it because I trust Him, and because I know my need for Him is constant. It may not be convenient, and it may sap me of all my own strength, but I can rest assured that my weakness will provide a perfect channel through which He will pour His own strength.
I will be empowered to trust that, as I lay down my own pursuits and choose to put Him in first place, He will order my steps and my plans. I can go in with a blank canvas and calendar because I want only what He wants. I can bring my own desires – at least any which might be in competition with His – and lay them on the altar of sacrifice, and I can become willing to part with anything that He does not will for my life.
No human can reach this kind of surrender without God’s help, and so I am free to fast and pray knowing that by doing so, I am positioning myself to know and receive Him more fully. These efforts, then, become a way of delighting myself only in Him, and more fully in Him, and less in other things – including my own self and my own agenda. They become less of an effort and more of a joyful discovery as I remember that any sacrifice I might be making pales in comparison to the great sacrifice He has made for me.
If I look at fasting and praying and serving God as a way to dig up hard ground, I will be inclined to apply all the blood, sweat, and tears I have to get the job done. The problem with this is that Jesus has already given His own blood, sweat and tears so that I can be close to God. It is a true image that our hearts are like soil, but the hard work of turning it into soil that is good isn’t mine. I cannot change myself (or anyone else, for that matter). I must, then, look at such “sacrifices” like fasting and prayer another way.
The sandbox, where children delight to dig for treasure and build beautiful things, comes to mind. There, little hearts are free to come as they are and to spend as much time as they desire unearthing what cannot be seen on the surface and sifting through their little hands the tiny grains which all combine to become something specific and personal to each dreaming heart. The sandbox becomes a place of exploration and discovery, a place where the imagination is stretched and inspired, and a place where something bigger invites them to touch (and for the truly brave, taste) and see for themselves all they would dare to.
When I choose to see traditional disciplines like fasting and prayer as something other than hard work, I learn that the heart set on delighting itself in God (rather than trying hard to get God to delight in me) is the one that endures the longest, and discovers the greatest treasures.
The truth is that there is hard ground to dig up, not only in our own hearts, but in the world around us as we seek to share the truth about God with others. Humbling ourselves and serving God (which means serving people) can be difficult at times. Hard work, even. But when that work is rooted in the realization that we can’t possibly do it by our own strength, we will be free to draw near to God – who gives the strength – in prayer and fasting.
And as we pray and fast, not working to get something from God, but drawing closer to Him because we know He has invited us to explore the wonders and the riches of His grace and His love – our efforts don’t feel like hard work anymore. Instead, they become the place of refreshment that equips us for any hard work that might lie ahead.
Dear Woman of Breakthrough, I hope you are seeing the big difference that a little change in perspective can make. Seeking more of God and what He wants for your life this year isn’t about working harder. It’s about inviting the Holy Spirit to produce in you a desire to go deeper. He then will empower that desire, and as you agree with what He desires, you will find yourself entering into what’s already been reserved for you.
God isn’t withholding Himself from you until you work hard enough to get more of Him. He has reserved the more for those who come hungry for what the human heart, without God, cannot desire. He has hidden the treasure for those who will seek with the right motivation – delight.
I encourage you to set your heart to fast and pray and serve God with new efforts and passion this year. But I urge you to first examine your motivations. Let your fasting and praying be out of a Spirit-led desire to know God more intimately, to see His heart, and to agree with whatever He has in mind for you. Then the service which flows from there will be God-directed and God-protected, and will not wear you out.
It’s a subtle scheme which the enemy works to turn our religious activities into heavy yokes that choke the life out of us. But it is very real. And Jesus came to set us free from these very things. He came so that we could experience thriving, abundant life with Him. Life that finds its source and pleasure in Him, and then overflows to bless the lives of those around us. All of these efforts must be rooted in His grace, if we are going to avoid the death traps the enemy has designed, and see the life that God has truly planned for us.
May you go deeper in God this year than you’ve ever dared to go before, and may you discover His grace, so that you will not work hard to do so. May drawing near to Him become as natural to you as breathing, as you learn to rest in what His Spirit produces within you. And may He be glorified as you discover that knowing Him is truly a rest we cannot obtain by our own efforts. He gives it as a free gift to those who come hungry.