I didn't grow up with people who fasted. We were a very devout, sincere Christian family, and I was raised to love God and His church. We prayed, and worshiped, and tithed, and read Scripture. But I don't recall fasting.
So, although I think it must be a good thing to do, I've really never had a spiritual context in which fasting made much sense to me. I've had pastors and others try to explain to me how abstaining from food is supposed to be a means of grace to my soul, but I've never understood it.
So, this passage from this morning's sermon was a comfort to me. It's Isaiah 58: 6-10, and it's God who is speaking:
"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."
That's a totally different kind of fasting. And I say it is a comfort to me, only because it is at least a fast that I can understand -- I know what this activity looks like and I understand how it is spiritually beneficial to me. Of course, I don't do this kind of fasting well either. I'm minimal at best, in my service to the needy around me. And as far as taking homeless strangers into my house? Never.
As a Christian, do I spend my time loosening the bonds -- both spiritual and physical -- that enslave others? The church through history has been particularly bad at this. We tend to want to add to the yoke, crush people with law and guilt, relish in their demise.
I attended a ladies' conference recently, and one question that the speaker asked us stuck in my mind. She said, "Are you a life-giver, or a death-giver?" In other words, in all that you do as a Christian woman, are you passing on the spirit of life from God to others, dispensing joy and hope and love and encouragement, showing Jesus as you interact with everyone? Or do you suck the life out of others with negativity, using gossip and ill-will and anger, discouragement and doubt. You're either doing the one, or doing the other.
Being a life-giver means denying self, but in the act you gain more joy than you think possible. You forget about the self-denial, I suppose, in the fun of watching the "life" spread around. Perhaps this is how it is like fasting, in which one denies food to the body, but the spiritual enrichment is enough that the faster doesn't even think about the food.
One more thought: in the passage above, notice what God says about the faster -- the one who gives sacrificially: "Your healing shall spring up speedily," "the LORD shall be your rear guard," "you shall cry, and he will say, 'Here I am.'"
This faster is a sufferer also. He needs healing; he's weak and ill. He needs a guard; he's under attack. He is crying out for God; he is lonely for Him.
This is a hard lesson for me to accept, that I have to be a life-giver even when I'm hurting. Even when I think I'M the one who should be given TO. The way to healing, relief, and God's voice, is to get up off my whining bed and stop waiting for someone to do for me. God promises -- he PROMISES -- that when I exert myself to loose the bonds of those enslaved around me, he will come, he will heal, he will protect.
I don't feel strong enough to help anyone else right now. I'm weaker by the day. In that weakness, God tells me to pour myself out, to engage in his fast. I'll be praying for opportunities to loosen bonds.