A recent prayer and fasting weekend at church has reminded me of when I was a Catholic boy growing up in Quebec, I would give up candy during Lent. Lent was a period of 40 days between Ash Wednesday and the eve of Easter Sunday commemorating the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert fasting and praying.
People would also "fast" during this period by giving up cigarettes or meat or alcohol. After Easter, however, they would go back to their normal routine. Although there were probably good intentions here, most folks missed the point about fasting and what God required of it.
When we think of "fasting" we usually think of food and going hungry for a time. Although this may be true to an extent, the denial of food for a time is only a small part of what fasting is all about.
In chapter 58 of the book of Isaiah, the prophet explains to the Jews what God requires when they fast and what a "true" fast is all about.
In this chapter, Isaiah speaks about the Jews and their misunderstanding not only about God's requirements for a fast but also their ignorance concerning those things that really please God.
"Cry loudly, do not hold back;
Raise your voice like a trumpet,
And declare to My people their transgression
And to the house of Jacob their sins.
- Isaiah 58:1
The chapter begins as Isaiah quotes God as He is speaking directly to His people and is telling them that they are sinners and that they need to know what their sins are.
Now, Isaiah has spoken repeatedly to them about this but they ignore him and go about their religious practices without noticing him or his words against them.
"Yet they seek Me day by day and delight to know My ways,
As a nation that has done righteousness
And has not forsaken the ordinance of their God.
They ask Me for just decisions,
They delight in the nearness of God.
- Isaiah 58:2
Despite this wickedness, God says that they continually seek Him to reward them with spiritual blessings. They act just like a people who actually obey Him. They're not just hypocrites, their clueless.
'Why have we fasted and You do not see?
Why have we humbled ourselves and You do not notice?'
Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire,
And drive hard all your workers.
- Isaiah 58:3
In this verse, God mocks them by repeating their own words back to Himself as a dialogue. In the discussion they complain that they fast and yet God doesn't reward them in some way. God answers that they fast "externally" (perhaps some type of ceremonial fasting) but their inner person is not changed. The proof is that they still treat others (their slaves and workers) with contempt in the pursuit of profit.
"Behold, you fast for contention and strife and to strike with a wicked fist.
You do not fast like you do today to make your voice heard on high.
- Isaiah 58:4
God describes the results of their so-called "fast" and tells them that it will not produce what they want. It won't reach heaven meaning that their prayers won't be heard. Their so-called fast won't produce a more spiritual person - in fact the way they perform this spiritual exercise will only increase their wickedness in God's eyes.
"Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it for bowing one's head like a reed
And for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed?
Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the Lord?
- Isaiah 58:5
God questions them on the externals that they meticulously followed in their fasting. To bow the head in prayer and humility. To dress humbly in rough garments and sprinkle ashes on the head as a sign of sorrow for sin. These externals were to represent a humble and contrite heart because of sin and failure, trial and sorrow, as in the case of Job for example. In the end, these things signified a person's need for God and His salvation.
In the following verses, however, God will describe not just the ceremonial fasting that represented a contrite heart, but He will also describe those actions which proved that the fasting was sincere. He mentions three things that were directed towards the people of Isaiah's day but can also be applied to every generation of God's people who seek a true fast before the Lord. In these verses, He also describes the rewards that come with a true fast.
The first external sign of a true fast:
6"Is this not the fast which I choose,
To loosen the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the bands of the yoke,
And to let the oppressed go free
And break every yoke?
7"Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry
And bring the homeless poor into the house;
When you see the naked, to cover him;
And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
8"Then your light will break out like the dawn,
And your recovery will speedily spring forth;
And your righteousness will go before you;
The glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9a"Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
You will cry, and He will say, 'Here I am.'
- Isaiah 58:6-9a
A true fast will produce Godly qualities like mercy that in Jewish Society showed itself in the freeing of those who were enslaved in one way or another. Care for those who were in physical need (the hungry and naked). The support of one's own family and other such acts of mercy and kindness which would be rewarded by the Lord.
- Mercy provides a great witness of one's faith.
- God promises to heal the sadness of the soul (depression, anxiety) mercy being an antidote to depression.
- The merciful become acceptable to God (how they share in His glory)
- And their prayers will be answered.
A true fast produces a merciful and compassionate heart which God rewards in a variety of ways.
2. A True Fast Produces Truth
9bIf you remove the yoke from your midst,
The pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness,
10And if you give yourself to the hungry
And satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
Then your light will rise in darkness
And your gloom will become like midday.
11"And the Lord will continually guide you,
And satisfy your desire in scorched places,
And give strength to your bones;
And you will be like a watered garden,
And like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.
12"Those from among you will rebuild the ancient ruins;
You will raise up the age-old foundations;
And you will be called the repairer of the breach,
The restorer of the streets in which to dwell.
- Isaiah 58:9b-12
A sign that one's heart is turning towards God is a greater desire to be truthful. One begins speaking with the purpose of healing and nourishing others: What's understood here is that the speaking of the truth in love - this is what nourishes a hungry soul.
The Jews hated Gentiles and anyone not in their social class or family. They were originally chosen by God to speak the "truth" to the Gentiles and live as a light to them. The Jews of Isaiah's time had failed miserably in both these responsibilities.
A true fast would see this truthful attitude towards others returning and rewarded! Speaking the truth would do several things:
- Their nation would be restored to greatness, not degraded and threatened as they were in Isaiah's day - vs. 10
- As a people, they would experience peace and joy in the Lord. vs.11
- Their generation would be remembered as the one that rebuilt the nation and returned it to faith in the Lord.
A true fast produces clarity of vision and the ability to know and tell the truth which is the first criterion for personal or national greatness.
3. A True Fast Produces Holiness
13"If because of the sabbath, you turn your foot
From doing your own pleasure on My holy day,
And call the sabbath a delight, the holy day of the Lord honorable,
And honor it, desisting from your own ways,
From seeking your own pleasure
And speaking your own word,
14Then you will take delight in the Lord,
And I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;
And I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father,
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken."
- Isaiah 58:13-14
In that day, to truly keep the Sabbath meant that the individual sincerely gave himself over to the worship of the Lord on that day. The idea was to rest from worldly activity in order to spend it with the Lord. The Jews, however, created all kinds of loopholes to permit Sabbath-keeping but still do what they wanted to do.
And much of what they did was sinful, even on the Sabbath. A true fast, however, would produce a sincere and acceptable worship and this, in turn, would be blessed by the Lord in a variety of ways.
- They would actually benefit personally from their worship. They would truly get to know the Lord, experience Him and delight in their fellowship with Him.
- Their worship would yield the wisdom to know how to live a more Godly life (i.e. vision of the high places)
- God would feed them (satisfy them) with the promise of a savior (this was their heritage from Jacob).
A true fast draws one nearer to God and from that fellowship comes the taste of eternal life with God and the courage to live faithfully until that time comes. If we were to read on we would see that despite this admonition to offer God a true and sincere fast, the Jews continued their hypocrisy and were eventually crushed and taken into captivity by the Babylonian army.
Although it was written centuries ago to a people whose culture and history are very different than ours, Isaiah's admonition fits our modern situation today. In many ways we play the same game with our religion while God waits for us to offer Him a true fast so He can bless us. By "game" I mean that we play at church, going through the motions as Christians, but God still requires proof of inward change:
He still wants to see:
- Mercy - Is our faith making us more merciful? Are we more forgiving, more tolerant, more willing to not take offense? Has anyone been on the receiving end of our mercy lately? Unfortunately, half the work in the church is calming people down because they're upset or offended at something someone said or did. They're ready to quit the church even quit the Lord because they've had their feathers ruffled. A little more time focused on the cross and a little less on our feelings would cultivate mercy in one's heart.
- Truth - I've calculated that in the last ten years I've preached hundreds of sermons and over a thousand bible classes on various subjects. I'm thinking that by now, most of us should know the truth - we've certainly been taught it. The question is, has anyone heard or seen the truth coming from you? Knowing it is not enough, demonstrating and sharing it is what pleases the Lord.
- Holiness - Is our religion some clean suit or dress we put on for church service and then leave in the closet for work? The Jews were the light to the Gentiles, in the same way, Jesus says we are the light of the world. The question is, "Has our religious experience led us to be lights at work, school or other places? If it hasn't, then either our religion is wrong or we're not practicing it correctly. I once taught a class at Great Lakes Christian Bible College on preaching. One of the points I made to the students is that eventually, you have to get to the point!
Because some ministers preach and preach but never get to it, I don't want to make this mistake so here's the point of this lesson.
Let's not forget what our religion is about.
The "true fast" that Isaiah talked about was the sincere expression of religion - not just the externals. Religious people, then and now, have to always be careful to remember what their religion is about.
In Isaiah's book God reminded the Jews, and by extension reminds us that our religion is about:
- Mercy - Our showing mercy to others in big and little ways - just as Christ shows us mercy in big and little ways.
- Truth - Our sharing the truth with those outside the church building, not just hearing the truth preached to us twice a week. The preacher's task is to teach the church so the church can teach others, not so that the members can judge how good or enjoyable his lessons are.
- Holiness - God wants us to be holy, not just act holy during worship services. If you don't like being holy (meaning pure, good, sincere) then you won't like heaven because there's no sin there - only holiness.
To be a religious person you must not be ashamed of your holiness because that's what separates you from the world. Some Christians are embarrassed by their holiness because they still want to be accepted by the world.
You can't have it both ways, either you belong to Christ or you don't. You can fool the world, you can fool the church but you can't fool the Lord who will judge you.
As I close this chapter I want each person reading this book (young or old; new Christian or experienced saint) to ask yourself if this lesson is truly for you. I know that it isn't for everyone because there are many who know what a true fast is, they understand what Christianity is all about and are living their lives in a pleasing way before the Lord - and being blessed for it:
- They have a peaceful heart.
- They possess a joyful attitude and hope for the future.
- They enjoy fruitful service.
But, on the other hand, if this lesson is speaking to you and challenging your ways, don't be like the Jews who heard Isaiah's message but ignored its call for change.
- Do something to respond to God's admonition.
- Get on your knees at home and call on Him for help.
- Begin living your life in the way you know God wants you to live it.
Let's make sure our religion is not just on the outside; let's be absolutely sure that it's on the inside as well.
Then and only then will it really make its way to the outside of our character and out into the community and the world where it will glorify God and Christ.