June 12, 2009
So I have just done my Bible reading, and one of my chapters for today was Isaiah 58, about fasting. Now I've done a lot of "study" on fasting before, even written up "how-to's!" But I saw something "new to me" in my reading today - that is, that God doesn't want just rite and ritual (which I knew), or even just "fasting and prayer" (important as prayer is): but that He won't answer if we are not truly repentant (in action as well as in word!). So that doesn't just mean "humbling ourselves" by going without food, or even bowing ourselves before Him and going so far as weeping and wailing and sitting on sackcloth and ashes! God wants true repentance - true "turning about," away from all unrighteousness, to true righteousness, which is proven, worked out, in the actions and behaviors of our daily lives (even as we fast and pray).
We must declare our transgression and sins (Isa 58:1). We must stop acting, claiming, pretending to be, even thinking we are, righteous and obedient: we must see ourselves as we truly are! We are so blind, thinking that we are seeking God and delighting to know His ways, and we think that therefore when we do the fasting ritual, He will come near to us and notice us and give just decisions (to our benefit!) (Isa 58:2-3)
And yet we don't even see how we really are as a nation, and as a people who claim to be people of God. We contend with each other, we argue, we fight - even among ourselves - which is wickedness. We go after what we desire. We drive our workers hard (often for unreasonable wages!). We enslave people in these and other ways - even in spiritual aspects like the Pharisees who put the Jewish people under endless rules and regulations - bondage - that in the end actually kept them from finding God. How often we ourselves do this, too! We point the finger, judging and gossiping, and being self-righteous. We speak wickedly, slandering people, laughing about evil things, complaining all the time... and we think wickedly, too, enjoying the "entertainment" of the world. We are selfish, taking care of ourselves, but not taking care of the poor and afflicted - even those in our own families and churches, not to mention those in our cities, nations, and around the world (Isa 58:3-4, 9-10).
Isn't that what Jesus was talking about when He said that the "goats" at the great judgment will include those who thought themselves to be so righteous, yet they failed to feed the hungry, give a glass of cold water to the thirsty, invite the stranger in, clothe those who need it, visit the sick and those in prison - "the least of these." And the result will be eternal punishment! (Mt 25:31-46).
Instead, Isaiah says, if you want your fasting to be effective, if you want God to hear you and respond to you, to come near to you, you must live lives of true righteousness, even as you fast and pray. What does truly righteous living look like? (Isa 58:6-14).
- loosen the bonds of wickedness, undo the bands of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, break every yoke (which of course starts with becoming freed from sin yourself, through belief in Jesus and sacrifice and death to yourself... and then bringing the good news of liberty and freedom to others as you walk with and abide in the Lord... and love and serve both God and others... all the time, as Jesus did, and as the Holy Spirit empowers you and guides you.
- divide your bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into the house, cover the naked, not hide yourself from your own flesh (like Paul said, take care of your own families... hmmmm... not just leave it to the church... or the government?). (Do we really do this? We live in such a divided society... do we even want "the hungry and homeless" to be in our homes and eat our food (dividing it! Which means giving away some of what we intended to eat ourselves - might be a good thing for our expanding waistlines, eh?!? What if they come back and steal from us? What if they make our house smell funny? What if they swear in front of our children? Wouldn't it just be better to donate to the soup kitchen, or even vounteer (staying safely behind the counter, preferably... hmmmm..) or, if we are really brave, making up some sandwiches to pass out on the street, and taking our cast-off clothes and raggedly blankets to the thrift store? Wouldn't that be enough? After all, surely we don't want "those kind of people" wandering in our neighborhoods - or even walking through our churches where we have valuable expensive musical equipment and such! (Or, heaven forbid, moving ourselves into their neighborhoods and becoming truly neighborly with them!)?
And as for those folks in third world countries, does it really make any difference to them if we "get involved." Won't the money or food we send just end up diverted by some rebel group or some evil government, anyway? And if we do "go," wouldn't a couple weeks helping build a house for people, or doing some skits or whatever, be just as good as spending the same amount of travel money, but staying there for a long enough period of time (years maybe), and living simply, with them, as friends and servants?
- give yourself (literally, furnish yourself) to the hungry, and satisfy the desire (soul) of the afflicted. (What? I have to give MYSELF? What does that really mean?)
- honor God's holy day of rest, desisting from your own ways and your own pleasure and your own word. (Okay! But we are freed from the law, aren't we? The whole Sabbath thing is by-gone, right? Anyway, isn't it more restful to go golfing, or relaxing and watching an entertaining video, or chatting with friends about the weather and about your favorite hobbies and your successes and all, while you chow down in "good fellowship" around the barbeque? Anyway, didn't Jesus say the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath? So shouldn't we be able to do want we want, what gives us pleasure and enjoyment - that's truly restful and relaxing, isn't it? And isn't every day the same anyway? What? It couldn't be that "fulfilling the law" means going beyond the law, could it? Sure, maybe Jesus was right that looking lustfully is as bad as committing adultery (though, boy oh boy, that seems pretty difficult - and unrealistic - doesn't it? Maybe He was just using hyperbole to make His point?) ... but surely He wouldn't expect us to carry that "holy day" thing into every day being a holy day?? Nah, that's just carrying it way too far... isn't it?)
And then, what do other scriptures say about all this fasting-and-prayer stuff, anyway? Let's take a look: some examples:
Hosea 10:12 says to sow to righteousness, reap with holiness, break up your fallow ground (John Wesley wrote of "fallow ground": Your hearts are as ground over-run with weeds, which need to be plowed and broken up, that good seed may be sowed in them) - seeking the LORD till He comes to rain righteousness on you!
Micah 6:8 - what the LORD requires of you is to do justice, to love kindness and loyalty, and to walk humbly and circumspectly with God.
Matthew 9:13 (s/a Hosea 6:6) - God desires compassion, not sacrifice: after all, Jesus came to call sinners!
Philippians 4:18 - Paul calls the gift that the Philippians sent to him when he was suffering, "a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God"
Hebrews 13:16 - doing good and sharing are sacrifices that please God
Joel 2:1-11 - is a warning about the dreadful "day of the LORD"- the day of great judgment that is coming... but we do not need to fear it if we will return to God with all our heart and with fasting, weeping and mourning (v 12). But this is not a ritual form of fasting and repentance! Verse 13 says, and this is key, "Rend your heart and not your garments." Then, our God who IS "gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and relenting of evil" will "turn and relent and leave a blessing behind Him" (v 13-14). God calls all His people to "proclaim a fast" (v 15). They are to be sanctified (to be made holy, to separate themselves and come out of their unclean lives) (v 16), and are to beg God to have pity on His people and to take away their reproach and shame (which, by the way, they have brought upon themselves by their disobedience and turning away from God) (v 17-18), and beg Him to bless His people (v 19-26). And then He will answer, and be in their midst and be their God (v 27)! And He will pour out His Spirit on all mankind, and display wonders and deliver whoever calls on His Name (v 28-32)!
Matthew 6:16-18 - fasting (ritual going without food, humbling yourself, self-sacrifice, so that your prayers will be answered) is not to be a time to "look holy" to other people, by putting on a gloomy face and neglecting your appearance. Rather you are to keep it secret before God - and He will reward you.
Acts 13:2-3 When the church at Antioch was fasting, note that they were "ministering to the LORD and fasting." It was service to God, not prayers for their own benefit! And He came to them and told them to "separate for Me Barnabus and Saul for the work to which I have called them." That's just like in Isa 58:5 which says "a fast which I (the LORD) choose." Yes, God does reward us when we truly fast (with all that includes: real repentance, turning to live truly righteous lives, prayer... and fasting from food as a symbol of our repentance and of our seeking God and HIS WILL AND WAYS!). But those "rewards" are always a result of His grace, compassion, lovingkindness, mercy.... "not of (our) works (our "fasting" ... even our prayers...) lest any man should boast." We fast, in loving obedience and gratefulness, to minister to God, for His glory and honor, not for our own benefit!
Notice in Acts 13:3 that after they fasted (ministering to, serving, God), and God game them direction to set aside Paul and Barnabus - to HIS work HE planned for them - that they again fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, before actually sending them out. Fasting and prayer was clearly a regular, on-going part of the life of the church, an integral part of a daily lifestyle of "ministry to the Lord."
Oh yes... and God does reward true fasting, in His great lovingkindness and mercy and grace (because no matter how "right" our fasting and prayer is, we ourselves can never "deserve" those rewards!). Back to Isa 58:
v8: light, recovery, righteousness. The glory of the LORD will be your rear guard (protection)
v9: the LORD will answer your calls, your prayers, to Him
v10: your "gloom" will be as bright as midday!
v11: the LORD will continually guide you, satisfy you (even in the hardest places and times), give strength to you, be living water in your life
v12: bring restoration
v14: you will take delight in the LORD and He will care for you in wonderful ways!
(s/a Joel 2:21-27 and Joel 2:28f. God will pour out His Spirit and will deliver His people who call on His Name!