It's an unusual title because when Christians discuss spiritual maturity and growth in Christ - fasting is one of those activities that we think belong in the upper reaches of our Christian experience. I mean, only truly dedicated and spiritually mature people fast! What could be "beyond" fasting?
When you read the Bible and focus in on the subject of fasting you see that it is helpful in sharpening one's focus when praying and seeking God's will as you've probably seen with your experience this weekend for Prayer & Fasting.
For example: In Acts 13:1 we see the leaders of the church fasting and praying before selecting Saul and Barnabas to go on a missionary journey. But aside from this we do not see fasting, in itself, as a spiritual exercise that builds up the church or is especially pleasing to God as a constant practice.
Isaiah, the prophet, explains that there are things that can be done that are far more pleasing than fasting and certainly more edifying for the church. In the 58th chapter of his book Isaiah describes 3 things better than fasting, 3 activities that go far beyond fasting in their ability to please God.
Beyond Fasting - Isaiah 58:1-9
1 "Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
2 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.
3 'Why have we fasted,' they say,
'and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?'
"Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
4 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.
5 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?
In these first verses Isaiah rebukes his fellow Israelites for their hypocrisy and their constant complaining. They love to be known as the people of God. They delight in thinking that they know God's ways and have His divine guidance. Even though these things have been true in the past, in recent times their nation has stumbled, they find themselves in political and military trouble. So they make a show of their great religiosity with a fast and public prayer but their situation persists, there is no relief in sight.
Now they question God asking why He doesn't respond to their prayers, their fasting...which they think is the ultimate spiritual act of devotion. At this point God does answer them through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah, and He says to them that their fasting before Him is not acceptable because it is not accompanied by the things He truly desires from them.
Three things that go beyond fasting:
1. Minister His Justice - vs. 6
"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?
Denying yourself is a good exercise but obtaining freedom and justice for those who are denied these things is better. Whether it be an effort to support and defend those who are oppressed by injustice in any form in our society. Or freeing those enslaved by sin through the power of the Gospel - this type of service is far superior to merely creating an artificial hardship for ourselves through fasting.
Fasting may help one see God and His will a little more clearly, but freeing the oppressed establishes God's justice for others and allows them to see God working on their behalf through you.
2. Minister His Love - vs. 7
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?
Denying ourselves food and drink for a time is not an act of love, it's an act of discipline. Of course discipline is a good thing and necessary to cultivate in a Christian's life but it's not the way God wants us to show our love for Him.' Fasting focuses the attention on self and is about mastering self.
Love requires us to focus on others and showing our love to God demands that we focus our attention on others, not self.
Isaiah mentions 2 examples of ministering God's love in vs. 7:
- Benevolence (sharing food / clothing, etc.).
- Taking the responsibility for the needs of one's own family.
Fasting provides a demonstration of one's self-control before God (it's a private thing, no one else is supposed to know). Ministering God's love, however, creates a triple witness that glorifies and honor's Him:
- It is a witness to God Himself that you love Him.
- It is a witness to others that you are a sincere Christian.
- It is a witness to the world that God is love and God's disciples in Christ minister His love.
3. Ministering God's Peace - vs. 9b
"If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
The good feeling we get from fasting is that of self-satisfaction - the pleasure we experience when we master our flesh. Don't get me wrong, this is ok. This is a legitimate pleasure, when we take control over our flesh. But our fasting doesn't create "good feeling" in others - it has no power to do this. As a matter of fact, fasting causes jealousy, fear and hatred in others because it focuses on their weakness as opposed to our strength.
A good example of this is the trend in Hollywood towards extreme thinness. Being thin is a "power" statement. This is why the Lord says that fasting, when it is done should be done in secret - only between ourselves and God. Mt. 6:17-18
Isaiah says, however, that when we create unity and peace among others by removing what burdens them and refrain from speaking wickedly and critically. These actions combined with the other ministry deeds will provide light and joy to others.
Ministering God's peace means that arguments, disputes, criticisms, divisions and other such things are on the decline when we are involved. We bring healing, we lift up, we speak kindness, wisdom, love...and like salt or light, our presence fills the situation with what Paul the Apostle referred to as, "..the aroma of Christ." II Cor. 2:14
Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called Sons of God." Mt. 5:9
In contrast to this, the Lord never demanded, blessed or spoke in positive terms about fasting because as a spiritual exercise it was rather limited. Limited especially when compared to the results that ministering His justice, love and peace would have.
The Rewards of Ministry
Now I don't want you to misinterpret what I am saying. This lesson is not a harangue about fasting - fasting is a useful spiritual exercise for the individual Christian when accompanied with study, meditation and prayer. This is why we have a prayer and fasting weekend. My point here is that whatever benefits that derive from fasting pale in comparison to the more mature spiritual activities described by Isaiah. Note the rewards he mentions that come forth from ministering God's justice, love and peace.
1. Powerful witness of faith - vs. 8
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Isaiah says that whatever people thought of you before you ministered, will be replaced by the unmistakable light of a true and sincere witness of the Lord. In other words, there will be no doubt in anyone's mind (yours included) that you are a genuine child of God. Everything you do will be bathed in the light of God's glory - you will look blessed from every direction.
2. Powerful prayer life - vs. 9a
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
It is the prayers of the righteous that availeth much, James says in his epistle. - 5:16 The keys to powerful prayer are faith and righteousness - not just a believing person praying but a righteous believer praying. Ministering God's justice, love and peace demonstrates a sincere faith and a sincere faith produces righteousness and a righteous life produces power in prayer. When it comes to prayers being answered it's more important that you are righteous than loud, repetitious, eloquent or fasting.
3. Powerful ministry - vs. 11-12
11 The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.
Isaiah, in context, was speaking to his Jewish countrymen and he was exhorting them not to think that their outward religious exercises (like fasting) was what empowered them to do great things in God's name for His people.
- Power in ministry doesn't find its source in religious ceremony.
- Power in ministry comes from doing God's will in ministering to people.
The Jews were promised that they would be the people through whom the Christ would come and they could provide a powerful ministry to the world by preparing the world to be ready for this. Isaiah is telling them that they can get the world's attention by their:
- Ministering of God's justice
- Ministering of God's love and peace
Now, we know that they failed to take Isaiah's warning. The Christ still came according to promise but was born to a nations whose reputation in the world was as religious hypocrites, cultural bigots, and political rebels. Jesus, therefore, was born into a nation 1000 years past its glory and a scant 70 years away from its final ruin. We should note carefully Isaiah's message because it still speaks powerfully and prophetically to us today.
You see, like the Jews of Isaiah's day, we in this age have been charged with the preparation of the world for the return of Christ. This time however, not for the work of saving the world, but rather for the task of judging the world and issuing a reward and condemnation to those deserving each. We, as God's people, as Christians, accomplish this task though:
- The preaching of the gospel and the witnessing of the power of our regenerated lives as we
- Minister Christ's Justice
- Minister Christ's Love
- Minister Christ's Peace
We are also preparing our fellow saints for His return through the power of our prayer life, our faith and ministry. And these spiritual activities, that go far beyond mere fasting, are like the combustion chamber that moves the kingdom of God to that inexorable moment when Christ will appear. Peter says we, the saints, will hasten the day when the Lord will come - 2 Pet. 3:12
Now you're probably wondering what all of this has to do with fasting - that I'm rambling and pretty far off the subject. Let me try to put this together for you, let's try to get to the point.
Isaiah was rebuking the people for thinking that a largely ceremonial, fleshly thing like fasting could somehow have a tangible effect in moving God - in creating some kind of spiritual catharsis. In many ways the same is true today.
We need to realize that:
- That we clap in worship or not changes nothing in the heavens.
- That one teacher or group is honored more than another in our brotherhood advances not a whit the cause of Christ in the world.
- That our nation is rich or poor, first or last - influences nothing insofar as the kingdom of God is concerned.
- That we consciously pour ourselves out in achieving God's justice for those who are oppressed.
- That we spread God's love in caring for the needs of others.
- That we truly become salt and light wherever we are in the name of Christ.
This will make a difference.
- Here, in the world, because God's light will shine in dark places because of us.
- Here, in our hearts, because we will grow in power and others will see it, be strengthened by it, be moved by it.
It will make a difference.
- Here, in the kingdom, the church, because it will bring us closer to that day when the kingdom of heaven in heaven will become one with the kingdom of heaven on earth at Jesus' return - I Thess. 4:15-17
We need to realize that the Bible doesn't tell us to simply wait stoically for Jesus' return - it says to pray for; work for; remain faithful; do all we can to hurry the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. Every generation brings us closer but some speed it up faster than others. Let's let our generation be a golden era where we made great strides in moving the heavens towards the coming of that day. We're only held back from spiritual greatness by the things we've tied ourselves down with here on this earth.
Let's break free and allow God to make of us a spiritual wonder, a Christian phenomenon.
Let's cross the divided sea of doubt and fear ; let's walk on the water of materialism without sinking.
Let's do the "great" things that Jesus spoke of: justice, love peace.
We could do it.