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Fasting, the Persistence of Faith

First Published JCF Newsletter March 2014

By Gary Alley

This week the observance of Lent began, where for the next forty days many Christians will fast or abstain from some type of food or practice in order to focus on Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection.  On the other hand, the Jewish people will soon celebrate the exuberant holiday of Purim (Mar 16) which is typically known for its fun.  Purim commemorates the story of Esther, and how she helped save her people from their enemies.  Children dress up in colorful costumes, sing songs, and munch on candy, while the youth and young adults will party into the night.  But what can often be forgotten about joyous Purim is that it is also a story of fasting as well.

In the story of Esther, after Haman has convinced the king to set a date for destroying all of the Jews in his kingdom, Mordechai urges Esther to approach the king and to plead for the lives of their people.  A wary Esther tells Mordechai:

“Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.” (Est 4:16)

Another fact often overlooked in the story of Esther is that there is no mention of God or prayer in the entire book.  I think that absence can be explained by the presence of fasting.  In the Bible, fasting is almost always a public display of spiritual submission, a sign of repentance before God.  When Esther proclaims a fast, it is not farfetched to see there an implicit prayer seeking help from God in the most hopeless of circumstances.  Fasting is prayer on steroids.

But still, there is no explicit act of God in the story of Esther.  There are no pious prayers beseeching His salvation.  There is only humble fasting.

Today, our reeling world needs God in a most serious way.  Have we, as followers of Jesus, gone soft?  In contrast to Esther’s story, God is everywhere in our evangelical story—in our words, on our shirts and billboards, and especially in our creeds.  But are we desperate for God as if our lives depended on it?  Even when our prayers seemingly go unanswered and God does not seem to be there, do we give up?  Has our faith become fossilized?

This reminds me of a recent article in The New Yorker about the rise of atheism,

“Relatively peaceful and prosperous societies... tend to have a declining belief in a deity. But did we first give up on God and so become calm and rich? Or did we become calm and rich, and so give up on God? Of such questions, such causes, no one can be certain.”

Like Esther’s faith, we must be desperate and determined, not calm and rich.  God’s mighty works are never more evident than when we need Him most.