As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven. (Nehemiah 1:4 ESV)
What do you do when you have deep feelings about injustice in the world? How do you move? What is the next step? Is it just emotion or can that emotion be channeled into something productive? Take a look at Nehemiah. We are only four verses into this book and already we see his strength of character to ask the question about how others were doing, to hear and respond with weeping, but then he does…MORE.
First he does more feeling. He adds fasting to the mix. He wants his body to ache because his heart aches. This is a long forgotten discipline in our culture. Fasting is the intentional with drawl from food so you can focus on what you feel. In your body it serves as a detox or a cleanse, kind of like a reboot for your digestive system. Spiritually speaking it does something similar. In Nehemiah’s time a fast would mean taking time away from meal preparation which included everything from the purchase at the market to the actual cooking of the meal. This was a big time saver, but more than that it was a way not to focus on the day to day things that can consume our thinking and allow a pure focus on what God might have for Nehemiah. Too often we drown out God’s voice because of all the other voices we fill our lives with. In a modern context fasting might also include setting aside entertainment, social media, and other voices that have a way of consuming out thoughts so that we might be able to hear clearly from God. Fasting brings feelings into focus.
Our feelings alone can lack focus. We have a crush on a person who just looks cute, but when we get to know them we find out they are a jerk… but until your feelings are brought into focus by reality you move and act as if they are a perfect person. Feelings are a helpful response to where we are and how things have been, but they are unreliable guides to our future. This is why we should never just act on our feelings alone. Just ask anyone who has said or done something stupid in a moment of anger.
Nehemiah feels a deep sadness for his countrymen and especially for Jerusalem being a city without walls, instead of jumping into action though he brings his feelings into focus by fasting and he brings his thoughts to God in prayer.
Now lots of folks think that prayer is where we move God to action, but they have it backwards. We don’t pray to tell God what he should do; we pray to ask God what we should do. The point of prayer isn’t to conform God’s will to ours, but to conform our will to God’s (Matthew 6:9-10). Nehemiah goes to God to get God’s perspective, as we will see in the coming days and weeks, God sees the need clearer than Nehemiah ever could.
You may be at a crossroads in your life where you feel like God is calling you to do something but you are unclear about what he wants you to do. Fasting may be a very helpful option to bring things into focus. Consider setting aside some of the distractions in your life so that you can hear his voice more clearly. It is wise to get clarity on what God is doing before you act.