Fasting Brings Feelings into Focus (Nehemiah 1:4)

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)

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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.

Feeling Bad News (Nehemiah 1:3-4)

And they said to me, “The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.” 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 1:3-4 ESV)

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We live in a society where people flee from pain and discomfort. Sometimes we would rather not hear news at all than to hear bad news. We burry our head in the latest video game, music album or endless search for funny memes and videos rather than face the reality of the situation in front of us. It would have been easy for Nehemiah to dismiss the discomfort of his countrymen as their problem. After all, he lived in a city with walls.

Something you should understand about city walls. They were like locks on our doors today. They served to keep people inside safe and people with bad intentions out. Imagine moving to a new neighborhood only to find out that the new place you are living in doesn’t have locks. What’s worse is that it doesn’t have doors and there is no police force to call when someone breaks in. That was the situation the people in Nehemiah’s home town were experiencing.

Nehemiah allowed himself to feel a deep empathy for his fellow countrymen who lived in a city that had no protection from its enemies. As we will find out in the rest of this book, he’s not a weak man, but here he sobs like a child. He isn’t running from the issue, he is feeling the full force of it.

Sometimes we can become desensitized to the humanity of people who are suffering. Maybe we’ve seen the images of one too many starving children on the TV screen to care anymore. We have grown callous. In our hearts we think, “That’s somebody else’s problem” or “I can’t do anything about that,” and we move on to the next Pokémon to capture or meme to post. (Not that these things are bad in and of themselves, but when we use them as diversions from what God is pressing on our hearts).

I think that feelings are important. We will learn later that they aren’t a good guide, but that they can be a good indicator of where we are. How do you feel about the current state of your school, neighborhood, or workplace? Take time to journal your thoughts today.

For me it was frustration. I saw a huge need, but didn’t know how to address it. Obviously the things we were doing in student ministry were working with churched kids but we were struggling to reach people who hadn’t been to church (which as it turns out was most of the public school population). I also felt sadness, like we were losing a generation. I wondered about what could be done to reach students who had never heard the gospel.