Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness, To undo the heavy burdens, To let the oppressed go free, And that you break every yoke? (Isaiah 58:6)
Fasting has become something of a popular byword among believers, and while it is both biblical and appropriate, it seems, sometimes, that it’s regarded more as a ‘spiritual microwave’ than as the scriptural and deep spiritual journey that is part of our worship. I’ve encountered a few teachings recently which seem to throw fasting in as the ‘last resort,’ the ‘make or break’ activity when ‘name it and claim it’ and prosperity gospel type teachings don’t ‘work.’ How many of us were ever taught, for example, that acceptable fasting is based on our releasing the captives, breaking the chains, setting others free? And what does this mean? It’s worth exploring.
I firmly believe that fasting – together with prayer – is God-provided and God-approved, provided that the principles are kept biblical. Throughout the Bible, we find examples where fasting brought the people back to God, closer to God, into the will of God – and resulted in the outworking of His purposes and deliverance as a result. Thinking back to my early walk as a believer, I’m grateful that I was introduced to the concept of fasting early on, but must confess sadness that the subject was not taught properly. It’s tragic that such a critical aspect of our lives in Christ is, through lack of teaching, reduced almost to the point where it becomes a manipulative device – when all else fails, fast, because God has to hear us when we do.
The spiritual significance is lost, and the ‘benefit’ of fasting is too, because we have lost sight of the real purpose in fasting – that of humbling ourselves, first of all, acknowledging God and yielding to His will and sovereignty in accepting that He alone is the I AM and we created only for His glory. It is a place of confession, repentance, laying down of self and total surrender to the perfect will of God. It is a place where who we are and what we desire has no relevance before the Lord of All who knows us intimately, knows the situation completely, and knows the perfect way forward. Fasting is not to get what we want or think we need, but to find out what God wants and requires and then, in obedience, to position ourselves accordingly.
A devotional isn’t sufficient time to fully study the subject of biblical fasting – a study every Christian should undertake, because, as today’s verse reveals, there is an aspect to fasting that is seldom taught and often ignored. Jesus Himself referred to this when He challenged the religious leaders on their hypocrisy and the public display of their ‘spirituality’ instead of a genuine humility and faith. Isaiah 53 could be called the ‘fasting chapter,’ for it outlines the things that underpin fasting, and reveal, once again, that we serve a God who works in perfect balance, and desires that all our activity be centred in and around one simple thing – worship.
The entire chapter is well worth reading and studying. It outlines the sprititual principles of fasting that actually have nothing to do with the activity of self-denial we practise as being fasting. The principles revealed here define the life of worship in Spirit and Truth. This is how we are to live. This is a life of worship, a life of fasting – denying self – by putting others first, fulfilling the call of Gospel, serving as Christ served and living His ministry through our lives. Fasting is not something we do when we need it. It is a way of life, and the additional activity of fasting and prayer is the outflow of a life of fasting.
Isaiah is reminding us ‘acceptable’ fasting is only possible when our lives are lived by the principles. It’s a precursor to ‘seek first the Kingdom of God.’ The sad truth is that so many fasts accomplish nothing except a little discomfort and a lot of disappointment, because believers have come to a place where we expect the results without the acceptable principles being in place. It’s as if we feel we can do the fast without living the life, but the two are utterly inseparable.
It’s not at all about walking around in a state of constant condemnation, but it is about seeking to humble ourselves before Him, to walk in the ways He commands and be obedient to His will. Our God, in His grace, looks at the heart. The humble and contrite heart, the one that desires to do His will in all things, the heart that hungers and thirsts for righteousness in daily life is the heart that enters the activity of fasting in the right attitude.
The underlying principle of the acceptable fast is seeking God, not just in that moment and for what we need or desire, but in our lives as a whole. The New Testament reveals this over and over – lay down our lives, take up our cross, die with Christ… The list goes on. We are to live in an attitude of fasting, putting God first, front and centre. Then the activity of fasting and prayer becomes the God-ordained relationship of trust and faith and fellowship, because when we put God in His rightful place – in our lives as well as in our prayers – He is able to work out His perfect purposes and plans in response to our surrender.
How tragic it is that so many believers have been misled or mistaught on such a critical part of our spiritual life. Misunderstanding and lack of knowledge creates all kinds of misconceptions and incorrect expectations, all doomed to disappointment. Worse, it places God in a position where He can so easily be perceived as ‘not-responding,’ which undermines and slowly erodes faith. The things of God are simple, practical and absolute. If we desire the benefits He promises, we must live according the requirements. He will never ignore the heart that seeks wholly after Him, that searches His Word and desires His ways.
Fasting that does not bring us closer to God, that does not bring us to humility, repentance and surrender, is activity not worship. Meeting our needs is the outworking of our attitude, the result of yielding to the sovereignty and majesty of our God. Acceptable fasting is about attitude to God and His ways.
Lord of All, forgive us for error and misconception. Teach us Your Word, and empower us to live accordingly. Change our hearts, Lord, that we might seek after You rather than Your benefits, that we can, through the power of Your Spirit within us, learn the right attitude of the heart that will bring us closer to You, and to Your will in all things.