God had strong words for those using fasting the wrong way. What should we be learning by fasting on the Day of Atonement and other times?
"They seek Me daily." "They delight to know My ways." "They take delight in approaching God." Surely Christians would like God to say these things about them.
God did say those very things once about a group of people. He sent a special messenger to say those things, and from the context of the message, it could be one of the oldest Day of Atonement sermons on record. He also told His messenger the following:
"Tell My people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins." In a series of succinct, biting sentences He dresses down these same people He had just seemingly praised. Why? What is it about the Day of Atonement that we should learn so we can avoid finding ourselves in the same situation?
As you have no doubt guessed the people was Israel, the messenger, Isaiah and the message, Isaiah 58. A deeper look at these passages will give us a fuller appreciation of the Day of Atonement, and what it is supposed to do for us and to us.
After the initial attention-getting salvo, God addresses directly the concerns and attitude of the people using a common teaching device, a hypothetical Q&A between Him and the people. In verse 3 He outlines their complaint. "Why have we fasted and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves and you have not noticed?" (NIV).
God answers the people's question in verses 3 and 4. "Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife" (NIV). They were fasting, but it was not working a change in their lives, not even on the very day of the fast! God told them in essence, "You are not doing it right."
In verse 5 God responds with a question of His own. It is a leading question that seems almost sarcastic in tone. In essence He says, "Is this the kind of fast I want? Do I want you to afflict your souls and humble yourselves?" The question is almost sarcastic because the obvious answer is "Yes!"
Leviticus 23:27 speaks of fasting on the Day of Atonement: "You shall afflict your souls." In verse 29 it says those who did not were to be killed! So the obvious answer to God's question is "Yes!"—but it is not the answer He is looking for. God's question is designed to prompt another question, "Why?" Why fasting, why afflict our souls? If it is not an end in itself, what should we be learning?
The rest of the passage reveals that answer in a very clear way. It underlines a lesson that God has repeated and repeated to Israel from the day He brought them out of Egypt until the day that you and I were baptized into spiritual Israel. It is a lesson our physical forebears failed to learn and one we dare not fail to apprehend. It is a lesson of developing a godly attitude—the mind of God that motivates the actions He describes here.
In Isaiah 58:6 God mentions four things fasting should work in us. These are not separate things, more like four variations on a theme. Let's examine them and we will see that they should not have been foreign to Israel. They should have known what fasting was all about.
Things Fasting Should Do
A fast is supposed to "loose the bonds of wickedness." Israel's history as a nation began with such an event. "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of...the house of bondage" (Exodus 20:2). God loosed their bonds of wickedness in a dramatic way—He broke the bonds that tied them to Egypt. In Leviticus 16 God gave them a ceremony for the Day of Atonement that highlights this breaking of the bonds of wickedness. Their sins were symbolically lifted from them and placed on the goat to be led away into the wilderness.
No less so with us. We were brought out of sin, spiritual Egypt, by the dramatic sacrifice of God's Firstborn. The bonds of wickedness that held us have been broken. Paul tells us in Romans 6:14 that sin no longer has dominion over us. Fasting helps to loose those bonds that may try to reattach themselves through our weakness. Paul continues in Romans 6:16, "Whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one's slaves." Each time we sin another bond of wickedness grabs us. So if we have yielded to sin, this Day of Atonement helps loose us again.
Fasting also reminds us that if we are holding somebody else's bonds, we need to let them go. In Luke 13:10-17 Jesus heals a woman. The scribes and Pharisees accosted Him for healing on the Sabbath when it was not a matter of life or death. But Jesus defended Himself with an interesting reference.
According to Jewish custom of the day, it was a sin to feed your ox on the Sabbath. That was too much work. However if your ox was tied in his stall, you could let him loose to fend for himself. Jesus' justification for healing this woman is based on this principle. He was just loosing her from her bonds.
The second thing fasting does is to "undo the heavy burdens." In Leviticus 23:28, the children of Israel were commanded not to work at all on the Day of Atonement. They were not to be burdened.
God reminds us that sin is a heavy burden (Psalm 38:4). Sin, or a guilty conscience, is a heavy thing to carry around. These heavy burdens can be undone through fasting because the fast makes us aware of our weakness and prompts us to call out for help.
What about the burdens we place on others? Matthew 6:12 is part of a familiar passage commonly known as "The Lord's Prayer." "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." Does someone owe you something? Maybe an apology? A second chance? A better deal? What would happen if you were to undo that burden of debt? These are the types of burdens fasting is supposed to undo.
Fasting makes us humble, at least temporarily. Without the burden of our pride, maybe we can go to our brother and ask forgiveness for something we did.
Thirdly God says fasting is to " let the oppressed go free." Again Israel should have known this. After being cruelly oppressed for several generations God heard their cries. In Exodus 10:3 God tells Pharaoh, "Let My people go." The civil laws God gave to His people reinforced the importance of letting the oppressed go free. The law also tied this idea directly to the Day of Atonement.
Leviticus 25:9-10 speaks of the Jubilee year. This was a special year out of every 50. It began with a proclamation of liberty on the Day of Atonement. Verse 17 reminds the people to not oppress. Verse 28 tells them to return the ancestral land to the original families to whom it was given.
The Jubilee was a time of forgiving debts and freeing slaves or bondservants. Yet what was the history of Israel? Oppressing the poor, oppressing widows, not returning the land, not granting liberty. Isaiah tells them as much in chapter 58. Zechariah also mentions this in chapter 7:9-12. They failed to learn the Atonement lesson of letting the oppressed go free.
Fasting frees us from oppression. It also reminds us to free others. Who are we oppressing? Do we oppress others in our congregations with our disapproval and scorn? Do we treat some as the Jews of Jesus day treated the Samaritans? Are we oppressive in our jobs or families? This Day of Atonement why don't we let our oppressed go free?
The fourth thing fasting does for us is to "break every yoke" —not some, every. Again Israel should have known this since in Leviticus 26:13 God speaks of having broken the bands of their yoke. Lamentations 1:14 tells us that God breaks the yoke of our transgressions.
A yoke is a device attached to the shoulders of oxen that is then attached to a plow. Its purpose is to enable the farmer to control the strength of the oxen for his own purposes. Part of that control is established by the weight and strength of the yoke. Our sins act as a yoke. They weigh upon us and they allow Satan to control our actions. They push our heads down so we cannot see the light above us.
Jesus tells us in Matthew 11:30: "My yoke is easy, and My burden is light." Fasting humbles us, and that humility prompts us to ask for God's assistance to break the yoke of sin. With that yoke broken, we are free to walk as Jesus walked, not as the adversary would direct us.
This is why God wants us to fast. This is what fasting does for us. This is the core of the Day of Atonement. Or is it?
Fruits of a Fast
Isaiah's message does not end with verse 6. God actually mentions several other things in a particular tone. Allow me to paraphrase:
"Here's the fast I'm talking about," says God. "It looses the bands of wickedness, releases the heavy burdens, frees the oppressed, and breaks every yoke. Because of that—because of what it does for you—there are some things I want you to do. In fact, if the fast is proper, you will do them. If you do not, the fast was wasted."
As in many cases, it is our response God is interested in. So what should our reaction to a fast, such as the Day of Atonement, be? What is the fruit of a proper fast?
1. Feed the hungry. Feeling hungry should give us empathy for those who are hungry all the time and should prompt us to do something about it when we have the chance. Mark 6:38-44 shows that feeding the hungry was part of Christ's work. Has it changed now? Do you know you have brethren whose primary diet consists of a tasteless corn dough, collard greens and tea? Would you want to eat that every day of your life? Some of our congregations run food banks. There are people scattered in all congregations who donate time, effort and money to food programs or who drop food off on the doorsteps of the less fortunate.
Of course this applies spiritually as well. Matthew 5:6 speaks of those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. What about us? Our conversations at church should be nourishing spiritually. That does not just mean talking about Scripture. It can include the sharing of experiences, the small miracles that happen in our daily lives. How about our homes? Can the hungry find spiritual food there?
2. Shelter the homeless. Fasting should prompt in us a desire to provide shelter. How is your hospitality?
Churches of God have participated in shelter projects such as Habitat for Humanity. Other congregations have developed teams of people who help refurbish housing for elderly or infirm members. Of course this has a spiritual dimension as well.
Is your congregation a shelter spiritually? Can the spiritually homeless, those who are seeking the truth, find shelter there? Do they feel safe talking about their calling or are they only received into what Paul calls "doubtful disputations" (Romans 14:1, KJV)?
3. Clothe the naked. What do we do with our cast-off clothes? Some congregations run used clothing programs—have you donated recently? Why only cast-offs? How many coats do you have? How many do you wear?
The principle of leaving the gleanings for the poor to collect should teach us that we are not supposed to wring out every last bit of profit. We are to leave some for the less fortunate.
Revelation 19:8 equates clothing with righteousness. Are we helping to clothe the naked spiritually? What do we talk about? Do we spend our time revealing others' filthy rags or do we practice the love that covers a multitude of sins? Are we helping others overcome? Do we pray for others' problems? Christ's last words concerning those who crucified him were, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34, KJV). He chose to cover the nakedness of those sins.
4. Hide not yourself from your own flesh. The final thing God speaks about as the fruit of a proper fast is a short summary of all the others, but it also acts as a catch-all for specific items that were not mentioned above. As soon as you give humans a list of things to do, many will interpret it literally and sit back, relax and say to themselves, "I have done everything on the list, I am righteous." We find the Pharisees did that frequently. So God gives a catch-all final fruit.
Do we remain willfully ignorant of the needs of others?
Have we avoided talking to someone on the Sabbath because the person is looking depressed and we say to ourselves, "I have had a tough week and Sally looks depressed. If I go talk to her, she will unload her problems on me and I really can't take that right now." This may all be true, and we do not expect to be perfect all the time, but the point is to examine ourselves and find where we can seek God's help to improve.
Do we hide from the needs of the people of God?
We have brethren in places in the world where the following are true. Forty years of Western aid have only allowed their own corrupt leaders to remain wealthy and served to rob the initiative from people. Half of the children die before they are 5. By the time a baby is 2, it has already been bitten over 200 times by malaria-infested mosquitoes. The only reason he or she is not dead is that the babies have a condition that in other societies is called a disease, but that just happens to give protection against malaria.
The average annual income in some parts of Africa is $350. What kind of Feast of Tabernacles could you have on $35?
Of course the world is full of want and if everyone who reads this were to give everything, it would not solve the problems. The widow's mite didn't solve any problems either, but the Lord praised her for giving anyway.
There are many in the Church who help out, who have taken the time to find out the needs of brethren around the world and around the corner and who do something about those needs. (See "The Story of Joseph" below.) Fasting is supposed to make us expose ourselves to those needs. What are you going to do about it before you break your next fast?
Fasting is supposed to work something in us. We are to love in word and in deed. We have this world's goods. More importantly, we have the next world's good—God's way of life. We should be sharing them. That's the fast that God is talking about. UN
The Story of Joseph
Joseph Kihara was a longtime member. He lived with his parents on a farm plot in the highlands of central Kenya. For several years he was the only Church member for miles around. He talked with his neighbors, he lent them his literature, he gave them his literature. He was known as "that godly man" or "that good man."
I only knew Joseph for the last few months of his life. I visited with him and his family a few times in the small hut he built himself. On more than one occasion during his fight with the cancer that claimed his life, somebody many miles away would give somebody else some money for x-rays or medicine for "that good man," and the money would pass through several hands before it finally reached him.
We now have two growing groups meeting in that general area. I think Joseph got the lesson of Atonement. He did not hide himself from his own flesh.