Honest Confession and Repentance

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you (James 4:7-10, ESV).

Despite the uninformed opinions of many who resist Christ in our day, the Christian roots of our society are undeniable. It was not uncommon in the early days of our Republic (and even prior to our independence) for our leaders to appeal to the God revealed in Jesus Christ for His aid when we faced a crisis. On a number of these occasions that appeal was accompanied with fasting.

Fasting has seen something of a revival in recent years. About 30 years ago I thought that I was far outside of the mainstream when I began a regular appeal to God through fasting over some personal issues, but in recent years many books and pamphlets have been written on the topic. Perhaps it was practiced more than I understood, but certainly there was less published about it. My study of this discipline has revealed that often in Scripture fasting is intended when the inspired writer uses the phrase “humble yourself” or “afflict yourself.” Most of these phrases are written to Jewish audiences in the Old Testament, but it is significant that in the handful of places where the phrase is used in the New Testament, the primary audience is also Jewish. When James wrote this in the passage quoted above, then, it is likely that he had the idea of fasting in mind.

Over the years I have counseled people to fast when they are facing impending doom — a personal diagnosis of cancer or the anguish of the decisions of a prodigal child. Weighty decisions are also proper occasions for fasting; it doesn’t have to be a matter of life or death as many matters were in colonial America or in the Biblical record. The Apostle Peter used the phrase, “humble yourself,” in the context of “casting all of your cares upon Him” (1 Pet 5:7).

Not all passages that refer to fasting include prayer, notably in the book of Esther. But virtually every reference is attended by a call to confession and repentance of sin, either overtly or implied. Before we can expect the Lord’s deliverance, it behooves us to have clean hearts through honest confession and the intentional decision to turn from what displeases Him.

Yet with the revival of interest in the discipline of fasting, there doesn’t appear to be a similar interest in confession and repentance. It is relatively easy to go a day without eating or to go many days without eating certain foods, but I confess (no pun intended) that I have a harder time with the self-examination that should accompany repentance. My personal fat reserves will not allow me to starve in a short period of fasting (despite what my stomach says), but the real struggle for me is setting aside the time for honest soul-searching. I suspect that I am not alone.

As I have read historical literature recently I have been struck by the importance that the people of previous eras have attached to genuine confession and repentance. Fasting might have accompanied their appeal to the God of Israel, but it was more incidental to it than it was central. The central issue was the humble confession (with subsequent forsaking) of their offending actions before the holy God that they worshiped. 

The Jewish calendar always includes a high holy day in the fall that is called the Day of Atonement. It is instituted and described in Leviticus 16 and the text includes the phrase “humble/afflict yourself” as a reference to fasting. But like most everything else instituted by God, we humans have a propensity to make it a legalistic work of righteousness. I confess that my practice of fasting has often resembled a legalistic “Yom Kippur.” May God grant me the grace to restore a proper spirit to my fasting.

The Rain Dance

I wrote this essay is about twenty years old, but I read something recently that reminded me of it.

THE RAIN DANCE

It’s raining outside as I write this. A nice, gentle rain. We have been dry, but in other parts of the country “drought” is the more appropriate word. Water rationing has become necessary there. Restaurants will serve water only on request, lawns and cars will have to wait.

The Native American rain dance didn’t help this time either, although it seemed the perfectly logical solution, given the current state of humanism. Our society has decided that all religions are really one religion and to call on any god is tantamount to calling on the only God. If the truth were known, though, the humanistic powers-that-be really don’t believe that any god or the only God exists, so it is a nice little superstition to pass the time while we wait for Mother Nature to do her self-correction and equalize the rainfall according to the statistical averages.

But how quickly we forget! It is said that if we ignore our history we are doomed to repeat its failures. In their fine book, The Light and the Glory, Peter Marshall and David Manuel recall the events of the summer of 1623 when a severe drought threatened to destroy the corn crop and, with it, the Pilgrim’s colony. It continued for 12 weeks, a longer period of dryness than even the oldest Indian could ever recall. The Indian rain dances and incantations had no effect, but the Pilgrims set aside a day for fasting, self-examination and prayer to call upon God’s mercy and provision. Marshall and Manuel quote from the journal of Edward Winslow:
“But, O the mercy of our God, who was as ready to hear, as we were to ask! For though in the morning, when we assembled together, the heavens were as clear and the drought as like to continue as ever it was, yet (our exercise continuing some eight to nine hours) before our departure, the weather was overcast, the clouds gathered on all sides. On the next morning distilled such soft, sweet and moderate showers of rain, continuing some fourteen days and mixed with such seasonable weather, as it is hard to say whether our withered corn or drooping affections were most quickened or revived, such was the bounty of our God!”

Winslow went on to comment on the effects of this upon the Indians of this region:
“All of them admired the goodness of our God towards us, that wrought so great a change in so short a time, showing the difference between their conjuration and our invocation on the name of God for rain, theirs being mixed with such storms and tempests, as sometimes, instead of doing them good, it layeth the corn flat on the ground…but ours in so gentle and seasonable a manner, as they never observed the like.”

The devout confession of the Pilgrims is what God expected of ancient Israel when Amos the prophet declared that God “withheld the rain from (them)…then (He) would send rain on one city and on another city (He) would not send rain. One part would be rained on while the part not rained on would dry up” (4:7).

But instead of devout confession, we in America today turn to pagan gods to relieve our weather-related anxieties. Sometimes it is the Native American rain dance; sometimes it is the god of meteorology and weather forecasting with its cloud seeding technology. We have yet to learn what Job learned centuries ago when God asked him the rhetorical question, “Can you lift up your voice to the clouds so that an abundance of water may cover you?” (38:34).

But whichever we turn to, as we do, we turn our backs upon the God who created us and redeemed us in His own Son. The Bible declares that His patience will not last forever.
Now, it should be noted that it is not wrong to study meteorological science, or any other science, for that matter. What is wrong is that we tend in our society to attribute to it the status of deity by denying that any outside force can suspend its laws. This tendency is a subtle declaration on our part that some day we humans will figure out how to manipulate the laws, create, and be completely independent of “God.” But for all the insights science has given us in the realm of meteorology, it has yet to create a cloud on such a scale that it can water our crops. It has yet to stop a thunderstorm, or even predict accurately where a tornado will travel. All it can do is warn us to get out of its way, yet often we lift our voices to praise it rather than turning to the God of heaven who rides “upon the wings of the wind” and “twists the oaks” (see Psalms 18, 29) or to His Son Whom the winds and waves obey.

Let us be very clear that the turning to pagan gods for rain dances is not merely a quaint and harmless superstition. It is our declaration that we are unwilling to humble ourselves before the God who created us and will ultimately judge us. The fact that the axe has not yet fallen must not lull us into believing that it never will or that God “tolerates” our sin. He is merciful and patient toward us, giving us every opportunity to repent and to be restored. But just like a good parent, He will allow rebellion to continue only until it is clear that we will not repent on our own.

The imminent danger of famine and hardship led the Pilgrims of 1623 to confess and repent of their sins. This was their only hope in Christ. Our deepest problem here around the turn of the millennium is that we don’t perceive that our danger is imminent. May God awaken us from our slumber.

Worshipping and Fasting

 Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off (Acts 13:1-3 ESV)

Many churches hold up the first century church as the standard to live up to, and they are correct. Some think that if they celebrate the Lord’s Supper in a certain way or frequency, they are following the first century pattern. Some think that if they preach from the Scripture they are following the pattern to the full. Still others imagine that if they experience the signs and wonders that accompanied the apostles’ ministry, they can make the claim to be the “true church.”

Few however in our day follow the pattern set by the Church at Antioch. We don’t know how regularly they met for worship and fasting; this incident in Acts 13 may have been the only time. But personally, I think it was a regular thing.

Worship” here is mentioned because they were honoring His Person. Worship is not just a rehearsal of all the things God has done for us; it is extolling His virtues, praising His character. It’s the difference between saying to your spouse, “Thanks for the good meal” and “You are a great cook!” Both are appropriate in the right context, but  the praise goes to character. The Scripture speaks of “seek[ing] His face” (Ps 27:8) (who He is) versus seeking His hands (what He does).

“Fasting” is usually associated with an intense need. The incidents of fasting throughout the Scripture are usually connected with a threat to the well being of the nation or the individual. In this case (Acts 13:3) it seems they fasted for the purpose of getting the next step right as the Church was going forward.

As the Church in America becomes more marginalized in the society, many who are earnestly seeking revival are returning to these practices. It is not enough to merely acknowledge His provisions to us; we are being drawn to worship Him, to adopt His values, to wait for His voice. I heard recently a comparison of worship to an orchestra whose Composer and Conductor is the Lord Himself. Sometimes He calls upon our “voices” to play a supportive role; at other times to play the melody; still other times we are to remain silent.

But turning from this metaphor, He has created us in His image so that we can be His partners in the grand cause of world evangelization, “that the whole world may know that He is God.” Just as the Church in Antioch expressed their urgency through fasting, it needs to be revived in the Church again. We need to fall on our faces before Him that all men everywhere would repent and seek Him.

Wrestling Against Powers

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12 ESV)

As Evangelicals we believe this verse, but most of us don’t understand it. I can’t say that I understand it fully either, but I read something this week that offered a bit more insight.

In Daniel 10:13 there is a reference to the “prince of Persia,” evidently a spiritual ruler or authority that has some influence over the whole nation. Since it was in opposition to the angel sent to comfort and aid Daniel, we understand it to be a demonic power. To my knowledge this is the only clear Biblical reference to demonic powers that oversee individual nations, but I have no doubt about the veracity of this teaching. We just don’t have any authoritative supporting information.

But I offer an anecdotal reference. Just last week the German government sent armed law enforcement officers to a private home and removed the 4 children from the home. Their crime? They were homeschooling their children. In 1948 the international community responded to the abuses of the Hitler regime by declaring, “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children” (Universal  Declaration of Human Rights, Article 26, Section 3). But now the German government is  rescinding this without any protestation from the international community. (This information was shared by ParentalRights.org in a recent communique.)

It seems that the same spirit that oppressed Germany under Hitler has reared its ugly head again. Is it just me or does it seem odd that the same oppression is being perpetrated upon the same people 65 years after it was defeated and declared to be evil (or at least associated with an evil regime)? Could it be that there really is a conflict going on in the heavenlies that somehow effects us with real – sometimes dire – consequences, but about which most of us are oblivious?

Obviously, I believe the answer is “Yes!” I cannot explain how the conflict in the heavenly realms impacts our world, but I recognize that to make an eternal difference we need to drop the frenetic pace most of us keep and begin to pray more and fast more. If the real battle is in the unseen world beyond ours, we must learn to take the fight to that realm.

Worship and Fasting

 Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off (Acts 13:1-3 ESV)

Many churches hold up the first century church as the standard to live up to, and they are correct. Some think that if they celebrate the Lord’s Supper in a certain way or frequency, they are following the first century pattern. Some think that if they preach from the Scripture they are following the pattern to the full. Still others imagine that if they experience the signs and wonders that accompanied the apostles’ ministry, they can make the claim to be the “true church.”

Few however in our day follow the pattern set by the Church at Antioch. We don’t know how regularly they met for worship and fasting; this incident in Acts 13 may have been the only time. But personally, I think it was a regular thing.

“Worship” here is mentioned because they were honoring His Person. Worship is not just a rehearsal of all the things God has done for us; it is extolling His virtues, praising His character. It’s the difference between saying to your spouse, “Thanks for the good meal” and “You are a great cook!” Both are appropriate in the right context, but  the praise goes to character. The Scripture speaks of “seek[ing] His face” (Ps 27:8) (who He is) versus seeking His hands (what He does).

“Fasting” is usually associated with an intense need. The incidents of fasting throughout the Scripture are usually connected with a threat to the well being of the nation or the individual. In this case (Acts 13:3) it seems they fasted for the purpose of getting the next step right as the Church was going forward.

As the Church in America becomes more marginalized in the society, many who are earnestly seeking revival are returning to these practices. It is not enough to merely acknowledge His provisions to us; we are being drawn to worship Him, to adopt His values, to wait for His voice. I heard recently a comparison of worship to an orchestra whose Composer and Conductor is the Lord Himself. Sometimes He calls upon our “voices” to play a supportive role; at other times to play the melody; still other times we are to remain silent.

But turning from this metaphor, He has created us in His image so that we can be His partners in the grand cause of world evangelization, “that the whole world may know that He is God.” Just as the Church in Antioch expressed their urgency through fasting, it needs to be revived in the Church again. We need to fall on our faces before Him that all men everywhere would repent and seek Him.

Solemn Assembly

Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly (Joel 2:15).

Economic disaster was imminent when Joel prophesied to the nation of Judah. Locusts had come through and had wiped out the crops. Unlike our day where we have grain stored away for years and we even bid on the FUTURE price of those commodities, when their crops were destroyed they didn’t eat till the next year (at least not that food).

Richard Owen Roberts, a student of revivals throughout history and an author on the subject, identifies the “solemn (or sacred) assembly” as the answer prescribed by God for any kind of imminent appeal to avoid disaster. When the “Ark of the Covenant” was captured by the Philistines, Samuel proclaimed a fast and called the people together to repent before God (I Sam 7). When kings Asa and Jehoshaphat were threatened by nations mightier than they were, they each called upon the people to fast and repent at a solemn assembly (2 Chron 14, 20). When God declared judgment for the sins of his grandfather, Manasseh, King Josiah was moved to repentance himself and called the people to the same in 2 Chron 34:29.

Usually the solemn assembly was accompanied by fasting because throughout the Old Testament, fasting was a sign of self-humiliation, mourning and repentance. It is significant that historically the singular sign of a repentant spirit was the willingness to mourn through fasting. That’s why the annual Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) has historically been known as “the Fast” (see Acts 27:9).

God responds to the Solemn Assembly – not because there is anything magical about an assembly – but because He responds to brokenness and contrition. When Christians mourn and confess and repent of their sin He takes notice because He sees that we understand the seriousness of sin. When Isaiah wrote that Jesus was “crushed” for our iniquities in Isaiah 53:5, that word is the same Hebrew word that is translated “contrite” in Psalm 51:17 – “a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” The power of a single Christian’s repentance is significant, but when a group of Christians – as in a local church – gather to genuinely mourn their sin, His heart is moved to action on their behalf.

In our day the Church has decided that His blessing must rest upon the mega-church because everyone strives for “bigness.” Pastors flock to the seminars or books of the most recent “success” story to learn their “secret,” which they are glad to share – for a price. (I even have a book in my library on how to use fasting to grow your church – apparently the author sees fasting as one of the tools in a pastor’s ecclesiastical toolbox!) But Isaiah tells us that if God wanted to build a BIG ministry, He wouldn’t need us. What He is looking for are those who are “humble…contrite…and who tremble at His Word” (Is. 66:2).

Spiritual Warfare

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph 6:12).

Apparently my life is too entrenched in the physical world that surrounds me, because this verse always strikes a chord with me. Reading this, along with Ephesians 3:9-10, I am reminded that there is an unseen spiritual presence that somehow impacts the affairs of men that I can see. What the connection is between the spiritual world of “principalities and powers” and our physical world of personal survival, caring and rearing our families, standing for Truth in the political world and promoting Christ is impossible to understand. Perhaps one day when this life is over, we will understand it.

In the verses that follow Ephesians 6:2, Paul speaks about the spiritual armor that we are to don as believers in this battle, but there is another passage that speaks about the weapons that we are to use. That passage is II Cor. 10:4-5 which tells us that our weapons are spiritual and can pull down the strongholds (in the spiritual world) that are impossible if we only see this as a world of space and time. The weapons to which Paul refers are, of course, prayer and fasting. Some might include giving since Jesus included this in His Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6).

Both of these “means of grace” (to use the term employed by the Reformers) are mysteries to most of us. Why does God need us to pray when He already knows what He wants done and has the power to accomplish it? Why did the ancients consider fasting to be a way “to make your voice heard on high”? Isn’t that what prayer itself does? If our Lord owns “the cattle on a thousand hills” and “the wealth of every mine,” why does He command us to give?

The answers to these are bound up in the reality that “our warfare is not against flesh and blood…” Somehow, what we do when we pray, fast and give impacts the spiritual world in ways that we will never completely understand while we are in this life. Certainly the practice of these disciplines creates a growth component for our lives here that will be satisfying while we remain on this side, but God’s purpose is much greater even than that. Somehow we make a difference in the unseen world, and the unseen world affects what happens around us. That’s why Psalm 149 can say that it is the glory of God’s people to pray and to impact the political world in far-away places (see vss. 6-9).

These spiritual disciplines can become wearisome to us at times, but we must continually feed on the Scripture to keep the truth before us that even if we cannot see visible results from these disciplines, they are effective in the unseen world.