By Watchman | May 19, 2010
“Cry aloud, spare not; Lift up your voice like a trumpet; tell My people their transgression…
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and You have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls, and You take no notice?’…
…You will not fast as you do this day, to make your voice heard on high. Is it a fast that I have chosen, a day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, and to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast and an acceptable day to the Lord?’
Is this not the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’ ” (Isaiah 58: 1, 3, 4-9)
Fasting occupies an important place in the life of God’s people. Jesus, Himself, fasted during the times of the traditional Jewish holidays and told his disciples that certain diseases and demonic powers could not be cast out without prayer and fasting (Matthew 17:21). He prayed and fasted before making all major decisions–for example, when He was about to begin His public ministry (Luke 4) and when He chose His twelve apostles (Luke 6). Unfortunately, as with nearly all Scriptural precepts, we have a certain tendency to place too much emphasis on the act of fasting itself, and not to the state of the heart which must accompany the act. Jesus addressed this tendency several times: in chapter 23 of the Gospel of Matthew He warns the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees against the habit of outward holiness and righteousness while allowing their inner being to be full of “dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.” God, speaking through the prophet Isaiah centuries earlier, addressed this same tendency in His people to believe that the act of fasting itself, conducted without charity and/or righteousness, obligated Him to show them justice, mercy and restoration. Following Him necessitates some sacrifices–but do we sacrifice according to His word?
The word of the Lord is given to us “precept upon precept, precept unon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little” (Isaiah 28:13). Every word He gave to us in the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments is to be put to use in our lives for our benefit and ultimately for His glorification. We are most of us already aware that our true purpose in being is to glorify Him who is our Creator, Father and King. We are His because we worship Him and we seek to give Him pleasure. However, giving to God through sacrifice is somewhat like giving a sacrificial gift to a friend: we have to see that the gift is one that He desires. There are many people who fast with frequency and give up things in His Name for a certain period of time, and I’m sure that God appreciates any effort that is made on His behalf. He is a gracious and loving God, and I expect that He accepts our efforts even if they are slightly misguided ones as long as they are cheerfully made with a loving heart. Those who fast and pray wishing to become closer to God will probably be granted their desire. But those who fast with a grim determination to bring themselves to the attention of God and receive a particular blessing as a result are probably sacrificing out of a greedy and selfish heart. Those who say, “I will fast until God does what I ask (tell?) Him to do” are not fasting; they are on a hunger strike, trying to force the hand of God to move as they wish.
Luckily, we do not have to wonder what kind of sacrifice is most acceptable to the Lord in our daily lives. While He has called upon us to fast and pray for our nations, His kingdom, our redemption and those around us in need of redemption, it is clear from the words of Isaiah 58 that it is His very real desire for us to show our love for Him in our love for others. Are we really prepared to do this? Can we learn that to give a “hand up” to those in need must come from a loving heart and a desire for them to get a glimpse of Christ through us? How many times have you seen those who designate themselves as Christians metaphorically sweep their skirts to the side to avoid having to come into contact with someone who appears to be a person of the streets? I am not suggesting that panhandlers be handed money with which to buy drugs or alcohol (which is, indeed, sometimes what happens), but God has undoubtedly called us in the afore-mentioned passage to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, help house the needy, lift the burdens of the poor and oppressed. While some pastors have made the point that the only thing that matters in the long run is how many people one has personally brought to Christ (thereby earning crowns in heaven), I am not convinced that they are correct. I do believe, nonetheless, that how many people to whom we personally introduce the face of Christ is important. Many of us have difficulty in orally testifying to the love of God to unbelievers. ALL of us can testify to the love and power of God in our lives by showing those who may not know His name that He is a gracious God, through the charitable and compassionate way in which we treat others. There is nothing that we can do or say that will make God love us more or less than He does at the moment we turn our hearts and lives over into His keeping, but when we act righteously in His name, and explain that all we do we do in the name of the Lord because of His love for all His children, we are keeping the acceptable fast of the Lord. When we treat our employers and employees as we would like to be treated, when we sit with a grieving or depressed neighbor when others hesitate to do so, when we help an unwed mother to see both her errors and the great gift she has been given, when we give food to the homeless and oppressed, we are keeping the acceptable fast of the Lord. When we pray for the hungry in spirit, we are keeping the acceptable fast of the Lord. I can almost hear somebody now–“But I thought that a fast meant you give up something?’ Very true. Can you fast properly? Can you give up old prejudices and resentments? Can you give up feeling virtuous that you have things because you work while others may not? Can you give up your pride or maybe even your social standing in order to visit with, comfort and love those who may have little education, upbringing, or even personal hygiene? Can you give up selfishness and replace it with compassion?
A popular joke in the church in which I grew up was “God loveth a cheerful giver, but He accepteth from a grouch.” Not so, brothers and sisters. He will use a “grouch” for good in the same way God can use all things and all people for good if He so chooses, regardless of their beliefs and hearts. Solomon tells us (Proverbs 17:22) that “A merry heart does good like a medicine.” God wants us to give out of a merry heart, for the correct reasons. He tells us to give to the needy; not just those needy ones whom we consider to be worthy. It is these people that we are not to judge. “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink…”(Prov. 25:21). In other words, introduce others to Christ who dwells within you. This is indeed the acceptable fast of the Lord!