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A Prayer and Fasting Devotional

ThinkstockPhotos-87741303For those of us who love the grace of the Gospel, who are convinced that God accomplishes through Christ everything we need for salvation, the idea that we must perform religious works, such as prayer or fasting, in order to receive grace and spiritual blessings from God doesn’t sit well. Here’s an illustration of what I’m talking about. 

All the money my 11-year-old son has, whether found in his savings account, or in his hand as he eagerly approaches an ice cream shop, or used to purchase a birthday gift for one of his close friends, has come from me. Every bit of his present and future purchasing power is derived from his father, because, at his age, he can’t work. The money that comes to him is always a gift and is never the result of work. Now this lack of work on his part does not mean that he is completely inactive. He presents his empty hand to receive the money for which he did not work. He receives money and happily performs the activity required to make a purchase. His money and its purchasing power are a gift and never the result of his work. His money can’t be categorized as ‘wages,’ because it is completely unearned and undeserved. So, for my son to think about or talk about his activity in receiving his father’s money and purchasing good things like ice cream and birthday presents as work that has earned and produced these blessings wouldn’t make sense, would it?

Now in terms of seeking God – and what I have in mind are what are commonly known as the ‘spiritual disciplines,’ especially prayer, fasting, and reading God’s Word – what I think can help relieve the tension I describe between God’s grace and our work is a re-conception of these seeking-God activities. Just as my son’s receiving money from his father and performing some activities in order to purchase blessings for himself and his friends does not fall into the category of ‘work,’ neither should the activity of seeking God for spiritual blessings. More than that, the activities we pursue to seek God’s blessings for ourselves and others might even be conceived of as the great anti-work.

Prayer, fasting, and hearing the Word of God should not be conceived of as work in the sense of a productive contribution for which we receive wages or rewards. Seeking God in these ways couldn’t be further from work in this sense, because it is particularly by these activities that we declare that we can’t work— that our power is completely insufficient for the task of gospel ministry and renewal. Prayer, fasting and listening to God’s Word are by their very nature declarations of lack, desperate need, and utter dependence. These activities are even capitulations whereby we give up on our work and look to the God of grace who has promised to work on our behalf. In prayer, we turn away from expressing ourselves to and making requests of the world, communications that are transactional and dependent on merit. No one but the God of grace listens to us and provides for us in such a way that is independent of some contribution we might offer. Similarly, fasting is pursued due to the fact that we have come to the end of ourselves. We fast when we come to the realization that our work can’t accomplish what we desire for God’s kingdom, whether God’s power and presence in our own lives or corporate renewal. When we fast we turn away from our work and turn to God to work on our behalf. Even Bible reading falls into the category of anti-work. Our minds are weak, and we are not what we should be, but by the Word of God we come to know God and be transformed by God. We admit that we do not know what we should know, or believe what we should believe—and that, as a result, we are spiritually impoverished and unable to work. But the Word of God works.

Seeking God isn’t work. It’s the great anti-work. By prayer, fasting, and the Word, we give up on our work, choosing instead to seek the God who “works for those who wait for him” (Isaiah 64:4). Grace is in no way compromised when we remember that seeking God isn’t work. It’s an expression of faith – and faith doesn’t work. Rather it receives God’s gracious work: “Commit your way to the Lord: trust in Him, and He will act” (Psalm 37:5). During this season of prayer and fasting, remember that seeking God is the furthest thing from work. Seeking God is the great anti-work, by which we express great faith in the God of the Gospel who works on our behalf. 

Jim Thomforde
Interim Ministry Director at Cornell