What does it mean to fast? The word “abstinence” immediately comes to mind. To most of us the idea of fasting fills us with gloom, because we enjoy our food so much, and therefore this little article will not be an attractive one – – – unless you care to read on, because there is something here that we don’t generally understand. Please take a few minutes to read this. The Lord has quite recently brought to our minds something of great value, which we should like to share with you.
There is a passage in Isaiah 58 in which the Lord spells out what He requires of us, and what falls under the definition of fasting. Here it is in free translation –
“We have fasted before You,” they say. “Why aren’t You impressed? Why don’t You see our sacrifices? Why don’t You hear our prayers? We have done much penance, and You don’t even notice it!”
I’ll tell you why! Because you are living in evil pleasure while you are fasting, and you keep right on oppressing your workers. . . . Is this what I want – this doing of penance and bowing like bulrushes in the wind, and putting on sackcloth and covering yourselves with ashes? Is this what you call fasting?
No, my chosen fast is to break the bonds of oppression, to untie the knots of the yoke, to snap every yoke, and set free those who have been crushed. It is to share your food with those who are hungry, to take the homeless poor into your houses, and give clothes to the ill-clad, making sure you don’t hide from your relatives who are in need of your help.
If you do these things your light will break forth like the dawn, you will grow healthy, your righteousness will be your vanguard, and the glory of the Lord your rearguard.
Then, if you call, the Lord will answer. (Isaiah 58:3-9)
It is clear that the Lord looks upon all these stated activities as fasting, in His sight. So how does it add up with the usual concept of fasting? On the surface it has nothing to do with abstinence of food.
Let us use the word deprivation to describe this process of fasting. Let us see how it operates in practice. A person finds someone in need, shall we say they indicate during a phone call that they have insufficient money to purchase food for the family. Your response is to go out and buy food for them, or, if it seems better suited, give them enough money to allow them to choose which foods to buy. As a result you have deprived yourself of money that you could have used on yourself. The Lord has called that fasting.
You have a secure Christian home, with more rooms than are needed for the use of yourselves and your family. You become aware of a homeless person, someone perhaps who has been ostracised for their faith, and needs shelter and fellowship. Your mind is aware of Psalm 68:6, that “The Lord sets the solitary in families.” You sense the Lord’s pleasure in inviting this person into your home, even knowing that it will create problems. You have deprived yourselves of freedom, and you don’t know for how long. The Lord has called this fasting.
You hear of someone who is in hospital. You give up your Saturday afternoon time of rest to visit them. This is yet another case of deprivation, and the Lord would refer to it as fasting.
You find a family of Christians who are in need of quite a different kind. They are oppressed by the devil as a result of possession or some related evil influence. Your heart goes out to them. You pray and wait for an opening to minister to them. It takes a lot of time, is very tiring, and sometimes dangerous, But eventually the Lord has the victory, and the family is restored to normality. Here again is an example of deprivation, brought about because you have given up much time to help others, time that you could have used on personal pleasures. The Lord has called this fasting.
I could present many such examples, but these few will be enough to clarify the meaning of fasting, as seen by the Lord. One is reminded of the parable of the sheep and goats. The sheep are not even aware that they have been “fasting” when they say “When did we do this. .?” But the Lord says that inasmuch as they did it to the least of His brethren, they did it unto Him.” Much of the teaching in the sermon on the mount may be summed up in terms of “fasting”, according to the Lord’s definition in Isaiah.
Why does one go without food? There is a distinct possibility that this form of fasting is self-centred, unless the Lord has requested it for a purpose related to someone else. This is why the Lord condemned the Pharisees, who paraded their fast in public, with long faces. All such fasting has no directive towards helping someone else. But in all the examples the Lord gave to Isaiah, the “fasting” was always related to others in need.
“Abstinence” may therefore be the best word to use if the fast is purely a personal thing. But if one is actively attending to the need of others, whilst “depriving one’s-self” of pleasure, rest, or money, the word “deprivation” is best to use.
We are not saying that going without food is unnecessary, or a waste of time, or a misinterpretation of the word “fast.” The Lord calls His people aside to food-fast occasionally, and this is always in connection with some purpose related either to themselves, (for example, to wait upon God for direction in the plan of life), or to be empowered and ready to enter into some serious onslaught against powers of darkness.
But our study has been focused mainly on the eradication of the human tendency to selfishness, the worst case of which is defined by Oswald Chambers as “my claim to my right to myself.” Let us ask a few questions.
Could it be that even marriage, seen from one perspective, is within this category of fasting? When the ‘other’ person must always be considered first before oneself.
Then again, has the Lord arranged for this to go one stage further when the children begin to arrive?
Did Paul have this in mind when he wrote, “You must humbly reckon others before yourselves.” (Phil.2:3)
Did he not also warn us of the catch of “do-gooding” in 1 Cor. 13? Even if we give all our goods to help the poor, but have not the motive of godly love, it profits us nothing. The left hand must be kept from knowing what the right hand has done.
Finally, could all of this be summed up by our Lord’s words, when He said, “Take up your cross and follow Me.” His total giving of Himself on behalf of us all was the greatest act of “fasting” this world has ever known. He asks us to follow His example. Probably none of us has ever risen to the heights of what this means, but the encouragement is nevertheless there.
And so, we have written this article to expand our understanding of what God calls a fast. We think it will be a help to others, as the Lord has made it to be such a help to us.