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What Does It Mean to Fast?

By Lon Fendal
Breaking Chains of Injustice, Isaiah 58:6
IT WAS ONE OF THOSE “by the way” expressions. It was only a few days before a group of college students would be departing for a ministry and learning trip to Kenya. The orientation and training meetings had covered the basics of preparing for the time in a culture much different from our own. The “by the way” preceded the student’s comment to me that he was well along toward completing a 40-day fast but had decided that he should probably end the fast before our departure. I thanked him for telling me about this and assured him he was making the right decision. Truthfully, I had no idea what a major period of fasting would do to a person’s body, especially while adjust to the many differences between life in Africa and the U.S. This experience had a reasonably happy outcome, if you don’t count that the student and I almost missed our outbound flight while his body staged a major revolt for his over-indulgence at an all-you-can-eat restaurant in Nairobi.

However, this experience started me thinking about fasting. I knew it was more than just missing a meal. I was aware that it was a vehicle for increased spiritual awareness. But the full impact of fasts that please God came as I was studying Isaiah 58 for my Sunday School class.

Isaiah’s message focuses not so much on the spiritual growth that can come from fasting, but rather on the ways our fasting should turn our attention to the needs of those around us. In verse 2, Isaiah listed the ways the people of Judah thought their lives were impacted by the discipline of fasting. They were seeking God and they seemed to delight in doing what God expected of them. They tried to treat others well and above all, they were working at drawing near to God. Or so they said.

In verse 3, the people of Judah tried to shift the blame on God for not noticing how serious they were about fasting. That feeble self-defense got a quick response from God, speaking through Isaiah. Their fasting was to consist of much more than self-denial, but was to impact the way they were treating others and they were falling far short. They were focusing on their own interests, with little regard for the needs of others. What was much worse, they were blatantly oppressing their workers. The phrase “striking with a wicked fist” somehow got overlooked by the many so-called godly people who for generations saw no disconnect between their attempts at worshiping and serving God and their abusive treatment of their slaves and servants.

Isaiah went beyond condemning slavery and others forms of oppression, to chiding the people of Judah for failing to attend to the needs of those around them—the hungry, those without adequate clothing, even family members in need. His listeners must have squirmed a bit when Isaiah spoke of people who hid themselves from their own extended family members who were in need.

Later in the passage, Isaiah turned from rebuking his listeners to giving them a long list of the benefits of bona fide fasting:

  • Continuing guidance from the Lord.
  • The meeting of our needs during the “dry” times.
  • Physical well being—the strengthening of our bones.
  • The restoration of our ruined buildings.
  • An abundance of joy, something like a “watered garden.”

A friend of mine recently gave a talk, illustrated with photos, showing the difference between a healthy, lush vegetable garden and one in which inferior seeds were used, insufficient fertilizer was applied, and not enough irrigation was carried out at the right times and in the right amounts.

May our desire for spiritual growth and health lead us to the kind of spirituality that Isaiah describes so vividly and away from spiritual “disciplines” that don’t impact the way we live.