Part X of our series on Sharing Your Bread
Fasting??? That doesn’t sound fun. Did you just feel your stomach growling? Are you worried that you might be challenged to give up chocolate for a month or to only drink water for the next three days?
As it so often does, Scripture has something much more transformative in mind, and it’s always turning words we think we know—and, by extension, our lives—on their heads.
We, for example, think of fasting as “not eating.” But in Scripture, it actually means something surprisingly different.
Let’s take a look at Isaiah 58:1-9 and see if we can discern a Biblical definition:
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?
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?
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?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness[a] will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
So based on this passage, how would you say Scripture defines fasting? One thing you definitely could say would be this: Biblically, self-denial does not mean not eating.
Not eating does not impress God. For one thing, you’re still focused on yourself when you’re not eating. You’re focused on yourself not eating! And self-denial means looking beyond your own stomach, whether we’re talking about filling your stomach or keeping it empty.
To say it a little differently: An acceptable fast is something altogether different than mere personal abstinence. It’s about public engagement with those you normally don’t engage with. It means more than just denying yourself the good of bread. It means you bless the ‘fasted’ bread, break it, and share it with the recipients (the poor, the outcast, the one who is outside of the fellowship of the church and not much aware of God) as token and pledge to withhold no good thing that Christ, the true host, intends to give.
Fasting is not disengagement from the world; it is disengagement from self for the sake of the world and of its Christ.
It is not the transferring of a food commodity, but rather the transferring of one’s affection, compassion, and interest, from self to other for the sake of Christ.
The story we’re looking at in the next few posts is the parable that Jesus tells about this very subject, in Matthew 25:31-46, when he talks about the sheep and the goats. For the sake of length, I’m not going to post the whole thing here, but you might want to take a look at it before this next part.
Now, if I asked you, “Which group fasted, the sheep or the goats?”, what would you say? Before reading the Scripture in Isaiah, we might have said, “Well, neither fasted. Jesus’ story doesn’t talk about fasting at all.” But after reading Isaiah, we could say that the goats may have gone without food in an attempt to get God’s attention…but they received God’s wrath.
What got God’s attention? What Isaiah calls real fasting: the sheep sharing their bread with the poor.
In our next post, we’ll take a look at what it really means to feed the hungry.
How might changing the way we fast impact our lives and the world?