Four years ago, in God’s kind providence, I found myself living in a crowded, dusty town in West Africa. One of the first friends I made was the shopkeeper across the street from my compound. He was a devout Muslim and a faithful mosque attender. Unlike most of the other men of the town, he could easily hold a conversation in Arabic.
His thriving business allowed him to save enough money to take the prestigious pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. He brought a white prayer robe back from a city that I will never be allowed to enter. The most incredible feat of devotion I saw him undertake was his faithful fasting every year during the month of Ramadan.
Though he was respected in town as a good Muslim man, we who knew him saw that all was not well in his troubled soul. In his grasping after salvation, Allah offered him no rest. I pray that he will come to know the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, the one true God who is altogether desirable. I wrote this letter to plead with the restless men and women like him, desperately searching for righteousness and satisfaction.
I must say, your religious zeal amazes me. When Christians from my country watch Muslims fast, we sometimes feel like wimps. We know you Africans are more adapted to your harsh climate than we Americans are, but we still can’t imagine how you survive for twelve hours in 110 degree heat, not only going without water, but spitting out any saliva that collects in your mouth. If eternal life is earned through suffering, then you will certainly have it before I do.
I want to share frankly with you as my friend. You will understand my respect and love for you as a person and for many who follow Islam in pursuit of salvation. I am aware that my understanding of Islam is limited and imperfect and that not all Muslims would agree with what I see in the religion they follow, but don’t let that keep you from hearing my heart. Please let me share with you what the holy word of God says about the fasting that pleases him.
Adam, your fasting increases your confidence in yourself, but the fasting that pleases God expresses our confidence in him. When you have successfully completed a month of Ramadan, how do you feel about yourself? Would I not be right in saying that you feel more sure of your ability to get to paradise? Are you not more hopeful that your good deeds are tipping your scale of righteousness in your favor?
He Satisfies the Longing Soul
When Christians fast as Jesus commanded, it could not be more different. Christian fasting is an expression of our confidence in God for salvation and satisfaction. We are convinced of our depravity and our need of God, so we put aside the things that offer us empty promises of salvation — things that we can cling to in our own strength — and flee to God for the salvation and satisfaction that is only found in him. When we go without food, or some other earthly pleasure, we are actively believing that God himself can satisfy us far better than anything else.
It’s pretty mind-boggling to think that God would condescend to satisfy our beggarly, human hearts, but it’s true! He delights in doing it. Psalm 107:9 says this: “He satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things.” We believe that the very best thing that God can fill our hungry souls with is himself. So we fast, and in the process, we end up becoming less confident in ourselves.
Fasting tests where the heart is and shows us how fickle and hypocritical we are. You see, if we claim to love God more than anything else, but become unhappy when we are hungry, we see that we actually loved food more than we thought. You may think about it this way: in your fasting you put on a beautiful white prayer robe without performing ablutions. The dirt of the field that clings to your skin is only covered up, and the all-seeing, all-knowing God is repulsed. In our fasting, we take off both the robe and the garments underneath, and ask God to wash us of all the dirt that is revealed in our hearts.
Fasting That Pleases God
Your fasting increases your confidence because it increases your store of righteousness — the only store that you have hope in. But the fasting that pleases God increases our understanding of our unrighteousness and makes us look to God’s great store of mercy and life. Listen to how the prophet David expressed this in Psalm 36:7–9:
How precious is your steadfast love, O God! The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights. For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light.
God wants to satisfy your soul with his life, Adam, but he will not do it until you are hungry. Sadly, your fasting is making you feel full. As the man who just ate a big bowl of pounded yam has no appetite for even the best meat, so the one who finds satisfaction in his fasting will have no desire for God. Fasting is making you feel that you have no need of God’s help because you believe you can gain paradise by your good deeds. But the holy word of God says two things in response: first, that even well-kept regulations “are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Colossians 2:23), and second, that even the good things we do are like defiled rags to God (Isaiah 64:6).
‘It Is Finished’
Adam, if the great and powerful God wants men to become righteous, do you really think he is going to leave that task to feeble men to accomplish in their own strength? Certainly not. God himself undertook the salvation of mankind by sending the Messiah to die for the sins of the world. His last words on the cross — “It is finished” (John 19:30) — remind us that our fasting doesn’t add anything to our salvation; it merely adds to our enjoyment of the salvation-Giver.
You will understand by now that our differences in the way we fast reflect fundamental differences in who we understand our God to be. You fast to outweigh your bad deeds (Surah 7:7–8), because Allah, the oft-forgiving, most-merciful one, has decreed that men must earn a place among the faithful in paradise by deeds — fasting, prayer, alms, the pilgrimage, and the confession (Surah 23:102–103, 2:207, 39:61).
You fast because you cling to the hope that Allah has predetermined that you will go to paradise (Surah 2:284, 4:88; Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 9, Book 93, Number 641; Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 8, Book 77, Number 611), and that your crossing of the slippery bridge over hell (Sahih Bukhari Volume 009, Book 093, Hadith Number 532B) will not show your good deeds to be useless.
You fast, even though you know that your imperfect fasting may be the reason for which Allah will treat you as an infidel (Surah 86:8–9). If you search your Qur’an, you will find that Allah does not dwell in your paradise; it is full of pleasures, but void of Allah himself. So, it is natural that you do not long for him in your fasting.
In short, you must fast because that is how Allah ordained for Muslims to live, and if they fail, they will inherit eternal hellfire. He cannot and will not offer you an assurance of life to come. Not even the intercession of Muhammad on your behalf is assured to you (Surah 2:48, 6:51). All that Allah holds out to you is commands. For motivation, he offers you fear; for rationale, threats.
Hear His Invitation
Adam, we fear God too, but we don’t fast to appease him; we fast to delight in him. We know that his wrath burns hot against the ungodly. We dare not approach him without being clothed in a robe of righteousness. But it is not in fasting that we are made righteous. It is in Jesus the Messiah, the divine Son who was sent by God to bear his righteous wrath toward sinners that we are made righteous.
Consider this Messiah for a moment — the one of whom all the prophets spoke (Luke 24:25). As God the Son, he is perfect in his holiness and unable to endure sin in his presence, yet he wants fellowship with mankind whom he has made in his image (Genesis 1:26–28; John 17:24). Consider his love: although he knew no sin, he became sin so that we could become the righteousness of God in him (2 Corinthians 5:21). Consider his grace: though he was rich, for our sake he became poor, so that we by his poverty might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). Consider his humility: though equality with God was rightfully his, he emptied himself and took on the form of a servant (Philippians 2:6–7). That’s right, the almighty God who made mankind, and all of creation, was born as a baby.
He lived a perfect life, undergoing all the trials and temptations that we experience. Then, in history’s most shocking display of injustice, he submitted himself to a death of torture and shame in which he took the full punishment for our sin as God the Father poured out his fury on his innocent Son in our place. But consider also his glory. He is now highly exalted with a name that none can rival. At that name, every knee in heaven and on earth will someday bow (Philippians 2:9–11).
Hear his invitation to you: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30). He himself is the great joy we long for. He is the delight of our hearts, and the lover of our souls. He is our righteousness and our salvation, and we have nothing more to ask for than for more delight in him. That is why we fast.