One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God.
—Luke 6:12, NIV
We talk about “imitating Christ,” but we only want to imitate whatever He did that fits our tastes.
Some of us are deeply concerned about social issues, so we seek to “imitate Christ” in His concern for the poor and needy. We run homeless shelters and soup kitchens; our churches house AIDS clinics and AA meetings. We rent our building to a start-up congregation, and we have joint services with a different denomination.
Some of us are deeply concerned about moral issues, so we seek to “imitate Christ” in His confrontations with the Pharisees. We picket porno shops and demonstrate about abortion; our churches work with political candidates. We hold youth rallies and family nights to build good values and we hold alternative celebrations for teens where no alcohol is served.
Some of us are deeply concerned with doctrinal orthodoxy, so we seek to “imitate Christ” in His teachings. We give classes in exegetics and Biblical languages; our churches host guest speakers on archaeology and hold public seminars on prophecy. We host trips to the Holy Land and we educate each member on every doctrinal point.
But how many of us retreat to a mountain to pray for a whole night just because we have important decisions to make the next morning?
How many of us fast, as Jesus fasted, as an adjunct to prayer? Jesus never ran a homeless shelter. He never picketed for new legislation. He didn’t start study groups on end-time events. But He prayed all night on the mountain, and once He fasted for forty days. Are we truly imitating Christ, or are we rationalizing our behavior?
When Jesus taught us how to pray, He didn’t say, “If you elect to pray, do it this way…” and when He taught about fasting, He didn’t say, “If you elect to fast, do it this way…”
He said, when you pray, don’t do it for show like the hypocrites do. It’s a conversation between you and God. And He gave us the Lord’s prayer as an example of what we should pray about:
- Address God
- “Our Father, who art…”
- Submit to God’s will
- “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done…”
- Ask for your physical needs
- “Give us this day our daily bread…”
- Ask for forgiveness
- “Forgive us our debts…”
- To the degree that you yourself are willing to forgive…
- “As we forgive our debtors…”
- Ask for help with temptations
- “Lead us not into temptation…”
- And preservation from evil
- “Deliver us from evil…”
Similarly, Jesus told us that when we fast (not if ) we are not to make a show of it, like hypocrites do. A fast is different from a hunger strike: a fast is a personal act of devotion to God, while a hunger strike is a public act most often used to shine a spotlight on injustice. A fast is also different from anorexia nervosa: it is disciplined diet, not total abstention from food. During a religious fast, you still eat, you just abstain from certain foodstuffs. Traditionally, people have fasted by eliminating luxury items from their diets, such as meats. You could have a fast that consists of eating whatever you want, but drinking only water. Orthodox Christians recognize five levels of fasting:
- Abstaining from meat
- Abstaining from meat, eggs, milk, butter, and cheese
- Abstaining from meat, eggs, milk, butter, cheese, and fish
- Abstaining from meat, eggs, milk, butter, cheese, fish, oil, and wine
- Abstaining from all foods and beverages except bread, water, juices, honey, and nuts.
Note that the fifth and strictest level comes close to describing John the Baptist’s diet, and it is may very well have been the fast that Jesus undertook for forty days in the wilderness—except for the bread. (Christians reenact this retreat during Lent.)
To fast, just omit an item or two from your diet—something that you would normally eat during the course of the day. Every time you get an appetite for those items, you will be reminded of your fast and that will remind you of the reason for your fast, and you can pray instead of eating. This can have immense spiritual benefit. You are simply using your belly as a spiritual snooze-alarm.
The ancient Jews fasted on Mondays and Thursdays. The ancient church fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays, because they believed that Jesus commanded them to observe those days as fast days; Wednesday to commemorate His betrayal, and Friday to commemorate His crucifixion. (This is recorded in the Apostolic Constitutions, Book 5, Section 3, which the Orthodox Churches still use as a manual of church discipline.) So it has been historically customary for Christians to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. In fact. John Wesley, the Anglican priest who founded Methodism, refused to ordain anyone who did not fast on those two days. He felt that anyone who could not rule his own belly could not be expected to rule the church of God.
Do you fast and pray? If you don’t, your spiritual life is unbalanced. If you are a soldier of the Lord, you can hardly expect to be commended for your conduct if you never check into headquarters for instructions.
My personal recommendation for spiritual discipline:
- Follow the ancient Christian custom of morning and evening prayer.
- Have a nice, long chat with God first thing in the morning and in the late evening. If you have a habit of taking a daily walk, you could resolve to talk to God during that entire walk, to talk things out.
- It’s commendable to pray at each meal and before falling asleep (which would be four times a day) but grace tends to be perfunctory and praying in bed might end in sleep rather than a real conversation. (Nothing wrong with that except you don’t get to talk things out.) While this results in more prayers, I think God would prefer fewer prayers and faithfulness in prayer. If you think it’s necessary to have quality time with your children, how much more would God want quality time with you?
- Fast whenever you need intensive prayer.
- Your appetite acts as a prayer alarm; instead of eating your usual treat, you pray. That keeps you focused all day long.
Jesus went up to the mountain and prayed all night. When was the last time you prayed for ten minutes? Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights to prepare for His ministry. When was the last time you skipped lunch to spend the time with God?
But back to “imitating” Jesus. Jesus never said, “if you love me, you will imitate me.” What he said was, “if you love me, you will obey what I command.” (John 14:15, NIV).