Can you remember when you went on your first date? You wanted everything to be just right—your hair, your clothes, the place where you met. You wanted to do everything you could to build a relationship with this special person.
That’s one way of looking at how God works with us. More than anything else, he wants to build a relationship with us. He wants to catch and hold our attention. He looks for creative ways to tell us that he loves us. He wants things to go just right between us. He is like a suitor trying to win over his beloved.
But a relationship is a two-way street. God can do only so much; he needs us to return his affections.This is where Lenten fasting comes in. Fasting is one of the most powerful ways that we can come closer to the Lord, especially during this season of grace! So in this article, we want to look at how we can do just this. And we want to use this verse from the Letter of James to help us:
Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you of two minds. (James 4:8)
Draw Near in Confession. At first glance, it seems obvious: we draw near to God by coming to him and talking with him in prayer and at Mass. We draw near by worshipping him and listening to his word in Scripture. But James goes on to warn us against two impediments that can keep us from drawing close to God. First, he says, “Cleanse your hands, you sinners.” Then he says, “Purify your hearts, you of two minds” (James 4:8). The first impediment, then, is our sin, and the second is the way we can be double minded.
When it comes to our sin, there is no solution better than the Sacrament of Reconciliation. That’s where we are cleansed of our past sins—not just the things we have thought or said, but the ways our “hands” have become soiled by the things we have done. Just as the man with leprosy bowed down to Jesus and said, “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean,” so in Confession we humble ourselves and admit the ways we have become unclean (Luke 5:12).
Every time we confess our sins, Jesus does the same thing he did for this man. In the person of the priest, he stretches out his hand and washes us clean through absolution. No matter what we have done, no matter how long ago we did it, no matter how convinced we are that he has rejected us, Jesus says, “I do will it. Be made clean” (Luke 5:13). We have drawn near to him in repentance, and he has drawn near to us in forgiveness, love, and compassion.
Draw Near in Devotion. James also warned us against being double minded, or feeling pulled in two different directions. A good illustration of this pitfall is Jesus’ parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). Both men went to the Temple to pray, which, of course, is a good thing. But the Pharisee’s prayer was self-centered. He thanked God that unlike everyone else, including the tax collector, he was very strict with his religious observances. The tax collector, on the other hand, simply prayed, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This man, Jesus said, “went home justified,” while the Pharisee did not.
We have no reason to believe that the Pharisee was an insincere person. But he was more full of himself than he was of God. He let his pride in his observance get the better of him, so while he was sincere in his practice of faith, he didn’t let his religion change his attitude. Conflicted in mind and heart, he brought both his good accomplishments and his human pride before the Lord.
The tax collector wasn’t conflicted. He knew he needed God’s mercy, and that’s all he asked for. He didn’t try to justify his sins or excuse them; he simply confessed. And for that, God justified him and raised him up.
Most of us are conflicted. We want to pray, but we’re too busy. We want to be humble, but we subtly find ways to boast. We want to be loving, but we set conditions. We want to have order in our lives, but we take on too many projects. We want to give to the poor, but we never seem to have any money to give.
This is why a Lenten fast can be so helpful. Fasting helps us see the difference between what we need and what we want, between what we have to do and what we want to do. It helps us push through the clutter in our lives so that we can find the clear, single-minded path that will get us closer to the Lord. As we fast, we come face-to-face with our reluctance to change—and we find the grace to step into God’s transforming grace.
Draw Near in Intercession. Fasting with a repentant heart and a mind fixed on the Lord has an effect on him. As James promised, if we draw near to God, he will draw near to us. Our heavenly Father always responds when we fast with a disposition of humility and repentance. It makes our prayers of intercession more powerful, as it did for Queen Esther (Esther 4:15-16; C:14-30). It helps clear away our discouragement and distress, and it moves God to comfort us, just as he did for Nehemiah and Daniel (Nehemiah 1; Daniel 9:3-19). True fasting and prayer bring the Lord closer so that we can find the strength to fight temptation, just as Jesus did during his time in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). Finally, a humble, prayer-filled fast will move the Lord to show us his will for our lives, just as he did for Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:1-3).
This kind of fasting and prayer—with repentance and a single-minded focus on the Lord—can even change the course of history. During the reign of King Jehoshaphat of Judah, an alliance of enemy nations rallied to fight against him. As part of his military strategy, Jehoshaphat proclaimed a nationwide fast (2 Chronicles 20:3). Leading the people in prayer, Jehoshaphat said, “We are powerless before this vast multitude. . . . We are at a loss what to do, hence our eyes are turned toward you” (20:12). Then, aided by the Levites, Jehoshaphat appointed some of the people to do something unexpected. They sang songs of worship—right there on the plain of battle! And God responded by destroying their enemies (20:20-23).
Look at Judah as a symbol for the Church. Think about how fasting and prayer could fend off the evil spirits who seek to destroy the body of Christ. Or think about how fasting and prayer can help put an end to abortion, war, and injustice. Imagine the results we could see if everyone reading these words were to decide to fast and pray for just one of these issues. We could change the world!
Draw Near through Generosity. There is one more practice that we can link to our fasting and prayer, and that is almsgiving. Fasting with the right disposition unites those who have plenty with those who live in poverty. When we deny ourselves, we find that our hearts are softened toward the cry of the poor. We get a sense of what they experience every day, and it moves us to a greater generosity. This is exactly what God expects of us.
Take a moment now to read Isaiah 58. In this passage, the prophet upbraids the people for abusing the ancient practice of fasting. He tells them that while they do in fact fast, their self-denial is having no effect on their lives. Yes, they are going without food, but they are not caring for the poor, the homeless, and the victims of injustice. They aren’t finding solidarity with those whose suffering breaks God’s heart. Their fasting is little more than a ritual designed to keep God happy with them. As a result, the people’s fast “ends in quarreling and fighting” rather than bringing them together (Isaiah 58:4).
This is not what God wants! He wants our fasting to soften our hearts. He wants us to draw near to him when we fast so that we can see him drawing near to us—not just in our prayer but in the faces of our poor brothers and sisters. He wants our fasting to change our hearts so that we become his hands and feet in the world. Our fasting needs to be linked to humble, repentant prayer, and it needs to be linked with generous, heartfelt almsgiving.
He Will Draw Near to You. In the end, fasting coupled with prayer and almsgiving is one of the best ways we can show our love for Jesus. Because they help us draw near to the Lord, all three practices, taken together, will move him to draw near to us. And whenever Jesus comes to us, he fills us with his love. He lifts us up and comforts us. He changes us more and more into his image.