The Word Among Us

Lent 2010 Issue

It’s All About Prayer

Discerning a "True" Fast from a "False" One

It’s All About Prayer: Discerning a "True" Fast from a "False" One

In our first article, we saw how the focus of fasting goes beyond the practice of giving up food or drink.

We saw how we can follow a very rigorous self-denial plan, even call it a fast, and still not see any greater freedom in our spiritual lives. No, the fasting that we are called to each Lent is meant to be focused on God and his kingdom. At its heart, fasting is a type of prayer. And like all other prayers, it is meant to honor God and to seek his help as we try to serve him and obey his commands.

Of course, whenever we deny ourselves for the sake of the Lord—and even if all we think about is the food we are missing—God blesses our efforts. But God can do so much more when a surrendered heart is linked with a hungry stomach! Nowhere is this point made more clear than in the Book of Isaiah, chapter 58. In this passage, the prophet admonishes Israel for limiting its fasts to only the physical dimension, all the while holding onto self-centered, sinful attitudes.

So let’s reflect on this chapter, asking these words of Scripture to give us a vision of what we can both experience and accomplish when we fast and pray this Lent.

A Quick Summary of Isaiah 58. Take a moment to read Isaiah 58 a couple of times. In the first few verses, the Lord condemns Israel’s approach to fasting as being empty and hypocritical (Isaiah 58:1-5). Next, he describes what true fasting should look like (58:6-7). And he ends by painting a picture of the kind of miracles that can flow from true fasting (58:8-14). This chapter tells us that if we move beyond a superficial approach and embrace fasting in the right spirit, our hearts and minds will change—and that change will show itself in our words and actions. Let’s take a closer look at what the prophet has to say to us.

False Fasting—Isaiah 58:1-5. Why do we fast, and you do not see it? Afflict ourselves, and you take no note of it? (Isaiah 58:3)

This exasperated cry came from people who seem to have been rigorous in their observance of fasting and were wondering, "Where are all the blessings? Why should we bother fasting if God isn’t going to reward us?"

And God answered them in no uncertain terms. He let them know that he saw through their mask of piety. He looked into their hearts, beyond their observances, and was not happy with what he saw. They claimed to fast and seek the Lord’s guidance. They claimed to have come to God with humility and a desire to be close to him. They claimed to want to follow God’s commands.

But God knew that their claims lacked substance. How could a people fast, he asked, and still treat one another with such injustice and selfishness? How could they fast and still show such disregard for his laws? You can almost hear the prophet asking a question that was meant to sting the people’s consciences: "Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?" (Isaiah 58:5).

We may not be nearly as arrogant—or as out of touch with God—as the Israelites appeared to be. Still, this passage should move us to examine our own motivations when it comes to fasting. Do I see a real need to fast? Do I really believe that anything good can come from denying myself? Do I fast in Lent out of habit and tradition more than out of a desire to get closer to the Lord?

True Fasting—Isaiah 58:6-7. In two short verses, the prophet differentiates a true fast from a false one. Clearly, the kind of fasting God wants from his people leads to changes, both interiorly and in the world around them. One of God’s goals for fasting is that it would help us identify with the poor—those who go hungry not because they are choosing to but because they have no other choice. He wants our fasts to give us a heart of compassion for them, so that we are moved to break chains of injustice, share our food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless.

The call to care for the poor may not be the only reason God calls us to fast, but it is an important one. Fasting is the great equalizer, as it reduces everyone to a state of hunger, need, and dependence on the Lord. It humbles the rich, and it moves the rich to lift up the poor. If we find that our fasting does not lead us to the poor in some way or other, we need to examine our hearts to see if we are taking the Lord’s call too lightly.

God wants all who are vulnerable or oppressed to be protected and set free. This applies to the poor, but it also includes orphans, the abused, the unborn, the elderly, the hungry, and the dying. He wants us to work toward an end to all injustice. We know that we are Jesus’ hands, feet, and voice in this world. We also need to know that God expects us to become his light in those places of darkness where the strong abuse the weak and where the rich ignore the poor. Fasting will help us make these desires of God a reality.

"Then . . . "—Isaiah 58:8-14. Isn’t it amazing how God takes our simple acts of self-denial and exchanges them with powerful blessings? The prophet tells us that true fasting will bring wondrous results. After describing what a true fast is, he paints a glorious picture of a people who walk with God and who rebuild the earth. Their light breaks forth "like the dawn." They know the guiding hand of the Lord. They find new strength where others falter. And their hearts are filled with "delight" because God himself is feeding them, healing them, and filling them with his own grace and blessing.

Brothers and sisters, this glorious vision is not just for ancient Israel. It is our vision as well. It’s God’s vision for how he wants the church to move in this world—as a force for healing and restoration, as a light in darkness, and as a sign of God’s presence for all who will turn to him.

A few hundred years before this prophecy was spoken, King Solomon heard the Lord make a very similar promise. Solomon had just dedicated the Temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem, and as he was praying, he felt God telling him: "If my people, upon whom my name has been pronounced, humble themselves and pray, and seek my presence and turn from their evil ways, I will hear them from heaven and pardon their sins and revive their land" ?(2 Chronicles 7:14). Wouldn’t it be great if we all took this approach? Imagine the healing, renewal, and hope that would flow to all of our nations if we were to take up the call to fast and pray!

Clearly, he is a good God, a loving and compassionate God. But it is clear that this good and loving God is also a just and holy God. He wants to do good things for his people. He wants to make us shine like stars in the sky (Philippians 2:15). But he will not reward injustice or selfishness. And so he calls us to fast so that we can be set free. He calls us to fast so that we can be purified. He calls us to fast so that we can shine with his light.

An Image of Heaven. In many ways, these last verses give us a sense of what life will be like when Jesus comes again. For when he comes, he will fill the world with his glorious presence. When he comes, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, strong and weak will all be raised up to eternal life. Every tear will be wiped away. Every wrong will be righted. Every injustice will be overcome. And we will all be united in his love and his grace. Until that time, God calls us to do the work of repair and restoration that the world sorely needs.

God’s greatest desire is that we all evangelize—that we will tell everyone about Jesus and lead them to him. This call to evangelize includes the call to "subdue the earth" and make it a place where love and justice reign. And fasting is a key component in our ability to fulfill this noble calling.

God wants us to learn how to prefer his will over our own will. He wants us to dedicate ourselves to his work of justice, peace, and restoration. He wants us to take this season of Lent—this season of fasting—and use it to help further his plan for us and those around us. So let’s explore how we can spend these forty days helping to build a world in which every person lives in dignity and hope. Let’s dedicate ourselves to being his people—a people who find their joy in the Lord and share that joy with everyone they meet. Let’s make God’s prayer—If my people. . . —come true.