Daniel 9:3 “So I turned to the Lord and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.”
The way that Daniel describes his approach to God tells us something about his posture on the inside. Daniel came with a humble heart. He “turned to the Lord and pleaded.” In other words, Daniel realized his own talents and resources were not going to solve his problem. Daniel was confessing that he really needed God.
When we look at the wider context of Daniel’s problem, we might be tempted to say, “Well of course! Daniel was praying about the release of his entire nation from their 70-year exile in Babylon. There was no way this one man all by himself could do anything about that. He really did need God!”
But are we any less needy than Daniel, any less dependent on the Lord? Even the simplest and most commonplace details of our lives rely on him. We could not draw our very next breath without God’s help and blessing, much less accomplish anything else we ever do.
Perhaps we don’t like to regard ourselves so helpless and dependent, but this is what we are. Too often we set out on some project, great or small, thinking we can lick it all on our own. And sometimes in his grace the Lord lets us get away with this for a time. But we are deceiving ourselves and insulting God if we think we reach the goal alone. Daniel teaches us we need God, not just for a little help, but for every little detail that makes our lives possible.
Daniel expressed this kind of humility by his external posture, too. “I turned to the Lord and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth, and ashes.” Fasting, sackcloth, ashes–these were ancient ways of expressing great sadness and grief. Fasting–giving up food for a time–wasn’t practiced as a way to make God happy or to mystically get closer to him. It was a vivid way of saying, “I’m so upset or concerned about this that I don’t want to eat.” Sackcloth was a dark, rough and cheap cloth of such a poor quality and appearance that it almost wasn’t suitable to be worn. Wearing it was a way of saying, “I am so disturbed that I don’t even feel like getting dressed and making myself presentable today.” Ashes communicated a similar message.
Do these have any place in our prayer lives? Here we need to be careful. Americans are very hungry for spiritual experiences. They have become bored with the gospel of God’s love in Jesus, and so have gone looking for others ways to “experience” God. Some have latched on to fasting as a mystical way to get closer to God. It often loses its character as a heartfelt expression of sorrow over sin, the way God’s people used it in the Bible.
But we would be just as mistaken to dismiss these things altogether. We are not bound to fasting, sackcloth, and ashes, but they remind us our body language still reveals something about the attitude with which we pray. It can be used as a teaching tool, too. Look at the practices with which we are more familiar. When we fold our hands, we are confessing our helplessness and our need to God. It’s not these hands which will ultimately solve our problems. When we bow our heads, we are humbling ourselves as we come to God, recognizing that we are sinful and unworthy, and he is great and gracious. This is perhaps impressed upon us, or expressed by us, even more when we do something that seems to be increasingly rare–literally get down on our knees before God when we pray.
These postures also express something about our regard for the God to whom we pray. He is the God of grace. He taught us to trust him for the entirety of our salvation. He has taken care of dealing with our sins from beginning to end. We made no contribution to Jesus work at the cross other than the sins for which he suffered. We make no payment to receive his forgiveness today. All is done.
Likewise, we can trust him that he doesn’t need our help with the daily crises we face. That’s not to say we become passive in addressing them. It is to say we trust the Lord who loves us fully to handle today’s urgent need.
Is our posture in prayer simply a matter of habit, or a sincere demonstration of the attitude of our hearts? Daniel teaches us that prayer’s posture is another way we talk to God.