God’s Chosen Fast

What we saw last week from verses 1–5 was that how you treat people on Monday is the test of the authenticity of your fasting on Sunday. They cry out to God in Isaiah 58:3, “Why have we fasted and Thou dost not see?” And God answers at the end of the verse, “Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire, and drive hard all your workers.” And God asks in verse 5, “Is it a fast like this which I choose?” Meaning: such a fast is unacceptable. God even makes sport of such a fasting when he says in verse 5, “Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed?” The gestures of this self-inflicted religion are no more spiritual than a bent reed in the swamp.

Why is this fasting unacceptable to God? What’s wrong with it? What’s wrong with it is that it left the sin in their lives untouched. The only authentic fasting is fasting that includes a spiritual attack against our own sin. Whatever else we fast for, we must fast for our own holiness. We cannot fast for anything with authenticity while living in known sin. The only authentic praying is praying that includes an attack against our own sin. The only authentic worship is worship that includes at least an implicit attack against our own sin.

And what this text emphasizes is that our action on Monday is the test of whether we really are intent on attacking the sin in our lives, and therefore whether our fasting and praying and worshiping on Sunday is authentic. If we are sincere on Sunday in our prayerful opposition to the sin of our lives, then we will fight it on Monday with action. We may not always succeed as fully as we would like, but we will fight our sin on Monday if our fasting was true on Sunday.

An Assault Against Sin

If there’s an unresolved pocket of sin in your life and you are fasting about something else — some blessing, some healing — God’s going to come to you and say, “The fast that I choose is for that sin to be dealt with.” The way he does that here is very striking. Verse 5 says they were fasting and “humbling themselves.” That word “humbling” also means “afflicting.” So they were afflicting themselves with hunger.

But God says that this is not the fast that he chooses. And in verse 10 he takes the very words “hungry” and “afflicted” and says that there are some hungry and afflicted people he is very concerned about, namely, the ones who are not choosing to be hungry and afflicted but are hungry and afflicted because the religious people oppress them instead of feeding them. Verse 10: “And if you give yourself to the hungry, and satisfy the desire of the afflicted . . . [instead of oppressing them].”

“The only authentic fasting is fasting that includes a spiritual attack against our own sin.”

In other words, your fasting and self-affliction on Sunday is not really an attack on your own sin of injustice and hard-heartedness. Because if it were, your action on Monday would be to alleviate the hunger and affliction of the poor, especially your own workers.

There is a great irony here that God wants us to see. The poor are hungry and afflicted, verse 10 says. These well-to-do religious people are also hungry and afflicted — with fasting. But what are they fasting for? Is their fasting first a battle against their own sin? — the sin of driving hard all their workers? The sin of putting a heavy yoke on the back of the poor? The sin of neglecting the needs of the poor for clothing and housing? No. That is not what they are fasting against.

Their behavior — on Monday — proves it. So God comes to them and says, “The fast that I choose is not that you religiously make yourselves hungry and afflicted, but that you make the poor less hungry and afflicted.” If you want to fight sin by taking your bread away from your own mouth, then put it in the mouth of the poor. Then we will see if you are really fasting for righteousness’ sake.

When we are living in sin — say the sin of hard-heartedness or deceit or injustice — the fast which God chooses is not a religious covering of this sin, but a direct frontal assault against this sin. For these people fasting was not a fight against the besetting sin of their lives; it was a camouflage. If they make themselves hunger a little bit and afflict themselves, maybe it won’t matter so much that they are indifferent to the hunger and the affliction of the poor. So God comes and says, “I test your hearts. Go without bread for the sake of the poor. Give it to them. That’s the fast I choose.”

God’s Chosen Fast: A Doctor’s Prescription not a Job Description

Then what God does in verses 6–12 describes what is involved in living out this fast and what the spectacular rewards are for living this way. You recall that Jesus said, “Your heavenly Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Well here are some of the kinds of things God promises to do for those who do this kind of fasting (see also Psalm 41:1–3).

First, let’s look at the description of the fasting itself, and then at the promises of God for those who live this way. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is a job description that God had given his people to show them how to earn wages from him. There is no earning going on here. The God of Isaiah cannot be negotiated with. He is sovereign and free and gives graciously to those who trust him. Isaiah 30:15 says, “For thus the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, has said, ‘In repentance and rest you shall be saved, in quietness and trust is your strength.’” The strength to do the fast God calls us to do does not come from us. It comes from God. And it comes through trusting him.

What God calls the people to do is not a job description, but a Doctor’s prescription. You can see that in verse 8 where it says that if you act this way — if you follow the Doctor’s prescription of fasting — “Your recovery — your healing — will speedily spring forth.” If you trust the Doctor, and show this by obeying his instructions, you will get well. So don’t think that you are going to earn anything from God. Trust his sovereign grace and follow his prescription, and you will be mightily blessed. But it will never occur to you to think that you have earned or merited anything.

What the Doctor Prescribes

Let’s look at the prescription — the fast that God chooses. Beginning in verse 6: “Is not this the fast I choose,

  • to loosen the bonds of wickedness,
  • to undo the bands of the yoke,
  • and to let the oppressed go free,
  • and break every yoke?
  • Is it 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 in verses 8 and 9a come the promises of what will happen if you trust the Doctor’s fasting directions. But skip over that for a moment and go to the rest of the prescription in verse 9b–10a.

  • If you remove the yoke from your midst,
  • the pointing of the finger,
  • and speaking wickedness
  • and if you give yourself to the hungry,
  • and satisfy the desire of the afflicted. . . .

That’s the Doctor’s prescription. That’s the fast that the Doctor prescribes for the patient Israel who is sick with the disease of hypocrisy and hard-heartedness against the poor.

There are thirteen components but they seem to fall into about seven categories. I give these as a call on the life of our church. We must discover how to join in this prescription of fasting.

1. Lift the Burden of Bondage

In this fasting, we are called to lift the burden of bondage. Five of these components call for freedom. Verse 6:

  • “To loosen the bonds of wickedness,
  • To undo the bands of the yoke,
  • And to let the oppressed go free,
  • And break every yoke?”

Verse 9: “If you remove the yoke from your midst. . . .”

“The only authentic praying is praying that includes an attack against our own sin.”

Bonds, bands, yoke, oppression, yoke, yoke. The point here is: live to free people not burden them. Jesus said in Luke 11:46, “Woe to you lawyers as well! For you weigh men down with burdens hard to bear, while you yourselves will not even touch the burdens with one of your fingers.” We are called to free people from burdens, not oppress them with burdens.

2. Feed the Hungry

In this fasting, we are called to feed the hungry. Verse 7a: “Is [this fast] not to divide your bread with the hungry?”

3. House the Homeless

In this fasting, we are called to house the homeless. Verse 7b: “And bring the homeless poor into the house.”

4. Clothe the Naked

In this fasting, we are called to clothe the naked. Verse 7c: “When you see the naked, to cover him.”

5. Be Sympathetic

In this fasting we are called to be sympathetic; to feel what others feel because we have the same flesh they do. Verse 7: “And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” The thought may be the same as Hebrews 13:3, “Remember the prisoners, as though in prison with them, and those who are ill-treated, since you yourselves also are in the body.” You have the same flesh they do. So put yourself in their place and feel what they feel.

6. Put Away Contempt for Other People

In this fasting, we are called to put away gestures and words that show raw contempt for other people. Verse 9: “Remove . . . the pointing of the finger [literally, the “sending” of the finger, which may be a lot closer to our crude “giving someone the finger” than it is to merely pointing at someone]; and [remove] speaking wickedness.” So don’t speak and don’t gesture in ways that show callous contempt for others.

7. Give Ourselves and Satisfy the Soul of the Afflicted

Finally, in this fasting we are called not just to give food, but to give ourselves — our souls — and not just to satisfy the stomach of the poor, but the soul of the afflicted. Verse 10: “And if you give yourself [soul] to the hungry, and satisfy the desire [literally: soul] of the afflicted . . . “ This is one of the messages of this weekend with John Hayes: ministry to the poor is not merely giving things. It is giving self. It’s not just relief. It’s relationship.

The Promised Results of Following the Doctor’s Prescription

Now, if we trust God enough to follow him in this prescribed seven-point fast, what will happen in our lives and in our church? These promises are worthy of about seven sermons. But I will mention the categories and pray that God will give you a heart to meditate on them long enough to see the riches.

1. Darkness Will Become Light

If we fast like this, the darkness in our life will become light. Verse 8: “Then your light will break out like the dawn.” Verse 10 (at the end): “Then your light will rise in darkness, And your gloom will become like midday.”

Do you want light in your life instead of gloom? Look to the gracious resources of God — listen to your Doctor — and pour yourself out for another person in need.

2. Physical Strengthening

If we follow this fasting, there will be physical strengthening. Verse 8: “And your recovery will speedily spring forth. . . .” Verse 11: “And [he will] give strength to your bones.” Who knows how much weakness is in us because we may not be pouring our energy into the weakness of others?

3. God All Around Us with Righteousness and Glory

If we follow this fasting, God will be in front of us and behind us and in the midst of us with righteousness and glory. Verse 8: “And your righteousness will go before you; the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.” So God will be in front of you with righteousness and behind you with his glory. Verse 9: “Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’”

“Pouring ourselves out for the poor is the path of deepest satisfaction.”

Whenever the role is called, he always says, “Here!” When we are doing what his Son did — in the power that the Son gives — “becoming poor that others might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9), then God moves in on us and behind us and in front of us and surrounds us with omnipotent love and protection and care.

4. God Will Guide Us Continually

If we follow this fasting, God promises to guide us continually. Verse 11: “And the Lord will continually guide you.” Oh, what a precious promise that is for us now as a church and a Master Planning Team. I wonder how much confusion and uncertainty there may be in some of our lives that comes from the neglect of ministry to the poor? It seems the Lord gives his most intimate guidance to those bent on giving themselves to the needs of others — especially the poor.

5. God Will Satisfy Our Soul

If we follow this fasting, he will satisfy your soul. Verse 11: “And [he will] satisfy your desire [literally: your soul] in scorched places.” Our souls are meant to be satisfied in God. But we have learned again and again that this satisfaction in God comes to consummation when we extend our satisfaction in him to others. Pouring ourselves out for the poor is the path of deepest satisfaction.

6. God Will Make Us a Watered Garden

If we follow this fasting, God will make you a watered garden with springs that do not fail. Verse 11, at the end: “And you will be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.” It is a paradoxical spiritual principle in Scripture: as you pour yourself out, you become full. As you give away, you get more. When you are watered with God’s grace you do not merely become a wet, moist, living garden; you also become a spring.

This promise comes to its fulfillment in the New Testament when Jesus used this verse in John 7:38, “He who believes in me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water’ [a spring of waters that does not fail]. But this he spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive.”

So you can see that trusting Jesus is the issue: “He who believes in me . . . ‘The Spirit bestirs himself most fully when we by faith give ourselves with Jesus in the path of love and mercy toward the destitute.’”

7. God Will Restore the Ruins of His City and People

Finally, if we follow this fasting, that is, if we give ourselves to the poor, God will restore the ruins of his city — and his people. Verse 12: “And those from among you will rebuild the ancient ruins; you will raise up the age-old foundations; and you will be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets in which to dwell.”

Let’s trust the Great Physician — the Lord, our healer. Let’s accept the fast that he has prescribed for us. It will mean light and healing and guidance and refreshment and restoration and resourcefulness — and all this with God himself before us and behind us and in the midst of us. And it doesn’t get any better than that.