One of the greatest preachers of the first thousand years of the Christian Church was John Chrysostom, the bishop of Constantinople in the fourth century. I mention him because he has left us one of the most sweeping statements about the value of fasting. He was known as an ascetic in an age of luxury in Constantinople and his lifestyle offended the emperor Arcadius and his wife Eudoxia so much that he was eventually banished and died in AD 407. Of fasting he said,
Fasting is, as much as lies in us, an imitation of the angels, a contemning of things present, a school of prayer, a nourishment of the soul, a bridle of the mouth, an abatement of concupiscence: it mollifies rage, it appeases anger, it calms the tempests of nature, it excites reason, it clears the mind, it disburdens the flesh, it chases away night-pollutions, it frees from head-ache. By fasting, a man gets composed behaviour, free utterance of his tongue, right apprehensions of his mind.
Not all of those accolades are true for everyone in every time of fasting. For example, for some fasting will cause a headache rather than take it away. But I want you to hear Chrysostom and the thousands of saints who have proved the value of the Lord’s prophecy: when the Bridegroom is taken away, then the disciples will fast (Matthew 9:15).
But what we began to see last week is that there is danger in fasting. I don’t mean physical danger — you can avoid that if you follow simple guidelines (see the sheet on the information table). What I mean is spiritual dangers. You can fast in a way that will be very displeasing to the Lord and spiritually destructive to yourself.
“Your most zealous religious practices could be exposed as sham.”
Last week we heard Jesus warn us that this was so. If you fast, for example, to be seen by other people, he said, you have your reward from them, and you will not be answered by the Father. To prove our hearts he said that we should take steps not to be seen by others, but only by God: comb your hair, wash your face, and do not put on a gloomy countenance. Then — if your motives are pure — your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
This week, and next week, we hear another warning, this time from the prophet Isaiah — or more precisely from God through Isaiah. This chapter is full of rich associations for me. I see it not just as a fitting conclusion to our series on fasting, but as a text associated with some very powerful experiences in certain people’s lives; and I see it as having a very significant bearing on the Master Planning Team’s wrestling with what our priorities and focuses should be as a church for the rest of this decade.
One of the experiences I have in mind is the experience of Bill Leslie the former pastor of LaSalle Street Church in Chicago who died not too long ago after a long and remarkable ministry — like the one described in Isaiah 58. He came to the Twin Cities once and told of a near breakdown that he had and how a spiritual mentor directed him to this chapter. He said it was verses 10–11 that saved him from a dead-end street of exhaustion and burnout.
And if you give yourself to the hungry, and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness, and your gloom will become like midday. And the Lord will continually guide you, and satisfy your desire in scorched places [like urban Chicago], and give strength to your bones; and you will be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.
What struck Pastor Leslie so powerfully was the fact that if we pour ourselves out for others, God promises to make us like a watered garden — that is, we will receive the water we need for refreshment. But even more: we will thus be a spring of water that does not fail — for others, for the demanding, exhausting, draining ministry of urban self-giving. This gave him a pattern of divine life that got him through his crisis and kept him going for years more. I want us to see this week and next week that this is a kind of fasting that the Lord wants to teach us.
The other experience that makes the chapter rich for me right now is the connection that it has with Doug Nichols, the President of Action International Ministries. Doug is the man who wrote to Tom Steller last summer and suggested that our church get an airplane and take a couple hundred people to Rwanda to help bury the dead so that doctors and nurses could do what they were sent to do. He spoke at our Pastors’ Conference a week or so ago, and gave one of the most stirring messages I have heard in a long time. Action International specializes in reaching street children around the world.
To show you the kind of person he is, he wrote me last week to thank me for the conference and put a P.S. at the bottom of his letter:
In the last “one minute” that it possibly took you to read this letter, 28 children died of malnutrition and diseases that could have been easily prevented. 1,667 die every hour, 40,000 children die daily! Please pray with ACTION for more missionaries to take the Gospel to these children.
Doug was found to have colon cancer in April of 1993. They gave him a thirty percent chance of living after his surgery and colostomy and radiation treatments. Last fall he got on a plane and went to Rwanda with our Dr. Mike Anderson and some others. His non-Christian oncologist said he would die in Rwanda. Doug said that would be okay because he is going to heaven. The oncologist called his surgeon to solicit help in not letting Doug go to Rwanda. The surgeon is a Christian and said, “It’s okay, Doug’s ready to die and go to heaven.”
We got word here that Doug was going — with his cancer and his colostomy — to Rwanda. I recall gathering in the prayer room with the staff and very specifically being led to Isaiah 58:7–8, which we prayed for Doug:
Is [the fast I choose] not to divide your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light will break out like the dawn, and your recovery [i.e., your healing] will speedily spring forth.
We prayed very specifically that the feeding of the hungry and the housing of the homeless in Rwanda would not kill but heal Doug Nichols.
From Rwanda Doug called his Jewish oncologist and said he was not dead. And when he got back, he had a battery of tests which resulted in the assessment NED: no evidence of disease. If he makes it to April — the two-year mark — without recurrence of the cancer, doctors give him a good chance of living out his normal span of life. Doug is 53.
Isaiah 58: Close to the Heart of Jesus
So you can see that Isaiah 58 has some very significant associations in my life. And I am praying that we will hear the message of this chapter for our church — our Master Planning Vision for the next five years and beyond. There is something very close to Jesus’s heart in this chapter.
You can hear it coming out in his words in Luke 4:18: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden.” And in Matthew 25:35: “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited me in; naked, and you clothed me; I was sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me.” And John 7:38: “He who believes in me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water.’”
“If you are fasting to be seen by others, you have your reward.”
A trusting relationship with Jesus is the way Isaiah 58 will be fulfilled in your life. The burden of this chapter pervades the ministry of Jesus — and more and more I believe it should pervade our ministry as well.
Let’s get into it and go as far as we can today and then return next Sunday, Lord willing, and see what God has to say to us about how not to fast, and how to fast.
Fasting: The Danger of Substituting Religious Fervor for Righteous Living
In the first three verses, God brings an indictment against his people. He tells Isaiah to cry loudly and declare to the house of Jacob their sins. But their sin is cloaked with an amazing veneer of religious fervor. This is what is so stunning and sobering. Verse 2:
Yet they seek me day by day,
and delight to know my ways,
as [i.e., as if they were] a nation that has done righteousness,
and has not forsaken the ordinance of their God.
In other words, they worship as if they are a righteous and obedient nation. And they have themselves persuaded that they really want God and his ways. This is a terrible kind of delusion to live in. He goes on near the end of verse 2:
They ask me for just decisions,
they delight in the nearness of God.
So they want God to intervene for them with righteous judgments. Things are not going well — as we will see in a moment. But they do not see the real problem. They love to come to worship. They talk the language of the nearness of God. They may even have moving religious and aesthetic experiences in their efforts to draw near to God. But something is wrong. They express the frustration in verse 3, but they don’t know what it is. In verse 3 they say to God,
Why have we fasted and Thou dost not see? Why have we humbled [or: afflicted] ourselves and thou dost not notice?
So something is wrong and they are fasting to make it right and it isn’t working, so something is doubly wrong. There is a total of five religious things mentioned in verses 2–3 that they are doing — all in vain. In verse 2 it says
- they are “seeking God;” and
- they delight to know God’s ways; and
- “they ask God for just decisions;” and
- “they delight in the nearness of God;” and
- in verse 3 they are fasting and humbling or afflicting themselves.
All of that and God tells Isaiah, Cry loudly, not softly, not quietly, but loudly, and declare to my people their sins.
So here is a fasting that is not pleasing to the Lord. Here is worship that is not pleasing to the Lord. It is the kind of worship we do not want to have at Bethlehem. And yet what is wrong with seeking God, and delighting to know his ways, and asking him for just decisions, and delighting in his nearness, and fasting and humbling ourselves before him?
What is wrong with that? Why, that sounds like the very way we talk about worship! Isn’t that sobering? Doesn’t that make you tremble? Doesn’t that make you want to get so real with God, you could never be surprised by the Lord in this way — with your most zealous religious practices and even desires exposed as sham.
What’s Wrong with Their Worship?
God answers in the middle of verse 3–5:
“God mercifully warns us against the danger of substituting religious fervor for righteous living.”
Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire,
and drive hard all your workers.
Behold, you fast for contention and strife
and to strike with a wicked fist.
You do not fast like you do today
to make your voice heard on high. Is it a fast like this which I choose,
a day for a man to humble [or: afflict] himself?
Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed,
and for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed?
Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the Lord?
So here’s the issue. The ethical, practical, relational accompaniments of fasting — or worship in general — are the real test of the authenticity of the fasting and the worship. Monday is the proof of Sunday. God lists the religious forms of their fasting: humbling or afflicting oneself (no food), bowing the head like a reed, spreading out our sackcloth and ashes (see Psalm 35:13). Then he lists the ethical accompaniments of this fasting: you go after your own pleasure (in some other way besides eating), you drive hard all your workers and become irritable or contentious and stir up strife and even go so far as to get into fights. And God asks, “Is this the fast that I choose?” The answer is No.
Another Test of Authenticity
So here we have another test of authenticity. Jesus said, If you are fasting to be seen by others, you have your reward. That’s it. Isaiah says, If your fasting leaves you self-indulgent in other areas, harsh toward your employees, irritable and contentious, then your fasting is not acceptable to God. It’s not what he chooses. God is mercifully warning us against the danger of substituting religious fervor for righteous living.
Think and pray about it this week so that when we come back together next Sunday, you will be ready to hear God’s beautiful and empowering and freeing alternative to this kind of hypocrisy. Think about it for the long-term implications for worship in your life and in this church. No worship — no preaching, no singing, no playing of instruments, no praying, no fasting, however intense or beautiful — that leaves us harsh with our workers on Monday, or contentious with our spouses at home, or self-indulgent in other areas of our lives, or angry enough to hit somebody — no worship or fasting that leaves us like that is true, God-pleasing worship.
Don’t make a mistake here: true fasting may be a God-blessed means of overcoming harshness at work, and contentiousness at home, and self-indulgence, and anger. But if fasting ever becomes a religious cloak for minimizing or hiding those things and letting them go on and on, then it becomes hypocrisy and offensive to God.
Our prayer teams would love to pray with any of you this morning who feel a special burden to pray about anything that threatens to make your worship or your fasting inauthentic. And, of course, the thing that would make it most inauthentic is unbelief itself. So I urge you to go hard after the authentic life this morning. And then come back next week and see what it looks like from this chapter.