fasting: for me or for the oppressed?

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.


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11 Comments

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11 responses to “fasting: for me or for the oppressed?

  1. Pingback: as if « aliens and strangers

  2. Hm, I’ll have to think about this. I feel like you’re setting up an unneccessary dichotomy. The three spiritual disciplines- prayer, fasting and almsgiving- are certainly interrelated. An obvious way to put this into practice is first to fast, then to spend the time not eating in prayer, and use the resources that have been saved to minister to those in need- such as the special fast you describe above.

    But I think your friend had a point worth making, and I do not think that growing closer to God is a separate activity from growing in love, justice, obedience etc. That is, a “selfish” spiritual activity which is done “merely” to become closer to God, if it is done in faith and love with a pure heart, will strengthen the soul to grow more loving, generous, etc in relation to the needs of others. The one doesn’t negate the other.

    When we approach God during a fast, our hunger is a living coal that makes the prayer’s incense rise. We fast & pray because we love God and want to be with him. For no ulterior motive, no schemes about helping the poor or feeding the hungry or saving the world– just the burning of our soul in its longing for God.

    As that love grows, we can become fitting vessels for God to use to help his hurting world. And the very roots of our relationship– the fasts, the vigils, the prayer– become tools we can use to build, to feed, to heal. If we depend totally on God then we can, in humility and grace, bear the wounds inflicted by those we serve.

    True fasting, without a doubt, relieves world hunger. But like your friend, I’m uncomfortable proclaiming a fast whose purpose is to relieve world hunger. We fast to grow closer to God. And God provides the increase.

  3. some interesting points here. Usually when I fast, I do not tell anyone, but thats just a personal choice I make. If someone asks me about it, I will explain, but on a whole I want it to be between me and God.

    BUT, I also, like you, disagree about reasons for fasting. I find nothing wrong with fasting as you did for a specific issue. Like the verse said, its a heart (love) issue… not a religious one.

  4. Jason Miller

    Yeah…I don’t know.

    I think the point you may be trying to make (and correct me if I’m wrong) would be that fasting is not simply about the physical abstention from activity X.

    I would agree. I would call that, simply, not doing X. Fasting, rather, is when we proclaim two things (whether we are involved in this activity publicly or privately): 1) God is enough; and 2) we have faith that the physical and the spiritual are interrelated, that they have the ability to affect one another, that they are in fact false dichotomies…or maybe just labels that betray more about our ability or lack thereof to understand reality rather than an actual representation of what is.

    I think those things are enough. Now, in making your point, you claim God is unsatisfied with those who don’t see the above relationship. I would agree with that as well. But that doesn’t mean we add something else, such as fasting “for the poor” so that fasting is given meaning again. Rather, that is precisely when we remember ourselves or remind others of the above relationship. We remember we do this not to make ourselves holy rollers, but to say, essentially, that God is holy and we want to be holy.

    I’m hungry but (God) you’re my food. Your Kingdom come. I’m thirsty, but you’re my water. Your Kingdom come. I’ve got a headache (no caffeine), but you’re my coffee. Your Kingdom come.

    I think more precisely God seems to be saying through Isaiah that the value of fasting is not in the physical abstention. But that is precisely how it was being viewed in Isaiah, wherein you set aside your day but the act penetrated nothing…affected nothing…changed nothing. Which is how in Isaiah 1 Judah was physically wealthy but spiritually corrupt. Isaiah makes this dichotomy, but I don’t know that he is actually advocating these acts WHILE fasting as much as he seems to be saying how can your “fasts” not be changing your actions which are heinous and unGodly? Because its not really fasting…it was just not eating. Because fasting for the Judean population in Isaiah was (seemingly) solely a physical act unrelated to spirituality but related only to religiosity.
    Fasting doesn’t need an advocate, or more precisely, a point. It has one.

    Ok, enough of that. Back to witchcraft.

  5. I tend to agree with you on most of what you say Brett however, I would disagree that sometimes fasting is for “me.” There have been times that I have fasted-3 to 4 days when away on a time away-when I have had some issues that I have had to deal with or needed some guidance. I confess that i was not focused on the poor, the down and out, the missionary, but I don’t think that my fasting was out of line or displeasing to God. In my heart fasting was bringing me in line with God’s thoughts. i was focusing on Him and His desire and His leading. I didn’t go around publishing that I was fasting but I also don’t think it is wrong to ask a select people to join me or to ask a select person or two to be praying for and with me while i am concentrating on Him. But i also think it is good to have those times of praying and fasting for those whom you list here.

  6. I think I may see the source of concern that your older friend raised. In Matthew 6, Jesus says that fasting should be a heart issue, not merely something to be done for public recognition. Perhaps your friend felt that since this was a “public” fast, that some participants may just go through the motions and miss the full experience of fasting?

    Either way, I think fasting, like prayer, is a discipline that we can and should grow in. I wouldn’t discourage the type of fast that you held, since it did raise awareness of poverty and hunger, and provided some financial relief for those who are going hungry.

  7. Reading through these comments concerns me that our Western individualism has emptied fasting of any real community connections, which clearly are present in Isaiah 58. Is biblical fasting, communion, prayer, giving, etc. just between me and God?

    I certainly do not believe that all fasting has to include giving some funds to help the poor, but such an exercise could well be used to help us realize that spiritual disciplines are discipling us to serve others. We don’t develop spiritual muscles to show off at the body builders show. We are discipled to be the body of Christ in our world–ministering the love of God to the poor and hurting.

    Social justice must always be significant in our hearts because it is in Papa God’s heart. Please don’t allow a cultural dichotomy (individualism vs. community) to dictate how you hear scriptures. We have to force individualism into the text–it is not there. A biblical sense of community always begins with the relationship with God, but is followed with relationships with others. Note that the second greatest commandment is like the first (Mt. 22:36-40). Jesus tied these pretty closely together!

    Instead of the either/or of the title of this article, I believe it should be both/and in community. Thanks for challenging us to think, Brett.

  8. mama c

    I appreciate your understanding of Isaiah 58. In fact, I need that challenge laid before me. Some of us were discussing this past weekend how far apart or words and intentions can be from our actual acts or deeds. It can become an illusion that misleads, thinking we are pleasing to God when in reality we are in danger of being like the servant who buried his master’s talent.
    I have been learning in my walk that faith, belief and obedience are really all the same thing. Our deeds convey what we really believe. May God help us.

    In my devotions yesterday a phrase stood out to me: the produce of His vineyard. I know Jesus spoke that parable to rebuke the religious leaders and that the slave sent to get the produce probably refers to prophets that were persecuted and killed. But I felt the Spirit showing me that He sends us “slaves” often looking for the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. Does He find what He is looking for? I will probably blog this but please consider this too.

  9. When someone commits to a fast it is always a matter of their own heart in supplication to the Father; public or private doesn’t change how God hears and answers each individual’s prayers. One person’s heart being wrong in the fast does not negate the others, or somehow cancel out what God wants to do.

    As far as the public fasting goes, Ezra 8 gives an example of a time where a public fast was done for a certain purpose (in this case, delivering the group from an enemy, which was done successfully in verse 31). The fast was used as a time to seek God in a resolution to the problem. Hundreds of people were involved in this fast, and I think it’s safe to say that there was probably at least one or two of those people whose hearts were not spot-on. God still worked, and delivered the people from their enemy.

    I think this is one of those areas where we, as Christians, can become far too legalistic in how we think things should be done. There’s a great risk of us becoming like the Pharisee’s in passing judgment on others for not fasting the way we think they should, which can be dangerous. I know that when I was first learning how to fast, it became an area where I had to let the Holy Spirit in to guide me. Being the wonderful teacher that He is, He continues to guide me in to deeper communion with the Lord, and has shown me wonderful truths. I believe that each person needs to have this relationship with Him to allow truths like how to fast to be revealed.

  10. Pingback: repairer of broken walls « aliens and strangers

  11. Pingback: the sabbath and work « aliens and strangers

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