image courtesy of maginniskekamal.blogspot.com
A group of us had decided to fast together for 24 hours with a focus on the poor. Each individual also committed to give $5 per missed meal to a worthy cause. After the fast I was confronted by an older and respected Christian who was afraid we’d watered down the meaning of a fast. “A fast is to learn dependence on God and to provide us with extra time (time normally spent eating) for prayer. It’s a personal issue, and you’re not supposed to tell others you’re fasting,” he’d suggested. “It’s certainly not to be about raising money for others. It’s dangerous to create extra ‘incentives’ for fasting; those you influence will likely miss the point and gain nothing from the experience, thinking it was all to feed the poor.”
I respectfully disagreed, but didn’t offer my reasons for doing so. Nor do I desire to offer all of those reasons here and now. I do, however, want to briefly address a huge mistake in thinking that is all too common now, and that was all too common in the Old Testament as well. God speaks of it in his conversation with the prophet in Isaiah 58 (my slightly more modern “translation”):
But on the days you’re fasting, church, you do as you please. You continue to take advantage of your employees, ignore those you pass who are begging for money, and speak rudely to the cashiers at Wal-Mart — all while fasting in order to be close to me. You cannot fast in the way you do and expect your voices to be heard by God. Is this the kind of fasting I want — a day for you to “humble” yourselves? Is the whole point for you to bow your head and pray while others are eating lunch? Or is it for you to grumpily claim you depend only on me while denying yourselves the pleasures of food? Is that what you call a fast, a day that is acceptable to God?
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to make right the injustices of the world, to free those who are oppressed, to break the chains that hold others down? Is a fast not about sharing your food with the hungry and giving shelter to the homeless? When you see someone who’s naked, give him clothes; when you see someone who’s sick, take him to the doctor. Don’t turn your backs on fellow man — especially not in order to fast and be “close” to me. Love them.
We’ve erred greatly when we think it possible to divorce religion from ethics, spirituality from social justice, faith from obedience, or Christianity from love. Be wary when someone suggests the point of any spiritual activity (fasting included) is merely to bring you into a closer personal relationship with God — because I’m just not sure God would agree. Rather, I’m fairly sure he would not.
This post is the second from Isaiah 58. Read the first post here: as if.