When you hear that someone is fasting or when a friend urges you to practice fasting, what do you think? In today’s Bible verses, how does God define a true fast, one that genuinely honors Him? And what is a counterfeit fast?
I. FASTING THAT DOES NOT PLEASE GO
In Isaiah 58, the prophet is the mouthpiece of God, explaining what God thinks about ostentatious religious displays by the people of Judah. Their show of religiosity is far from true worship. They have the external form without genuine worship. God accuses them of rebellion.
Why rebellion? What is the basis of this indictment? Let’s consider the objectives of those who observe fasts that are displeasing to God.
1. To deceive God. The first objective of those who put on a great show of fasting is to deceive God. But God makes it clear that He is not fooled by their charade. Their fast means nothing because He sees their hearts.
2. To serve self. The second purpose of this pompous display was to serve self. Isaiah records the complaints of those who had “piously and earnestly” fasted before the Lord. They complain that God hasn’t taken notice of their actions. “Look, God, we’ve done what You required. What more do You want? Why are You ignoring us?”
3. To make money. Their third concern is profit. “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please . . .” Some note that this suggests business as usual. Rather than being a day for spiritual growth, the fasting day was treated as an ordinary workday. The central focus was money. The act of fasting had no real impact on their lives; it was merely an external ritual devoid of significance.
We’ve noted the objectives of counterfeit fasting. Now consider the results of such a fast:
1. Exploitation of workers. The first result is the exploitation of workers. The purpose of a true fast is to draw a person to God and to strengthen that person’s concern for others. Those whose fast was merely a display to impress others felt no sympathy for workers who were not treated fairly. Are any of us today putting profits ahead of fair treatment?
2. Quarrelling and strife. Rather than growing closer in love and concern when they celebrated special fast days, the people quarreled and argued. Their outward display of piety masked a mean, hard, and critical spirit.
3. External humility. Those whose way of fasting displeased God made a great show of humility, but it was merely a facade. They viewed their hunger and their pretense of humility as ends in themselves rather than as a means of spiritual growth.
4. Insincere mourning. The final aspect of bogus fasting is insincere mourning, a display without genuine repentance. Sitting in sackcloth and ashes, which was intended to symbolize self-abasement and true repentance before God, had become a mockery.
II. THE TRUE FAST
Now we have looked at the counterfeit fast, but how does God define a true fast? What does God see as the purpose? What will we become as a result of genuine fasting?
A. We will exercise justice. The first objective of true fasting is to become just and fair. Those who practiced an insincere fast exploited their workers. But a true fast produces sympathy and self-denying love, a desire to ensure justice for everyone, especially the weak and powerless. We will work toward this ideal.
B. We will set the oppressed free. The second act of justice is to set the oppressed free. The word “oppressed” means to be unjustly or forcibly held down. Genuine fasting and truly humbling ourselves before God will cause us to grow in His love, valuing every person and working to end injustice.
C. We will share food. Next God tells us clearly to share our food with the hungry. It is not enough to read about the poverty around us; we are to act and to personally share with those in need. If our fasting and repentance are genuine, we will be stewards of all God has given us, spending to help others rather than to impress them.
D. We will provide shelter. We are also told to provide shelter for the homeless. This doesn’t just mean paying for a hotel room, setting up a tent in the backyard, or calling a relief agency to take the needy person in. God asks us to make room in our homes and make the needy feel welcome. God has always met us on a personal level, and He expects the same of His children.
E. We will clothe the naked. The final way to show true godliness is to clothe the naked. Granted, we may never see someone with no clothes. But we often hear about people who have lost everything through fires, floods, earthquakes, or other catastrophes. We may encounter people on a daily basis who go without basic necessities. What recent disaster has affected your country, province, or city? What can you do to help?
F. Results. Our passage closes by describing the results of true fasting. Verses 8 and 9 begin with the word “then.” The blessings are dependent upon true fasting. For the people of Judah, this meant that they were to exercise justice and provide relief to the poor and needy. Is the message any different for us today?
III. WHAT ARE THE RESULTS OF TRUE FASTING?
A. God’s love will shine. First, the love of God will shine through us. His love is light and warmth to those who receive it. If you want to know the love of God in full measure, practice true fasting. If you want to reveal God’s love to others, practice true fasting.
B. Complete restoration. The second result is complete restoration of your body, your mind, and your spirit. Here the word “healing” indicates a recovery from sickness unto death. When we are preoccupied with our own pleasures and ignoring the needs in our own communities, we are infected with the disease of selfishness that will lead to eternal death. But by serving others, we will experience spiritual health.
C. Enveloped by the presence of God. True fasting will give us a sense of being enveloped by the presence of God. Isaiah portrays an army whose leader and rear guard is God Himself. An army surrounded by God—what a comforting picture!
D. Prayers will be answered. Instead of complaining that God has not rewarded our counterfeit fasts, we have the assurance that He will hear and answer. “You will cry for help, and he will say: ‘Here am I.’” God is not distant; He is right beside us, giving aid and comfort and longing to open our eyes to what it truly means to worship Him.
Isaiah 58:1-9 compares a fast that is displeasing to God to the true fast He requires. Does this mean that true fasting involves abstaining from food? No. Going without food can help us focus our attention on God, but fasting is not an end in itself. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out, fasting “has only one purpose—to make the disciples more ready and cheerful to accomplish those things which God would have done.”
Our challenge is to experience the true fast as God has defined it. Then we will become a blessing. We will be moved to action on behalf of others because of our deep love for God. His love will shine through us.
General Conference Ministerial Association