RevFast: Fasting for the Poor

It happens all too often around here. I called, just this week, to reach out to a young man in one of the many drug rehabs. He had expressed interest in being involved in a small group throughout the week and I had called to work out the details of getting him involved. I was saddened to here that he had left, checked himself out. It happens all too often around here. Men and women check in and check out quickly. Our church is composed of a large number of folks in recovery. We are so glad they come, but many are only around for a short period of time before they are lured away again. Our city is shrouded in a darkness and drug addiction is the major cloud hanging over us. Our church has, all this month, taken to fasting as a desperate cry out to God for help and intervention. It may surprise you to know it, but there is a connection between fasting and helping the poor. Fasting is a call to take bread out of my hands and put into the mouths of the needy!

Isaiah 58 is the chapter that makes this connection the most clear. It’s a long passage, but it’s worth reading in full.

 “Cry aloud; do not hold back;   lift up your voice like a trumpet;  declare to my people their transgression,   to the house of Jacob their sins.  Yet they seek me daily   and delight to know my ways,  as if they were a nation that did righteousness   and did not forsake the judgment of their God;  they ask of me righteous judgments;   they delight to draw near to God.  ‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?   Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’  Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,   and oppress all your workers.  Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight   and to hit with a wicked fist.  Fasting like yours this day   will not make your voice to be heard on high.  Is such the fast that I choose,   a day for a person to humble himself?  Is it to bow down his head like a reed,   and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?  Will you call this a fast,   and a day acceptable to the LORD?  “Is not this the fast that I choose:   to loose the bonds of wickedness,   to undo the straps of the yoke,  to let the oppressed go free,   and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry   and bring the homeless poor into your house;  when you see the naked, to cover him,   and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?  Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,   and your healing shall spring up speedily;  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.’  If you take away the yoke from your midst,   the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,  if you pour yourself out for the hungry   and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,  then shall your light rise in the darkness   and your gloom be as the noonday.  And the LORD will guide you continually   and satisfy your desire in scorched places   and make your bones strong;  and you shall be like a watered garden,   like a spring of water,   whose waters do not fail.  And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;   you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;  you shall be called the repairer of the breach,   the restorer of streets to dwell in.  “If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath,   from doing your pleasure on my holy day,  and call the Sabbath a delight   and the holy day of the LORD honorable;  if you honor it, not going your own ways,   or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly;  then you shall take delight in the LORD,   and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;  I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father,   for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 58 ESV)

The context of the passage finds God judging Israel for doing their religious activities with hypocrisy. He specifically mentions fasting in the text. Israel cries out, “God why have we fasted and you do not take notice?” The answer, God says is because you fast and ask for justice while they also “drive hard” all their workers. They oppress with their hands while they abstain from putting food in their mouths. That’s not the kind of “fasting” that honors God. The kind of fasting that is nothing more than a religious act of self-righteousness and hypocrisy. God has something else in mind, and he tells Israel.

“Is this not the fast which I choose,” He proclaims, “to loosen the bonds of wickedness.” God says it plainly to Israel, fasting without action is useless. It is not of course that God is against fasting. Nor does the text suggest He is against fasting for the things that Israel is fasting for. But He is ardently opposed to fasting without acting! You see the point of our fasting is not that we think we can twist God’s arm into freeing our city. It is His prerogative to do as He wishes. Fasting is an exclamation point to our prayer for relief, it is a cry saying, “this much do we need you God!” But it is also an opportunity for us to see afresh the desperate plight of our city. It is an opportunity for us to put hands and feet to our fasting. Not eating food won’t do any good for our community! But not eating food so that we can take time to care for the poor and the enslaved, to pray for them, to love them, that will help them.

It’s strange to me that some have criticized our church for participating in a fast for our community. There is sometimes a veneer of self-righteousness that comes with that. Sometimes there is simply misunderstanding. But I can’t help but wonder how taking time away from stuffing our faces to ask God to please transform our city, as we also work to see it transformed, is wrong. Maybe you think it’s wrong to fast for our community, maybe you think it’s silly, or dangerous. But what, then, are you doing? It’s not that you can’t fast for other reasons, but in this context Jesus says if you’re fasting never translates into care for the poor then he rejects it!

Fasting can be both spiritually good and spiritually dangerous. So, as I wrap up this series I want to reaffirm the importance of prayer and fasting. The two must go together always. Check your heart and check your motives. Fasting is an important spiritual discipline, but only if it is accompanied with real life action.

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