6 February 2012

Isaiah 58:1-12

"Why do we fast?" (v. 3)


In these closing chapters of Isaiah, we read about the challenges that God's people face when they are caught between the expectations and hopes of the coming kingdom of God - a place of restoration and hope. This is the place where "[God]'ll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good-tears gone, crying gone, pain gone - all the first order of things gone" (Revelation 21:4 (The Message)), whilst struggling with the present reality which is so full of tears, death, crying and pain. 

One of the great treasures of a spiritual life is the discovery of disciplines and tools which help to enable further engagement with God, and intercession for self and the world. In this passage from Isaiah 58, we are given a glimpse of God's people caught in the tension of the tears and tragedy of the present reality, the hope of the coming kingdom and reign of God, and the rituals that help to express this tension. 

Fasting is a tool for prayer. For the Israelites, it was a corporate practice, used to demonstrate repentance and to mark bereavement. As a practice, it remains an important spiritual discipline for people of all faiths around the world. 

However, God, through Isaiah, is not painting a positive picture of fasting here. Rather than being an exploration of confession, sinfulness and mourning, fasting was becoming a sham. God knows what is going on in the hearts of people, and recognises those times when the actions do not match the intentions. 

The Israelites are angry because it appears that God has not heard their petitions and their confessions - and God is angry because the petitions have been superficial, and not matched with transformation. True fasting is not just about abstinence of food and drink (and in today's technological culture, many people are now developing 'digital sabbaths' where they abstain from social media and technology). True fasting is about adopting a lifestyle that is generous and grace-filled, and hopeful and hospitable. 

By taking fasting seriously (the transformation of self and society, and living in the reality of the kingdom of God), we may be better equipped in our contemporary society to address some of the negative relationships that we have with food and our bodies, which is so shockingly seen through the rise of eating disorders, self harm and obesity. 

To Ponder

Should Christians fast? Why/why not?

How might you use the discipline of fasting this week?

What do you think/feel about God knowing your intentions behind your actions? What difference does hearing this make to you today?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Joanne Cox-Darling (1)

Joanne Cox-Darling is a Methodist presbyter currently serving in the Wolverhampton Circuit, where most recently she participated in a harvest festival in a farmyard, surrounded by a 'small' dairy herd of nearly 200 cattle. Joanne is the chair of the Christian Enquiries Agency ( - described by the Archbishop of York as the "possibly the easiest form of evangelism you will ever do".