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Humbling Ourselves Through Fasting

By Dennis Pollock


The Book of Ezra is a tiny Old Testament book which describes the return of some of the people of Israel from Babylonian captivity. Ezra was a scribe who was allowed to lead a large group of Israelite exiles back to the land of Israel. The journey would be a treacherous one. There were bandits and large groups of roving bands eagerly looking for people and traveling groups to plunder. The Israelites were not armed soldiers. They had lived as captives and had little ability to protect themselves, apart from the sheer number of men that were with them. But their size would not protect them from a large gang of armed, experienced robbers.


It might have been prudent for Ezra to request that the king send soldiers along with them as a security force. But Ezra was loathe to do this. He writes:


I was ashamed to request of the king an escort of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy on the road, because we had spoken to the king, saying, "The hand of our God is upon all those for good who seek Him…" (Ezra 8:22)


Ezra feared that asking the king for a security attachment would make him appear weak in faith. He had assured the king that God defends and blesses His people, so instead Ezra decided they would take some time early in their journey to seek the Lord for His favor and protection. We read these words:


Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from Him the right way for us and our little ones and all our possessions. (Ezra 8:21)


"That We Might Humble Ourselves"


I have always been fascinated by the phrase: "that we might humble ourselves." The fasting (and presumably praying) they decided to do, in order to seek the Lord for protection and a blessing on their journey was a means of humbling themselves before God. Notice that humbling here is a verb and not a noun. Often, we think of humility as something we are, not something we do. If we can think lowly enough of ourselves, if we can feel like an absolute worm, in fact the wormiest worm that ever wormed, then we can say that we are truly humble. But Ezra did not put a pause on their travels and tell everyone to sit on the ground and think lowly thoughts about themselves. He instructed the people to pray and fast and seek the Lord. Humility, at least in this case, was a doing word rather than an attitude or a lowly view of self.


Why is fasting so highly commended and practiced in the Bible? Jesus told us, "When you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance…" (Matthew 6:16). He did not say if you fast, but rather when you fast. So fasting is clearly a good thing in the mind of God. In fact, Jesus goes on to tell us that if we do fast privately, and not for show, "your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly." (Matthew 6:18).


From the verse in Ezra we have the answer to the mystery of why God likes to see His people fast. It is a means of humbling ourselves. This is confirmed in Psalm 35, where the psalmist declares: "I humbled myself with fasting." (Psalm 35:13). Again, humbling is used as a verb; it is something the psalmist did: he humbled himself, and he did this by refraining from eating for a designated time.


What's the Point?


Since fasting is a form of humbling ourselves, we could ask, "What is so important about humbling ourselves? Why does God want us to humble ourselves?" A state of humility is a God-preferred posture for His children. When we are proud, self-sufficient, and brimming with self-confidence, God receives no honor if we succeed. Nor is faith even remotely possible. Faith is found in the fires of desperation. It resides in the hearts of those who are keenly aware that without God they do not have a chance of success.


This is true of prayer as well, but a state of prayer and fasting is the highest degree of prayer. When we seek God in prayer and sometimes fasting, and in the name of Jesus, we are calling on the King of the universe to come to our aid, and we are declaring that we do not have it within ourselves to bring about the success we need, the breakthrough we yearn for, and the blessing for which our heart pants.


James and Peter both tell us: "God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble." (James 4:6, 1 Peter 5:5) Nobody wants to be resisted. To resist is to stand between someone and what he or she desperately wants. If you go to a restaurant and someone stands in the doorway, refusing to allow you in, waving his arms and pushing you backward every time you try to make your way past him, he is resisting you. He stands between you and your goal. We would not want to be resisted by anyone, but how much worse to be resisted by God – to have the Almighty Creator of heaven and earth position Himself between you and the desires of your heart, refusing to allow you to pass, keeping you from attaining your goals. The Bible says that this is what God does to arrogant men and women who never humble themselves before Him – He resists them.


Grace for the Humble


But the good news is that God "gives grace to the humble." Grace is His power to make things happen for you for which there is no other explanation than God. Grace comes to humble people, people who seek God, pray to God, fast before the Lord, and fully recognize that without Him they have no hope. This is why Ezra had all the people he was leading to stop and fast. They were entering a dangerous journey, and they desperately needed God's favor and protection. Accompanied by a troop of soldiers, it is unlikely they would have fasted and prayed that day. But they had no soldiers; they had no defense. They needed their divine Shield to give them safe passage from Babylon to Israel.


The Bible tells us: "But without faith it is impossible to please (God), for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him." (Hebrews 11:6). God-seekers get rewards! People who set aside hours and afternoons and days for prayer and seeking the Lord receive blessings that pour forth from the open windows of heaven. When we pray (and sometimes fast) God does things for us that He would never have done had we not sought Him. Ezra and his group of exiles made it to Israel safely. Their pause to seek the Lord was not a waste of time. Nor is it a waste of time when we set aside periods of our time to seek the Lord, when we turn off the television, put our phone on silent, put our computers to sleep, and spend time isolated with the God who created us and loves us.


The greatest act of humbling ourselves is that prayer we pray when we first receive Jesus as our Lord and Savior. Jesus said, "Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it…" (Mark 10:15). To receive Jesus as Savior means to humble ourselves, to acknowledge that we need Christ, that we are not capable of living our lives without God, and that we are sinners terribly in need of forgiveness and reconciliation with God. And of course, when we really get this and come to Jesus to receive Him by faith, He freely accepts us and makes us children of God, with eternal life as one of the accompanying benefits. The Bible says, "Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord and He shall lift you up," and the reception of Christ is the essence of humility.


Days of Seeking


But after you have been born again, throughout your life there will be times and seasons when you need to set aside days or portions of days for seeking the Lord in a way that goes beyond the normal. We pray a little more, read the word a little more, and sometimes refrain from eating. We do this not to try to earn some blessing from God, but, to use Ezra's words, to humble ourselves before God. We place ourselves in a posture of humility and by our praying and our seeking we make it known that we do not have it within ourselves to break through to our promised land. We need His mighty hand and His outstretched arm to act on our behalf.


And God is pleased when we do this. He is more than willing to act reach out and give us the breakthrough we seek. He is so eager for us to really get this principle that He says it twice in the New Testament: "God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble."




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