[Thanks to my husband for setting my mind on this track!]
There are certain “spiritual” practices that most Christians would agree are a Good Idea—practices such as reading the Bible, praying, and fellowshipping with other believers. If you stop and consider, you might add additional items to this list—meditating on God and His word, practicing hospitality, generosity (aka giving), and fasting. We often aren’t aware that those among us are fasting, but I’m sure they are. Jesus assumed his followers would fast; it just isn’t something that we’re supposed to notice.
When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18, italics mine).
Fasting has many benefits, all leading to a closer walk with God (the reward Jesus mentions). As we get hungry, we realize our hunger for God. As we struggle to keep our fast, we exercise our self-control muscles. The time we normally spend cooking and eating is available for prayer and study. I could go on, and plenty has been written on the topic.
But there’s one aspect to fasting I had never considered before now—you can’t delegate it. Think about it. “I need to fast, but I hate being hungry. I’m going to hire that person to fast for me.” Do you think that would impress God?
This isn’t the same as a communal fast, where we join together to seek God as a church, small group, or family. If Pete is fasting because he’s seeking a breakthrough in our ministry, for example, I could certainly join him. But I can just imagine my response to Pete coming up to me and saying, “Hey, I feel God calling me to fast for a few days, but I’m kind of busy. Can you not eat for me?” I don’t think so.
No, fasting is an intensely personal practice. We each feel hunger. We each struggle against temptation. And we each encounter God in a deeper way.
Hold that thought and turn to Isaiah 58. In this chapter, God is telling His people what kind of fast He really wants. The people have been fasting by withholding food. God acknowledges that:
For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’
But God doesn’t seem to think much of their fasting:
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
So what does God really want?
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
While we may be divided politically, I think we can all agree on the goal. We all want to eliminate injustice, feed the hungry, and clothe and provide shelter for the poor.
The question is how to achieve this state of liberty and justice for all. Do we hire someone to do our feeding and clothing and housing for us? Is this solely the government’s job—using our tax revenue to create programs? Do we donate to various parachurch ministries, then go on about life as usual with a clear conscience?
Or do we roll up our sleeves and get involved? If God calls this “fasting,” that tells me we need to get personal. When’s the last time I packed a couple of sandwiches and some cookies into a bag to hand to a homeless person? Did I participate in our church’s neighborhood service day, raking leaves, fixing the homes of older widows, babysitting so parents can get a much-needed break together? For that matter, when’s the last time I wrote to our sponsored child in South America?
Reaching out to those unlike me is difficult and uncomfortable. I appreciate our church, which provides plenty of opportunities, even for introverts! Getting involved with others is messy. But for the times I’ve taken the risk, the rewards have been tremendous. Maybe it’s time to step out again.