“Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?” Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord? “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.” (ESV – Read the chapter)
This is a bigger section than I usually include, but the context is important. Fasting was a part of the regular religious rituals of the people of Israel. By the time Jesus was walking around, this was even more the case. There were in fact as many as three regular fasts a week for the most religiously devoted of the group. On these fasts, they would wear special clothes, rub ashes on their faces, heads, and hands, and often moan loudly about how hungry they were. And the people would marvel at how dedicated they were to God.
Let’s call this what it was, what Isaiah some 700 years before blasted it as: Religiosity. As I’ve said before, God wants nothing to do with this. These fasts were empty displays of devotion that gradually became ends in themselves, rather than means to something else, namely, a deeper relationship with God.
Today, we don’t practice fasting much. It is not a regular part of the modern church. This goes for my own life and practice as well. While this does allow us to avoid the religiosity of the people of Israel, we generally do a good job of finding other ways to pursue that. In removing the regular spiritual discipline of fasting, I am of the mind that we have left ourselves short an important tool in our spiritual growth.
Fasting can be a spiritually rich practice that points us well in the direction of greater devotion to and trust in the Lord. But, just like the people of Israel did, we have to practice it properly if we want it to be of any lasting benefit to us rather than merely a religious exercise that leaves us little more than hungry.
What Isaiah offers here is some rich advice for how to get it right. The most important part of the spiritual discipline of fasting is not the mechanics of it, but the goal toward which it is aimed and the intentionality with which we pursue that goal. While we typically think of fasting as involving an intentional avoidance of food, that doesn’t have to be the case. The point of fasting is that we are removing from our lives something on which we normally depend to get us through the day, and replacing that thing with intentionally seeking the Lord. Every time we have an urge for whatever is the particular object of our fast, we seek the Lord through prayer and the Scriptures. Instead of scratching that particular personal itch, we serve someone else in order to see their needs met.
As for the goal of fasting, we are seeking a deeper connection with God in our own lives and a more practical outworking of that connection in the world around us. This is what Isaiah is getting at when he talks about God’s preferred approach to fasting being these various pursuits of justice and righteousness in the world around us.
Because of our taking up the discipline of fasting, what has happened in us and in the world around us? How has our own devotion to God grown and how can someone who knows us well see that? How has the kingdom of God been unleashed and advanced in the world around us more fully and who has been the beneficiary of this? If we can answer these questions with meaning and substance, then our fast has been something worthwhile. If we cannot, it was little more than ritual. Better even than this would be to frame out our intended answers to these questions before we do the fast so that we have something by which to evaluate our efforts on the back side.
Fasting is a spiritual discipline worth adding to our regular practice of the pursuit of God. But, it must be done with the right spirit and the proper aim lest it risk being a waste of our time. What are some ways you can begin to explore this practice in your own life? It will be worth your time.