In the Old Testament, fasting was often a sign of mourning. Israelites would fast and pray, wearing sackcloth and putting ashes on their heads. King David fasted when God threatened to kill his firstborn child because of David’s sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12:15b-23). The Israelites fasted when leaders were killed (2 Sam. 1:12). It was a sign of humility before God, and the Israelites would fast and pray when they would plead for God’s mercy (1 Kgs. 21:27; 2 Chr. 20:3; Ezra 8:21-23; Est. 4:3; Ps. 35:13; Dan. 9:3ff) and when they confessed their sins and returned to God (1 Sam. 7:6; Neh. 1:4; 9:1-2; Joel 2:12; Jonah 3:5).
But God has different views of fasting. To the Israelites – and even to us today – fasting has become a ritual; a religious rite. Jesus tells us that when we fast, we must do it in a way that people don’t know that we’re fasting, rather than being like the hypocrites, who brag and show off that they’re fasting so that people will think highly of them (Matt. 6:16-18). The entire chapter of Isaiah 58 is God speaking about fasting. The people would wonder why God would not answer them when they fasted and prayed. But when they would fast and pray, they would not treat their neighbour as God demanded. They would “exploit all [their] workers” (v. 3), and get into fights (v. 4). No, God has different expectations. God wants social justice: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”
Even Zechariah delivers a message from God about fasting. The people of Bethel had sent messengers to the house of the Lord to ask if they should “mourn and practice abstinence in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years” (Zech. 7:3). This fasting was to commemorate the destruction of the Temple, but now that the Temple is being rebuilt, they want to know if they still need to commemorate its destruction. But God says, “When you fasted and lamented in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted? And when you eat and when you drink, do you not eat and drink only for yourselves?” Fasting and mourning for the people of Bethel had become a tradition and a ritual, a way to make themselves look good rather than humbling themselves and getting a closer relationship with God.
I often wonder if this is what has become of us doing this fast every year: has it become just a tradition? Something we do simply because it’s what we do? So that when we’re collecting pledges, people will say, “Oh wow this is such a great thing for you to do, good for you!”? I’ll be the first to admit that I sometimes have this kind of thinking. I like it when people recognise stuff I do. But I’ll also be the first to admit that this is wrong of us. When we do this fast, it is not simply a time for us to hang out together and have fun for 25 hours. It is to raise money for Partners in Missions, to lend a hand in fighting injustices in our world. Proverbs 31:8-9 says, “Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” I truly believe that this is what Partners in Missions does. And not only speaking out, but doing something about it.
These past couple days I've been reflecting and praying about this. I used to think that the fast was about raising awareness in ourselves and our communities about hunger around the world - this was how it was presented. But this year my views have changed. This year, for me, this is a way of coming to God just as the Israelites did, a way of confessing my sins to Him and pleading for mercy and justice in the world.
As I write that, I'm reminded of the time I went to Three Hills, Alberta for JesusFest in 2004. There was a prayer room there, full of different things to do, and one of them was a "Stomping on Injustices" thing: there was a big sheet of paper on the floor with things like "hunger," "poverty," "sexual trafficking," "AIDS," etc written on it, and a bucket of paint for us to dip our feet in and literally stomp on the injustices. For me at that time it didn't impact me that much, but now as I think about it, that was really powerful... Hmm...